Circular Migration To and From: ‘Wheel and Come Again’

Colin Grant at Lapham’s Quarterly: Today almost as many Caribbeans reside overseas than live at home. Outward and inward migration from and to the region provides an illuminating case study into the pattern and history of migration. Immigrant has become a dirty word, a term of abuse. But Caribbean pioneers have been, and continue to be, a great expeditionary force that keeps the world turning.

People have always been on the move, all the more when travel became easier. On one level, the world can be divided into those who leave their birthplace and those who remain. “To be born on a small island, a colonial backwater,” wrote Derek Walcott, “meant a precocious resignation to fate.” The only protest was to get away. When Ethlyn and my father, Bageye, left in 1959, they did so in the midst of what was coined “England fever.” If you had youth, energy, chutzpah, and a bit of money, you took a chance and boarded a ship or plane. So many were leaving that a joke soon circulated the islands: “Will the last one out please turn off all the lights?”

Illustration by Sadia Tariq

In Britain and elsewhere, the great story of West Indian migration has focused on the so-called Windrush generation, associated with the arrival of close to a thousand people on board the HMT Empire Windrush in 1948. Though cast as a foundational story, primarily because it was captured on film and reported widely in newspapers, the ship’s arrival was just one of many in the late 1940s. In 1947, for instance, the Ormonde and the Almanzora preceded the Windrush, bringing more than five hundred migrants without any fanfare. As citizens of the British Empire, colonial subjects were entitled to work and settle in Britain. Encouraged to come and help rebuild the country after the ravages of World War II, West Indians did so in the hundreds of thousands—at least until Parliament passed the Commonwealth Immigrants Act in 1962, restricting entry to those with work permits.

The Windrush drama is matched by earlier, even more seminal stories of West Indian migration to Central America. Migrants undertake risks for the promise of a good outcome. The West Indians who made up two-thirds of the workforce that built the Panama Canal, sacrificing lives, limbs, and mental health, were dying to better themselves. The tales of those who perished, choked in mudslides or blown apart in explosions, were often eclipsed by the transformation of impoverished workers into “Colón men” returning home with a swagger, a gold watch on a chain in their waistcoat, a fedora atop their heads, and entertaining tales. And then it stopped. At two pm on October 10, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson pushed a button in Washington, DC, transmitting a telegraphic message that signaled a massive explosion almost two thousand miles away, cutting into the earth and sending up a huge surge of water. It marked the final stage of the construction of the canal, which would open the following year. It was time for tens of thousands of itinerant workers and migrants to move on. They included my great-great-uncle Herbert Reid, who, aged twenty, sailed from Cristobal, Panama, to New York City in 1916.

“Wheel and come again” is how Ethlyn once described this circular migration, back and forth from the island, from somewhere to elsewhere, to turn around and start all over again. From emancipation onward, the West Indies was a region you left, if not permanently, then at least seasonally—for work in the States, ideally. More here.