Saturday 22 June 2024

Empire Windrush's voyage from the Caribbean: 1948. White expat women among would-be residents

Voyage stories can be told from many vantage points. Often 'the Windrush story' is told simplistically, mono-racially and omits women.

So let me offer you this unusual version, which I've melded from the letters of a veteran travel writer escaping her new husband (who's turned out to be tedious), plus passenger lists, and extracts from the Kingston Gleaner

Two footloose white women are the focus. Their voyages begin separately, in Barbados, late April three years after war’s end. Boredom is their trigger.  



Barbados 1948

On the Anglicised island nicknamed ‘Bimshire’ and ‘Little England’  (Barbados) ennui is inevitable for these visitors whose usual lives involve voracious discovering in new location after new location.  

After three months Freya Stark (left), the famous travel writer, has exhausted her capacity to play the diplomat’s wife there. She wants to escape to her home in Asola.  

Her cabin mate, scandalous writer-publisher and black rights activist Nancy Cunard (right), is similarly bored with the Bridge-playing world at her cousin Edward’s  beachside house in Glitter Bay. She’s been recovering there for two months after a Horrible Holiday in Mexico where a cactus pieced her cornea and her latest lover careered away.


Perishable berths going begging

So here's the story. Around Easter-time in 1948 Caribbean newspapers offer a batch of one-way cheap passages to Britain. The shipping company wants to avoid loss by filling up perishable berths, just as tramp ships traditionally take on non-human cargo too 'as inducemnt offers'.  

Carpe Diem, the women say. They each. separately, book a bargain basement ticket that costs as much as five cows, or forty weeks' wages for a banana loader.  It’s £43, because females are all, by definition, 'ladies' and must therefore travel 'A' class, in cabins. By contrast men prepared to rough it in 'C' class dormitories pay only £28.10s. 

In May Freya tells Jock Murray, her London publisher, that she is unfortumately leaving just as all the frangipani are in flower. The Caribbean Sea is ‘emerald green because of the Orinoco waters.’ As she starts the 251-nautical miles crossing it’s strange to see Bimshire ‘vanishing back into the waves and clouds from which I saw it emerge so few months ago.’ 


Via Trinidad and Xaymaica 

Port of Spain, six years earlier)
Like the other Britain-bound passengers from British Guiana, Grenada and St Lucia, Freya goes to a hub: the nearest embarkation port, Trinidad. 

According to Nancy’s biographer, Daphne Fielding,  Nancy waits for  ‘three suffocating days ... in evil-smelling Port-of-Spain after which she felt she really knew what it was like to be a poor Negro living in one of those wretched wooden shacks in Cock-Crow Alley or Barking-Dog Lane.’  


The passengers are joining the ship for the last two legs of its outward voyage from Southampton: Jamaica, then Bermuda, before it heads north east and back home to the UK.

Just after 20 May, Captain John Almond’s under-full ship bears them away from Trinidad. Passing the French West Indies and British Virgin Islands they make the 1,299-nautical mile journey north to the island once called Xaymaica (the Taino word for ‘land of wood and water’). 


Man-free ladies at their typewriters

Is it a recipe for ructions, to coop up two headstrong, grand public figures - one radical, one conservative? Impeccable manners and busyness help.  Nancy is writing about Mexico. Freya is doing her autobiographical Traveller’s Prelude (published 1950). 

Maybe they share personal stories as both are struggling with failing relationships with younger bisexual partners.  Nancy, age 52, has been ditched by wealthy wanderer William Le Page Finley. 

Freya, three years older, has recently married the Hon. Stewart Perowne, Colonial Secretary to Barbados who has metamorphosed into ‘the perfect Civil Servant.’

When they get to the Royal Mail Lines pier at Kingston, Jamaica  they find that, like all freshness-hungry newspapers in any small port, the Gleaner details all arrivals and departures. 


In this case it records the many disembarking: 57 A-class passengers;  175 of the homeward-bound second Gloucester Regiment who'd been based there; and 215 demobilised Jamaican RAF men, who had recognised there are absolutely no opportunities in the UK for Caribbean men, now that the war is over. 

Nancy as anthropologist-celeb in Ja

Miss Cunard, ‘whose affinity for the cause of the coloured peoples of the world caused such a furore in the middle 1930s’ is one of the celebrity arrivals who is scooped: ‘During her [two-and-a-half-day] stay, short though it is, she hopes to see as much of the island as possible. 

'She is particularly keen to observe at close hand the mental and political changes which have taken place in Jamaica’ since her 1932 visit. 

What the ladies see - differently

So Nancy notes the new and quotidian, thinking about what could happen politically, including the forthcoming West Indies Federation 1958-62.  

And Mrs Perowne gazes upon evidence of much older colonial glories.  A brigadier whisks off Freya  and shipmate Lady Ivy Woolley, a veteran of her husband’s postings in Nigeria and Cyprus. They use the official residence of the Governor, Sir John Huggins as their day base.  

Freya visits Port Royal with a Nelson-revering naval guide. She finds it's no longer a swashbuckling buccanneer base but near-derelict waste land.  Determined to make the most of every opportunity, Freya obtains passes for a jaunt on an ordnance boat. Out in the waters round the Palisadoes it’s bliss, admiring the accompanying pelicans and dreaming of enjoying walks and wayside inns in those distant Blue Mountains. 


Back on board the troop ship - desolating and miltarised 

Then, bump, it’s back to the ship’s ‘desolating efficiency’. 

By the evening of 24 or 26 May 1948 (the accounts vary) tentative newcomers are finding their feet with the established communities in cabin and deck class. It’s full.  

And the atmosphere is more militarised. The public address system ‘blares’, Freya haughtily complains. ‘One’s time and thought taken up forcibly in listening to things one doesn’t want to hear. And [yet one has] only life in this world.’ 

Underway, luscious grapevines are a much more welcome form of communication than tannoys. Soon gossip reveals that one of the six stowaways who got on at Kingston is – gasp – a female! 

She’s dressmaker Evelyn Wauchope, aged 27. (pictured).  Enter gallant rescuers who collectively pay the fare for what the Gleaner calls ‘this adventurous woman [who would otherwise] be imprisoned on arrival in England. Jamaican musicians including Delroy Stephens give a benefit concert for her. 

‘From then on nothing very exciting happened,’ wrote one student passenger.


To Tampico for Poles, regimented

Detouring east, to Tampico to pick up Poles, makes Freya chafe:  ‘It seems wildly extravagant to send a huge ship, 2,000 on board, eight days out of its way for sixty passengers who could have been flown or taken by schooner to Bermuda’. 

Throughout the war she had coped overseas with distant Whitehall bureaucracy. Now she believes ‘it is just that someone in London was unable to realise the difference made by looking at a small-scale map ... [They must have] thought this was all on our way.’ 

For four days and 1,436 nautical miles there’s confinement, ‘chugging through the Mexique Bay, cutting its dark flat waters in swelter of heat and noise.’ Freya writes to her husband  ‘I hope I may never have to travel in a troopship again; regimented from morning to night... It really is sordid.’


No punkahs here

Perhaps it’s privation that intensifies British upper-crust solidarity. ‘It is a godsend to have Nancy Cunard. We omit breakfast and lie with very little on in our cabin till lunch, and then sit in hot shade with typewriter or Russian. Heat really exhausting.’  

At night the ship is ‘as bad as Delhi’, where she had enjoyed the Viceroy House’s elaborate hospitality. With not so much as a punkah to waft her now she finds: ‘the sheets scorching; and poor miserable people are down below in decks that descend to E without a breath of outside air.’

Going west, up the P├ínuco River towards the lush grandeur of the ‘New Orleans of Mexico’ they’re dismayed at not being allowed ashore. Instead the sixty Poles join the ship by boat.  

Having been placed in Mexico for the last few years of the war the Polish women are now on their way to being reunited with their demobbed husbands in the Resettlement Corps in the UK. 

Diverting to Havana

Fresh water supplies are low. The ship’s desalination system isn’t adequate and currency problems mean no water can be bought in Mexico.  So there’s a new interim destination: Cuba, 93 nautical miles away. 

Over the next few days they head east past the tip of the Yucatan peninsula, then across to Havana on 3 June. Four years before the revolution, the city – ironically, architecturally similar to Tampico  –'gives a glance of opulence: wide, straight streets; porticoes, and shops; shiny rich cars: the waterfront finished off with a low parapet of stone and backed with gardens...  one has a feeling of a metropolis standing on its own feet.’  


Frying like the Ancient Mariner

But they are not allowed ashore in this city either:  ‘just frying like the Ancient Mariner on a painted ocean... how maddening not to be able to land,’ Freya tells Stewart. 

Water obtained, they can start heading north east, 4,310 nautical miles to Tilbury. 

Bermuda is a scheduled stop. However, they have to wait two days because of engine failure, which is handled at the British Royal navy dockyard. And they are held up again in Hamilton, the capital. 


The Royal Gazette reports that ‘Bermudians went all out to show hospitality to passengers and crew ... A major social event, with plenty to eat and drink, was a dance on the old Unity Patio in Happy Valley’. 

The calypsonians aboard oblige with extra music.  However passengers are shocked at the apartheid on the then-racist British imperial fortress colony island. Discrimination is especially visible in the education system. 


Posh hospitality

As in Jamaica, Freya manages a brief civilised respite ashore in Hamilton, thanks to her elite network. Vice-Admiral William Tennant (pictured). A WW2 veteran, he is briefly Commander-in-Chief of the America and West Indies Station, and hosts her overnight. 

She enjoys ‘a bathe before breakfast...  slipping down barefoot over the wet grass and finding the little cove all pure and quiet from the night and swimming out among the white birds in an almost waveless sea.’ 

On 11 June she calculates: ‘This depressing boat, eleven more days to go’. Then, as they cross the North Atlantic, two days out the weather changes from hot to cold and dry. They have rough weather for the first time. 


This is the Thames. You lot are a problem

Finally, after a thirty-two-day trip, the two women arrive at Tilbury on 21 June 1948. There they discover that their ship is being seen as not just another vesel but a floating political problem in a cash-strapped UK dis-inclined to support Diversity, Inclusion and Equity (DEI) . 

The rest is known history – and modern spin. Nancy and Freya’s Caribbean shipmates disembark absolutely believing they have arrived as British subjects. That’s what the label says. 

But the post-2018 scandal about citizenship rights was to up-end that. See https://jcwi.org.uk/reportsbriefings/windrush-scandal-explained/



More info from me

  • A version of this article was published in Maritime Quarterly. 
  • See also my 'Women of Windrush: Britain's adventurous arrivals that history forgot,' New Statesman, 22 June 2018.   https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2018/06/women-windrush-britain-s-adventurous-arrivals-history-forgot
  • Re Nancy Cunard. See my 'The nonconformist who sailed on Empire Windrush,' Morning Star, 22 June 2018. https://morningstaronline.co.uk/article/nonconformist-who-sailed-empire-windrush


Reading more from various refreshing authors

There's much unusual reading about Windrush and its aftermath at Historycal Roots: Windrush: https://www.historycalroots.com/the-empire-windrush/

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