Primary Source

British Empire: Autobiography, Head Above Water


Buchi Emecheta was born in Nigeria in 1944 to Igbo parents. She was orphaned at a young age, and subsequently educated at a missionary school in Nigeria. She was married at the age of 16 to Sylvester Onwordi, a student she had been engaged to since childhood. In 1960, she moved to Britain with her husband and children, where she worked as a librarian. Despite the difficulties she encountered living in Britain and raising her five children on her own, she not only received her doctorate in sociology, but she became a best-selling writer. Today she is an internationally renowned novelist who has published many books mostly set in Africa. She also published an autobiography about her life in Britain called Head Above Water, which documents her experiences as an immigrant in Britain in the 1960s.

Immigrants have moved to live in the British Isles from Africa and the Asian subcontinent for at least 500 years. However, the demographics of Britain only really began to shift after World War II, when the British government encouraged immigration from Commonwealth countries to help resuscitate a war-devastated Britain. In 1951, the population in Britain of people of African, Afro-Caribbean and Asian descent was estimated to be 74,500; by 1962 it was 500,000. This rapid rise in immigration created a climate of anxiety, and what came to be perceived in Britain as a “social problem.” In 1958, the first race riots in Britain occurred in West London and Nottingham as white reaction to immigration began to escalate. Today Britain is a multiracial society. The 1991 General Census showed that 2.5 million or 4.5% of the population were part of minority groups. Ten years later in the 2001 census, the figures were higher, with one in twelve Britons coming from an ethnic minority.

In this excerpt, Buchi Emecheta describes her expectations before she arrived in Britain, and the very different reality she experienced.

This source is a part of the Women in the British Empire, 1800-2000 teaching module.


“I came to England in a plush first-class suite with a nurse for the children. I booked the best I could afford because I thought everybody lived like that in England. I thought people in England lived like they did in Jane Austen’s novels and that the typical Englishman was like Mr. Darcy, and the women like Mrs. Bennet and her daughters. So when, thirteen days later, the nurse came bubbling into my room and asked excitedly, ‘Have you seen it? Have you seen Liverpool? We’ve arrived in England’, I could be forgiven for dashing out on deck in a cotton housecoat. It was a grey, wet March morning. England gave me a cold welcome. As I said in Second Class Citizen, ‘If I had been Jesus, I would have passed England by and not dropped a single blessing.’ I felt like walking into the inside of a grave. I could see nothing but masses of grey, filth, and more grey, yet something was telling me that it was too late now. So I said quietly, ‘Pa, England is not the Kingdom of God you thought it was.’”

[For a while Buchi Emecheta worked in a youth club for black British youth called the Seventies mostly staffed by white British staff, including a women called Amanda.]

“Amanda was a very attractive and intelligent girl. A university girl who would do anything in the cause of ‘black.’ We read of such middle-class female products becoming victims of the very people they originally set out to help. Amanda really meant well, got herself attacked many a time, but was able to accept it longer than I. Maybe because she held the old ideas of the missionaries who came to Africa in the early days, hoping to bring Christianity to the savages, when in fact the black natives were benign prepared to meet their doom either at the hands of the slaver or the colonial officer. . . . Most of these young people at the Seventies had been brainwashed into thinking that England was their mother country, that England belonged to them. At the time when the myth of the ‘mother country’ was being perpetuated, it was beyond the imaginings of the white colonials that one day the blacks would turn around and say to them, ‘Fulfil your promise.’ . . . The colonial masters had not calculated on the possibility of such a system bringing out a large number of educated blacks, large enough to man their own local administration and to spill into London in search of middle-class jobs. History proved them wrong, just as they were proved wrong in the case of the Ugandan Asians. Those groups of Asian traders were not only promised the myth of the mother country, they were given British passports. When it came to fulfilling those promises, the poor Asians found themselves countryless. British diplomats found themselves running helter-skelter in search of homes for those with British passports. Many went to Canada, some were admitted into England and others remained in Uganda. But they were on the whole better off than most of the blacks in that at least they had some kind of wealth to start with. The black immigrants into England had nothing but their dreams.”


Emecheta, Buchi. Head Above Water. London: Ogwugwu Afo, 1986.

How to Cite This Source

"British Empire: Autobiography, Head Above Water," in World History Commons, [accessed April 16, 2024]