In a couple of days we will usher in 2016 –– a year of tremendous symbolic significance for the nation and people of Barbados, and a year that we must make use of, not merely for celebration, but as an opportunity for introspection and for a national social, cultural, economic and political stocktaking!
The year 2016 –– as we all know –– is the 50th anniversary of Barbados’ attainment of Independence. But what might not be quite so well known is that it is also the 200th anniversary of the historic Bussa Slave Rebellion of 1816, and the 75th anniversary of the 1941 founding of Barbados’ premier trade union –– the Barbados Workers’ Union (BWU).
And so, we have –– dovetailing in 2016 –– three national anniversaries that go to the root of the historical consciousness, heritage, identity and destiny of the Barbadian people. It therefore behoves us –– at a time when we are beset by a debilitating sense of crisis and loss of national will and purpose –– to grab hold of the entire 365 days of 2016 and use them to engage in a collective examination of our historical journey; the historic goals that we set for ourselves in those epoch-making years of 1816, 1941 and 1966; the many ways in which we have gone off-track; and what we need to do now to recapture the vision and reorient
Chronologically, the first of these three architectonic historical events was the Sunday, April 14, 1816 Bussa Rebellion –– the first of the “great” 19th century Caribbean slave rebellions and a critical catalyst of the final thrust to abolish slavery in the British Empire.
The Bussa Rebellion constituted an extremely clear statement by the oppressed masses of black Barbadians of the type of future that they desired for their progeny, and of their unconquerable will to achieve their goal.
Indeed, Barbadian historian Sir Hilary Beckles has recorded in his book Black Rebellion In Barbados that the Barbadian Whites of the day were left in no doubt about the intention of their enslaved fellow countrymen:
In the words of Colonel Best, the Blacks sought to become masters, instead of the slaves of the island –– in support of this, Thomas Moody, a local planter, noted in October, 1816, that the rebellion was
an attempt by the mass of the slaves
to gain independence.
It is significant that the planter Thomas Moody used the word “independence” in describing the objectives that our enslaved ancestors were trying to achieve. Essentially, they were seeking to destroy the slave society then in existence and replace it with a new and liberating social order, and they were prepared to fight to the very end and to give their lives –– if necessary –– to achieve this noble goal.
The second –– in chronological order –– of these historic events is the May, 1941 founding (and October, 1941 registration) of the Barbados Workers’ Union. The establishment of this pivotal national institution was the culmination of many years of courageous and visionary effort on the part of the socialist, Garveyite and pan-African activists of Barbados –– Charles Duncan O’Neale, Chrissy Brathwaite, J.A. Martineau, Richard B. Moore, Israel Lovell, Grantley Adams, Wynter Crawford, Clement Payne et al. –– and of the sacrifices of the martyrs of the 1937 people’s uprising.
The historical significance of the birth of the BWU was best expressed by its first president general –– Grantley Adams –– in his 1946 Labour Day speech to the members and supporters of the union:
Today I want to make a special appeal to you. The day is long past when the working man –– the Broad Street clerk or the waterfront worker –– can afford to stand by himself and hope to win the fight with capital . . . . The people of this country make the wealth of the country, and it is for the organized might of this country to say how that wealth is to be distributed.
For centuries it has been the practice of the capitalist class to amass wealth out of the toil and sweat of the labourers . . . but . . . if we stand solidly together, we can, and should, be masters of this country.
And finally, there is the November 30, 1966 achievement of Independence under the national leadership of then Premier Errol Walton Barrow –– a watershed event that pointed the Barbadian people to a noble agenda which was expressed in the words of the preamble to the Independence Constitution Of Barbados as follows:
The people of Barbados proclaim that they are a sovereign nation . . . ; [they] affirm their belief that men and institutions remain free only when freedom is founded upon respect for moral and spiritual values and the rule of law . . . and resolve that the operation of the economic system shall promote the general welfare by the equitable distribution of the material resources of the community, by the conditions under which all men shall labour, and by the undeviating recognition of ability, integrity and merit.
And so, I would like to appeal to my fellow Barbadians to make a very special effort during the course of 2016 to reflect very seriously on the inner meaning of these three historical events, and to ask ourselves whether the Barbadians of our generation are truly honouring the sacrifices and living up to the ideals and aspirations of the Bussas, Nanny Griggs, Duncan O’Neales, Clement Paynes, Israel Lovells, Grantley Adamses and Errol Barrows of our nation’s history.
I am certain that if we make a serious effort at national introspection and reflection during the course of 2016, we will realize that we –– as a nation –– have gone off-track in our historical journey, and that we all need to undertake some personal responsibility for sorting out and reorienting those national institutions and/or spheres of national life which we are most closely connected to.
All across the board our national institutions are failing us and are sinking into dysfunction. Let us therefore use 2016 as an opportunity to analyse the causes of their dysfunction!
And let us also tap into the example and inspiration of the historic events of 1816, 1941 and 1966 to help fortify us with the courage and will to challenge and correct the many wrongs that exist in our society today.
I wish all my Barbadian brothers and sisters a meaningful, fulfilling, successful and history-making 2016!
(David A. Comissiong, attorney-at-law, is president of the Clement Payne Movement.)