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22 June 2020updated 25 Jul 2021 10:51am

Recovering Windrush: The deep-sea hunt for a new monument to British history

A shipwreck hunter is searching for the anchor of the Empire Windrush to commemorate its postwar voyage.

By Anoosh Chakelian

About 23 nautical miles off the coast of Algeria, 2,800 metres beneath the surface of the Mediterranean sea, sleeps a monument to British history. The Empire Windrush, a ship that brought the first wave of Commonwealth Caribbean immigrants from Jamaica to Tilbury Docks in Essex on 22 June 1948, signified the beginnings of a postwar multicultural Britain. 

Images of the ship’s arrival, packed with the expectant faces of hundreds of newcomers invited to the UK as citizens to work and rebuild a war-ravaged country, are now iconic. Yet there is no physical monument to this moment in history.

For the Windrush generation, who faced racism from their new neighbours, persecution never stopped – culminating in a 2018 scandal when it emerged the government had been stripping them of their rights and wrongly detaining and deporting them. The “hostile environment” immigration policy, brought in by Theresa May as home secretary under the coalition government, has treated them as illegal migrants.

Just as their status was erased and humanity degraded over the years, the Empire Windrush itself lies forgotten on the seabed. In 1954, as it continued to operate for the Ministry of Transport, the ship suffered an engine room fire, which killed four workers instantly as it sailed military personnel and their families back from east Asia. Its 1,500 passengers were evacuated and it sank two days later.

HMT Empire Windrush had started life as a German passenger and cruise liner called Monte Rosa in 1930, and was reallocated for military use by the Nazi regime during the Second World War. The British government captured it at the end of the conflict and it was renamed.

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In 2016, a man called Max Holloway had lost his wife, Alice, who was a Windrush generation descendent – her parents had arrived in Britain in the late Fifties. He felt that the ship’s anchor, so often seen in pictures framed by the eager faces of the first arrivals, would be a fitting memorial and an object of personal connection for the Windrush generation and their relatives. So he set about researching how to recover it. 

David Mearns, one of the world’s only shipwreck hunters, began work on the mission last year. Having found 25 major deep-water shipwrecks in his 34-year career, the 61-year-old was behind the recovery of the British battlecruiser HMS Hood’s bell in 2015 (now on show in Portsmouth’s Navy museum), and last year successfully located the wreckage of the plane crash that killed the Argentinian footballer Emiliano Sala in January 2019.

“This is one of the most meaningful jobs I’ve ever done,” he tells me over the phone from West Sussex, where his business, Blue Water Recoveries, is based. He hunts for wreckage for all manner of reasons – marine accidents, TV documentaries, insurance claims, cargo salvage, on behalf of family members, and once even a murder investigation.

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“They’re quite expensive expeditions and not every one is justifiable. But immediately I thought this was an important and worthwhile project that should be done,” he says, estimating that this operation will cost between £1.5m and £2.5m.

A GoFundMe page has begun collecting donations, but Mearns envisages the need for a philanthropic individual or organisation to help. A public consultation on further details is taking place on Wednesday evening (24 June). The aim is to erect this monument by June 2023, the 75th anniversary of the Windrush’s voyage. 

“I’m an economic immigrant to this country,” says Mearns, who travelled from the east coast of the US 25 years ago and was naturalised in 2001.

“I had to deal with the Home Office, I’ve been through the routine – it was time-consuming but for me it went smoothly because I’m a white male who came from America. It contrasts with people who came here who were citizens and were then kicked out of the country. That really bothers me.”

Having searched through the archives, Mearns has discovered the Empire Windrush’s final sinking position within three nautical miles using the radio messages, weather observations, navigation positions, courses and speeds of the ship and five others that came to its rescue. The anchor should be accessible too, as he has ascertained that the ship sank upright and it is positioned high up and external to the hull.

“If we could physically take that anchor and make it the centrepiece of a national monument, it then becomes a touchstone for people to visit and connect themselves to the symbolism of that ship.”

Potential locations are under consultation but Mearns cited Tilbury Dock, Windrush Square in Brixton, south London, or a spot in central London as possibilities. 

“Like the Statue of Liberty, it can become a beacon of hope,” says Patrick Vernon, a child of the Windrush generation whose parents moved to Wolverhampton from Jamaica in the late Fifties. Enoch Powell was then his MP, and “the colour bar was rife in most towns and cities” during his childhood.

In 2010, he began campaigning for a national Windrush Day – the anniversary of the Empire Windrush’s arrival on 22 June – which was accepted by the government in 2018 after the Windrush scandal.

“I believe this monument featuring the anchor of the Empire Windrush could be a source of inspiration for generations of black, brown and white people in Britain seeking to understand racism, white privilege, and trying to establish a society where citizenship and belonging is for all,” he says.

Vernon calls this ship “as iconic a vessel as the Titanic or the Cutty Sark” because of its unique journey through history. “It started its life as a vehicle for the Nazi party and ended its life under the control of the Allied forces, transporting over 500 passengers from Jamaica to the UK, thus transforming it into a symbol of multiculturalism and tolerance.”

The hunt for the Empire Windrush’s anchor began long before the UK’s recent reckoning with memorials to its colonial past. But the poignancy of building a new monument to black Britons in this moment is not lost on the campaigners behind the mission.

“Sadly, there are more memorials about slave traders, cats and dogs than the black and minority ethnic community’s contribution to Britain,” says Vernon. “I hope that corporates and high-net-worth individuals on the Black Lives Matter movement can support this worthy cause, which is building and bringing the country together.”