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#BTColumn – What of independence?

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by Dr. Peter Laurie

The heated discussion swirling around the “Republic” has made me wonder what we understand by “independence”.

Some dismiss the idea of a republic as a further assertion of our independence as meaningless: how could a tiny country like Barbados ever be truly independent?

They argue that we depend on so many foreign products and services and so much of our productive infrastructure is foreign-owned, that it’s laughable to even imagine we might be independent.

These arguments are simply a rehash of the original naysayers to 1966. By those criteria, no country in the world is independent. The problem with this argument is that it equates independence with autarky, a situation in which a country is economically self-sufficient. A pipe dream. In fact, the world is steadily growing more interdependent as we realise that planetary cooperation is the only way to tackle problems like pandemics and climate change.

But there’s another definition of independence in which size is irrelevant.

Independence, in this instance, means the right of a group of human beings who consider themselves a nation (an “imagined community” according to historian Benedict Anderson) to determine their own destiny.

You’d think everyone would agree to such a proposition. But it’s hard for the colonised. The most insidious aspect of colonialism was not the economic and social exploitation, but the psychological damage it inflicted.

European colonialism was accompanied by the pseudo-scientific invention of “race” and its use to justify white superiority over the coloured “races”. For example, the Barbados Slave Code of 1661 described Blacks as “an heathenish, brutish and an uncertaine, dangerous kinde of people”.

The constant drilling into our heads over centuries of this and other pernicious lies created a mindset hard to challenge. Worse still, we were led to assume that the historical narrative of colonial rule they taught us was the only possible interpretation of that history.

History is both an objective record of what occurred in the past as well as differing narratives of that record. The consistent narrative of colonialism was a sweeping distortion that emphasised the virtues of British rule while ignoring all the horrific aspects, including the period of enslavement and the pervasive racist oppression that accompanied and followed it.

It is only since independence in 1966 that Barbadian historians have begun constructing an accurate narrative of our history.

All this points us to the realisation that independence for a colony like Barbados can never be a one-off event, whether we refer to 1966 or 2021, but is a long and never-ending process of decolonisation that has many dimensions: political, social, economic, cultural, and, yes, spiritual.

Having come a long way since 1966, we still have a long way to go. Our move to appoint a Bajan as our head of state is but another stage in our journey of decolonisation. It’s a journey that embraces both disruption and continuity. This paradoxical combination is what we Bajans do best.

Some Barbadians think there’s no need to decolonise. Others think the only way to decolonise is to demolish every vestige of the colonial past.

And some of us think we should keep and enhance what is of greatest value from the colonial past — parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, the English language, public administration, our educational institutions, our architecture, and, of course, cricket — while forging our authentic, creolised Barbadian identity and independent destiny, both within our wider Caribbean civilisation.

Much more is yet to come, especially in cultural and youth development. The tip of the spear is our Right Excellent Rihanna.

Dr. Peter Laurie is a retired permanent secretary and head of the Foreign Service who once served as Barbados’ Ambassador to the United States.

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