[Marxism] England as a ‘hostile environment’ for people of colour

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jan 16 07:57:35 MST 2020


LRB, Vol. 42 No. 2 · 23 January 2020
Mother Country
by Catherine Hall

The Windrush Betrayal: Exposing the Hostile Environment
by Amelia Gentleman.
Guardian Faber, 336 pp., £18.99, September 2019, 978 1 78335 184 8

Homecoming: Voices of the Windrush Generation
by Colin Grant.
Cape, 320 pp., £18.99, October 2019, 978 1 78733 105 1

Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Become Scapegoats
by Maya Goodfellow.
Verso, 272 pp., £12.99, November 2019, 978 1 78873 336 6

Edward​ long arrived ‘home’ in the ‘mother country’ in 1769 with his 
wife and three young children after 12 years as a planter in Jamaica. 
His return presented no problems. He was a colonist, a ‘freeborn 
Englishman’, welcomed back to ‘his’ country. His wife came, as he did, 
from an elite white dynasty and his children, though they were born in 
Jamaica, inherited his birthright. (The children of enslaved women 
inherited their mothers’ status and were born enslaved.) Long had made 
enough money from his cane fields and enslaved labour to return home, 
safe in the expectation that his plantations could be managed from a 
distance while he enjoyed a life of leisure. He had been keen to return 
to ‘his dear Native Land’, determined that his children should receive 
an English education. ‘I can no more be happy here than Gulliver was,’ 
he wrote to a close friend: the family estate in Clarendon was 
‘undoubtedly the Golgotha of Jamaica’. All white colonists lived in 
fear, given their tiny numbers and their dependence on enslaved 
Africans. England, by contrast, was always imagined as a safe place. The 
Longs were welcomed by their relatives – rich West Indian merchants in 
London and landed gentry in Suffolk. They settled in Chichester, a 
genteel southern English town, in an area liked by returning ‘West 
Indians’ because of its tranquillity and its relative proximity to 
London. Long had brought with him a collection of documents he had 
acquired in preparation for what he hoped would be a peaceful literary 
life. He planned to devote himself to writing a new and authoritative 
history of Jamaica.

England, however, had changed since he left for Jamaica in 1757. There 
had always been critics of New World slavery but they had been a tiny 
minority. The slavery business, from the making of guns and fetters to 
the provisioning of ships and processing of sugar, was accepted as an 
important part of England’s wealth. Slavery, itself associated with 
Africa and the Americas, happened elsewhere. Britons, proud of their 
liberties, ‘never shall be slaves’: slavery was a condition for others. 
But by the 1760s there were the beginnings of a growth in anti-slavery 
sentiment. A significant number of black people had long been present in 
London and the port towns – enslaved, free, runaways, sailors and 
servants – but the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763 and the huge 
expansion of Britain’s empire may have made them increasingly visible. 
The black presence raised questions about what it meant to have such an 
empire, one composed of peoples of different ethnicities and religious 
beliefs. A number of cases of enslaved African men and women who had 
escaped from their owners in London, only to be recaptured, came to 
public attention.

James Somerset, who had been brought to England from Virginia by his 
owner, Charles Stewart, and managed to escape and live freely for a 
brief period, became the subject of a test case in 1772. Was the 
ownership of people legal in the ‘mother country’? Stewart had employed 
slave-hunters to capture Somerset and put him on a boat for Jamaica. A 
baptised Christian, Somerset was able to appeal for support and a writ 
of habeus corpus was secured for his release. He went to Granville 
Sharp, who agreed to take the case. Sharp was concerned with the 
legality of slavery in England and especially troubled by slaveowners’ 
exercise of unrestricted violence and power, considering it morally 
damaging. He had devoted much time and energy to researching legal 
arguments about personal liberty and in 1769 had published A 
Representation of the Injustice and Dangerous Tendency of Tolerating 
Slavery, or Admitting the Least Claim of Private Property in the Persons 
of Men in England. Somerset’s case became a cause célèbre, widely 
reported in the press, with Lord Chief Justice Mansfield sitting in 
judgment. Both pro-slavers and anti-slavery activists (there was as yet 
no organised movement) knew that the judgment mattered. During the trial 
the lawyers defending Stewart, and Mansfield himself, warned of the 
dangers that would be unleashed if Somerset was freed: ‘They will flock 
over in vast numbers ... overrun this country and desolate the 
plantations.’ Sharp too was concerned by ‘the unnatural increase of 
black subjects’ in England and what the effects of this might be on 
public morals. But Mansfield, deeply reluctantly, and determined to 
limit his judgment to Somerset himself, ruled that ‘the man must be 
discharged.’ Somerset was a man, not simply a ‘thing’: he could not be 
forcibly returned to the Caribbean.

Edward Long watched the trial with dismay. He issued a vitriolic 
pamphlet castigating the lawyer who had discovered ‘the art of washing 
the black-a-moor white’ and had made the scurrilous claim that ‘negroes’ 
could be proclaimed ‘subjects of the realm, and held entitled to all the 
rights, liberties, and privileges of natural, or free-born subjects’. 
The nation was supported by its trade, he argued, and British commerce 
and opinion ‘esteemed Negroe labourers merely a commodity, or chose in 
merchandise ... objects of purchase and sale, transferrable like any 
other goods and chattels.’ Their right of property was as ‘strong, just, 
legal ... as that of any other British merchant over the goods in his 
warehouse’. The legality of the slave trade and slavery was not his only 
theme. He had returned to England to find far too many black people 
living in ‘ease and indolence’, blocking the native poor from 
employment, committing thefts and misdemeanours. He had left the 
brutalities of Jamaica to live in his ‘dear native land’, a white 
country, and was horrified by the discovery that there was no secure 
border between metropole and colony. Fresh from the plantation, he 
alerted his readers to the sexual dangers such proximity to ‘the negro’ 
engendered. ‘The lower class of women in England are remarkably fond of 
the blacks, for reasons too brutal to mention,’ he wrote.

By these ladies they generally have a numerous brood. Thus, in the 
course of a few generations more, the English blood will become so 
contaminated with this mixture ... as even to reach the middle, and then 
the higher orders of the people, till the whole nation resembles the 
Portuguese and Moriscos in complexion of skin and baseness of mind. This 
is a venomous and dangerous ulcer, that threatens to disperse its 
malignancy far and wide, until every family catches infection from it.

The idea of England as endangered took root. Preserving proper 
boundaries, keeping England white, was seen by many as a priority. Two 
years later Long published his three-volume History of Jamaica, in which 
he argued that black people were essentially different from and inferior 
to white ones: they were born for subjection.

England as a ‘hostile environment’ for people of colour has had a long 
history, not confined to pro-slavers like Long, who fought against the 
abolition of the slave trade from the 1780s, or those who campaigned 
from the 1820s against the emancipation of the enslaved. Slavery at a 
distance was one thing, black people at home quite another. Even 
committed anti-slavery activists such as Granville Sharp were quite 
clear about the difference between white Britons and Africans: it was 
slavery that was the problem. Years after the Somerset judgment Sharp 
noted that it had been important to stop slave-owners ‘bringing with 
them swarms of Negro attendants into this island’. The language is all 
too familiar. The presence of black people in England, and the status of 
people of colour in what was once the empire, have been sources of 
contention for centuries. Writing in the 1790s, the African abolitionist 
Olaudah Equiano, also known as Gustavus Vassa, represented himself as 
both African and British. He lived with and through both these 
identities, a double consciousness. For those who were colonised, 
questions of identity and belonging were a key legacy of empire. In the 
1960s, when the children of the Windrush generation were arriving with 
their parents, there were no issues with their entry to the ‘mother 
country’: they were travelling internally within the empire. They were 
registered as ‘freely landed’: that was the wording on the landing cards 
destroyed by the Home Office in 2010. Paulette Wilson, Hubert Howard and 
the many others whose shocking stories are told in The Windrush Betrayal 
by Amelia Gentleman, the journalist whose investigations led to the 
uncovering of the scandal, came in on their parents’ British passports: 
from the moment of emancipation in 1834, freed men and women became 
British subjects. But long before the raft of legislation in the 1960s 
that limited Commonwealth immigration it was clear that British 
subjecthood was racialised and that black and brown Jamaicans did not 
enjoy the privileges of freeborn Englishmen.

Approximately​ 12 million African captives were forcibly transported to 
the Americas in the early modern period. Many died on the passage across 
the Atlantic. A significant number, bought and sold as ‘slaves’, worked 
on the plantations and in the towns of Jamaica, which was colonised by 
the British in 1655. It is estimated that about a third of these men and 
women died soon after arrival. At the time of emancipation there were 
310,489 adult men and women who had survived the ‘social death’ of the 
plantation economy. Their owners successfully claimed £20 million in 
compensation from the British government on the basis that enslaved 
people were private property. This was the last time they would be 
valued in monetary terms, as they had been throughout their lives: the 
slave-owners received cash or cheques. The struggles of enslaved people, 
including the major rebellion of 1831 which finally convinced the 
British Parliament that chattel slavery in the British Caribbean, the 
Cape and Mauritius had to end, resulted in semi-freedom. The system of 
‘apprenticeship’, which bound freed men and women to work for their 
masters for a further period, was abolished in 1838, when ‘full freedom’ 
was granted after further campaigns in both metropole and colony. But it 
wasn’t full freedom at all. In the following decades, the emancipated 
struggled to enjoy the rights that had been promised to them, while the 
Colonial Office and imperial governments acted effectively to limit 
those rights and the plantocracy made every effort to hold on to their 
powers. Freedom, ex-slaves quickly learned, had no guarantees. Between 
1838 and 1865 Jamaica’s House of Assembly imposed restrictions on the 
franchise to limit the black vote, planters held down wages, and the 
courts continued to operate in white interests. Freed people’s notions 
of imperial belonging, of being ‘black fellow-subjects’ with rights and 
entitlements including, for example, the right to petition the crown 
directly, conflicted sharply with the realities of colonial government. 
The imperial powers never wavered in their support for the plantocracy 
or their vision of Jamaica as a place that would produce for the benefit 
of the ‘mother country’. This meant a plantation economy with no space 
for peasant aspirations. The explosion of popular protest at Morant Bay 
in 1865 was a climactic moment. The subsequent violent repression led by 
Governor Eyre brought Jamaica fully to the attention of the British 
press, Parliament and public for the first time since emancipation. 
Eyre’s critics were led by John Stuart Mill, his supporters by the likes 
of Carlyle and Ruskin. But the issue for Mill and liberal opinion was 
the legality of the punitive actions, not the source of the protest, 
which was the social, political and economic oppression of the majority 
black population.

The pro-slavery campaigns of the early 19th century had been spearheaded 
by the ‘West India Interest’, but they had relied on support from 
significant sections of the English population, including some working- 
class radicals. William Cobbett, one of the most popular journalists of 
the day, was also one of the most virulent racists. His Political 
Register echoed the themes that preoccupied Edward Long, and which have 
been staples of racist discourse ever since. Black people were made for 
subjection; there were too many of them; they were taking jobs and 
reducing wages; and they were definitely not ‘men and brothers’, as the 
abolitionists called them. Even worse was the ‘familiar intercourse’ 
between ‘the Negroes and the Women of England’, the horror of ‘English 
mulattoes’. For Cobbett, a passionate nationalist, these women were an 
offence against family and country. Having read of the revolution in 
Saint-Domingue in 1793, he played on the inhuman cruelties supposedly 
perpetrated by ‘the negroes’ in their determination to kill all whites, 
a story that was to be repeated again and again, and which terrified 
colonists across the empire.

By the 1840s what was called ‘the great experiment’ of the transition 
from slavery to freedom was deemed by many Britons to have failed. The 
Times voiced planters’ complaints about the indolence of African 
labourers and their endless demands for new indentured labour from other 
parts of the empire; Charles Dickens wrote about his hatred of 
‘telescopic philanthropy’; Charlotte Brontë represented Jamaica as a 
place of degeneracy and corruption in Jane Eyre; Carlyle’s ‘Occasional 
Discourse on the Negro Question’ rested on an absolutist assumption of 
the need for racial hierarchies. The links between English nationalism 
and racism were fed by popular writers such as Charles Kingsley and the 
historian and travel writer James Anthony Froude, with his daredevil 
adventures of Hawkins, Raleigh and Drake, who entertained the notion 
that slavery was something which must be allowed to die away gradually. 
Africans were ‘children of darkness’, the English a race born to govern. 
The debates in England over the Indian rebellion of 1857, when much was 
made of the inhuman brutalities of the mutineers, the American Civil 
War, when support for the Confederacy was as strong as it was for the 
North, and then Morant Bay, all gave new voice to racists and encouraged 
a particular vision of English whiteness. In the aftermath of 1865 
Jamaica’s independent House of Assembly was abolished and crown colony 
government established with an extremely limited franchise.

Caribbean peoples challenged the imperial powers in whatever ways they 
could: in their minds blackness and Britishness were not mutually 
exclusive. They petitioned the crown, held meetings, published 
pamphlets, organised in associations, demanded better employment 
conditions. The Trinidadian J. J. Thomas’s scathing Froudacity 
documented the accomplishments of black people in the diaspora and 
stressed their ability to chart their own destiny. By the late 1880s 
there was a strand of black nationalist thought in Jamaica, which was 
influenced in the early 20th century by pan-Africanism, while Marcus 
Garvey’s interwar critique of British imperial power cited the failure 
to deliver equality. Jamaicans, often responsive to claims on behalf of 
crown, nation and empire, had volunteered to fight in the First World 
War but experienced disillusionment after its end as their hopes of 
citizenship were disappointed. Jamaica underwent significant changes in 
the late 19th and early 20th centuries: bananas, not sugar, were now its 
prime export crop, peasant producers had been marginalised, the labour 
force had been proletarianised and the US-owned United Fruit Company had 
gained a near monopoly. It wasn’t until after the major disturbances of 
1938, led at first by sugar workers on Tate and Lyle’s Frome Estate, 
that the adult franchise was finally granted (in 1944) and government 
reform initiated. Independence wasn’t secured until 1962.

Meanwhile,​ racist ideas and practices were an insistent feature of 
British culture, embedded in its colonial history and manifested in 
multiple ways: from the race riots of 1919, when thousands of men in 
port towns turned violently on local black communities, to popular 
fiction and films, or the legislation of the 1920s against ‘coloured 
seamen’. A Mass Observation survey on race in 1939, cited by Colin Grant 
in Homecoming, recorded a range of hostile comments. ‘One cannot compare 
them with whites,’ one woman said. ‘Having been brought up in a hot 
country they should be left there.’ Another thought of them as ‘big 
religious children’. ‘I don’t know much about Negroes,’ she commented. 
‘I think of them as tall black naked individuals with wide nose, thick 
lips and black frizzy hair.’ During the war the inclusion of West 
Indians in the armed forces in Britain provoked mixed responses, while 
the presence of black GIs increased awareness of the institutionalised 
racism of the US. The war against Nazi Germany was fought in part for a 
more inclusive notion of freedom and equality, but ideas about racial 
superiority were deeply rooted in Britain’s imperial history and there 
was plenty of evidence of hostility to mixed-race relationships and 
brown babies.

It was the 1948 Nationality Act, which granted free movement to 
Commonwealth citizens, that provoked ‘England Fever’ in the British West 
Indies. Widespread poverty and lack of opportunity across the Caribbean 
meant that as many as 300,000 men and women left their homes to try 
their luck in the ‘mother country’. Both Tory and Labour governments 
hoped that the acute labour shortages after the Second World War would 
be filled by Europeans and immigrants from the colonies of white 
settlement, who were classified as ‘British stock’. They did not expect 
large-scale West Indian migration. But, as the Labour minister for the 
colonies put it, ‘these people have British passports and must be 
allowed to land.’ He didn’t believe they would stay: British winters 
would deter them. The new arrivals were coming to a country they thought 
they knew, its history, geography and culture familiar from the colonial 
education system. But the colonial encounter was taking on a new form, 
shifting from ‘there’ to ‘here’. The arrival of the Empire Windrush came 
to stand for a hinge moment, the beginning of a new time, when the 
threat summoned up by Long, Cobbett and others of ‘swarms’ of ‘negroes’ 
disrupting a white English way of life became, for some, a disturbing 
reality. Black people knew that ‘we are here because you were there,’ 
but very few Britons had any idea of the long history of colonialism.

The troubled story of black settlement in postwar Britain and the 
government response to it has been well documented. Neither major party 
had ever been enthusiastic about the benefits of immigration and 
limitations on the entry of imperial subjects of colour were soon 
implemented. Churchill’s remark in 1955 that ‘Keep England White’ made a 
good slogan may not have been openly supported by many, but the effect 
of successive pieces of legislation was to close the door. Labour 
governments have attempted to soften the restrictions by passing Race 
Relations Acts, but these have often been limited in their 
effectiveness. By the end of the 1980s the combined effect of imperial 
legacies, political hostility and public opinion meant that Britain had 
among the strictest border controls in Western Europe. ‘The nation’s 
history on immigration legislation,’ Maya Goodfellow argues in Hostile 
Environment, ‘is a history of racism.’ The Conservatives’ ‘hostile 
environment’ policy wasn’t ‘a deviation from the norm, but well aligned 
with the United Kingdom’s approach to race and immigration over several 
decades’. It was in 2012, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, that 
the then home secretary Theresa May announced her aim of creating ‘a 
really hostile environment for illegal migration’. The focus on ‘illegal 
migration’ was a response both to Ukip’s stoking of anxieties about 
immigration, and to the government’s own failure to bring down the 
numbers of new immigrants in line with the promises David Cameron had 
made. A range of new policies, including checks with hospitals, councils 
and letting agencies, were designed to hound people out of the country 
by making it impossible for them to get state benefits or employment. 
The scandal was that the Home Office focused on long-resident black 
British subjects, who weren’t ‘illegal’ at all. Amelia Gentleman began 
to hear of cases of imminent enforced deportation at the end of 2017 and 
gradually uncovered a series of horrifying instances of lost jobs, lost 
benefits, refusals of hospital treatment: Caribbean people who had lived 
and worked in England since childhood were being labelled ‘illegal’ 
because of their lack of documentation. It was decreed that individuals 
must be able to prove their right to stay, rather than its being the 
responsibility of the Home Office to disprove entitlement. Gentleman 
recounts the stories of special needs teaching assistants, car 
mechanics, factory workers, caretakers and ambulance drivers: lives 
disrupted, people living in fear, the nightmare of trying to find the 
requisite documentation when National Insurance records were deemed 
insufficient, the loss of work and of self-respect, the sense of 
betrayal, the humiliating and dehumanising nature of it all. For Hubert 
Howard, who came to England when he was three and never left, ‘It has 
been a struggle and it’s destroyed my life.’ Paulette Wilson, who has 
been in England since arriving as a child in 1968, and who worked for a 
period in the House of Commons canteen, suffered two years of anxiety, 
rescued only by the determination of her daughter not to let her mother 
be deported. Elwaldo Romeo arrived from Antigua when he was four; 59 
years later he got a letter saying that he was in the UK illegally. ‘It 
makes me cross when I think what my ancestors went through. Antigua was 
a breeding colony for slaves. When slavery was abolished no one looked 
after the slaves; they had no land of their own; they were destitute in 
the Caribbean. They couldn’t go back to Africa, because they were no 
longer Africans. They were British subjects.’

Some of the most disturbing material in Gentleman’s account concerns 
Home Office practices: the enforced returns targets printed in offices 
across the country, the horrors of Croydon (the Home Office’s Visa and 
Immigration Centre) and Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, the 
refusal to take responsibility for destroying the landing cards, the 
lack of respect for black Britons and the inhuman behaviour of officers 
– ‘a textbook example of institutional racism’. Fortunately there were 
whistle-blowers. And there was the Barbadian high commissioner Guy 
Hewitt, who mobilised the Commonwealth prime ministers to challenge 
Theresa May, as well as a number of supportive MPs, refugee and migrant 
centre workers, black activists such as Patrick Vernon, and the 
Guardian, which gave space to Gentleman’s stories over a long period. 
Yet despite the scandal, the widespread public shame, the apology and 
resignation of the home secretary Amber Rudd, and the promise from her 
replacement Sajid Javid of change, compensation still hasn’t been paid, 
and the ‘hostile environment’ hasn’t been dismantled, merely renamed the 
‘compliant environment’. No change has been made to immigration rules or 
to the substance of government policy.

The British government paid £20 million in compensation to the 
slave-owners in 1834. The freed men and women weren’t compensated for 
the capture and transportation of their ancestors from West Africa to 
the Caribbean, or for their own enslavement and coerced labour. 
Emancipation was fought for and won – but it did not bring full freedom. 
The British West Indies continued to be regarded by successive colonial 
governments as a place to grow sugar or bananas as export crops to 
supply Europe and the US. Freed men and women were denied their rights 
as British subjects to economic opportunity, self-determination and 
justice. They claimed those rights over generations, fashioning their 
own meanings of freedom and black citizenship. They fought as imperial 
subjects in two world wars and, faced with continuing economic hardship, 
came to the ‘mother country’ with hopes of a better life, hopes that in 
many cases were bitterly disappointed. As the reparations activist Bert 
Samuels puts it, ‘it is widely accepted in Jamaica that Britain has used 
us and refused us.’



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