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Salvaging history: Mission to recover the Windrush anchor

Published:Tuesday | December 21, 2021 | 12:08 AM
The ‘Empire Windrush’ arriving at Tilbury Dock in 1948 with hundreds of Jamaicans who would signal the start of the Windrush generation.
The ‘Empire Windrush’ arriving at Tilbury Dock in 1948 with hundreds of Jamaicans who would signal the start of the Windrush generation.

Nearly seven decades after the Empire Windrush caught fire and sank 2,800 metres below the Mediterranean Sea, efforts are being made to recover an important part of the historic vessel – its anchor.

An ill-fated journey to the United Kingdom (UK) came to an end after an engine room blaze forced the evacuation of nearly 1,500 passengers and crew during a major rescue operation in March 1954. Four crew members who were in the engine room perished.

It was an unfortunate demise for a ship that also had a tragic past, having transported Jews from Nazi-occupied Norway to concentration camps in Germany during World War II.

That notorious past would make way for its transport of Caribbean migrants to the UK following its capture by the British.

This exodus to the UK, to aid labour shortages following World War II, began with the Empire Windrush carrying 492 workers to the European nation in 1948.

The iconic photo of the Empire Windrush – with its anchor displayed prominently – arriving in Tilbury Dockin Essex on June 22 that year, would signal the start of the Windrush generation.

The passengers represented people primarily from Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago who could live in Britain, being from the Commonwealth. They became known as the first wave of Windrush migrants.

Many consider this a watershed moment in the development of a multicultural Great Britain, as tens of thousands of people born in the Commonwealth would travel to the UK from that year until 1971.

But the importance of the anchor, which is central to an ongoing recovery campaign, would come decades later.

The flood of new arrivals ended with the 1971 Immigration Act, which gave Commonwealth citizens already in the UK indefinite leave to remain.

That decision was challenged in a 2012 policy, which affected anyone who was unable to provide proper documentation. It posed an issue for children of the Windrush generation, many of whom travelled to the UK under their parents’ passports and had lived there for five decades.

Numerous people who were not able to show legal status lost their jobs, had access to healthcare and housing restricted, and even faced the risk of deportation. Many were expatriated to countries they had few or no memories of.

The situation was further complicated when it was revealed that the UK Home Office kept no official record of those granted leave to remain; issued no paperwork and, in 2010, destroyed the landing cards of Windrush migrants, whom it considered British citizens being from dependent British colonies.

The situation would be remedied in 2018 when then UK Prime Minister Theresa May apologised for the poor treatment of the Windrush generation. A compensation scheme was created and an inquiry, which ended two years later, deemed the matter “foreseeable and avoidable”.

Since 2018, June 22 is celebrated as Windrush Day in the United Kingdom.

However, some feel this is not enough. Researcher Max Holloway and shipwreck hunter David Mearns – who calculated the wreckage to be 37 kilometres off the coast of Algeria – lead the call for the Empire Windrush’s anchor to be recovered and displayed as part of the 75th anniversary celebrations in 2023.

A proposal in the UK Parliament received a pledge of support from the government, which said the Department of Transport is investigating whether the anchor can be salvaged and restored as a memorial.

Additionally, UK law firm Ince has partnered with Mearns in hopes of securing almost US$700,000 through fundraising initiatives to finance the rescue expedition.

A GoFundMe page was also launched by Patrick Vernon, the Windrush campaigner who successfully led the push for Windrush Day, to serve as “a people’s memorial, symbolic of the vital role the Windrush generation, their children and grandchildren have played in creating a prosperous, multicultural British society”.

However, the fund has only amassed £7,824 (J$1.6 million) of its £500,000 (J$102 million) target so far.

With a year and a half to go before the 75th anniversary of the Empire Windrush’s arrival, it remains to be seen if the significant project will be realised.