The Royal West Indian Commission, under the leadership of Lord Moyne, began to investigate the circumstances leading to unrest across the British colonies in January, 1939. Grantley Adams addressed the commission shortly after he and a group of middle-class men had formed the Barbados Labour Party, and after Adams had travelled to Trinidad to hold meetings with various union groups to create a consensus of issues to put before the Royal Commission.
When it was his time to speak before the commission, Adams pointed out a number of ills facing the island, among that “the social structure of most of the West Indian colonies is dominated by the fact that the agriculture which is their mainstay was founded and long continued on an estate basis, involving the existence of a comparatively small number of proprietors and managers, usually European, and a very large number of Negro labourers”.
I found myself reminded of this statement recently as I read excerpts of Ralph Bizzy Williams’ seeming offence by Barbados being referred to as the “freest black country in the world”. Barbados is not the freest black nation in the world; Haiti is and long has been. But if Barbados’ 50th anniversary of Independence is the starting point at which the nation comes into its black consciousness, I am heartened.
The black people in Barbados who have managed to survive first and then excel next have done so in spite of the oppression of the Whites they shared the island with, and not at all with their assistance. If that offends anyone, it is no less a fact; and I would go further to state that had the Blacks in Barbados have the systemic support and privilege benefits the Whites on the island did, we might have been twice as prosperous a nation as we have managed to be.
I am not sure where the white history of Barbados belongs in our 50th anniversary celebrations. Are we going to put on display the torture apparatuses and beating implements the Whites owned and used? Do we create the monologues that represent the expressions of slave master and underaged black girls he was welcomed to day or night on his expanse of land?
Should we write the history of the rise and fall of Barbados Shipping & Trading? Perhaps I would have mused on these things privately had I not then heard Mr Williams’ impassioned plea for Barbadians to mind that we do not allow the renewable energy sector to fall into the hands of foreign (I read white) investors. He cautioned that if this happened, Barbadians would not see the benefits of renewable energy.
Whether the renewable industry falls into foreign (white) hands or local (white) hands, the Barbadian masses will not benefit; and the reason is the same as that Grantley Adams recognized in 1937: black people work and consume, and white people own. That is the size of the story in Barbados.
The nation of Barbados has not benefited from an analysis of Grantley Adams in the same way we have examined Errol Barrow. However, to fully understand the pitch upon which Barrow delivered, it is essential to understand Adams and the philosophy used to reshape Barbados between the 1930s and the granting of Independence in 1966. Grantley Adams fought for the amelioration of the plight of the black masses in Barbados because of his liberal beliefs. Liberal he was in every sense of the word; and although Adams wanted better for Barbados, he did not believe that destroying the system was necessary.
Errol Barrow continued the programme set out by Adams; and two of the major planks in efforts to level the social inequalities were universal access to education and improved housing.
Owing to agitation by the likes of Sir Grantley and Barrow, there have been exceptions to the rule –– black people who have been pioneers in spite of the inbuilt inequalities. James Husbands, for instance, has been a pioneer in the field of solar water heating.
When Mr Williams makes such an impassioned plea to keep the sector in the hands of local investors, is he talking about the likes of Husbands and other black middle and small-sized businesses?
Professor Sir Hiliary Beckles, in his last year lecture delivered during Small Business Week reminded us of all the reasons why the system excludes black small businessmen. Perhaps if Whites are to be invited into the celebration of the island’s Jubilee, it may be to start a discussion about how the status quo can be changed over the next 50 years.
Neither Sir Grantley nor Barrow was revolutionary in their transformations of Barbados. There was never an open challenge to the white ownership of land. There were also no attempts to redistribute the wealth that the white population had amassed on the backs of African people used as slaves.
Both men side-stepped the issue and instead focused on securing universal access to education to allow the black population of Barbados to be able to qualify themselves and then pull themselves out of poverty.
Now that free education has been removed as the major plank for black Barbadians to gain access to opportunity, perhaps it is time to relook some of the systemic and financial facilitation that has kept Whites entrenched in Barbados as the race of power and wealth.
Free education was the trade-off for the white people keeping possession of their lands, wealth and position. That trade-off is now absent from the equation, and perhaps if the white people of Barbados want to be included in our 50th Independence Anniversary Celebrations, it should be to answer the question: what are they now willing to give back to Barbados after all their gain?
It seems as though the white people of Barbados have extracted much from the black population and the ill-gotten wealth of their ancestors, but their track record of give-back and national service appear not as extensive.
Every time Blacks move into a space, Whites conveniently move out of it. We side-step these issues in Barbados because it is less offensive and less uncomfortable.
They do teach us a modicum of Barbadian history in school, enough that those who want to understand do. If you had to write in the white history of Barbados into our Jubilee celebration how would you? Are we a black nation or not?
(Marsha Hinds-Layne is a full-time mummy and part-time lecturer in communications at the University of the West Indies.
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