Tongue-tied by Empire

Picture of Sylvita Louise Hamilton taken by her family. 

Picture of Sylvita Louise Hamilton taken by her family. 

By Yannick Nehemiah Antonio Harrison

The extreme violence of colonial power, lies in its subtleties. “Try to be Jamaican,” says the ‘Coming Home to Jamaica’ guide published by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 2013, which was given to Black British 60-80 year-old Jamaicans, who received news that they were to be deported. “Use local accents and dialects (overseas accents can attract unwanted attention).”

This is the message sent to over 50.000 Commonwealth-born people, a large majority of which are from the Caribbean, who migrated between 1948 and 1971, and yet have to “regularise their residency status”. After the Home Office had destroyed the landing cards of thousands from Generation Windrush coming from the Caribbean, who knows what the future holds for them.

I think of my grandmother Sylvita Louise Hamilton, whose landing card I could not locate. Was it amongst the ones Theresa May had ordered destroyed in 2010? Though the social pressure mounted on the Home Office has put a (temporary?) halt to deportations, many people have already been deported, been denied access to housing, pensions and basic health care. Even as we find ourselves in yet another state of depression, we must see the government policies as examples of deeper issues.

My grandmother had migrated and arrived on the shores of “Great Britain” in the 1950s. Like so many others, my grandmother had crossed the Atlantic on a voyage I can only imagine as being characterised by hope but also the pain of having to leave three children behind – only to see two of them once again. The 1948 British Nationality Act had established that all British subjects possessed the right to settle, live and work in the United Kingdom. The former Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee, had tried to divert the first Windrush ship carrying Caribbean migrants to East Africa in 1948, and parliament, which had thought primarily of its white Commonwealth, waged a war to limit immigration of its brown and black subjects, culminating with a new immigration act in 1971. As David Olusoga reminds us, the 1948 legislation remains at the centre of British politics. Regardless, even if the colonized Commonwealth were deemed unwelcome by White Britain, unions and the establishment, those who made the voyage were marked with the emblem of Empire. Frantz Fanon noted of the general tendency amongst Black men at the time in the text ‘West Indians and Africans’ in Toward the African Revolution that:

The West Indian identified himself with the white man, adopted a white man's attitude, "was a white man."

My family was not immune to this either. My nan may have worked as a nurse and lived in Southeast London far away from Kingston, but in her hearts of hearts she was one thing: British. She spoke the Queen's English, even as she, like thousands upon thousands of other colonised women, came to do reproductive labour in a white society (and for white women, children and men). Her humour and mannerisms never left Jamaica appearing ever so often when pondering, smiling or telling my dad to get away. But Britain was her destination, and British her mother tongue. This was not unusual. Stuart Hall when recounting his relationship to Britain and Jamaica, remembers a conversation he had with his Jamaican light-skinned mother, in which “she hoped that he wasn’t one of those immigrants”. Though this was exactly what he was, his mother continued “England, beautiful England, full of those black people! The best thing for all of them, is if they push all of them off the short end of a long pier”. Unlike my grandmother, Hall’s mother belonged to the middle-class elite of the island; however the anti-Black colonial mind-set, meant that many remained tongue-tied by Empire. 

Prize-winning student nurses in south London, 1954. Photograph: Meager/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Prize-winning student nurses in south London, 1954. Photograph: Meager/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Though Black politics, in the sense as a politicised identity and position, emerged with decolonialisation and in particularly from the 1950s and onwards, my grandmother who was as black as the sun, who was married to a very central activist in the Black Caribbean community, had her eyes fixed on the Queen even as the root sounds of Bob Marley filled the musical and spiritual landscape. As did many. And even if this was her reality, she also, like most other Jamaicans, spent decades saving up enough money to send her eldest child born in London, back to Jamaica. However, like many other kids “sent back”, alienation and up-rootedness made them return. And it makes the government policy of “try to be Jamaican” and “use local accents and dialects” even more absurd.

Because how does this “requirement”, “demand” or “advice” even begin to fathom the divine violence, that had created this desire amongst the Caribbean population? What were the structures that had made it necessary? What are the reasons that she, like millions of others in the Caribbean, chose not to speak creole languages (such as patwa) that carried with them traces of Akan, Igbo, Yoruba, Efik, Fula, Wolof, Kikongo and other West- and Central African languages? What would she say now, knowing that she like so many others from Generation Windrush left their children and families, to come to the colonial metropolis and make a different living by “attempting” to sound like the Queen, are now being told to go back to Jamaica and "use local accents and dialects"? And what would she say if she found out that she had to pay £2,297 for permanent residence and an additional £1,282 for a citizenship, to prove that she, regardless of her perfect speech, could claim these rainy islands off the coast of continental Europe, her own?

Did my grandmother ever feel, like I feel, which is how the great Caribbean poet NourbeSe Phillips felt when she wrote 'Discourse on the Logic of Language':

"and english is

my mother tongue


my father tongue

is lan lan lang




a foreign anguish

is english"

How much anguish did my grandmother, and so many others have to bear as they spoke, raised their kids, drank their tea, and straightened their hair? How much was passed on to her children, and their children, and my children...? This love of the Union Jack?

I wish to scream out loud: tek baaskit cyaary waata!

If even after being stolen;

if even after surviving the prison-ships;

if even after the whip was fought off;

if even after being imprinted with the names of white men;

if even after being forced their tongue;

if even after being forced their gender and sexuality –yet not–;

if even after wearing their clothes;

if even after learning their dance;

if even after believing their God;

if even after fighting in their wars;

if even after taking care of their children and nursing their old and their sick;

if even after leaving our families for them and their call to Commonwealth;

if even after wearing their colours, singing their songs, mimicking their habits;

if even after suffering their food;

if even after rebuilding their roads, houses and schools;

if even after cleaning their toilets with a smile;

if even after running the fastest;

if even after making them laugh;

if even after giving them music;

if even after creating their wealth;

if even after all this, it is still not enough, what then?

No one colonized bears the fault of all this, least of all, migrant women; least of all a Black woman. It remains however a symptom of a sad political reality as well as an outcome of assimilation. A politics of assimilation, hopes that if we just convince the White that we are as good, ethical, productive, caring, etc. as them, then perhaps we can achieve political rights as well as humanity. However, this is not only shortselling outselves by upholding white colonial society as that which we need to aspire to; it assumes that somehow the structures that have systematically exploited Black people and people of colour will cease to do so without being abolished or transformed.

If this moment is to “teach” us something more, rather than reconstructing “the Caribbean”, “the Jamaican” or “Generation Windrush” as the “good” deserving (yet highly impoverished and disproportionately incarcerated) immigrant, we should also use it to extend solidarity to the other Commonwealth immigrations who are in a similar situation. In fact, it is crucial that we extend and create solidarity with all migrants — whether for migrated because of economic, political or war reasons – against a politics of dehumanisation, deportation and borders. Can we do this, and still be British? I do not think so. Is ‘race’ and ‘racism’ “just an after-effect of long gone imperial history” as Paul Gilroy once suggested? I do not think so either. The colonial difference keeps haunting us.

I wonder about all of the lives, hopes and aspirations my grandmother and her generation had, but never dared speak of. I wonder of the weight she had to carry being a mother on both sides of the Atlantic – how often her heart must have wandered back to the Parish of Portland or Black River or Kingston looking for her lost son, or the spirit of her daughter; and could it every find its way back to Plumstead? But I also look to all of the beautiful communities that were built by that generation. However, the dream of belonging and feeling at home, is a dream that cannot yet ­be afforded strangers to-the-world. Our world can only be built with tools of our communities, not of the masters.


Yannick Nehemiah Antonio Harrison is co-editor of Marronage, an anti-colonial journal based in Copenhagen. 


Maya Acharya