On 21st June 1948 a ship arrived at Tilbury Docks, near London, that was to enter history. On board Empire Windrush were 1027 passengers from the West Indies (most were from Jamaica and Trinidad) who were about to start a new life in Britain.
They were not the first West Indian migrants to make the journey across the Atlantic – two other ships had brought immigrants in 1947 – but Empire Windrush was destined to enter the public imagination and lead to the creation of what has become known as the “Windrush Generation”.
What is perhaps less generally appreciated is that there was a supreme irony in the fact that this particular ship was to achieve fame by this means. Empire Windrush had a past that few would have known even at the time, let alone now.
The ship was built in Hamburg in 1930, as MV Monte Rosa, and was owned by Nazi Germany. It was originally a cruise ship that – between 1933 and 1939 – took German families on holiday cruises as part of the Nazi “Strength Through Joy” programme. All the people who went on festive jaunts aboard the ship would have been sympathetic to the Nazi cause, and preference would have given to party members.
One can be absolutely certain that none of MV Monte Rosa’s early passengers were Jewish or black, and the flag that fluttered proudly above them was the Nazi swastika.
When the Second World War broke out in September 1939 MV Monte Rosa was requisitioned as a troopship, and it was used to ferry German soldiers to Norway for the Nazi invasion of that country. On return trips from Norway the ship did carry Jews – who were on their way to the Auschwitz extermination camp.
Efforts were made by the British to sink MV Monte Rosa but they failed. However, the ship was captured by the British in 1945 and became a troopship for the British instead of the Germans, and with a new name.
The famous voyage in 1948 was not originally intended to carry the passengers that it did. Empire Windrush was en route from Australia to England and called at Kingston, Jamaica, to pick up British servicemen who were due to take home leave. There was still plenty of space on board, so advertisements were placed to see if any local people wanted to take advantage of the recently passed British Nationality Act that granted all citizens of the British Empire the right to settle in Great Britain. The rest, as they say, is history.
Empire Windrush continued in government service until March 1954, when it sank in the Mediterranean Sea after an explosion and fire in the engine room. Four crew members were killed in the explosion, but all the remaining crew and passengers (soldiers and their families) were rescued.
It was therefore a combination of chance factors that led to the irony of a ship built to further bizarre notions of white racial purity becoming a symbol of Britain’s post-war transformation into a multiracial, multicultural society.©John Welford