Eighty years ago this month, Barbados lost perhaps the greatest journalist of the early 20th Century, an “avenging angel” for social justice in colonial Barbados, as historian FA (later Sir Alexander) Hoyos described him.
Clennel Wilsden Wickham was born in 1895, the same year the Advocate newspaper was born, the paper for which he would end his days writing a weekly column from Grenada.
It was there he had joined another great journalist/activist, TA Marryshow, to edit his “West Indian” paper. This was 1931, shortly after he lost the libel case brought against him by Walter Bayley, a white Bridgetown merchant whom Wickham had refused to endorse in the elections in The City.
Bailey’s brief was carried by Grantley Herbert Adams, a young barrister on the make who represented the hapless merchant, whom Wickham described as a “contemptible creature” for dropping advertising from the Herald because he would not scratch Bayley’s political back.
But essentially the story of Wickham is a marvellous relief against which we can see the whole story of an emerging democratic Barbados.
His education – beyond seventh standard elementary school – was service in the Great War in Palestine under General Allenby; Grantley Adams went to Oxford. Wickham returned and joined his friend Clement Inniss who was editor of the Herald; Adams, now a lawyer, came back determined to be the well-heeled darling of the planters, and get their legal briefs. He married a planter’s daughter and wrote for the Agricultural Reporter, the mouthpiece of the ruling classes, while Wickham used his weekly Herald column to rail against the injustice, inequity and iniquity of life in Barbados in the inter-war years.
There were public feuds between Wickham and Adams through their columns: immense theatrically as they were polemically. It is exceptional to find two men writing blistering, withering commentary without resorting to the kinds of deeply personal, partisan sniping that are sad hallmarks of public discourse today.
But there was no doubt where either man stood on the major issues of the day. Wickham prophesied the coming unrest that would be the July 1938 riots, saying that a country could not long endure wrongs without redress.
By then, it was his last column for the Herald after losing the libel case; his friend and boon companion Inniss had died from tuberculosis, leaving the editorship to him some ten years before. And Wickham himself was friendless, scorned by the middle-class teachers whom he’d berated for teaching racist texts in schools, the Anglican clergy who pronounced that people were happy in their penury, and the ruling classes who were pleased that a miserable trouble-maker had been silenced.
But by then, things were changing. Through Wickham’s support of the efforts of Charles Duncan O’Neal, a political party had been formed, the Democratic League. The movement ushered in a number of iconic figures into parliamentary life – Chrissie Brathwaite and Erskine Ward among others, the first of a phalanx of black and brown faces in the House of Assembly. Up to that point, the House, bastion of political power for the planter class, had only seen two coloured men, Samuel Jackman Prescod and Sir William Conrad Reeves, in their midst.
And by 1934, three years into Wickham’s exile, Grantley Adams, like Saul on the road to Damascus, had made an about-turn in his political mentality and motivation. It was the year Adams entered Parliament and thus he began to the turn the tables on the very establishment he had sought to depend on for his living.
“Grantley Adams has become the enfant terrible of Barbados,” Wickham wrote in the Weekly Advocate, “and a very terrible infant indeed.” Wickham now applauded the very man who took the legal brief of the merchant that Wickham attacked.
Adams’s zealous assault on the Establishment and a status quo in which life here was nasty, brutish and short for masses of Barbadians, descendants of slaves, would mark the beginning of a crusade that would lead to his key role defending activist Clement Payne during the tumultuous July 1937 episode, the leadership of the Progressive League, formed in 1938 and the battle for internal self-government.
But it was a crusade, the fruits of which were workers protection legislation, universal adult suffrage, compulsory education, cabinet government and social progress, that journalists Wickham had begun, writing, as Adams’s biographer and confidant Hoyos put it, “like an avenging angel”. Adams, not long before his death in 1971, in a recorded radio interview acknowledged Wickham’s contribution to Adams’s own political maturation.
By October 1938, as Hitler and his stormtroopers were menacing Europe during the Anschluss invasions that presaged a second great war, Wickham was struggling not only with a changing world and a region in the aftermath of riots, but with unbearable intestinal pain.
It was peritonitis, as infection had set in from an operation he had in Barbados to remove his appendix. But this was the era before penicillin, an era that could have saved his life. He died in Grenada one October 6, 1938, his pen paused on his final article which the Advocate duly carried.
In Wickham’s typically forthright yet profoundly elegant, literary style, he was prescient about the encircling gloom that would plunge the West Indies and the world into a global war.
The Barbados Association of Journalists and Media Workers (BARJAM) has honoured his memory with a lecture series in his name, his portrait hangs as inspiration to today’s journalists at a media house other than his Barbadian employer, and his name shares another great Barbadian on the boardwalk that traces the wharf where he once strode, and which he departed his beloved Barbados in fateful exile.
We would like to think that 80 years on from his passing, after post-disturbance reform, internal self-government, a free voting franchise, enormous social progress, sovereign statehood and, yes, even the vagaries and vicissitudes of economic ebb and flow, there is much about which Clennel Wickham would be justly proud.
The ‘avenging angel’ railed against the social and political ills that spawned or spread disease, pathetically high infant mortality, poor sanitation, appalling housing and farm labourers’ wages frozen for an entire century after emancipation. This unrecognizable in modern Barbados, in no small part thanks to the efforts of Wickham and the men and women of his time.
Barbadians, especially our younger citizens, need to know more about this notional though not national hero, who strove against wrongs that needed resistance and dreamed of a future in the distance we now call a free, independent Barbados. Free to make mistakes, yes, but free indeed to strive to fix them.