The Windrush Scandal and loss of cultural identity

The Museums Association reports on 2.5.18 that the Black Cultural Archives are to run legal surgeries following the Windrush scandal.

Their involvement in the scandal, which has seen members of the Windrush generation unable to access services due to large-scale errors made at the Home Office, is interesting as it raises important questions over the preservation of the documents the Home Office is accused of destroying. I admit that up to this point, I hadn’t considered the ‘archival angle’ in this scandal, in terms of historical worth. Of course, the point of focus should be how the act of destroying the documents has impacted individuals lives and destroyed their sense of worth, which is what the media has focussed on – and rightly so. The media has done an excellent job of bringing that to the fore, but there is a whole other story behind this. A whole swathe of historically important documents, namely border control landing cards, have been wiped out, alongside the cultural identity of the people it has affected.

Windrush GenerationThe BCA, which is based in Brixton are responsible for collecting, exhibiting and conserving archives and histories relating to the story of African and Caribbean people in Britain. In a statement released on their website supporting the Windrush generation they state that “This is not an immigration story, not a moment of migrant history, but is central to British history. The history of Black people in Britain dates back centuries, yet this history has long been hidden. It is our duty to unearth and share these histories with everyone for a better and deeper appreciation of Britain.” The full statement can be read here.

As the BCA rightly suggests, if the Home Office had no further use for the documents, why not offer them up to the BCA? The whole situation is problematic since it suggests a distinct air of post-colonial racism, which organisations such as the BCA have worked so hard to try and eradicate.

From a heritage perspective – and taking emotion out of the equation completely – the loss of the documents is yet another example of the ‘throwaway’ culture we seem to find ourselves in. It is astounding to think that no one thought that there would be some value in keeping the documents, since they provide a narrative backdrop to how Britain re-built itself following WW2, as well as historical evidence of the diaspora of black people – in this case in particular those from the Caribbean. The tangibility of these documents made them authentic and indisputable in their authority. Sadly, that importance has been lost along with the documents.

Fortunately, there is a chink of light at the end of the tunnel as the good old National Archives (who of course would never dream of throwing anything away!) have announced in recent weeks that they hold passenger lists drawn up for the Board of Trade between 1878 and 1960, which could include those who travelled from the Caribbean by ship. There is more on the story here.

The BCA was absolutely right to get involved as the mouthpiece for a generation whose historical cultural identity has been thoroughly trampled on.

Clearly the value placed on the cultural significance of these documents by the Home Office was totally lacking. This is to the detriment of everybody, not just the black community.