west indians in britain

Despite the fact that it’s pretty goddamn crazy that there’s a talking bear in a duffle coat, most people react to Paddington not with amazement, but with prejudice. Like the cab driver who charges extra for bears.

Even Paddington’s adoptive family try have him fit their mold rather than learn about his culture. Instead of taking a few minutes to learn his Peruvian name, they literally give him the first “English one” they see: the name of the goddamn train station they’re all standing in.

It’s pretty clear that Paddington’s story is meant to represent the immigrant experience in England – but it’s likely an even more specific commentary than one might realize. The location of Paddington Station was one of the means by which a large influx of West Indian immigrants entered Britain in the 50s. The racial tension bubbled up into the brutal Notting Hill race riot in 1958 (not to be confused with the Notting Hill riots from 1999, when people demanded Hugh Grant’s head). Incidentally, 1958 is the same year the first Paddington book was published.

The recent movie adaptation didn’t ignore this context, incorporating calypso music in the soundtrack as a reference to the Notting Hill immigrant culture. Even Paddington’s distinctive suitcase and “Please Look After this Bear” tag aren’t totally apolitical – they were inspired by the author’s memories of children being evacuated during WWII, standing in a train station with “a label round their neck with their name and address on and a little case or package containing all their treasured possessions.” So, yep, Paddington is a refugee.

6 Children’s Books Whose Real Story Flew Over Your Head

By showing West Indians planters as deviant and un-British, British abolitionists could demonstrate that their own movement represented the best elements of Britain’s national character. This specific historical context helps explain why white West Indians faced such fierce hostility in Britain. But other forces were also at work in the metropolis,where in the wake of the American Revolution new understandings of imperial subjecthood and of “whiteness” were starting to take hold. These were partly based on contemporary understandings of race and climate. A common theme in descriptions of the West Indies was that the hot climate affected the very metabolism of white residents, changing the balance of the humors. Not only did this endanger Europeans as they became exposed to new diseases, it altered their very personality. Heat increased both license (in the sense of devotion to principles of liberty and self-assertion) and licentiousness (devotion to the pursuit of sensuality). People who lived in hot climates, therefore, had personalities different from people in cold climates. These “hot climate” personalities were usually considered as inferior. Hot climates made people slothful, addicted to vice and luxury, and overly concerned with momentary pleasures. Unsurprisingly, these were characteristics also assigned to Africans, preeminently the people Britons thought best suited to and most shaped by hot climates. When Europeans living in hot climates shared some of the attributes commonly given to Africans, it was a short step between showing distaste for what the climate was doing to Europeans and to thinking of Europeans as “infected” by African traits.
—  Trevor Burnard, West Indian Identity in the Eighteenth Century

“One does not have to be a novelist seeking very subtle connections to trace the five thousand pounds of this prize back to the economic activities from which they came. Booker McConnell have had extensive trading interests in the Caribbean for over 130 years. The modern poverty of the Caribbean is the direct result of this and similar exploitation. One of the consequences of this Caribbean poverty is that hundreds of thousands of West Indians have been forced to come to Britain as migrant workers. Thus my book about migrant workers would be financed from the profits made directly out of them or their relatives and ancestors. 

More than that, however, is involved. The industrial revolution and the inventions and culture which accompanied it and which created modern Europe was initially financed by profits from the slave trade. And the fundamental nature of the relationship between Europe and the rest of the world, between black and white, has not changed. In G. the statue of the four chained Moors is the most important single image of the book. This is why I have to turn this prize against itself. And I propose to do so by sharing it in a particular way. The half I give away will change the half I keep.

First let me make the logic of my position really clear. It is not a question of guilt or bad conscience. It certainly is not a question of philanthropy. It is not even, first and foremost, a question of politics. It is a question of my continuing development as a writer: the issue is between me and the culture which has formed me.

Before the slave trade began, before the European de-humanised himself, before he clenched himself on his own violence, there must have been a moment when black and white approached each other with the amazement of potential equals. The moment passed. And henceforth the world was divided between potential slaves and potential slavemasters. And the European carried this mentality back into his own society. It became part of his way of seeing everything.The novelist is concerned with the interaction between individual and historical destiny. The historical destiny of our time is becoming clear. The oppressed are breaking through the wall of silence which was built into their minds by their oppressors. And in their struggle against exploitation and neo-colonialism - but only through and by virtue of the common struggle - it is possible for the descendants of the slave and the slavemaster to approach each other again with the amazed hope of potential equals.

This is why I intend to share the prize with those West Indians in and from the Caribbean who are fighting to put an end to their exploitation. The London-based Black Panther movement has arisen out of the bones of what Bookers and other companies have created in the Caribbean; I want to share this prize with the Black Panther movement because they resist both as black people and workers the further exploitation of the oppressed. And because, through their Black People’s Information Centre, they have links with the struggle in Guyana, the seat of Booker McConnell’s wealth, in Trinidad and throughout the Caribbean: the struggle whose aim is to expropriate all such enterprises.”

Speech by John Berger on accepting the Booker Prize for Fiction at the Café Royal in London on 23 November 1972

[Benjamin] Franklin advanced a proposition that was to haunt American society for the next two centuries: that whiteness was “natural” and “American,” while blackness was “foreign” and “un-American.” Yet his idea of Northern whiteness, which pretended that African Americans had virtually no presence in the north, could not exist without a contrasting image of southern and West Indian blackness, just as Englishness needed non-Englishness to illustrate the particular advantages of English character.

Franklin’s essay concluded with a plea to “whiten” North America by growing the English and English-descended population in the northern provinces rather than increasing the slave populations of the southern and especially the West Indian colonies: “Why increase the Sons of Africa, by planting them in America, where we have so fair an Opportunity by excluding all Blacks and Tawneys, of increasing the lovely White and Red?” The future of American prosperity, he urged, was in those places where the population was most clearly white (and by “white,” he meant English or possibly British: he lamented the fact that Pennsylvania was filling up with German “Boors” rather than with Anglo-Americans, and he was not much more complimentary to the Scotch-Irish).

Franklin framed this argument with a critique of the British West Indies. He maintained that slavery, on which West Indian prosperity was based, was a bad investment in 1750, when interest rates were high in the colonies, and wages for manufacturing work were low in Britain. Moreover, slavery was inherently bad, he thought, “every slave being by Nature a Thief.” Arguing that the most important economic value of a laborer was his or her character, he asserted that the character of Africans was uniformly bad. The author of Poor Richard lambasted Africans as dreadfully hopeless people with no work ethic. If Americans could “see and know, the extreme slovenliness of the West Indian slaves in making Molasses, and the Filth and Nastiness suffered to enter it, or wantonly thrown into it, their Stomachs would turn.” Slaves took spaces that could be profitably occupied by white immigrants, whose industry and frugality would eventually lead to greater prosperity.

Moreover, importing large numbers of enslaved Africans “infected” West Indian whites with African values and behaviors. When whites owned slaves, “the white Children become proud, disgusted with Labour and being educated in Idleness, are rendered unfit to get a living by Industry.” West Indians, in short, surrounded by Africans, dependent upon Africans, unable to grow their populations sufficiently to counteract African tendencies, were themselves turning into Africans, or into barbarism. Meanwhile the northern mainland colonies were becoming ornaments to British civilization, and eventually might surpass Britain itself in population and civility. Franklin’s sense of a virtuous America thus rested on a sense of northern difference from degenerate West Indian planters. Indeed, Franklin’s disdain for West Indian slaveholders was designed to convince Britons that Americans were indubitably and provably British. The white West Indian was a convenient “other” for Franklin. This was a proposition that white West Indians increasingly encountered from Britain itself as the eighteenth century wore on.

—  Trevor Burnard, West Indian Identity in the Eighteenth Century