Walker’s World: The Polish Windrush Generation

Globetrotter Peter Walker returns with his popular Walker’s World podcast series which tells unusual Polish stories of conquest and achievement from across the centuries. This time Peter is a regular blog contributor. Well, after his travels he needs to catch his breath!

You also also find his related episode EP05: Walker’s World | Tadeusz Kościuszko and US Independence Day interesting too!

The passengers on board the HMT (His Majesty’s Transport) the Empire Windrush from the West Indies to the London of 1948 – more than 75 years ago – may have been filled with the poetic ‘The Pleasures of Hope’ but there must have been a shock too. From the warmth of the Caribbean to grey, austere post-War London as well as a sometimes a harsh reception from Londoners was experienced by what we call these days ‘the Windrush Generation. But it was not just a West Indian experience. There were Poles on board that ship – I suppose you might call them the Windrush Generation too, the Polish Windrush generation.

That was because before the ship called at the West Indies it went to Mexico to pick up Polish refugees. They were mostly orphans originally expelled from Poland to the Soviet Union after the Soviet invasion in 1939. After the Nazi German invasion of the Soviet Union, they were evacuated from there in 1942 firstly to Iran, but then they were transferred to Mexico. Now, like the West Indians, they were to start a new life in the UK.

They may have had ‘The Pleasures of Hope’, the title of a poem by Thomas Campbell, who at the beginning of the 19th century also wrote of ’Tumultuous Horror’ … ‘presaging wrath to Poland.’ The poet mourned the defeat of Poland, and he commented ‘And freedom shrieked – as Kosciusko fell!’

He was referring to Tadeusz Kościuszko, and the West Indian passengers on the Empire Windrush, most likely the descendants of slaves, may not have realised that the Polish hero worked for the freedom of slaves in the USA, some 90 years before the American Civil War.

Tadeusz Kościuszko’s involvement began when he participated in the American War of Independence against the British. He had an assistant, Agrippa Hall, a free black man, who served at the battle of Saratoga. Tadeusz Kościuszko, a military engineer, organised the successful defence there by the US Continental Army, and he also befriended Agrippa Hall, who was appointed as his assistant. After Tadeusz Kościuszko returned to Poland he continued to correspond with him.

This friendship together with Tadeusz Kościuszko’s views influenced Kościuszko’s will. He left his property to buy the freedom of slaves in the USA. They included the slaves of Thomas Jefferson, his friend, but at that time even Washington owned slaves. Thomas Jefferson was authorised as Executor to perform Kościuszko’s wishes. There was more, because in addition to giving the slaves ‘Liberty in my name’ they were to be ‘instructed for their new condition in the duties of morality which may make them good neighbours good fathers or mothers, husbands or wives and in their duties as citizens teaching them to be defenders of their Liberty and of the good order of Society and in whatsoever may Make them happy and useful.’

The opportunity came in 1817, when Tadeusz Kościuszko died, but there were problems benefitting the lawyers. Thomas Jefferson refused to act – he said that he was too old. Many people criticised him for that. On Thomas Jefferson’s death, his estate was deeply in debt, so everything, including his slaves, was sold.

The legalities concerning Kościuszko’s will, or wills because he made others, continued, but as late as in 1852 the Supreme Court awarded the estate to his relatives in Poland. By then a new will dated 1816 had been discovered. The slaves were not mentioned in it.

They received no benefit – ‘Freedom shrieked’ indeed! – but there was a little optimism in Thomas Campbell’s poem, which express the idealism of Tadeusz Kościuszko. ‘Love! – Mercy! – Wisdom! – rule for evermore!’

After a lap, Peter will be back with more!