The main contingent of London’s Caribbean community arrived here in the years following the Second World War.
During the war itself, thousands of volunteers from the Caribbean signed up to help Britain’s war effort. Mostly, they were sent to munitions factories, and were kept out of the armed forces by colour bars, although the RAF lifted theirs. Some of those who did get to serve in the army ended up in a separate Caribbean Regiment commanded by White English officers. Even in the Home Guard they faced discrimination. The Trinidadian test cricketer Learie Constantine (subsequently Trinidad’s high commissioner to the UK) successfully sued the Imperial Hotel on Russell Square in 1944 after being refused a room for being Black, and later, while living in Earl’s Court, wrote a book called Colour Bar based on his experiences.
After the war, with unemployment high in the Caribbean and with a Labour shortage in Britain, many more came over to Britain, starting famously with the arrival of the Windrush in 1948. And that is of course how the biggest contingent of today’s Black Londoners came to be here. But not all the Caribbean immigrants were Black (Afro-Caribbean); some, particularly from Guyana, were Asian (“Indo-Caribbean”).
The scale of this wave of immigration isn’t always appreciated, but in some Caribbean countries it was huge: nearly a tenth of Jamaica’s population came to Britain, as did more than an eighth of the people in Dominica and St Kitts. Over half of Britain’s new Caribbean immigrants settled in London, where they helped build the new post-war infrastructure. The NHS and London Transport, for example, both actively recruited staff in the Caribbean (a fact not mentioned by then health minister Enoch Powell when he later discovered what a vote-winner racism could be). Sam Selvon’s 1956 novel The Lonely Londoners gives a taste of what life was like back then for Caribbean newcomers in London.
The new arrivals tended to settle in specific areas, usually working-class, inner-city neighbourhoods. Shepherds Bush, Harlesden, Tottenham, Hackney and Peckham all gained large Caribbean communities, but the two areas that most prominently became centres of London Caribbean culture were Brixton, connected particularly with Jamaica, and Ladbroke Grove in North Kensington (“Notting Hill”, although strictly speaking it’s Notting Dale), which tended more towards Trinidad and the Small Islands. The Notting Hill Carnival, held since 1965, still reflects that dual Caribbean influence: of Jamaica (sound systems, jerk stalls, reggae), and of Trinidad and the Small Islands (procession, costumes, steel bands, soca).
Racism was a serious problem for the Caribbean newcomers. Finding accommodation in particular could be difficult. Some new arrivals were housed in the deep-level bomb shelters at Clapham South. Shut off from council waiting lists, and with the infamous “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish” signs in many windows (or just left unstated), many new arrivals were at the mercy of slum landlords. In 1958, White racists attacked Notting Hill’s Caribbean community, who defended themselves as best they could, with little help from the police.
In the 1960s, police started regular raids on the Mangrove restaurant, the community’s hub on All Saints Road. Protests against this harassment in 1970, attacked by the police with numerous arrests, led to a trial in which the demonstrators were vindicated, as shown on film director Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series for the BBC.
Despite these hardships, the Caribbean immigrants stayed, put down roots, and were instrumental in building today’s London. Even by the 1960s their music clubs were attracting White Londoners, notably skinheads, who loved ska music so much that Jamaican artists started producing records especially for them. Always a particularly durable feature of African culture in the diaspora, Black music has attracted White followers in London from the days of jazz, and back into the eighteenth century. By the 1970s, several Jamaican artists were so popular in London that they came to live here. Bob Marley was a frequent visitor and often enjoyed a game of football on Wormwood Scrubs.
In the 1970s, the discovery of Jamaican music by White youth created what has been called “the alliance of punk and reggae”. By then of course, it was largely the children of those original Caribbean immigrants who were carrying the banner of the London-Caribbean culture that we know today, but Jamaican sounds, and sound system culture, are behind many of London's later musical genres, from jungle and UK garage to grime and UK drill. Meanwhile, though not as pervasive as Indian or Chinese, Caribbean cuisine – and in particular Jamaican – has become a London staple, with dishes such as jerk chicken, patties, or ackee and saltfish now popular well beyond the Caribbean community.
Even in the last few years however, after living and working in London and building its infrastructure over decades, the Windrush Generation were faced with a new “hostile environment” brought in by home secretary Theresa May. Suddenly people who’d lived in London all their lives, and had children and grandchildren here, were facing deportation as supposed “illegal immigrants” by a right-wing regime pandering to its racist supporters. Luckily, the policy resulted in a public opinion backlash which took the Tories by surprise, and they were forced to back-pedal, but not before they had ruined untold lives, left hundreds destitute, and wrongfully deported dozens. Many of the victims are still waiting for compensation.