They were not to know they were also walking into the pages of history, the first recorded mass migration to this island. Their story would come, in many ways, to define what it means to be British.
And, contrary to much that has recently been said and written about these men and women, the past three score years and ten have not proven that we are a nation of small-minded bigots.
Quite the opposite.
The Windrush story shows Britain to be a country which, in its embrace of people who share our values, can claim to be a model to a world roiled by ethnic and racial tensions.
That is why, along with the historian Patrick Vernon, my brother Michael and I are renewing the call we first made 20 years ago, for June 22 to be declared ‘Windrush Day’ in perpetuity.
Our book, written to mark the 50th anniversary in 1998, was entitled Windrush: The Irresistible Rise Of Multi-racial Britain. There were several reasons for this.
Yes, we wanted to recognise the group of men and women of our parents’ generation who made this epochal journey.
But we also wanted to celebrate the character of the nation that, time and again, has proven ready to welcome, accommodate and integrate people prepared to play a part in making our country a better place.
Indeed, when I had the original idea for the book (and a BBC TV series), I was inspired by the role of those early voyagers in defending Britain’s very existence. For the fact is that scores of the men on the Windrush had volunteered in 1940 to travel thousands of miles to fight in the Battle of Britain; many saw their comrades from the Caribbean die in combat.
Of the 250 men who came from Trinidad to volunteer for the RAF, for example, one in five perished in action.
The late Ulric Cross, a Trinidadian who would go on to become a High Court judge, flew 80 missions as an RAF navigator, crash-landing seven times. He was one of the lucky ones: of half-a-dozen classmates who joined up, he believes he was the only one to see out the war.
Most of the 492 men and women who arrived on the Windrush have now run their race. Yet their footsteps still echo through our nation’s story, telling us much about ourselves as a people.
We Brits are now often sneered at, not least by our European neighbours, as a nation of small-minded Brexiteers. Yet the fire of indignation that erupted recently at the Government’s woeful treatment of some of the children of the Windrush generation, fanned by campaigns by this and other newspapers, revealed a nation that remains passionately committed to the fair treatment of people who work hard and play by the rules, irrespective of race or colour.
It’s hard to imagine a similar popular reaction in France, Germany, Italy or even Sweden, where each poll sees a remorseless rise in support for anti-immigrant political parties. Here, both the BNP and Ukip are yesterday’s news.
Of course, none of the young travellers could have foreseen that they would become a symbol for that touchstone of the British character — ‘fair play’. For the most part, they were lively, courageous spirits, who wanted more out of life for themselves and their families than could be found in a colonial backwater.
The choices available to Caribbean men and women ranged from the drudgery of peasant farming, through the daily humiliation of domestic service for colonial masters, to dawn-to-dusk days cutting sugar cane in blazing heat.
What made the Windrush voyagers so special was that they went looking for something better. They believed they would find it in England (no one spoke much of Britain in those days).
They may have been dazzled by tales of pavements paved in gold; when Aldwin Roberts, the ‘king of calypso’ better known by his stage name, Lord Kitchener, strummed his most famous song, dreamed up in the passage over from Jamaica, I am sure he half-believed the words:
London is the place for me,
London, this lovely city,
You can go France, or America,
India, Asia or Australia,
But you must come back to London City’
It wasn’t easy, of course. The Windrush voyagers found that the society they had entered was cold in every sense or, in Kitchener’s words, not ‘very much sociable’.
Nonetheless, they buckled down and worked hard. They got on with any neighbours who’d talk to them, mainly other recent immigrants: Jews (who were themselves ostracised) and the Irish. Later, some married natives; and their descendants have integrated more fully than any other group in modern immigration history.
The first migrants settled in poor areas of big cities, but the impact of the Windrush generation quickly spread well beyond the working-class.
I, for one found it intensely irritating to listen to commentary around Prince Harry and Meghan Markel’s wedding, suggesting that this would have been the first time the royals had encountered black British people in numbers.
One reason that the Windrush story has gained traction with the public over the years is because of the Queen’s avowed passion for the Commonwealth, its citizens and those of them who choose to make their home here.
In 1998, she held a reception at Buckingham Palace for the Windrush survivors — attended by virtually every major member of the Royal Family.
Back in the Eighties, the Prince of Wales made sure his charities worked assiduously to support black teenagers in places such as Brixton and Handsworth and insisted the committees that ran his programmes were representative of the Britain that was coming into being.
Of course, Britain’s attitude to race is not perfect — but there’s a reason why the camps along the French coast are full of Africans desperate to get to London, rather than Paris, Berlin or Rome.
Given the choice, any person of colour would prefer to live in the UK than in any of the other EU countries.
During the past 70 years, not every migrant community has managed the task of social integration so successfully as the Windrush generation and their descendants.
Many South Asian communities still live what have been called ‘parallel lives’ to the rest of the UK population.
Elsewhere in Europe, racial hostility is so entrenched that our racially mixed football teams routinely encounter the despicable barracking and banana-throwing that, thankfully, vanished from British grounds long ago.
There is a high likelihood that, in Putin’s Russia, the country’s deep racial prejudice will show its ugly face at some stage during the football World Cup.
My brother and I believe that the Windrush people have been a beacon for anyone in the world who holds out the hope of a world free from racial antagonism and division.
And, despite our stumbles, self-doubt and self-criticism, we are global leaders in the business of managing social diversity.
Post-Brexit, we will be out in the world, helping to create new relationships and to rekindle old friendships.
We have something to be proud of and from which the rest of the world urgently needs to learn.
Everywhere we look, cultural, religious and ethnic frictions constantly threaten to flare into full-scale conflict. There are hundreds of millions of people on the move across the globe. Integration is the great challenge of the 21st century.
The commemoration of the Windrush won’t, by itself, bring harmony. But a century ago, the great American preacher William L. Watkinson wrote: ‘It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.’
Shouldn’t there be at least one small flame lit for the virtues of old-fashioned tolerance, social harmony and the ability to get along across the lines of ethnic difference?
After 70 remarkable years, it’s time to light the flame of hope again.
Let’s make June 22 every year our Windrush Day.