On Tuesday, January 21, our country will celebrate the centenary of the birth of one of the greatest Caribbean men of the twentieth century. I leave it to accomplished historians to offer a historical perspective on his place in history. However, as a son of St. John which he represented for 26 years and a beneficiary of the social revolution which he initiated and oversaw, I feel competent to comment on what he meant to my generation.
I grew up in a home where my parents almost worshipped Sir Grantley Adams. My father never grew tired of telling me stories of the Premier’s heroic challenge of the plantocracy as well as his role in the formation of the Barbados Workers Union and the West Indies Federation.
When the “young turk”, Errol Barrow, joined the Barbados Labour Party, my dad was full of praise for his brilliance. Alas, Mr Barrow parted ways with Sir Grantley and my father lambasted him, describing him as a “communist” who, if allowed to gain power, would destroy the country. Mr Barrow’s DLP went on to win the elections of 1961, much to the annoyance of my father. In quick time, secondary school fees were abolished; the National Insurance Scheme became a reality and the Barbados Community College and the Cave Hill campus were established.
My previously neglected village of College Savannah was electrified, thereby allowing us, the school children, the luxury of studying under electric light rather than oil lamps. Thousands of Barbadians obtained jobs on industrial estates and in construction. The practice by plantation managers of chasing labourers home without pay, simply because they could, was brought to a screeching halt. Attendance at primary school shot up dramatically because children were able to obtain a meal facilitated by the introduction of the school meals service. Optimism among youth was great as graduates of secondary schools were quickly absorbed into the job market. Representatives of businesses went to schools to encourage those about to leave school to join their staff. Indeed, by the time I was ready to graduate from The Lodge School in 1969, I had a choice of three jobs.
Of course, we teenagers were excited at the decision to break colonial ties with Great Britain. The sixties were the most intellectually stimulating period of the twentieth century. At school and in youth groups, we discussed the ideas and exploits of Mandela, Julius Nyere, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and closer to home, Errol Barrow, Sir Grantley and later J.M.G “Tom” Adams, Norman and Michael Manley, Dr Eric Williams, Forbes Burnham, the great West Indian literary giants like Lamming, Kamau Brathwaite, V.S. Naipaul and economist, Sir Arthur Lewis among many others. We were proud when the “Big Four” broke with the long US led policy of isolating Cuba by establishing diplomatic ties with that country. The formation of CARIFTA, influenced in no small way by Mr Barrow, pleased those of us who had been advocating vociferously for closer regional ties.
Mr Barrow and his team moved rapidly to drag Barbados into the twentieth century by pursuing policies that were people centred. Hence, the massive improvements in education, health, housing and other social services. All this done while keeping the national debt at a manageable level. The “skipper” kept close to the people he led and listened to the views of the ordinary man and woman on the street. One of the many things I admired about him was his confidence in the ability of average Barbadians to appreciate policies which were in their best interest. That was why, in the face of strong opposition, he was not afraid to make decisions he considered necessary for the progress of the country. I well recall the fierce opposition to free education from primary to tertiary level, NIS, the establishment of the Barbados Development Bank and others. Thankfully, Mr Barrow was determined to achieve the objectives he and his government had set.
Needless to say, there were some measures he implemented that I took issue with. One, in particular, was the constitutional amendments of 1974. As leader of the Anglican Young People’s Association, I warned that the change in the method of appointing judges and the placing of power to appoint top public servants could lead to an abuse of political power. I also felt that by 1974, the Prime Minister had become intolerant of criticism. The oil crisis created by the muscle flexing of OPEC countries and the drawn out industrial dispute with unions relating to salary increases for public servants helped to turn the tide against our national hero.
Beyond a shadow of doubt, the right excellent national hero made a monumental contribution to the development of Barbados. As the late Dr Richie Haynes said, he found a collection of villages and created a nation. All hail to “Dipper, the Skipper.”
John Goddard, retired, but always an educator.