Barbadian and other Caribbean people — particularly black Barbadian and Caribbean people — are forced to live with the humiliating reality that our economic existence hinges upon a number of airplanes filled with Europeans and predominantly white North Americans periodically flying out of such cities as London and New York and heading for Bridgetown and the other tourism — dependent cities of the Caribbean.
We are also forced to contend with the psychological trauma caused by the consciousness that we do not produce anywhere near the quantity of food and goods required to sustain our physical existence, and that were it not for shipments of food and manufactured products from the said Europe and North America we would be thrown into a deadly existential crisis!
Why is this so? What brought about this humiliating and dangerous state of affairs? Why do we, and our so-called leaders, accept this situation? And isn’t there anything that we can do to rectify this totally unacceptable economic, cultural, psychological and political condition?
Well, let us begin by delving into our history in the Caribbean to seek out the root causes of this terrible condition of economic and psychological under-development and dependency.
It was the Spanish priest, Bartolome de Las Casas, who first rang the alarm bells about this troubling state of affairs way back in the middle of the 16th century, and the alarm bells are still ringing almost 500 years later!
You see, the early Spanish invaders of the Caribbean had found the indigenous people of the region operating self-reliant subsistence economies based on the production of corn, potatoes, cassava, tobacco, cotton and tropical fruits. But the Spaniards quickly conquered these people, destroyed the self-reliant subsistence economy, and established new societies based on the concept of growing sugar or some other cash crop for export to Europe, and importing food from outside the region.
It was therefore Las Casas who first made the connection between the expansion and profitableness of the then new sugar industry in the Caribbean, and the Spanish colonisers’ lack of interest in the local production of bread and other foodstuff. With two casks of flour imported from Spain, Las Casas lamented, at a cost of “ten castellanos”, the Spanish colonists had enough to eat for a year, and would not bother about “sowing and setting up mills” for producing bread.
“If in this island,” Las Casas concluded, “there is no bread … or better bread than in all parts of the world, there is no other cause than this.”
This nascent attitude of dependency might have been the product of myopic expediency on the part of the early colonisers, but it did not take long before the various ruling European establishments elevated it to the level of an article of state policy to be rigidly imposed upon their Caribbean colonies.
As the great Caribbean historian, Eric Williams, explained in his epic history of the Caribbean titled From Columbus to Castro: “Monopoly was the core of the political system, economic organisation and social structure in the Europe of Columbus’ day … therefore, inevitably, monopoly became the core of the … colonial system in the Caribbean…”
Put simply, the European ruling classes were determined that their Caribbean colonies were to serve the narrow interests of the Europe-based elites, and their narrow interests alone. And since the European establishments were interested in finding markets for their own European produced food and manufactured goods, it was decreed that the Caribbean colonies were to be denuded of such productive capacities and were to serve as captive markets for European exports.
But perhaps a dubious pride of place has to go to the French, and particularly to the legendary 17th century French Minister of Finance, Jean Baptiste Colbert, for fully fleshing out this system of colonial domination, and giving it a name — “Mercantilism” or “Colbertism”.
There were three essential features of the colonial system devised by Colbert, and adopted by all the other European colonial powers, including Britain. First, the colony was to be used to build up the trade of the European nation that “owned” it. Secondly, the colony was to be regarded and treated as the “exclusive property” of its so-called mother-country. And thirdly, the interests of the colony must be subordinated to the interests of the mother or metropolitan country.
Indeed, the British colonial system placed particular emphasis on the prohibition of colonial manufactures, and as Eric Williams explained in From Columbus to Castro, even went so far as to discourage the growth of towns in its Caribbean colonies. Williams cites the 1714 instance of the English customs authorities agreeing to the creation of additional ports of entry on the northern coast of Jamaica, but only on condition that the inhabitants were not thereby encouraged to reside in the towns and set up manufacturers for their own needs.
Such a step, said the British Commissioner of Customs, would “discourage British trade and would distract the inhabitants of the colony from planting and raising sugar, which was more to the benefit of England”.
And so was established the Caribbean mono-cultural economy, centred around the production of one cash crop- predominantly sugar cane — not for a local, domestic market, but for the imperial market thousands of miles away in Europe. And with this went the associated lack of local food production and the foisting upon Barbadian and other Caribbean populations of tastes for food and other consumer goods that were determined, not by what was produced in Barbados or the Caribbean, but by what was produced across the Atlantic in London, Paris and the other great centres of imperial consumer production.
But if this system of economic emasculation imposed on the Caribbean colony from outside was not bad enough, we need to note that there was a concomitant system of internal economic emasculation imposed on the black or African segment of the colonial population by the local white colonial establishment or ruling class.
Thus, for example, in 1691 the legislature of the British colony of Bermuda forbade the enslaved blacks of Bermuda from planting or cultivating tobacco, corn, potatoes or other provisions, and from raising livestock or poultry or making cloth, for their own use or for profit, under penalty of a fine for the slave — owners and whipping for the slaves.
Not to be outdone, the Jamaica House of Assembly passed a law in 1711 that forbade slaves to keep “horses, mares, mules, asses or cattle, on penalty of forfeiture of the stock, and prescribed whipping for slaves who sold meat, fish, manufactured articles, sugar and sugar cane”.
And of course, in our own island of Barbados, in 1688 the House of Assembly enacted a slavery Code that stipulated a series of punishments for Africans who traded in goods, and followed this up with a 1703 law which forbade whites from employing enslaved persons or free blacks in selling or bartering, and a 1779 Act that prohibited “goods, wares and merchandises and other things from being carried from house to house or about the roads in this island, to be sold or bartered or disposed of … from the traffic of huckster slaves, free mulattoes and Negroes”.
These then are the historical roots of our undiversified economy; our lack of industrial production; our inability to feed ourselves; our foreign derived tastes for food, clothes and every other type of consumer fashion; and within that general system of dependency, the extreme deficiency of black Barbadian and other Caribbean people in business ownership and industrial production.
Having outlined this pathological condition, we must now turn our attention to the policies and actions required to change it, and to inaugurate new industrial economies in the Caribbean. That will be the topic of Part 2 of this article.
* David Comissiong is president of the Peoples Empowerment Party