When we do not learn from the past we are often destined to make the same mistakes. And yes, it is also true that the more things change the more they remain the same. Major developments on our island at this time hold serious significance as we reflect on our past.
On Monday, we marked The Day of National Significance. Since 2015, when the Resolution Regarding the Commemoration of the Day of National Significance July 26 was passed in the House of Assembly, we have been marking that day.
On that day, we reflect on the events of the 1937 riots. The unrest which came about due to the deportation of popular advocate Clement Payne. Payne urged Black Barbadians to stand up to the White planter class and led a workers’ march to Government House.
There were concerns by those in authority as his support grew and popularity soared. In 1937, the powers that be accused Payne of being in Barbados illegally since he was born in Trinidad. Although he was born to Barbadian parents and grew up here, he was forced on to a boat and sent to the twin-island colony.
That news, together with rampant deprivation, led his supporters to raid potato fields, damage vehicles and smash shop windows. Police and later, British armed forces, were called in. That day, 14 people were killed and 47 wounded. In the aftermath of the disturbances came a decade of legislative reform and the normalisation of trade unions, a legacy still important to the Barbadian working class.
Following on from the Day of National Significance, on Sunday, August 1, we pause to reflect on Emancipation Day. Annually on August 1, we mark the 1834 abolition of slavery in the British Empire and the 1838 end of apprenticeship, a system which forced formerly enslaved people to continue to work uncompensated for their former masters. Emancipation was not a gift.
The law that banned slavery in the British colonies became a reality through sustained resistance by enslaved people through massive slave revolts, like the Bussa Rebellion of 1816.
Now, today we are nestled between those two dates of immense importance on our country’s calendar; July 26 and August 1.
But as we look back and embrace our past and the events that have defined our country, we must ask the question: Where are we now?
Right now, the country is divided on two hot topics and national debates. There is the contentious mandatory COVID-19 vaccine or PCR testing issue that has become a matter of the individual’s right to choose.
The proclamation, by Prime Minister Mottley, that Barbados will become a republic on November 30, 2021, without a formal referendum has left many irate.
Ironically, both issues surround rights. And like July 26, 1937, the vaccine may be considered a matter of workers’ right – not only a right not to be vaccinated but a right to be protected from a rampant disease. Emancipation Day can be linked to the republic issue which may be construed as a threat or boon to democratic rights.
A significant part of our population believe that the decision to take or not take the COVID-19 vaccine should be a matter of choice. Many feel strongly that as right-thinking adults they should have the power to choose.
Conversely, employers especially those who have been issuing memos outlining their new health and safety policies, feel that they are justified in asking workers to take the vaccine or PCR test regularly. They are intent, as is their right, to ensure a safe and healthy work environment.
If that be the case, however, there would be more utility in testing both the vaccinated and unvaccinated. Only this week, Infectious Specialist Dr. Corey Forde told us that there were 26 cases of fully vaccinated patients with COVID-19 in isolation at the Harrison Point facility. Happily none has developed full-blown disease, requiring acute care.
The issue of vaccination or paying for PCR tests clearly is a matter of labour relations and thus, a trade union matter. Disgruntled workers, who pay dues to labour movements, will be expecting their respective trade unionists to be brave and bold just like Clement Payne and represent their interests.
Many have expressed hurt over the fact that there really isn’t a choice given the cost of the PCR test and the fact that they cannot afford it on a regular basis. They essentially view the move by their employers as constructive dismissal.
The republic issue has incensed many since they see the need for a more recent and modern consensus. They are not satisfied that a decision so “significant” should be made by drawing from a commission. Political leaders have chided the Prime Minister and asked her to engage the public as opposed to making a unilateral decision.
Bajans on call-in programmes and social media feel strongly, and justifiably so, that such a change to the country’s governance structure should have their input; hence their claim of democratic rights being trampled on.
We must therefore ask ourselves as a nation how do we celebrate these “significant” dates annually reflecting on what took place, but not putting into practice the lessons learnt? While some may say the situations are different, which they are, they all amount to one common thing – rights.
Whether it be real or imagined, if the masses feel oppressed they will react. The 1937 riots and the Bussa Rebellion have taught us that.
And while we do not promote rioting or unrest of any kind, we are still acutely aware that there are other ways that citizens may choose to protest should they feel that their rights are being trampled on.