As Barbados prepares to mark its 50th anniversary of Independence next week, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies (UWI) Sir Hilary Beckles is contending that its former colonizers should have been made to pay this island back in 1966.
Delivering the final presentation in the university’s 50th anniversary lecture series at the Errol Barrow Centre for Creative Imagination Thursday night, the historian charged that after more than 200 years of enjoying the fruits of free labour, Britain was allowed to walk free of its responsibilities to the descendants of slaves.
“We signed the Independence declarations and walked away and Britain smiled. We allowed the imperial governments to give us independence and to say, ‘you want it, well take it and go,’” Sir Hilary said, adding that Barbados was not alone in giving Britain a free pass.
“Every Caribbean government since then has been cleaning up the mess left behind by Britain,” he added, while acknowledging that Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago had led the English-speaking Caribbean in obtaining independence in 1962. They were followed by Barbados and Guyana in 1966, before other territories followed along later.
“All of our prime ministers from 1962, ‘66, all the way through . . . were very keen to get away from colonization . . . the tyranny of colonization. We just wanted to get away,” the UWI official said of the pro-independence mood of that era.
“But in the act of getting away, you lost focus,” he said.
“We allowed them to walk away in the ‘60s after 200 years of extracting all the wealth out of this region. We allowed them to walk away in those negotiations without a development plan.”
However, Sir Hilary argued that “Britain had a moral obligation to have given a development plan to each of these islands when they entered independence”.
He recalled that celebrated Caribbean economist and Nobel Laureate Sir Arthur Lewis had said that the region was in need of 200 million pounds sterling, while stressing that “the issue of 200 years of unpaid slave labour is yet to be addressed”.
Sir Hilary also highlighted a visit by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II to Barbados on the eve of independence in 1966, during which she attended a function at the Bell Plantation, owned by descendants of Lord Harewood, a large slavery plantation owner.
“We should not have been wining and dining our queen on the evening of our independence without talking about reparations,” he suggested.
“It should have been a banquet in which we offered her the finest Barbadian rum, and then we say, ‘okay, let’s talk about reparations,’” he added.
Sir Hilary likened the circumstances of the British Caribbean colonies during slavery to that of an abused mother of five, who had been struggling to leave the cruel household, but was made to suffer physical beatings on every attempt. He said the escape attempts were representative of failed slave revolutions that came with brutal punishment.
In his narrative, the woman eventually gets to leave her husband, taking her five children.
“But you are so happy, you are so triumphant in the celebration of your freedom, that you forgot you have just confined your five children to poverty,” he said.
The UWI vice chancellor said the man then married someone else and shared his assets with that person, adding that Britain had done the same thing with the European Union.
Therefore, just like the impoverished woman, he argued that the Caribbean territories, “no matter how brutalized you were, when you walked away, you should have gone to see a lawyer to say, ‘yes I am free, but the assets that we have accumulated, my children have a right to a share of those assets’”.
Sir Hilary told his audience in the Walcott Warner Theatre that the time was right to plot a course of corrective action.
“This is a good moment; 50 years of independence.
“It is not too late. We have to re-open those negotiations,” he stressed.