Tue | Feb 18, 2020

The voyage that changed history

Published:Sunday | July 1, 2018 | 12:00 AMArmitabh Sharma
Beverley Lashley, national librarian and CEO of National Library of Jamaica, speaks to visitors on the contribution of the Windrush passengers to the socio-political sphere in the United Kingdom.
Some of the first Immigrants from the Caribbean island of Jamaica arrive at Tilbury, London, on board the 'Empire Windrush'.
The 'SS Empire Windrush'.
Amitabh Sharma

Dreams, they say, are the genesis of greatness, endless flight of imagination, and once coupled with determination, have the power to carve one's place and niche in history.

The stories of the passengers of SS Empire Windrush are encompassed by the dreams, aspirations, and the resolve to live them, and the guts to make them into reality.

This was a 7,000 mile journey from Jamaica to the United Kingdom (UK), which was to change the lives of the over 1,000 passengers who braved the seas, literally and figuratively.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Empire Windrush's historic voyage to England in 1948.

"The National Library of Jamaica thought it prudent to commemorate the event by creating an exhibition," said Beverley Lashley, national librarian and chief executive officer of the National Library of Jamaica (NLJ).

"As such," she continued, "research was conducted into the library's first major exhibition into the voyage titled A Journey of 7,000 Miles: Chasing Dreams on the Empire Windrush."

The five-board display features some of the Caribbean sons who were chasing their dreams, which would morph into visions that led to fantastic changes in the United Kingdom.

It is perhaps the first time in the history of mankind that a generation has been named after a shipping vessel - the Windrush Generation was born.

Featured in the exhibition are Granville Edwards, Sam King, Cecil Baugh, Aldwin "Lord Kitchener" Roberts, and Harold Adolphus Phillips, also known as Lord Woodbine.

The exhibition also features surviving passengers Alfonso "Dizzy" Reece, Alford Gardner, John Mitchell Richards, and Joyce McNeil Wright.

"The NLJ's research featured these individuals with the intent of showing Jamaicans and persons within the Diaspora how they influenced the socio-political sphere in England," Lashley said. "The spirit of the Caribbean people has always been one of perseverance and triumph, so natives left the region seeking out fortunes on foreign shores all in the hope of making a better life for themselves and their families."

Highlighting this voyage is very important, according to Lashley, as it showcases the positives to Jamaicans and the importance of building the legacy of the Windrush era.

"When the Empire Windrush docked at the Port of Tilbury, it marked the first large influx of West Indians entering the United Kingdom and heralded a migratory stream that has lasted decades," she said.

On a broader scale, the voyage of SS Windrush was a turning point in history, where a better understanding emerged of the reasons for mass migration, how migration disrupts family life, why migration, and whether migration was worth it.

"As shown by this exhibition," Lashley said. "These West Indians, through hard work and perseverance, made sterling contributions to rebuilding and developing England.

"Highlighting voyages of this nature is also integral to documenting our history. This is an opportunity for others to see their histories published, actively participate in writing their own experiences, and take steps to ensure their own national repositories have these accounts to share with the nation."

One of the key objectives of the exhibition, she said, is to highlight the resilience, grit, and successes of fellow Caribbean "brothers and sisters" who have contributed to making Jamaica a more recognised country in the Caribbean and beyond.

The wider lesson, according to the national librarian, comes from not being limited to expectations or allowing present difficulties to stop pursuits of ones dreams.

"These individuals exhibited a balance between practicality and vision and made this mix work even if it took years," she said.

Documenting such a milestone in history is part of NLJ's broader mandate, she said.

"We are charged with sharing, safeguarding, and disseminating the collective heritage of the nation. Like many other exhibitions, we hope to gain maximum visibility to educate Jamaica that there is also a positive side to the Windrush story."

She further said that NLJ has created files on the Windrush Era, collected CDs with interviews from persons, and is partnering with key stakeholders - Windrush Foundation and the RJRGLEANER Communications Group to collect memorabilia and purchasing publications.

Some of the photographs used in the exhibition are from Gleaner archives.

This exhibition is one of the key stepping stones for NLJ, Lashley said, as they work towards upgrading infrastructure to facilitate the digitisation process.

"My focus is on the promotion of the audio visual collection as a source for research and innovation, and so we have begun the dialogue with the British Library and McMasters University for staff-exchange programmes," she said.

Lashley is calling upon holders of Jamaican publications to contribute to the national collection.

"Let's start the drive today. Contact the NLJ. We will be happy to collect these donations," she said.

The Windrush exhibition will be at the NLJ until July 30. The replicas of the panels will travel across the island to parish libraries from July 3 - November 30. The roving exhibition will begin at the St Mary Parish Library on July 3 and culminate at the Kingston & St Andrew Parish Library in November.

"Additionally," Lashley said. "Jamaicans worldwide can enjoy the information from an online version of the exhibition our website."

This exhibition showcases the struggles and triumphs of a generation that changed the face of the UK and whose names would be immortalised and be a source of inspiration for many generations to come.