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Peer-reviewed scholarly article published in: Canadian Journal of History/Annales canadiennes d'histoire XXXIII, April/avril 1998, pp. 49-73, ISSN 0008-4107 © Canadian Journal of History
There have been two types of migration to the United Kingdom since 1945. The one that has received the most scholarly attention is the movement of Black Britons from the empire and commonwealth to the U.K. As the term Black Britons implies, these colonial migrants to Britain were primarily distinguished by the darker-than-white colour of their skin; they were also full British citizens whose right to settle in Britain was not restricted until 1962.* The other significant type of postwar migration comprised the official recruitment of foreign contract labour in the immediate aftermath of the war. Diana Kay and Robert Miles's book on the recruitment of displaced persons, and Keith Sword's work on the settlement of Polish servicemen in Britain have recently revived interest in the two main components of this migration.* Over four hundred thousand workers in total, most of them refugees from eastern Europe, were officially recruited between 1947 and 1951.* Unlike Black colonial migrants, European foreign workers in Britain were controlled by government contract.
This paper will examine a small postwar recruitment scheme that combined elements of these officially controlled, and "uncontrolled" migrations. The importation of one hundred agricultural workers from the tiny and remote mid-Atlantic island of St. Helena in the summer of 1949 was both an official recruitment scheme and a migration of Black British citizens to the mother country. By running the St. Helena recruitment as an official scheme, the government sought to exert control over these British citizens by implying that they were foreign workers. This obfuscation was inspired by the official belief that Black colonial migrants posed a threat to the social cohesion of the postwar welfare state. The imagination of such a threat was the outcome of a process of racializing British national identity that had been going on since at least the interwar period. By 1945 Britishness had been racialized in terms of skin colour, and official policy both reflected and abetted the process. When contrasted with the official recruitment of European workers, the St. Helena scheme illustrates the implications of this racialization of Britishness for the structural control of Black British citizens in the U.K.
The economic context of the postwar recruitment schemes has been well rehearsed.* It will suffice here to note that the Labour governments of 1945-51 faced chronic balance of payments difficulties which necessitated increased production drives in so-called essential industries. Essential industries produced for export (textiles, for example), or provided materials that would otherwise have to be imported (such as coal and agriculture). The physical plant in most of these industries, as both Corelli Barnett and Peter Hennessey have recently noted, had not been refurbished since before the war, and working conditions were generally unpleasant as a result.* At the same time the postwar economy was held back by a shortage of labour, due mainly to the large number of men still in the armed forces, and to emigration. Given the choice afforded by a state of "over-full employment," British workers did not take up unattractive essential work in sufficient numbers to maintain production at the desired level.* In these circumstances of general labour shortage and economic crisis, foreign workers were recruited by the government from 1946 onwards. Because they were brought to the U.K. under contracts that stipulated they only take work approved by the Ministry of Labour, recruited foreign workers could be compelled to work in those essential industries where shortages were most pronounced.*
Insofar as European contract workers were brought in to redress a market imbalance that favoured labour (that is, for economic reasons) it was their malleability that made them attractive. The same feature recommended the use of Italian and German prisoners of war (P.O.W.s), hundreds of thousands of whom were put to work in Britain during and after the war.* Similarly, allied Polish servicemen, whose right to settlement in Britain had been guaranteed by Churchill during the war, were treated very much like foreign contract workers. They were controlled through the mechanism of the Polish Resettlement Corps (P.R.C.), a quasi-military formation which has generally been praised as a very positive effort to integrate Polish immigrants, but which has recently been re-evaluated in light of its coercive aspects.* These various classes of European foreign workers were thus commonly subject to a particularly high degree of official control. The leverage they might have had in a labour-starved economy was offset by their alien legal status. Although there were limits to the degree of control the government could exercise over foreign workers, these limits were constantly discussed in official circles, an indication that the government wished to exercise control to the limit.*
One reason for wishing to exercise maximum control, aside from directing workers where they were most needed, was to placate trade union opposition to foreign workers. Organized labour recognized the implications of foreign labour recruitment for their collective bargaining position. Trade union opposition to foreign workers initially hinged on the fear that cheap foreign labour would dilute British wages and working conditions. This opposition was largely overcome through discriminatory hiring and redundancy agreements, and enforcement of the closed shop in most industries.* The fact that the government could exercise official control over foreign workers in these ways therefore helped smooth the way for trade union acceptance.
But European foreign workers were also meant to fulfill another function: that of supplementing the British population. There was a growing official and public concern in the immediate postwar years that the low British interwar birth rate, and continuing high levels of emigration, pointed to the possibility of a dangerous demographic decline.* Such a decline would threaten the actuarial viability of the postwar welfare state. European migrants, according to the Royal Commission on Population report of 1949, "were not prevented by their religion or race from intermarrying with the host population and becoming merged in it."* They were thus seen as the ideal solution to the imminent British population shortage. Most recruited European foreign workers were therefore expected to settle permanently in Britain and to assimilate. Assimilation, to paraphrase E.J.B. Rose's definition, was a process whereby the group would so adapt itself to the host society, and be so accepted by it, that it would merge into that society and lose its separate identity.* This process involved integration and intermarriage as necessary first steps.
So after smoothing out trade union acceptance of foreign workers in essential industries -- an ongoing process which will not be treated fully here -- official attention turned to the question of smoothing out the social integration of European workers.* The government's assimilation strategy hinged upon the notion that since these workers had white skin, they needed only to adopt British cultural norms in order to melt into the fabric of British society. The process of adopting these cultural norms was meant to be, as far as possible, unmediated by the government. Thus European migrants were to be dispersed fairly broadly so that they would not form impermeable émigré communities within Britain. They were encouraged to integrate with their local communities. Women's organizations were pressed into service to ensure that the newcomers were invited into British homes and included in social functions. Britishness, as the following Ministry of Labour internal memo showed, was to imprint itself upon European migrants through an organic process of permeation: " . . . the strong and natural inclination to stick together in national groups would soften if the members of the groups were associating with the English people as their common friends, and learning the language and customs in the best way -- practically."*
The government still had an important role to play in this assimilation process. There were impediments to the integration of east European migrants that needed to be officially addressed. Aside from the policy of dispersal, which helped to break down the political as well as the cultural organization of these migrants, the government had also to find ways to address negative stereotypes of east European foreign workers in Britain. In the immediate aftermath of the war, Polish servicemen in the U.K. were often portrayed in the media as violent womanizers and criminals. Displaced persons were stereotyped as simple peasants with low living standards and levels of hygiene. Both groups of east European migrants were thought to have fascistic political tendencies.*
Officials sought to dispel these stereotypes by mounting a campaign to "educate" the public about European foreign workers.* The Ministry of Labour committee in charge of this campaign issued informational pamphlets, and lobbied the press to portray foreign workers in a positive light. The main purpose was to contrive the image of east European foreign workers as sturdy, law-abiding, hard working citizens. The fact that they were subject to official control only furthered this agenda; foreign workers could be presented as, in the words of Minister of Labour George Isaacs, "working their passage to British citizenship."* Hard work in essential industries was in a sense posed as a probationary initiation to citizenship.
However the government's public relations efforts were purposefully muted; the Ministry of Labour did not want "to create in the minds of British workers the impression that vast numbers of foreign workers are going to be placed here."* This subtlety again reflected the government's belief that assimilation progressed most smoothly in the absence of overt, official mediation. Concentrating their efforts on combatting negative socio-cultural stereotypes, officials trusted that the dispersal of European migrants, and the whiteness of their skin, would in time lead to their assimilation. In the opening stages of this process, official control could be exercised to mitigate difficulties that might arise from their integration.
While British officials privately shared many of the stereotypes of east Europeans that were attributed to the public, they obviously believed that these socio-cultural traits could be overcome. Many of the same sorts of socio-cultural stereotypes were applied to Black colonial migrants as well. Thus civil servants viewed Black colonial migrants as more likely to abuse the social services of the welfare state, to form impermeable and criminal communities within Britain, and to be the cause of social unrest, particularly in the realm of sexual politics.* But in the official view Black colonial migrants differed from European foreign workers in two important ways: they were British citizens and so could not be controlled; and they had dark skin and so, it was assumed, could never be assimilated into the British nation.
These issues of control and national identity were affected by the passage of the 1948 British Nationality Act. This legislation reinforced the inclusive statutory definition of British citizenship throughout the empire and commonwealth. Citizens of any commonwealth country or colonial territory were guaranteed full citizenship rights in the U.K. Hitherto such rights had rested on the common status of British subjecthood; but as the Dominions began defining their citizenship requirements independently in the postwar years, the British government felt it necessary to modernize the terms expressing the commonality of British imperial subjecthood.* Kathleen Paul has posited that the purpose behind this seemingly liberal legislation was to solidify ties between the mother country and a loosening empire and commonwealth "by keeping migratory routes revolving around Britain."* This official commitment to inclusiveness, writes Paul, was accompanied by the reinforcement of an informal construction of national identity that was exclusive, and that served to divide the peoples of the empire into "different communities of Britishness."* This dichotomization of British national identity was then manipulated in the service of social and political hegemony.
The need for such hegemony was conditioned by the advent of the comprehensive postwar welfare state, which forged a new type of citizenship. The contours of this new citizenship were rounded off in 1948 as well, with the coming into being of the National Health Service. T.H. Marshall has described the postwar arrangement as "social citizenship," a concept that has subsequently been adopted and developed by others.* Social citizenship involved a broadened definition of the rights citizens could expect from the state, extending now from pensions to health care to the right to work. Social citizenship emphasized the rights rather than the duties of citizenship. The duties of citizenship had been paid up front in the form of wartime service and postwar austerity.* Thus at the very moment that the 1948 Nationality Act was statutorily defining British citizenship in an inclusive sense, the comprehensive welfare state had increased the demands that citizens could make of the state. It was in this context that the construction of official and unofficial spheres of Britishness worked in a hegemonic fashion. While the official definition opened the door to British citizenship, the unofficial one kept it shut to social integration. In this way the sense of entitlement and universality so important to the postwar welfare state was limited by the construction of alternative " frontiers of identity."*
At the centre of the unofficial definition of Britishness was the concept of race. As Robert Miles and others have convincingly argued, "race" is a social construction rather than a biological reality. The parameters of race are conditioned by the social context in which they are imagined.* Laura Tabili, Bob Carter, Marci Green, Chris Waters, and others have called for a recognition of the fluidity of racial categories as opposed to the acceptance across ideological lines of "racial difference as an inevitable source of conflict."* Racialization -- the definition of boundaries organizing humans into discrete categories -- is in their view a process whereby "originally value-neutral physical attributes or cultural practices acquire value-laden positive and negative constructions or interpretations in particular historical contexts.* "This fairly elastic interpretation of race, including both cultural and physical dimensions, is justified by usage in the immediate postwar period. Jews and Poles, for example, were often identified as racially distinct from Britons.* But it must also be recognized that since at least the interwar period the most significant parameters of race have been physical. The definition of race in terms of the "fluid differences of culture and national origin," writes Laura Lee Downs in a review of Tabili's book, was recast in the interwar period "in the notionally firmer hand of biological difference."* Socio-cultural difference was not, as we have seen in the case of European migrants, considered immutable in the same way as skin colour. Tabili, Miles, Kathleen Paul, and others have argued that the biological racialization of Britishness was purposefully undertaken by elites in order to facilitate some form of exploitative agenda.* Tabili has argued that official policy in the interwar years emphasized the definition of Britishness in exclusively white terms in order to restrict the freedoms and leverage of Black British seamen in the U.K.* Paul has argued that the west London and Nottingham riots of 1958 were "proof that the language of the Cabinet room and parliamentary chamber had finally moved to the public highway."* On the other hand Laura Lee Downs and others have argued that the relationship between elite discourse and popular ideology in both these works is overly simplistic, that racialization is a more complex and subjective process than the top down model they posit.* But while such criticism is merited, it seems undeniable that the biological racialization of Britishness subverted the position of Black Britons in ways that contributed to their economic exploitation. Moreover it can also be argued that this racialization was at least in some measure a consciously pursued policy in the postwar period.
The racialization of British identity was part of what Anne Marie Smith has called -- in the context of Powellist discourse in the 1960s -- the "phantasmic reclosure of the nation."* As the empire waned, Britishness was mythically recast in terms that revolved around quaint pastoral images of the English people and way of life, a sort of cultural and racial Little Englandism. As Smith's dissection of Enoch Powell's racist speeches shows, this mythical recasting was often deliberate. Paul Rich has described the same sort of process in the context of the decline of empire since the interwar period.* Rich describes the amplification of the 1930s Baldwinite "cult of rusticity" by such leftist figures as George Orwell (especially in The Lion and the Unicorn) and J.B. Priestley.* This Little England paradigm defined Britishness in domestic rather than imperial terms. As Chris Waters has written, the imagining of Britishness in the 1930s and 1940s revolved more around "hearth and home than sword and sceptre."*
The construction of Britishness around cosy domestic and rural images of English life -- the thatched cottage, the country inn, the cup of tea, and Sunday roast -- served as an exclusionary mechanism. For along with the thatched cottage came the image of the stout, freeborn Englishman, a character that could never be imagined except as a white man. Black people could never fit this version of "theme park Englishness" or "Deep England," as Stephen Haseler and Robert Hewison respectively have called it.* Thus Blacks were cast as outside the insularly defined sphere of the nation, as "dark strangers," a paradigm that sociologists and historians applied almost unquestioningly to the study of "race relations" throughout the postwar period.* This exclusion of Black Britons from the mythical nation had important structural implications for their position as British citizens in the U.K., implications that were purposefully exploited by officials and employers.
Marika Sherwood's studies of two war-time recruitment schemes involving Black colonial workers offer good examples of the structural dynamic of this sort of racialization. She has detailed the bureaucratic history of schemes to import three hundred and fifty West Indian munitions workers, and around seven hundred Honduran forestry workers, to Britain during the war.* As Sherwood notes, these numbers were merely a "token gesture" made at the behest of the Colonial Office in order to appear to be doing something about conditions of unemployment in the colonies.* But even this small a number of Black workers in the U.K. raised official concerns about control and social implications. The operation of these schemes revealed the official assumption that black and white people were inherently incompatible, and that the presence of Black colonial workers in Britain was therefore problematic.
The Honduran and West Indian workers were deployed in Scotland and the northwest of England respectively. At the outset of these schemes Ministry of Labour officials expressed the concern that Black workers might cause social disturbance in these communities, particularly if they were unemployed. This expectation of trouble affected subsequent assessments of the schemes. Although the level of local antagonism toward Black workers varied, officials seemed to heed the negative reports, such as, for example, those from the Duke of Buccleuch, on whose land much of the forestry work was undertaken. The Ministry of Labour eventually cited "social problems" as the main reason for discontinuing the schemes and repatriating the workers.*
However as Sherwood notes, repatriating Black colonial workers was not easy. A number of colonial workers who were served with repatriation notices simply refused to go, "claiming that as they were British subjects they could not be deported."* The government employed a variety of strategies to deal with such rebellion, including drafting Black workers into the army, and turning a blind eye to discrimination that made their lives difficult. In the end, the most successful strategy was to isolate the workers in remote localities, where their options were more limited and their lives more officially regulated. The Honduran workers, for example, were brought to do specific work organized by the government, and housed in remote hostels in northern Scotland. When they were repatriated after two years, not many refused to go.* With the West Indian munitions workers, however, work was not always organized in advance of their arrival, and official housing was provided in less remote urban areas where other options might present themselves. When, for example, the government sought to impose control over these men by drafting them into the army, many of them evaded the draft by joining the merchant navy or finding jobs in approved factories.*
However in both of these schemes, the recruited workers' British subjecthood meant that the government had to imply rather than assert control over them. Thus, for example, Black workers were pressured, but not required, to remit money to family back home; and Black workers who enrolled in Further Education and Vocational Training Schemes, which the government only grudgingly made available to them at the end of the war, had to agree to return to the colonies when they finished their courses.* The racialization of British identity facilitated this sort of implication of control by implying the outsider status of Black Britons in the U.K., and thereby limiting their sense of rights as British citizens.
The racial content of Britishness which Miles, Tabili, Sherwood, and Paul have described provides the analytical framework for the St. Helena scheme of 1949-51. The historical context must now be filled out. The St. Helenians were recruited to work in agriculture, an essential industry in which unattractive conditions -- isolation, low pay, rough work -- contributed to labour shortages in the postwar years. These labour shortages threatened the government's programme to increase agricultural output by 20 per cent between 1947 and 1951.* In order to achieve this goal the government was committed to an active role in modernizing the industry, including the encouragement of mechanization and the efficient use of land.* But with recognition of the long-term desirability of mechanization, there was also a realization that in the short term, the main ingredient necessary to boost production in the countryside was labour. While the National Union of Agricultural Workers (N.U.A.W.) stressed the need for better wages and conditions in order to attract British labour, the government felt it necessary to supplement the labour force with foreign recruits. Beginning during the war and continuing for three years afterward, German and Italian POWs were employed on the land. In 1946 there were 128,263 German and 3,126 Italian POWs working in the U.K. as agricultural labourers.* In 1948 some sixteen thousand P.O.W.s were allowed to remain as civilians provided they continued to work on the land.* In addition to the P.O.W.s, small numbers of Polish servicemen were placed in agriculture. This number of foreign workers was to be augmented by some thirty thousand displaced persons (European Volunteer Workers or E.V.W.s, as they were euphemized) in accordance with an agreement reached by the N.U.A.W., the British Farmers Union (B.F.U.), and the Ministry of Labour.* Thus by mid-1948 the government had agreements in place to deploy as many as fifty thousand foreign workers in agriculture.
There were obstacles to reaching these goals. The chief one was a lack of accommodation. Ideally farm labourers would be lodged privately by the farmers who employed them. This arrangement, however, was clearly not sufficient for the large numbers contemplated. Moreover the proliferation of small farming operations after the war and their unwillingness to take on full time workers during slow periods discouraged private lodging arrangements.* This combination of factors -- shortage of accommodation and pronounced seasonal labour fluctuation -- led to the extension of the war-time County Agricultural Executive Committee (C.A.E.C.) system into the postwar period.
Under the C.A.E.C. system agricultural labourers formed pools of labour that could be assigned by the local committee to work where they were needed. The men were housed in hostels and hired out to farmers at set rates of pay. This system provided a mobile, flexible labour force that suited the short term goals of the government. While the N.U.A.W. argued that C.A.E.C. created casual agricultural labour, the C.A.E.C. system was particularly well suited for the rapid deployment of foreign workers.* It thus remained in place for the duration of the Labour government's tenure.
The mechanisms and the agreements for placing foreign workers in agricultural work were thus already in place by the time the scheme to import the St. Helenians was first broached to the Ministry of Labour in October 1947.* The initiative came from the Colonial Office, whose main concern was the high rate of unemployment in St. Helena. During the war the local economy had been boosted by the presence of American and British troops on St. Helena, and on the associated island of Ascension. In 1947 the American troops were withdrawn, and the British garrison on St. Helena was closed down. As a result unemployment on the forty square mile island stood at 140 from a population of nearly five thousand.* The Colonial Office felt that only emigration could solve the problem of a surplus of men, which was blamed for a sudden increase in petty crime, and for a burdensome level of relief payments.* From the outset then, the subjects of this recruitment were regarded as problematic, potential delinquents.
The departments concerned initially gave the Colonial Office proposal a lukewarm reception. The permanent under-secretary at the Ministry of Labour, M.A. Bevan, did not strenuously object. But the Ministry of Agriculture seemed reluctant to accept the responsibility for integrating St. Helenian workers into the British countryside. However this Ministry was not in a strong position to refuse the Colonial Office request given that they had recently accepted thirty thousand Poles, Balts, and Ukrainians -- "many of whom" it was pointed out, "will have fought on the other side in the war."* The St. Helenians, it was noted by comparison, were English speaking British subjects, and so should be at least as acceptable as E.V.W.s and former prisoners.
The Ministry of Agriculture seemed more concerned about the colour of the St. Helenians than about their British culture, as the following internal memo showed:
"If they were put in hostels with other workers -- particularly other British workers -- it was fairly certain that colour prejudices, coupled with differences in habits and customs, would lead to trouble and would probably mean that we should lose more labour than we gained. If, on the other hand, the men had to be put into separate hostels and then began to drift away, we should be sterilizing badly needed hostel accommodation, for the sake of a relatively few workers."(emphasis mine)
The memo went on to note:
" There is . . . a chance that the NUAW may fasten upon this small experiment as another piece of evidence that the Government is prepared to 'rake the world' for all sorts and conditions of labour for agriculture, and that this will have a harmful effect upon the recruitment prospects for British workers."*
This memo betrayed assumptions about the incompatibility of black and white workers that would in turn lead to racialist policies being pursued. The use of the word "sterilizing" is particularly noteworthy, implying as it does a clinical necessity to separate different "races."
This is not to say that colour prejudice originated in bureaucratic circles and existed independent of public opinion. The issue of racial incompatibility, for example, was a primary concern of the N.U.A.W. when the scheme was broached to them. The president of the N.U.A.W., Alfred Dann, wrote the Ministry of Agriculture in November 1947 that: ". . . we cannot agree to the importation of this type of labour on to the British countryside." (emphasis mine)* The implied racial grounds for this objection ("this type of labour") contrast with the economic arguments raised by the union against the recruitment of European workers; in letters to the Ministry of Agriculture regarding European recruitment, the N.U.A.W. had stressed the danger of foreign workers depressing agricultural wages and displacing British workers rather than their social or racial unsuitability.* Both local government officials and concerned citizens echoed such racist opposition to the recruitment of Black agricultural workers, although it is by no means clear that their opinions were representative of the rural population as a whole. But whether or not such racism was preponderant, officials seemed to accept it as such.
The Colonial Office countered such racism in terms which accepted its basic premises. So, for example, as a Treasury memo noted, the Colonial Office:
" . . . stressed that the St. Helenians are clearly distinguishable from West Indians, as being not only more industrious but also of a type much more likely to be favourably received in this country . . . the St. Helenian [was] so markedly more akin to the European than the West Indian and the African."*
Here the notion of a racial hierarchy was conceded, with the relative darkness of skin colour being the operative criterion of stratification.* The statement that these men were "more likely to be favourably received in this country" again presupposed the inevitability of "racial" conflict. The Colonial Office argument was based less on the fact that St. Helenians were British subjects than on their relative pallor. The Colonial Office went on to note that the St. Helenian population comprised an amalgam of ethnic backgrounds, from European settlers to Malays, Indians, and Chinese brought to the island at various times as servants and slaves.* Thus they were "only slightly coloured, and 'civilized' in their habits," and might therefore be integrated into British society.*
In order to further sell the scheme to the Ministries of Agriculture and of Labour, the Colonial Office had also to stress its exceptional character (it was not the thin end of a wedge), and the control that could be kept over the St. Helenians. The Ministry of Labour was particularly concerned with the former point, especially after the arrival of the Empire Windrush in the summer of 1948, with its cargo of five hundred West Indian passengers, sparked official concern over the prospect of widespread colonial migration to the U.K.* On the control point, the Ministry of Agriculture noted their preference for measures that would restrict the St. Helenians even more than European contract workers: "From our point of view the men are more like civilianized German prisoners than Poles or EVWs."*
Such points were discussed throughout 1948. The arrival of the Windrush had spurred the formation of a cabinet working party to investigate the potential "problem" of colonial migration to the U.K., and in September 1948 it was agreed that the St. Helena scheme would be put on hold until the working party reported.* The possibility of touching off further colonial migration, and of being seen to favour one group of colonials over another, were cited as reasons for this postponement.
The Working Party on Colonial Migration would not deliver its report until 1950.* In the meantime however, the St. Helena situation grew more dire, and it was decided in January 1949 to consider the scheme separately from the Working Party's deliberations.* At a meeting of interested departments held on 23 February 1949, the decision was taken to go ahead with the scheme. Between them the Colonial Office and the Ministries of Labour and of Agriculture had worked out a scheme that would satisfy the necessary control criteria. The main method of control in this scheme would be obfuscation. The St. Helenians would be recruited on two- year contracts such as the ones used to recruit foreign workers. In practice many of the control clauses in these contracts were unenforceable, but the government hoped that by suggestion and implication, they might curb the behaviour of the recruited workers.
The first example of such obfuscation was the wording of the repatriation clause in the contracts. As Sherwood has shown, previous schemes during the war had run into problems trying to forcibly repatriate Black colonial workers. From the Colonial Office perspective, the ideal outcome of the St. Helena scheme would be permanent settlement of the men in Britain, and a reduction of St. Helena's surplus population. However it was also feared that announcing this goal would make it difficult to return any unsuitable men, especially because as British subjects they were entitled to live in the U.K. It was therefore agreed that the goal of permanent settlement would not be stated at the outset of the scheme: "The best thing would be to intend and hope for a permanent emigration but not to announce it."* Thus the St. Helena contracts stipulated that at the end of two years the government would pay for repatriation, giving workers the impression that this was a temporary scheme.
The wording of the contract was strategically constructed in other ways as well. In the final draft, for example, the Colonial Office suggested that references to recruited workers' access to "Health and Unemployment Insurance" be changed to the more amorphous "National Insurance," and that stipulations for "British" rates of pay and income tax be changed to "United Kingdom" rates.* In the first instance the effect was to blur the exact nature of social insurance benefits available to all British citizens; in the second instance, the effect was to hide the commonality of British citizenship by substituting the more particularist "United Kingdom." Moreover, though it was impossible to require mandatory remittance payments from the men for their dependents, a paragraph was inserted into the contracts stating that: "Workers will be expected to remit money for their families or dependents in St. Helena." This suggestion in the contract was accompanied by a form which recruits were encouraged to sign, allowing for remittance payments to be automatically deducted from their pay. In the event nominal rolls showed that only four of the men failed to sign this agreement.* In this way a difficulty which had arisen first in the war-time West Indian scheme -- that of ensuring remittances without having recourse to legal compulsion -- was dispatched.*
Another control issue arose over the question of whether to advance the St. Helenians up to four pounds each for expenses they might incur until they received their first pay cheques. The Treasury vetoed this Colonial Office proposal, reasoning as follows:
"Two pounds represents nearly two weeks' relief pay in St. Helena and for that money the men would do nearly two weeks arduous roadmending. We consider everything possible must be done to encourage the men to start work as soon as possible after their arrival at the hostels, and human nature being weak, one of the best ways of doing this is to keep down pocket money."*
Here was an overt statement of the principle of manipulation. There was an element of condescension in the phrase "human nature being weak," as though officials were dealing with child-like, irrational beings ruled by their base needs and impulses. This manipulation was made all the more clear when the Treasury finally decided to set aside the minuscule sum of four hundred pounds requested by the Colonial Office, but to pay it out only on an emergency basis.* The recruited St. Helenians were not to know about the availability of this fund until such time as they were forced to ask for emergency help.
From the outset then, the St. Helenians were inhibited and controlled through labour contracts that implied that they were foreign workers on a temporary scheme, rather than British citizens who, at least from the Colonial Office perspective, were meant to settle permanently in the U.K. As the actual scheme unfolded there was more evidence that neither the Ministry of Labour nor the Ministry of Agriculture shared the Colonial Office's enthusiasm for permanent settlement. The actions of these ministries, who were in charge of running the scheme in the U.K., often narrowed the vision of possibilities that St. Helenian workers might have felt open to them in Britain. Such proscription was not always intentional. But for the most part decisions were made on the assumption that the colour of the men determined in an insurmountable way their ability to integrate with indigenous communities. Thus their "race" was reified as the source of problems in such a way as to make them feel uncertain about asserting their rights as citizens.
A prime example of such reification can be seen in the policy towards housing the recruits. Given that the ostensible, though unannounced, goal of the recruitment was assimilation, it would be logical to assume that the integrative housing arrangements preferred in theory (and often in practice) for European workers would apply to this scheme as well. That was not the case, as can be seen from discussion of housing arrangements prior to the arrival of the St. Helenians. By the late spring of 1949 it had been decided that the men were not to be broadly dispersed but would rather be divided between three C.A.E.C.s, with forty going to Warwickshire, and thirty each to Berkshire and Oxfordshire. Moreover, a complement of St. Helenian domestic workers -- cooks and orderlies -- were brought along as part of the scheme. The reason cited for this decision was that the men would find each other's companionship comforting in a strange land.* Unlike European workers, the St. Helenians were segregated and concentrated, and encouraged to maintain their cultural differences, even though these differences were supposed to be less significant than those of European foreign workers. European migrants, it will be recalled, were to be assimilated through an organic process that involved eating British food and adopting dominant cultural practices. The separate provisions for St. Helenians thus calls into question the government's intention of ever assimilating these men.
The concentration of the St. Helenians seemed also to fly in the face of an interdepartmental agreement to keep this scheme as quiet as possible. Just prior to the arrival of the men in the late summer of 1949, the Colonial Office stressed the need to play down publicity of the scheme for fear of causing alarm in the U.K. and resentment in other colonies.* As an earlier letter from the Berkshire C.A.E.C. indicated, however, the proposed housing arrangements seemed to work against this plan: "I do feel that quite possibly the people in the nearest village to the Hostel will have something to say if they find that the coloured men are the only men in their area." The writer went on to suggest that the men be dispersed in groups of ten among E.V.W. hostels, in order to avoid an undue concentration that might attract attention. The Ministry of Agriculture replied in terms that the Colonial Office had used to refute the Ministry's own racialist objections to the scheme: ". . . these men are British by upbringing and in outlook, and speak English," and although "of varying degrees of colour," had mixed well with British troops in service during the war.* While this reply was meant to chide the Berkshire C.A.E.C. Labour Officer -- one H.C. Goodall -- for lumping in these men with foreigners, it also served to justify a policy of concentration which in fact separated these British citizens from the rest of the population. Thus in Warwickshire, for example, the forty St. Helenians were housed in one hostel (at Gaydon). The nineteen white workers who had been living there were moved out; the hostel was "sterilized."
In other instances the Ministry of Agriculture did in fact lump the St. Helenians and European foreign workers together themselves. Not only were St. Helenians recruited under prototypical foreign labour contracts, but they were also counted as part of the foreign labour quota negotiated with both sides of the industry. In June of 1949, for example, the Berkshire C.A.E.C. asked the Ministry of Agriculture to send their allotment of St. Helenians elsewhere because the committee was in danger of exceeding the quota of 750 foreign workers agreed upon with the N.U.A.W. The reply from the ministry was that the men were already on their way, and that if necessary some E.V.W.s could be removed in order to remain within the target.* The point had thus been conceded; the St. Helenians were in this instance to be considered foreign workers.
The one hundred St. Helenians arrived in the U.K. in mid-August 1949. By early September the first reports of their settling in were filtering in to the Ministry of Agriculture. The reports were mixed. In Oxfordshire the men seemed to be settling in nicely. The small, market farmers there were pleased with the St. Helenians because they spoke English. Such farming as there was in St. Helena was of the market garden variety, and no doubt the men were more easily able to adapt to the rhythms of this type of agriculture. It was even reported that the men were adept at playing soccer, which indicated that they were already mixing in with the local populace.*
The report from Berkshire was not nearly so favourable. Mr. Goodall wrote that some farmers had complained about the small stature of the "black boys," and the C.A.E.C. was having a difficult time placing them in work.* The St. Helenians, he maintained, were not worth the minimum wage to which they were entitled under existing agreements: "That of course applies to an Englishman, but for these unskilled darkies we, in the Committee, are expected to find work at 94 shillings per week . . . If these men had been promised 30 shillings per week and their keep for the first six months everyone would have been satisfied." He went on to recommend once again that the St. Helenians be dispersed: ". . . [the] net result being that we shall be able to send out one St. Helenian with three whites. By this means the St. Helenians themselves will learn the job much quicker . . ." Two things are noteworthy about the language used by Goodall in this report. The first is his attribution of a negative physical characteristic to the St. Helenians; they were small "black boys" and therefore not up to the physical demands of the work. This sort of negative attribution can also be seen in the schemes outlined by Sherwood, where despite some reports to the contrary, West Indian and Honduran workers were often characterized as not robust enough for the rigours of work in Britain.* The second point of interest is his separation of St. Helenians from first "Englishmen" and then "whites." It can be seen here just how quickly the Colonial Office's contrivance of St. Helenians as "only slightly coloured" British subjects unraveled in the eyes of some officials on the ground. Clearly the equation of "Englishman" and "white" positioned the St. Helenians as inherently and irrevocably alien.
Although Goodall's negative report was not swallowed whole -- it was noted that he had at first been negative about P.O.W. labour but had come around after a time -- it was conceded by Ministry of Agriculture officials that there was "a certain amount of feeling against coloured people around that area (west Berkshire), as there were many coloured men in the U.S. Forces stationed there, and this has not made matters easy in placing them [the St. Helenians]."* Although in general the scheme seemed to have begun well, the notion of shifting the St. Helenians from Berkshire to Oxfordshire gained momentum, and in a note to Goodall in late September the ministry promised to do this as soon as possible.* By the end of the month the move was completed. In the face of an adverse preliminary report from a man who had been critical of the scheme for racist reasons from the outset, the Ministry of Agriculture caved in to what was painted as unavoidable -- and in some sense perfectly understandable -- racial antipathy toward the St. Helenians. Once again, the pretense that these men were not Black was completely abandoned almost immediately.
Racist sentiment surfaced in Warwickshire as well. In September 1949 a letter from a retired Air Commodore, R.H. Verney, to W.J. Brown (M.P. for the Warwickshire district where Gaydon Hostel was located) warned of potential problems arising from the presence of the St. Helenians.* Verney noted that the government had not advertised the coming of the St. Helenians adequately. Here, as in the campaign to promote European workers, the government's approach had been purposefully low key, although in this case the strategy was subverted by the policy of concentration. Verney referred to the St.Helenians as "West Africans," and expressed the concern that they would have a lower "standard of living" and thus might undermine existing social relations.
Ironically it was the higher expectations of the St. Helenians that were becoming an issue at this point. Goodall had complained that the St. Helenians were not worth the ninety four shillings per week minimum wage for men over the age of twenty one. But in fact many of the St.Helenians were younger than twenty- one and were thus paid as little as sixty four shillings per week. A Ministry of Agriculture internal memo noted that some of the men found this hard to take: ". . . in that island, they mature very quickly and . . . nearly all those men . . . are married and have two children and they tell me they consider themselves men and entitled to a full wage as soon as they get married." Most of the men under twenty one were left with a balance of around eleven shillings per week after paying lodging costs and remittances home (which averaged thirty shillings per week). With winter coming and supplies and clothing to buy, some Ministry of Agriculture officials worried that disgruntled St. Helenians would "eventually either steal or go into some form of 'black market' to get more money." They therefore recommended that all St. Helenians be paid the full men's wage.* Although on the surface this was an admirable gesture, the main concern of the ministry was not with the justice of the St. Helenians' claims, but rather that they not be enticed into the underground economy, away from the regulatory mechanisms of the state. The assumption that they had a propensity for this sort of behaviour also reflects the persistence of a racialist stereotyping of the Black men in official circles.
In February 1950 the Warwickshire contingent of St. Helenians was also transferred to Oxfordshire, where there was more work for them. Gaydon Hostel was closed down. In May a report on the men, who now comprised one-fourth of the four hundred strong Oxfordshire C.A.E.C. force, noted that about twenty of them had been sick with the flu in February, and were unable to stand a "real English winter."* It was noted that complaints from farmers revolved around "stature and colour," and that there was some difficulty in placing the men. But on the whole only two of the St. Helenians were causing real trouble. These two men were brothers who had first come to the attention of the Ministry of Labour in November 1949 when they had fallen ill with stomach ulcers and were unable to work for a prolonged period. Their illness had touched off discussion about how remittance payments could be kept up in such circumstances. It was agreed at that time that dependents would continue to be paid from St. Helenian social welfare funds, with the amount to be recovered from the sick man's C.A.E.C. pay in weekly instalments of five shillings once he returned to work. Of course the man's consent was needed for this sort of deduction, but that was not considered a major problem.*
Unhappy with the prospect of keeping unproductive workers in the U.K., the Ministry of Labour had at that time suggested that the two men be interviewed about the possibility of repatriation. The Ministry noted, however, that the men would have to be tactfully consulted:
"As it seems to be a matter of having the men concerned repatriated I suggest that the presence of an officer of this department [Ministry of Labour] at the interview would not be altogether essential and might indeed tend to divert the men's ideas to an alternative which in the circumstances would hardly be appropriate."*
The alternative that the presence of a Ministry of Labour official would suggest, it is clear, was for the men to switch to more suitable jobs. This was considered inappropriate because it might give the other St. Helenians the notion that they too had such options open to them. In the event these men recovered from their illness. But they were subsequently branded "bad apples," and were finally separated from their compatriots and placed in an E.V.W. hostel in Broadwell. It was noted that this disciplinary action had had an effect on the other St. Helenians: "there were lots of tears and apparently it has put the wind up them."*
By the summer of 1950 the question of the future dispensation of the St. Helenians was being broached. In a meeting of interested departments in July, various questions of policy were raised, including how and when the subject of permanent settlement should be brought up with the men, the possible objections of unions to their permanent settlement and presence in the workforce, and what arrangements could be made to ensure continuing remittances if the men left for private employment.* On the latter question it was thought that though "the majority of the men could be trusted to send money home . . . it might be desirable to keep some sort of control." It was noted, however, that this control would have to comprise influence rather than a binding legal commitment, and it was suggested that perhaps the British Council of Churches could assist in this regard.
At this meeting it was agreed that the question of permanent settlement could be discussed with the men at a series of group meetings. But this method was subsequently rejected in light of concerns raised by the interdepartmental Committee on Colonial People in the U.K. (C.P.U.K.). In a paper circulated in the summer of 1950, the C.P.U.K. committee warned that St. Helenians and other Black colonial subjects might have difficulty finding work, and might drift into colonial ghettoes.* The C.P.U.K. committee advised that colonial workers be guided into suitable work, and not left to their own devices. The departments concerned with the St. Helena scheme therefore agreed that a representative panel would interview each of the St. Helenians individually "as a first step in determining whether they can be placed in permanent employment."* Such interviews not only offered another chance to vet the St. Helenians individually, but also discouraged the sort of solidarity that segregated housing and work arrangements had earlier encouraged.
The timing of the interviews needed some thought as well. At the end of October the Ministry of Agriculture wrote the Colonial Office that early December might be the best time to approach the St. Helenians.* An earlier approach might interfere with the year's harvest. A later one might mislead farmers into believing that the men would be available for another year. As the men now comprised a sizable chunk of the Oxfordshire C.A.E.C. contingent, it was important to encourage a gradual drift into other employment. A mass exodus of the St. Helenians would be problematic. However it was intended that the C.A.E.C. system would be wound down by 1952, and all the men should have found alternate arrangements by then. The interviews, it was thus decided, were to take place between 15 and 17 December 1950. It was agreed that if the men were willing to stay on a few extra months past the expiry of their contracts in August 1951, to help with the harvest, they would still be eligible for repatriation at government expense. Here again, the timing of the interviews was decided in such a way as to manipulate the behaviour of the recruited workers.
A December 1950 report of the interviews from the Oxfordshire C.A.E.C. ranked the one hundred St. Helenians primarily, it seems, on the basis of propensity to be involved in trouble with police and employers.* Seventy-seven of the men were rated good to moderate, and twenty were rated undesirable. Only ten of the undesirables were considered "hard core" repeat offenders. Thirty-six of the men definitely wished to be repatriated; six were doubtful and fifty-three had decided to remain. Of the thirty-six that wished to return to St. Helena, twenty said they would be willing to stay until the end of 1951 to help with the year's harvest. Of the fifty-three who wished to remain, most expressed a desire to switch to some sort of industrial work, where wages were higher and location less remote. The report suggested that the men would need help in finding work and accommodation, and recommended that they be kept together in small groups in order to help with loneliness and difficulty in acculturation.
At a meeting of Colonial Office, Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Labour representatives in early February 1951 it was agreed that the fifty-three men who had decided to stay should be registered with the Local Office of the Ministry of Labour at once, and found work by 31 May.* In this way they would not be withdrawn from their C.A.E.C.s in mid-season, and they would have a chance to experience three months or so of their new jobs and still change their minds and take advantage of the government repatriation offer. The Colonial Office's Welfare Department would keep tabs on the men and any who lost their jobs could be returned to their C.A.E.C. pools up to 31 October 1951. The ten undesirables would have their contracts automatically terminated, although it was noted that these men knew that, as British subjects, they could stay in the U.K. if they wished.
By the middle of June most of the men registered with the Ministry of Labour had been found work. Only seventeen St. Helenians remained in C.A.E.C. employ and wanted to be repatriated. Many of the rest had changed their minds since December and decided to stay in Britain.* It appears that the coming of fair weather may have influenced their decision. Unfortunately it is impossible to tell from the government files how many of these men actually remained in the U.K. The post-mortem reports, compiled in the fall of 1952 from the several C.A.E.C.s involved, merely rated the scheme as "fair."* The reports stressed that the climate was against the men, and that some of them were too young and others too old to cope easily with the move. There was no allusion made to the difficulties raised by local farmers and residents with respect to the men's colour.
The Colonial Office report on St. Helena for the year 1949 noted that the savings on unemployment relief from the migration of the one hundred men were offset by the cost spent on their transportation to the U.K.* In the end the scheme seems not to have made much of a dent in the difficulties faced by St. Helena. Its effect on the British economy was also negligible. The scheme's significance lies rather in what it revealed about postwar official assumptions of race and British national identity, and about the consequences of these assumptions for the control of Black British citizens in the U.K.
The Colonial Office envisioned this scheme as a way of dealing with the potential delinquency of unemployed St. Helenian men. Thus the men were stereotyped as problematic from the very beginning. Moreover, the Colonial Office tried to sell this scheme to the reluctant Ministries of Agriculture and of Labour in terms that accepted prejudicial notions of racial difference. Thus the St. Helenian men were described as "not as coloured" as West Indian or African men, and "more civilized" in their habits and culture. Language such as this accepted as axiomatic the construction that dark skin was antithetical to Britishness. Ironically, these Black colonial migrants were recruited to work in the English countryside, the heartland of the rustic idyll that constituted the exclusive parameters of racialized Britishness. This placement would seem to indicate that the Colonial Office goal of integration was mitigated by the desire to set these migrants apart from the British population. When the men arrived in Britain, the degree of their colour was less of an issue than the fact that they were not absolutely white. They were immediately racialized as Black, and were assumed impossible to assimilate into a British nation that was being defined in rural, "Little England" terms.
The policy that followed on this accepted racialization of British identity worked to fulfill official expectations. Thus the men were segregated in their own hostel accommodations -- which were "sterilized" of white workers -- and eventually concentrated in one county so that their presence was bound to be remarkable. When in due course racist remarks were made about the men, the Ministry of Agriculture responded quickly, moving the men away from the purportedly troubled areas and explaining away supposed indigenous racial prejudice with, for example, allusions to the war-time presence of Black American troops. The campaign to combat domestic stereotypes of European foreign workers contrasts starkly with this caving in to supposedly illiberal public sentiment. Clearly skin colour was assumed to be an inevitable source of conflict, and so the government simply responded to complaints by withdrawing the men.
The official acquiescence in the perceived inevitability of racism in the British countryside in turn reinforced the control exercised by the state over these Black workers. By moving the men around and keeping them segregated, the government restricted the St. Helenians' sense of possibilities and freedoms in Britain. Such a restriction could effectively curb the sense of entitlement and legitimacy needed for the exercise of full citizenship. Edward Pilkington has described this process at work on Black Britons affected by the white riots of 1958:
"The riots . . . shattered the West Indians' belief in Britain as the Mother Country and in their own status as British citizens. They now felt like strangers in a land which they had regarded as their second home and although they still had British passports, it was as if their British citizenship had been stripped from them."*
The restriction of the St. Helenians' sense of their British citizenship was important in the context of two convergent events. The first was the inclusive statutory definition of British citizenship engendered by the 1948 British Nationality Act. This legislation reaffirmed the right of all colonial and commonwealth citizens to migrate to Britain. The second was the advent of the comprehensive welfare state. Under the social citizenship that the postwar welfare state defined, government was obliged to serve citizens in a universal fashion; the citizen was now entitled to social services to be delivered by the state. The confluence of these events meant that the state was now obliged to grant social citizenship status in Britain to Black colonial migrants. This prospect certainly alarmed officials, as the deliberations of two working parties on colonial migration in this period show. Both of these committees expressed prejudicial fears about the likelihood that Black colonial migrants would flock to the U.K. to take advantage of the welfare state, and would pose a threat to social order. The St. Helena scheme, it will be remembered, began as a Colonial Office initiative to deal with what was conceived as a potentially delinquent group of men. Thus control considerations were important to this scheme in both a direct and a symbolic sense. Not only were these men considered problematic in them-selves, but their recruitment also established a potentially dangerous precedent. The government discussed implementing measures to officially control Black colonial migration in the immediate aftermath of the arrival of the Empire Windrush but rejected such a course for political reasons.* It was decided that control over the flow of colonial migration would have to be exercised through implication rather than through official restriction. For this reason the St. Helena scheme was kept quiet so as not to establish a precedent.
Officials were also reluctant to undertake the St. Helena scheme unless indirect, implied control could be brought to bear on the recruits in Britain. The difficulties of controlling Black colonial subjects in the U.K. had already been experienced in previous war-time schemes of a similar nature. West Indian munitions workers and Honduran forestry workers had both rebelled against the implication of state control, exposing in the process its ephemeral nature. Black colonial workers had refused repatriation, had moved around within the workforce as other British workers were entitled to, and had decided for themselves the amount of money they would remit to dependents in the colonies. Attempts to mould their behaviour met with varying degrees of success, as Marika Sherwood has shown. The lessons taken from these war-time schemes were applied to the St. Helena recruitment, and were manifest in several features of the scheme: the isolation and separation of the men, the automatic remittance deductions, and the repatriation clauses which implied the temporary nature of this recruitment.
Control then was largely exercised through the obfuscation of the nature of the scheme and of the rights of St. Helenians in Britain. In this process of obfuscation the government was assisted by the methods established to control European foreign workers in Britain. Hundreds of thousands of Europeans were recruited under restrictive contracts to work in Britain in the immediate aftermath of the war. The St. Helenian recruitment employed the same type of contract that prevailed in the European schemes, though in the case of the St. Helenians the clauses of the contract carried no ultimate legal sanction to bolster enforcement. It was the very existence of the contract that was in itself meant to imply a sense of obligation and restriction.
Once the St. Helenians were in Britain the implication of control was maintained through the continued intervention of the state in the men's dispensation. Thus the disciplining of recalcitrant workers such as the two brothers who were sent away from their fellows as punishment was intended to "put the wind up them," and by all accounts did. The Ministry of Labour's attempt to keep the troublesome men from discovering their options by absenting themselves from the interview at which repatriation was discussed was another example of purposeful obfuscation. The separate interviews, and the assessment of the men for suitability to remain in the U.K. after the scheme had run its course, were still other examples of attempts to treat these men not as British subjects with inalienable rights in Britain, but as foreign workers who needed to establish their utility to the nation.
The methods thus used to imply official control -- isolation, segregation, contracts, manipulative interviews -- belied the Colonial Office intention that these St. Helenian men be permanently settled in Britain. The Ministries involved in implementing the scheme exhibited from the outset the supposition that Black colonial migrants could not be assimilated into the British nation. Thus unlike European foreign workers, who were dispersed and encouraged to integrate with local communities, the St. Helenians were isolated and kept separated from the British populace. This policy of segregation reflected the racialization of British national identity in the postwar period. The equation of Britishness with white skin defined the inner circle of citizenship in a socially hegemonic fashion. The implication of outsider status, of the foreignness of these men, not only mitigated their official reception as Britons in the U.K., but also worked to restrict and control their behaviour as British citizens within the universal, postwar welfare state.
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