As part of its Revolutionary Routes exhibition, EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum uncovered the Irish connections of two passengers who were aboard the Empire Windrush in June 1948. Both were women and both travelled first class.
The first was English author, activist and shipping heiress Nancy Cunard, whose mother was Irish American. Her great-great-grandfather was Thomas Addis Emmet – a politician, lawyer and anti-slavery campaigner in New York and the brother of Irish revolutionary Robert Emmet. Cunard continued on the family vocation with her own activism against racism and fascism.
The second was Trinidadian singer Mona Baptiste, who would eventually settle in Dublin after marrying an Irishman.
Growing up in Port of Spain
Born June 21st, 1926, Mona Baptiste started out life in Port of Spain – the capital of Trinidad and Tobago. She was one of five daughters. Her father Henry was an accountant of Indian heritage and her mother Ruth had Trinidadian, Scottish, Irish and Venezuelan roots, according to a chapter in The Three Good Fridays which was penned by William (Bill) Morrison.
When Baptiste was growing up, the family moved to the affluent St. Clair area of the city and she went to school at the prestigious St. Joseph’s Convent School.
From a young age, Baptiste began to sing on the radio and at dance halls. By 13, she even had a weekly programme on Radio Trinidad.
From Trinidad to Tilbury Docks
At the age of 21, Baptiste boarded the HMT Empire Windrush to emigrate to England. According to black history blog Historycal Roots, she bought an ‘A’ class ticket for £48 – which was a huge amount of money back then. (Almost £2,000 by today’s standards.)
While she was one of the few women aboard, it appears she travelled alone. However, her ticket came with the luxury of a private cabin. She may also have known some of the other musicians on board.
The voyage took the best part of a month. The journey from Jamaica took around 22 days, according to passengers. However, the ship had stopped at Trinidad before arriving at Kingston.
By the time it arrived at the Port of Tilbury in Essex on June 22nd, Baptiste was 22-years-old. She celebrated her birthday the day before the ship docked.
Building a successful singing career in Europe
Although immigration officials recorded Baptiste’s occupation as a clerk, she began to develop her music career immediately after her arrival in London. In fact, when she debarked the Windrush, she posed for pictures with a saxophone alongside West Indian members of the RAF.
Just weeks later, she booked a gig to appear on BBC Radio that August. She performed alongside Lord Beginner – aka Egbert Moore – who also arrived on the Empire Windrush.
As well as continuing to perform on radio programmes, Baptiste also appeared on stage with various jazz groups. She even toured the country’s ballrooms and music halls with well-known jazz singer Cab Kaye.
By 1949, the British press lauded Baptiste as the next big thing. And, in 1951, she began recording music. One of her most famous songs, ‘Calypso Blues’, was released that year.
This was a migrant song originally written and performed by African American jazz icon Nat King Cole. The song nostalgically describes a simple island life left behind and the burdens that come with being an immigrant.
Sittin’ by the ocean, me heart she feels so sad.
Don’t got the money, to take me back to Trinidad.
The glamorous Baptiste brought her own style and context to the melancholic song – as did her band, which consisted of a Jamaican saxophone player and a Nigerian drummer, according to Contemporary Black History: The Other Special Relationship.
As well as English, Baptiste also sang in French, Spanish and German. As a result, she built a name for herself across Europe. She became a regular face in films and on TV. Her IMDB listing includes 19 film acting credits – the first of which dates back to 1951.
According to Historycal Roots, Baptiste also married a man called Michael Carle in London that year. Together, they had a son called Marcel, but Michael sadly died in a car crash in 1958 when Marcel was just five.
Falling for an Irishman
In his recent book The Three Good Fridays: Memories of an Irish Octogenarian, William Morrison recalls meeting Baptiste in the late 60s.
At the time, he worked for Bord Fáilte – Ireland’s tourist board at that time. During a week-long promotional visit to Baden-Baden in southwestern Germany, he was introduced to Baptiste who was set to perform at the closing night gala.
Afterwards, they went their separate ways – Baptiste returned to Munich and Morrison to Dublin. However, they reconnected when he migrated to London to take up the role of Sales Manager for Bord Fáilte.
In his book, he writes: “A few years later, while I was based in London, we met up again briefly as she was passing through on her way home to Trinidad, where she was born, for a family reunion. After that, we corresponded sporadically long distance and got married in Munich…”
That was in 1972. After an Irish honeymoon, they both continued their careers and spent long periods apart. But this was something they were well used to. However, after settling in Dublin, Baptiste’s continued to perform on the continent and in New York, commuting from Dublin, up until a few weeks before her death in 1993. She also appeared on Irish television in a Maeve Binchy play.
The pair were married for 22 years, until Baptiste’s death on June 25th, 1993. She is buried in Dublin’s Deansgrange Cemetery under the name Mona Baptiste Morrison.
To find out more about the intertwining stories of the African and Irish diasporas, visit Revolutionary Routes: Ireland & the Black Atlantic, open at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum until October 2022. Book tickets here.
Featured image courtesy of Bill Hern.