Felix Bazalgette tells a little-known story of exodus and empire, featuring Tamil refugees and a passenger ship in 1987, which paved the way for the Windrush scandal.
There are trainspotters and plane-spotters, so it should come as no surprise that there are also people who spend their days obsessed with passenger ferries.
For the community of people obsessed with ferries, specifically roll-on roll-off ferries of the 1960s and 1970s, the Earl William is relatively unremarkable. The ship was built in 1964 in Norway and bought by the British Railways Board in 1976 to sail between the Channel Islands and Portsmouth, under the nationalized Sealink brand.
In 1984, with privatization in full swing, Sealink was sold to Sea Containers, a sprawling company belonging to the charismatic US entrepreneur James Sherwood, owner of the Orient Express, close acquaintance of the prime minister and a Conservative donor. The state livery was taken off the Earl William’s funnel, though the new branding – ‘Sealink British Ferries’ – still projected the image of a stirring national industry. Sea Containers, for tax purposes, was registered in Bermuda.
I became interested in the Earl William not because it was one of three revolutionary ‘Thoreson Viking’ roll-on roll-off ferries built in the 1960s, nor because of its spectacular end: in 2011, repurposed as a floating hotel in Trinidad and Tobago, it hit an oil-drilling vessel off the coast of Venezuela while being towed for repairs, and sank without a trace after causing $100-million worth of damage.
What drew me to the Earl William was its use over the summer of 1987 as a floating immigration detention centre moored at the port of Harwich, Essex, holding people from Ethiopia, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Afghanistan, Uganda, the Seychelles and Nigeria, and – its largest constituency – 60 Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka. It was the first time the UK had ever used a ship as a migrant detention centre and, once everyone was on board, it was the largest in the country.
In 1983, almost 200,000 Tamil refugees fled Sri Lanka, amid pogroms and the violent rhetoric of politicians from the Sinhalese majority. They presented Tamils, many of whom had roots in southern India, as foreign usurpers. Though there had been a sizeable Tamil population in Sri Lanka since at least the third century BCE, in the 19th and 20th centuries a large number came to the island from southern India to work on tea and coffee plantations – the island came under British rule in 1833 and remained a colonial possession until 1948. During this period, the British engineered preferential access to employment and education for the Tamils over the Sinhalese.
By the 1940s, roughly 60 per cent of civil-service jobs were held by Tamils, who made up around 15 per cent of the population. When Ceylon became the independent nation of Sri Lanka in 1948 and the Sinhalese majority took over, Tamils became the focus of popular resentment for their preferential treatment by the British. The first anti-Tamil riot took place in 1956 – the Gal Oya massacre – in which over 150 were killed. Further pogroms followed in 1958, 1977 and then in 1983, when an estimated 4,000 people were killed and 150,000 made homeless in what became known as ‘Black July’, commemorated every year among the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora.
I met Mr Jana, director of the Tamil Welfare Association in Newham, east London, to learn more about what it was like to seek refuge from Sri Lanka in the 1980s. He took me to an upstairs room for a chat in the association’s office, its walls painted muted orange, after a long day helping Tamils in the UK deal with immigration authorities, domestic violence, racism and the benefits system.
Mr Jana and a friend of his caught a plane out of Sri Lanka in 1985. That year the British government had imposed entry restrictions on Sri Lankans – the first time anyone from any of the ex-colonial Commonwealth countries had needed a visa to visit the UK. Despite the well-reported repression of Tamils, Margaret Thatcher visited Sri Lanka in April 1985 to meet the president, and the UK continued to provide training for the Sinhalese-majority army and sell weapons to the government. In the wake of ‘Black July’ two years earlier President Jayawardene had said, ‘We cannot think of [the Tamils], not about their lives or their opinion... Really, if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy.’
Many British newspapers followed the anti-Tamil line, as a selection of headlines from May 1985 shows – Daily Express: ‘We will stop the Tamil “flood” vows Britain.’ Daily Mail: ‘Tamils facing a closed door.’ And Daily Mirror, referring to the Home Secretary at the time, Leon Brittan, with a bit of a tongue-twister: ‘No open door. Brittan warning race war runaways.’ At that time, as domestic panic was being stoked, only around 2,500 Tamils had applied for asylum in the UK, compared with 19,000 in France, 20,000 in Germany and over 100,000 in India.
Mr Jana arrived at Heathrow Terminal 3 in the midst of this hostile mood, with a dozen other Tamils. Some had the address of friends and family who would host them and so were allowed into the country. Mr Jana had no address to give, so he was detained along with eight others, first at Harmondsworth detention centre, next to Heathrow, and then at Ashford Remand Centre in Hounslow, west London.
‘I spent around 26 days there,’ he told me, ‘then slowly Tamil refugees started to be removed from the detention centres back to Sri Lanka.’ Just days before a group of Tamils were due to be deported, Jana managed to speak to the secretary of Jeremy Corbyn MP, who intervened on their behalf; a discussion in parliament followed, it was covered in the media and the Home Office decided against the removal of the Tamils held in detention, Mr Jana among them. ‘About 30 people were released, and we ended up living in east London.’
From a one-bedroom flat shared by eight people, Mr Jana and his friends set up the organization that would become the Tamil Welfare Association in Newham (TWAN). They would make the journey up to Terminal 3 on a daily basis to welcome new arrivals and advocate on their behalf.
‘We were new in the country,’ says Mr Jana, ‘but I’d been here longer than others, studied the Underground map and learnt a bit of English.’
What was it like arriving in the mid-1980s as a refugee from Sri Lanka? Mr Jana breaks it down for me: support from the Tamil community and aggression from the general public.
‘They were in a mind-set of “these people are bogus, or bogus refugees”,’ he says. The next few years were tough. ‘Police started to harass us… And also other white people tried to call us names.’
There was plenty of racist violence in Newham, including, in November 1986, a firebomb pushed through a letterbox on nearby Burgess Road, which killed three Tamil refugees. They had no family in the country so TWAN organized the funeral. Mr Jana takes out a file and shows me pictures of the coffins laid out in a hall.
It was in 1987, almost two years into his gruelling work with TWAN, when Mr Jana’s story intersected with that of the Earl William ferry.
‘Gatecrashers in cushy berths’
The idea of keeping asylum-seekers imprisoned on a ship was first proposed by a civil servant called TC Platt. He had heard of a similar approach in Denmark, where the authorities worked with the Red Cross to keep almost 900 asylum seekers on converted ferries and container ships in Copenhagen harbour. ‘There would obviously be a great deal of parliamentary, media, community and other external interest,’ he wrote cautiously, as he sounded out the idea to ministers in a January 1987 memo. ‘There would be references to a “prison ship”…’
The then-Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd, looked over details of the Earl William and was gratified to find that it was ‘unlikely to appear too luxurious or too spartan’. For many, the relatively recent institution of immigration detention was hazily thought of as a punishment, meaning luxury was inappropriate and might attract hostile headlines.
Mr Platt was not wrong about media interest. That summer the detention ship proved extremely controversial and was regularly reported on by national and local papers. It was routinely called a prison ship and condemned stridently by leftwing groups and papers, and cautiously by rightwing broadsheets. The Daily Mail took a predictable line, fuming that the newly refurbished Earl William was certainly not spartan enough for the detainees, whom they labelled ‘gatecrashers in cushy berths’.
When I remind Mr Jana of the Daily Mail piece, he expresses three decades of accumulated weariness with a shrug: ‘We always have problems with these people.’
The first detainees came on board the Earl William in early May. Some were part of a group of 64 Tamils, including 24 women and 9 children, whom the government had tried unsuccessfully to deport en masse earlier that year. Mr Jana and his colleagues, with a canny awareness of what would make headlines, had organized what became known as the ‘trousers down’ protest, after Tamils stripped off on the Heathrow runway as they were being forced to board a plane back to Sri Lanka.
The flight was delayed long enough for news of a High Court injunction staying the deportation to arrive. The Sri Lankan High Commission in London weighed in, sinisterly playing on British prejudices to try to prevent the Tamils getting asylum: ‘They are coming here more than anything else for financial gain,’ the spokesperson told the BBC. ‘If they are allowed to stay they are given all the social security benefits, they can send their children to school and will be housed free.’
In reality, many in the group of Tamils remained in immigration detention, eventually being moved together onto the Earl William. Others on the boat had been in immigration detention for more than a year before arriving. It was, by all accounts, a stifling and surreal place.
Posters left over from the ship’s previous incarnation as a holiday boat still offered discounted ferry rides to Holland to see the tulips. Muslim detainees prayed in a long, narrow former duty-free shop which had been cleared of cigarettes and alcohol. The downstairs car deck was repurposed into a football pitch and sealed packages of airline food were delivered every 10 days by van: sweet and sour pork, spaghetti Bolognese, boeuf bourguignon, fish or meat curry.
All detainees were locked out of their cabins between 7am and 8pm. With access to the open-air decks restricted because of the suicide risk, most people spent their days in one of the ship’s four lounges, sitting in the ‘aircraft style seating’ watching videos. Hunger-striking Tamils, protesting against their detention, lay around ‘like dead men staring into space and refusing to budge’, according to one security guard. Their banner, hung over the side of the ship, read: ‘British people! Don’t let us die.’
‘We hate this place,’ 18-year-old Sugirithni Navaratnam told a journalist from The Independent. ‘Harmondsworth [detention centre] felt safer. There are too many men here.’ There were eight women on board, including a 15-year-old girl. No sanitary towels were provided for the first two months of their stay (‘If they had mentioned them, they would have been provided,’ the Home Office said, when asked for comment) and there was no separate space for women. ‘This forces us into the company of the boys,’ said Sugirithni. ‘We are frightened.’
Onlookers studied the ferry from the Harwich quay with curiosity and apprehension. ‘Nobody wanted the nuclear waste dumps and nobody wants this,’ a local resident told a reporter, referring to a failed government attempt to bury radioactive waste in Essex.
As the summer wore on, detainees became more and more frustrated. ‘We are desperate to get off the ship,’ said one 27-year-old Tamil. ‘We cannot understand why we are being held here. When are they going to make a decision?’
Beta testing a hostile environment
Ever since immigration detention began formally in Britain with the opening of the first centre in 1970 at Harmondsworth, it has always been a tortuous process. Even today the UK is one of the only countries in Europe that does not have a set time limit on how long someone can be held in detention, and the decision to detain is not taken in front of a court, as per the ancient laws of Habeas Corpus, but by low-level officials in an obscure and inefficient bureaucracy. Anyone deemed not to be a British citizen can be taken from their home in a raid under immigration powers and held for as long as the system wants – the longest stints have been up to five years.
Since the days of the Earl William the system has expanded dramatically. In July 1987, the ship’s capacity of 120 detainees made it the largest detention centre in the country. Today it would be dwarfed by the facilities next to Heathrow: Harmondsworth – now expanded to be the biggest purpose-built detention centre in Europe – and Colnbrook, which together can hold over 1,000 people. There are roughly another 2,000 detention places around the country spread across seven smaller facilities, as well as holding cells at air- and seaports.
I used to be a volunteer visitor to immigration detention centres for a charity, going every couple of weeks to meet with people detained at Harmondsworth. After the long journey out west to Heathrow, at the end of the London Underground’s Piccadilly Line, I would catch a bus round the north perimeter of the airport. As I walked up Bath Road, the vast squat detention centre hove into view. The building always surprised me.
What combination of factors, which different spans of human effort had folded the barbed wire into place, laid the bricks, plugged in the CCTV cameras, set up the staff rotas, ordered the chairs for the visitor centre – all these actions, in aggregate, seemed baffling. What forces had made them seem right, rational, necessary?
For this reason I’m interested in the forces that propelled the Earl William into Parkeston Quay in the spring of 1987, beyond its diesel engine. At this time immigration detention was a relatively new phenomenon. How does something like the Earl William detention ship happen? There are the simple accidents of history, the contingent channels by which an idea flows around the world, the quotidian pressures suffered by bureaucrats – TC Platt sees a report about the Danish policy and thinks it will do here: prisons are overcrowded and the initial plan to house migrants at the old Naval College in Greenwich has fallen through.
But there were also economic, political and historical forces at work. Sea Containers – the private company that had bought Sealink, and the Earl William, from the government – was struggling. With its owner a personal friend of the Conservative Party, and the political impetus not to see a newly privatized service collapse only a few years in, the rental of the Earl William from the company at £2,500 ($3,290) a day (over £7,000 – $9,200 – in today’s money) would have made perfect sense among those charged with waving the decision through. ‘The deal has provided Sealink with a welcome financial fillip at a difficult time for it and its parent company, Sea Containers Limited of Bermuda,’ noted The Guardian archly that June.
Perhaps the repurposed Earl William made sense as part of a newly muscular, neoliberal attitude towards ethics. ‘It is a business arrangement and we are here to make money,’ a Sealink representative told the papers bluntly after criticism. The National Union of Seamen had at first refused to crew the ship, maintaining that its ‘members are seafarers and… do not wish to be involved in any policing exercise’ – eventually their members disobeyed them and signed up for the contracts with Sealink, at a time when work was drying up as other ferries were sold or put out of service, amid a stubbornly high unemployment rate.
Another way to understand the Earl William, though, is as a small but significant episode in the ongoing history of post-colonial Britain. These people found themselves imprisoned on a boat, in part because they had the misfortune to arrive in the UK after a wave of legislation that had gradually reduced the rights of Commonwealth citizens. The latest of these was the decision, in 1985, to lay visa restrictions on a Commonwealth country, Sri Lanka, for the first time.
‘It was only with great reluctance that I decided that it was necessary to impose a visa requirement on a fellow Commonwealth country,’ said the Home Secretary. ‘The need for it will be kept under review and I hope that it can be lifted in due course.’ Today almost half of Commonwealth countries need visas to enter the UK; the rest need to get an ‘entry certificate’ before they go, and a visa for stays longer than six months.
The hedging of the rights of Commonwealth citizens – the vast majority of whom are people from countries that had formerly been colonized by the UK – began in the 1960s. From 1948, the year that Ceylon became the independent Commonwealth nation of Sri Lanka, and the passing of the British Nationality Act, anyone from a previously colonized country had the status of ‘Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies’, which meant they could travel to and settle in the UK, and, like all other British citizens, they were immune to deportation powers.
By 1962 there were fears about post-colonial migration following the arrival of what is now called the ‘Windrush Generation’ – migrants from the West Indies encouraged to come to the UK after the Second World War to fill labour shortages, who first arrived on the HMT Empire Windrush. That year the Commonwealth Immigrants Act was passed, allowing deportation of Commonwealth citizens for the first time and introducing a system of work vouchers for new arrivals. ‘We want to reduce to the absolute minimum the power of deportation of Commonwealth citizens,’ said the Labour MP James MacColl ruefully at the time. ‘It is profoundly distasteful.’ Yet more acts were passed in 1968 and 1971. ‘In terms of British nationality law,’ wrote the Sri Lankan British writer Ambalavaner Sivanandan in 1976, summing up the recent course of legislation, ‘this would mean that a British citizen was not completely a British citizen when he was a black British citizen.’
This process culminated with the British Nationality Act in 1981, which defined British citizenship in terms of ‘family links’ to the United Kingdom, definitively re-orientating citizenship rights away from most of those who had been imperial subjects, such as the Sri Lankan Tamils, and towards an implicitly racialized conception of Britishness. For Conservatives this was a chance to pivot away from the less appealing aspects of Britain’s colonial legacy; as Timothy Raison MP declared at the Conservative party conference in 1980: ‘We have got finally to dispose of the lingering notion that Britain is somehow a haven for all those whose countries we once ruled.’
For many the Act represented a dangerous new chapter in post-colonial amnesia, ‘expressly designed to deprive black and Asian Britons of their citizenship rights’, as Salman Rushdie wrote in 1982. David Dixon, a legal academic writing at the time, believed that ‘the racism spawned by imperialism is now used to evade its consequences’. Above all, Dixon warned, ‘the creation of citizenship must not be based on converting control upon people’s movements into constitutional forms’.
It’s a measure of how far we’ve come that Dixon’s words take a little while to untangle today, so accustomed are we to citizenship being tied up with an all-pervasive border regime. Thanks to the 1981 Act, and a number of laws passed since, the citizenship of someone who has immigrated to Britain carries far fewer protections than the citizenship of someone who was born here. If you can prove that you were born in the UK to British parents, you can’t be deported, you can’t be imprisoned without trial and you can’t have your citizenship stripped from you. If, on the other hand, you’re a naturalized citizen, or have dual nationality, or seem to someone at the Home Office like you’re not a citizen, you are vulnerable to all these abuses.
Back in 1987 many struggled to make sense of immigration detention, especially when it came in such a patently odd and unusual form as the 100-metre-long Earl William.
‘I mean, everyone’s demanding this right and the other,’ fulminated Gerald Wallington-Hayes, the Mayor of Harwich, to The Guardian in 1987 as he defended the presence of the detention ship in his town. ‘If someone breaks into your house, I think you should have a right to defend your property in any way you wish. Now, immigrants are violating our space in just the same way. Don’t forget these people here have broken the law as far as we’re concerned.’
Wallington-Hayes drew on the language of law and order to render acceptable the use of the ship as a detention centre, and though the Home Office doggedly insisted that the Earl William was not a ‘prison ship’, the name caught on. All newspapers used it that summer, and the name persists in Harwich today. A few people I spoke to, taking the sun on the pier, remembered it as a prison. ‘We didn’t want rapists and people of that character parked so close to the pier,’ one man told me, explaining local opposition to the plan.
For many, the most ready cultural memory of prison ships was, via Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, the site of ‘prison hulks’ moored in the Thames. These were decommissioned ships, with their masts and rigging removed, used to hold prisoners of war in the Napoleonic era and also used to imprison people about to undergo penal transportation to the colonies (usually Australia). ‘We feel insulted,’ said union head Bob Rayner, ‘that British seamen are being approached to turn back the clock to the days of transportation.’ A Conservative minister called Edward Bickham complained that this perfectly reasonable idea was being sullied by ‘an emotional campaign’.
‘There is nothing intrinsically wrong with keeping people on a ship,’ he wrote, ‘if it is secure and the ship is properly berthed.’
‘Earlier on today apparently a woman rang the BBC and said she had heard that there was a hurricane on the way,’ TV weatherman Michael Fish told his viewers. ‘Well if you are watching, don’t worry, there isn’t.’
On 15 October 1987 a great storm swept across London and the southeast of England. Fish famously underestimated its power: that night hurricane-speed winds uprooted 15 million trees and killed 18 people.
When Paul Day arrived at Harwich Port at first light on 16 October, with the storm still raging, it was chaos. Paul used to crew nuclear submarines before going into merchant shipping; in the 1980s, he was, among other things, a salvage expert living near his native Harwich. I spoke to him about the night of the storm in the side-office of his son’s steelworks in Kirby Cross, Essex.
‘I went down with my workforce to the manager and to the harbour board, to see what was happening. They were all panicking and running around, radios weren’t working and stuff like that.’ There was a tanker out of control, full of fuel and rubbing up against the quay. Sparks were flying and the harbourmaster was worried it would explode, taking a nearby LPG gas storage facility and most of Harwich with it.
In all of the drama no-one had paid much attention to the Earl William. The spot it had occupied on Parkeston Quay was empty. Out over the other side of the Stour, toward Shotley, Paul could see the ship through the hurricane winds, ‘the blur of it’ beached on a mud bank.
They borrowed a launch and headed out to the stricken ferry, which had broken its moorings overnight in the storm and collided with a number of barges out in the harbour, gashing holes in its side before sinking into the mud at low tide. The lower levels of the ship, the engine rooms, were completely flooded. As Paul came alongside they climbed on board and headed up to the top of the boat, where they found all 78 detainees safe and accounted for, along with crew and security, sheltering in the officers’ mess, just behind the wheelhouse.
With the help of detainees on board, Paul and his crew spent the next 14 hours welding large pieces of sheet metal over the holes in the side of the boat, often in neck-deep water as the ship was pounded by waves. ‘We got the hull watertight, pumped out everything.’ Then at high tide ‘we steamed it up ourselves to Parkeston Quay with all the immigrants on board’.
The government gave everyone temporary admission to the UK on compassionate grounds, releasing them from the detention system after, for some, over a year inside. The port authority called Mr Jana in the middle of the night, and he drove with a coach to collect the Tamils. His strident colleague Vairamattu Varadakumar was quoted in The Guardian: ‘For months we have been campaigning for their release,’ he told journalists. ‘Now the furious hand of nature has replied.
Plying an honest trade
The Daily Telegraph, December 1987. ‘Which group of detainees was glad to have run aground?’ Page 44 for the answers. ‘Tamil refugees detained aboard the notorious prison hulk the Earl William. They were provisionally freed after it went aground in the October gales.’
A question in the newspaper’s end of year quiz is one of the last references in the British press to the Earl William detention centre; by 1988 the ship was back to ‘plying an honest trade’, as one shipping writer put it, taking paying passengers on the overnight route from Liverpool to Dún Laoghaire. Despite dominating the news in August, the story was quickly forgotten in the commotion of the storm, perhaps because of Douglas Hurd’s prudent decision to release all detainees immediately.
‘We were lucky that there was not a much bigger political row,’ wrote Edward Bickham to civil servants in November, as TC Platt concluded that ‘given what happened last month… politically the use of the Earl William for immigration detention is no longer readily defensible’.
But for the storm, and the authorial choices of Charles Dickens, Britain could be a country that still uses ships as detention centres. The practice has come and gone in other northern European countries, including Denmark and the Netherlands, which until recently used a ship called the Bibby Kalmar to hold asylum-seekers.
Some shocking opinions were collected by reporters at the time regarding those held on the Earl William. A group of teenagers spoke of how they didn’t want ‘pakis’ in their town; a sailor eating at a mess room nearby proposed that ‘they should ferry them out into the Channel and kick them off into the sea’. It’s thought that white people in Britain don’t say things like this any more – at least not to journalists, or not as often, or not in public. So is it better to arrive as a refugee today than it was in 1987?
‘[It’s] not that much different,’ says Mr Jana. ‘Same type of attitude by the immigration officers, same type of detention centres; no, not that much has changed. They are keen to detain more people.’
Along with the expansion of the detention system, the nature of citizenship has moved on since 1987. Laws passed that year made airlines financially responsible for those who arrived without a proper visa, projecting the border outwards into foreign airports and effectively making airline staff police it. The border has since spread both further outwards and inwards – legislation in the past 30 years has ensured that all manner of professions, from landlords to doctors, have become obliged or incentivized to enquire about the immigration status of those they encounter. The ‘Windrush Scandal’ earlier this year happened as a result of all of these overlapping changes, in both law and culture, over many decades.
The Tories might come across as the villains of this story – set as it is in 1987, the dark heart of Thatcherism – but the progressive erosion of rights that were previously taken for granted has long been a tag-team effort from both sides of the political spectrum. The large modern purpose-built detention centres – Harmondsworth, Colnbrook, Yarl’s Wood – bequeathed to us today were built under New Labour in the first years of the millennium. The British Nationality Act of 1981, condemned as ‘constitutionalizing racism’, was based on recommendations published by the previous Labour government.
After the storm, the Home Office quietly pursued many of those it had made a public show of releasing. A newspaper report from 1989 describes the plight of an 18-year-old Tamil refugee, held on the Earl William then deported along with four other Tamils back to Sri Lanka. Soon after his return he was imprisoned and beaten, accused of partaking in ‘subversive activities’ by local police. Evidence of this maltreatment only came to light after a dogged human rights lawyer, David Burgess, travelled to Sri Lanka to collect evidence pro bono, in order to hold the Home Office to account for failing to abide by the Geneva Convention. Eventually Burgess won the case and the five Sri Lankans were allowed sanctuary.
The events of 1987, which included suicides among other asylum-seekers refused sanctuary as well as the attempted mass deportations, led to a renewed sense of purpose among many refugee organizations, who together launched the ‘Charter ’87 for Refugees’ that November – an attempt to strengthen and formalize the protections afforded to asylum-seekers in the UK and prevent their slow erosion. By the time the Earl William sank to the bottom of the sea off Venezuela in 2011, the charter had long been forgotten.
Felix Bazalgette is a writer from London. His work has been published in The Economist, New Statesman and The White Review among others. In 2016 and 2018 he was shortlisted for the Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize.