Duncan O’Neale: Apostle of Freedom

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The man that dared to represent the labourers in this country and to challenge the oligarchy which dominated Barbadian society in the twenties and thirties had to be a man of independent means. Charles Duncan O’Neale was a doctor whose professional qualifications protected him from the snares and traps which would undoubtedly have been set to cut down anyone who was as trenchant as he was in his criticism of the establishment in Barbados. Upon returning to Barbados in 1924, O’Neale was able to build up a healthy practice and to keep the wolves way from his door. Qualities of independence and resourcefulness were prominent in the character of the man, O’Neale.

O’Neale was born in 1879 within a few years of the Federation Riots. His early childhood therefore coincided with the period when the local legislators tried successfully to preserve the old order in Government. He attended Parry School in the parish of St. Lucy and continued his Grammar School education at Harrison College in Bridgetown. The young O’Neale was a keen student with a flair for Mathematics. In the year 1899, he sat the scholarship examination and just failed to win the coveted prize. He was named proxime accessit to the Barbados scholar of that year. Fresh from his near triumph in the fiercely competitive field of local scholarship, O’Neale entered the medical school of Edinburgh University. There he did more than follow the course in medicine. He developed a social awareness which was well nourished by that generation of socialist thinkers who were even then laying the foundations of modern Britain. After graduation, O’Neale worked for a while in Newcastle, England. There he made his political debut, and was elected to the Sunderland County Council. The field of local government gave the young doctor little scope to apply socialist principles to the community where he lived and worked.

O’Neale returned to the West Indies. He first sought to contribute to the physical and political health of his fellow Barbadians. Perhaps O’Neale’s experience abroad had made him forget local conditions and prevalent attitudes. A sense of frustration oppressed him. He moved to Trinidad where he established a reputation for public-spiritedness. During his sojourn, he worked also in Dominica.

Upon returning to Barbados in 1924, O’Neale showed himself better equipped to tackle local problems. From his residence in the Ivy, St. Michael, O’Neale diagnosed the illnesses of his patients. He studied the relevance of socialist principles to Barbadian society. The lofty political ideals which he had long cherished provided him with useful points of reference for a critical examination of local conditions. He noted that the workers on the sugar estates had not benefited from the increased profits that had accrued to the planters as a result of the war and the increased demand for West Indian sugar. This fact alone was symptomatic.
It was extremely difficult to decide where to begin. The conservative forces were well entrenched in state and in church. They were fully in command of the island’s economy and they knew it. O’Neale recognised the futility of individual action. He held discussions with like-minded men and together, they launched the Democratic League in October, 1924.

The new political party had to concentrate on building up support in parish after parish. In this campaign for recognition and support, the character of the doctor helped a great deal. The party had to make a bid for the middle class vote, because the constitution reflected a restricted franchise and so there was no working class vote. This fact alone meant that however socialist the Democratic League might have been in its ideals, its immediate objectives had to appeal to a restricted electorate, the members of which were unlikely to do more than agree to a programme of amelioration rather than revolution.

The long drawn out debate between Liberals and Socialists in the twenties of this century was unnecessary. Their immediate goals were the same. But the debate was pointless in the context of a territory where the government and its supporters were inclined to view any change as revolutionary. Much time was wasted in hair-splitting on political ideologies that were not pertinent to the local situation. As a result of this, the Democratic League under the leadership of O’Neale failed to win the full support of the middle class. Hope of winning power waned less than eight years after the party was founded.

Though it failed to win power in the legislature, the Democratic League was a useful organ for the expression of popular grievances and for the enunciation of programmes for social improvement among the working population. The leader of the party was himself uncompromising in his stand on these issues. In one of his earliest campaign speeches, O’Neale challenged his opponent, Harold Austin, a city magnate and cricketer, to say what he or his colleagues had done to remove certain ills from the community. O’Neale pointed to the prevalence of child labour in Barbados. The democrat also viewed with alarm, the fact that the labour force was represented neither in government nor in industry, at a time when the installation of the “scramble’ at Bulkeley Sugar Factory seemed to be the beginning of a programme of mechanization. This development would displace a growing number of workers.

O’Neale called for the disendowment of the church on the grounds that no man should be asked to support financially another man’s religion. He also called for a universal pension scheme. But even as O’Neale was addressing the crowd that had gathered in front of the Bridgetown City Council in March 1927, he was painfully aware of the fact that the vast majority of his hearers did not have the vote. Their applause could not shake the confidence of the city merchant, Austin, who knew that he had the support of the city proprietors. In vain then, did O’Neale advocate a lowering of the franchise. The shackles which the revered Barbadian constitution had imposed on the will of the people could not be so easily removed. Austin was re-elected. O’Neale had to continue the fight at another time and place.

It was but a short month after that bye-election that O’Neale again crossed swords with Austin. The latter was challenged on this occasion in his capacity as merchant, and O’Neale acted as representative of the Longshoremen. In April 1927, the Longshoremen in Bridgetown went on strike demanding better conditions of service and more pay. Fear of victimization prevented any of the men on strike from becoming spokesman for the group. The services of Dr. O’Neale were offered the strikers.

O’Neale wrote to the employers and asked them to agree to hold a conference at which the grievances of the workers would be examined. This request was flatly rejected. O’Neale was told that the relationship between employer and employee was private, and that he had no business to interfere. O’Neale next discussed the matter with the Governor in the hope of retaining the confidence of the head of state, and reduce the possibility of a charge of sedition being brought against the strikers. With every good intention, O’Neale made the mistake of placing too much confidence in the Governor. The latter advised him to set out in writing the claims of the disgruntled workers and to submit them to the employers, and also to inform His Excellency of these claims. O’Neale evidently considered that by receiving audience from the Governor he had served his purpose. He noted the advice but felt under no obligation to act upon it. He was totally unprepared for the publication of a statement authorised by the Governor that O’Neale’s failure to comply with his instructions meant that there was no dispute. O’Neale was disappointed that the Governor should have seized the very first opportunity to cut the ground from under his feet. The strike fell through.

This defeat, however, did not dampen O’Neale’s enthusiasm for promoting the cause of organised labour. O’Neale was well aware of the fact that the living conditions of the labouring section of the community would be improved only as a result of a comprehensive programme of action. The Democratic League would be the political arm of this movement. O’Neale saw the need to develop in the working man the will to improve himself, the will to improve conditions of work and to increase his earnings. It is in this field that the contribution of Charles Duncan O’Neale is outstanding.

He formed the Workingmen’s Association with ambitious objectives. To O’Neale, the Association was no mere trade union. It was a corporation through whose agency, education, credit facilities, training in leadership and collective bargaining would all be made available to members. O’Neale clearly recognised that in a society where the degree of social mobility was very small, the cooperative movement was one obvious way out of the impasse. O’Neale worked hard to make the Association a success. The odds against it, however, were great and mounting. Opportunities for emigration had been reduced to almost nil. There was therefore a corresponding fall off in the remittances which relatives of migrants could depend on. The people on whom the success of the cooperative venture depended were scraping the barrel for savings.
If the more ambitious schemes with which the launching of the Association had been associated fell through, yet O’Neale managed to instill into the minds of members and others, the need to work for desirable changes. The changing of mental attitudes is normally a slow process. O’Neale toiled to effect a meaningful change in the mental attitudes of Barbadian workers. In a situation where the same hands held political and economic power, it was difficult to persuade the underprivileged that anything he did would alter the case. O’Neale was aware of the need for public education. His efforts to found the Baby Welfare League showed that he knew how to win public support for a cause. By pamphlets and public meetings, by personal contribution and by private discussions, O’Neale was able to win support for this important social institution. If there was one aspect of his career that justifies his claim to being considered “the father of democracy”, it was his concern for the dignity of the individual. Care for children, compensation for the injured workmen, education for all, dental and medical care for school children, a universal pension scheme, all attested to O’Neale’s abiding interest in shaping a society of free and healthy people.

During the period 1924-1932, O’Neale was deeply involved in finding solutions to the problems of the working class. He tried on several occasions but without success, to win a seat in the House of Assembly. When he was elected in 1932, much of the fire of his earlier years had burnt itself out, and certainly his dream of a strong and united political party had faded. Both “Chrissie” Brathwaite and Erskine Ward had been standard bearers for the party in the House of Assembly, before the leader himself was elected.

It was a time of annual Parliaments in Barbados. This practice did not favour the projection of government policies over a long period of time. Government concerned itself with keeping the expenditure vote within reasonable limits. By reasonable limits was understood the approximation of the current year’s expenditure to that of the previous year. Because of this conservative and backward-looking attitude on the part of the government, men like O’Neale and Brathwaite faced an up-hill task as often as they attempted to have the government improve social services. The high cost of such projects were cited as the main obstacle to their being favourably considered. The conservative spokesmen urged the need for self-reliance and private enterprise. Secure in the knowledge that they themselves were relatively free from want, they poured ridicule on projects like that which O’Neale advanced, namely, that the government ought to provide dental clinics for school children.

O’Neale reacted strongly to this attitude of complacency. His own experiences made him well qualified to demolish the arguments of the conservatives. His intelligence and scholarship had won him a higher place on the social ladder. But his own success had revealed the tremendous gap between those few who escaped the vicious system year by year, and the vast majority of people who could not. He therefore concluded that government could do more for the underprivileged and that it should do more. He also felt that the underprivileged ought to do what they could to help themselves. O’Neale therefore aimed a effecting a social transformation in Barbados through the twin agency of state and voluntary action. He strove towards the attainment of this goal for twelve years, 1924-1936.

It has been suggested by the historian, F. A. Hoyos, Our Common Heritage p. 134 that O’Neale left the House of Assembly in 1936 a more responsible body than he had found it. The fact that the House showed itself favourably disposed to certain pieces of legislation, like Workmen’s Compensation, attest to this change, noted by Hoyos. However, one must guard against crediting the House of Assembly with a social consciousness which it had not yet developed. In 1936, that body still failed to address itself to the crying issues of poverty and degradation which were becoming worse rather than better. An ageing O’Neale won the respect of his colleagues in the House, and his death was lamented. But the cause for which he had expended much of his energy was not espoused.

O’Neale died on 19th November 1936. He was therefore the last of the prophets whom the conservatives rejected before the bankruptcy of their own policies was reflected in the riot of 1937.