Conrad Reeves:  A Kind of Perfection

In theory, emancipation would have made little difference to Conrad whose skin was growing darker with each day in the sun. If anything, emancipation had implied a little more difficulty in life for Peggy Phillis, especially living in the suburbs of Bridgetown.  For now that wages had had to be paid for labour, there was plenty of unemployment. Furthermore,  she could only have the slightest legal claims on the Reeves’ estate as a whole; and there were few planters ready and willing to meet any kind of moral obligation to ex-slaves. The ninety-nine dollars and thirty cents per slave for the 83,000 slaves freed by the Emancipation Act, the compensation given by the British Government to all Barbadian planters was all going into the planters’ pockets.

There is no wonder then, when young Conrad was about seven years old, his mother was on her third child, having had to use her body to get support for the other two.  Life in the small, stark, over-crowded city tenantry around St. Mary’s  Church was no bed of roses.  Most of the men of this tenantry tried to eke out some sort of existence on the nearby  waterfront.  They were the salt of the earth, and were tough, rough, rowdy and violent in their general quest for survival.  On an island of 166 square miles of land, many of the 83,000 Negroes freed from slavery without a penny  to their names, were now trekking to the city to escape the last remnants of a total plantation life.  Some emigrated.  And alarmed by this wave of emigration, by the Negro’s desire to move away from plantation life, the legislators of the day introduced legislation, which made it imperative for the Negro to serve years of apprenticeship in agriculture with his former masters.  It was the only way to stop planters from competing among themselves for labour, a circumstance very foreign to the economics of the age.

At the age of seven or eight, both circumstances and opportunity began their remarkable sequences which prepared Conrad Reeves for his future political and judicial role in the affairs of this country. Dr. Phillips Reeves had had a sister. She was a spinster. Fifty or sixty years previously, the Reeves family would have been considered nothing more than ambitious Red-Legs; and the fact that the heir of the family had acquired a profession had not given the family the type of social standing necessary for a young man who had wished to get on. So with an eccentric in the family, even though she had moved away from this brother and his coloured women, it was not surprising that she was destined to remain husbandless. The age of money was over, a certain conservation had become natural to the new Barbadian gentleman now, that is, to the first and second generations of those male mulattos who had been inter-marrying with the Red-Legs of the hills. Every male with the slightest trace of the ‘tar-brush’ sought the company of the pure white Red-Leg female as a way of moving up the social ladder, since complexion had become the lever of social mobility in this new society; thus, the nearer the skin approached the criterion of white, the greater were the man’s chances of attaining social freedom of movement.

Maybe it was frustration, penance, or a desire to fight back at the society which encouraged this sister to take more than a passing interest in young Conrad Reeves. She encouraged Peggy Phillis to bring the little boy around to her house occasionally; thus by the time young Reeves was ready for education, and impressed by his ability to reason and understand simple problems, she decided to spend some of her own money on him.

Providing some type of primary education for a bright little boy like Conrad Reeves was not difficult, especially if you could afford to pay for it. Since 1686, charity schools had featured in the history of the island; but it was not until 1818, that the first public school for coloured boys was built. Nine years later, a similar school for girls was built. In the meanwhile, the general demand for education was growing so rapidly after Emancipation, in 1846 Government made its first formal grant for elementarv education. Freemason’s Lodges and Vestries helped considerably too. A Vestry scholar was bound to the Churchwarden  of his parish for five years after graduating from a public school, during which time he had to work for the parish. Saturday schools, evening schools and Sunday schools were also flourishing just before emancipation.  When emancipation did come, the official record of children on the rolls of schools read 3,075 on estate schools and 4,372 in schools supervised by the Anglican Church. The first Bishop of Barbados in a report dated 1842 recorded that there were fifty-eight schools under his priests, while another two hundred were managed by other religious denominations or private individuals.

The all important vicar or rector in control of the Anglican schools never did any teaching himself, but it was customary for his lay reader to be the headmaster of the school under his command. Pupil teachers were also always easy to come by inasmuch as teaching was the principal avenue or opportunity for the literate Negro boys and girls wishing to put manual  labour behind them.

Not very far away from where young Reeves lived near St. Mary’s Anglican Church, there was an elementary school built in 1818 and supervised by the vicar. It was a big and over-crowded building since St. Mary’s ministered to the largest slum areas of the city. There is no certainty that Conrad Reeves ever attended this school; and when the threads of his story are put together again, we find him being sent by his aunt to a Mr. Collymore’s private school for his primary education.

It can be assumed that young Reeves remained at Mr. Collymore’s school until he was about twelve; for this was the tender age at which ambitious parents took their children from school to learn trades in order to make some kind of living in the future. The pupils of Mr. Collymore’s school would normally go on to secondary school, however, and they usually left his care around the age of twelve. On the other hand, to be a tradesman even a hundred years after Reeves’ birth, especially one whose clothes were not soiled when he appeared on the streets after work, was considered to be rising to the status of upper lower class in the island’s complicated society. A decent trade placed you on par with the city’s principal shop assistants, with the police non-commissioned officers, and with some types of office clerks. So much emphasis was placed on getting away from the land, from menial work of any kind, Barbados could always feature the comical situation where the upkeep of many a family depended on the dirty work of the man with the trade, while the white collar worker got all the respect and glory.

It is also easy to assume that young Reeves did very well at Mr. Collymore’s private school, that it was his record there which encouraged his aunt to go on to invest in his secondary education. Even among the very rich, only the most brilliant minds in the family were considered for further education of any sort, since there was always plenty of work in offices or on the plantation for the others to do. Then again, most of those who went overseas to university seldom returned to the island to live. They professed to prefer the glamour or culture of Europe, especially those who majored in the Classics; and this caused many an idolized son to be purposely kept at home, instead of being sent on to university.

While there were three or four semi-public grammar schools around the city heavily subsidised by the local government authorities, Reeves’ aunt elected to send him to a Mr. Nathaniel Roach’s Seminary, the acknowledged seat of learning of the day. The emphasis was on the Classics in all the grammar schools of the island whether private or not; and Mr. Roach enjoyed the fine reputation of being the best teacher of Classics in his day.

Scholars like Roach easily made a living, especially since the snob value of an establishment like his had helped to undermine the general progress of those secondary schools subsidised by the local government. But be that as it may, the contribution made by these private schools over the years is not to be minimised. The feats of scholars from Barbados before education was taken over by the Government in 1846,  just thirteen years after Britain had also made her first public grant for elementary education,  are now legend. Since Christopher Codrington,  these private schools have given Britain two Bishops, an Editor of the London TIMES, and several distinguished civil servants. American high schools and universities also benefited greatly from the initial classical learning available in Barbados during the last century, while in the field of Law, a Barbadian even rose as high as to become Chief Justice of Hong Kong, while another became Chief Judicial Commissioner of the Federated Malay States.

It is said of Nathaniel Roach that he never ignored a boy in his school because of his complexion, or because his father was not very rich. Roach treated each boy on his merit; and when he saw how keen was young Reeves, he went out of his way to further Reeves’ grasp of the Classics. The story is told that, at the first year’s examination, when Reeves was placed first in class, a disconsolate white boy let out the news at his father’s dinner table that afternoon. The boy had been placed second. The father got so angry at the thought that a coloured boy could beat his son in an examination, he took up a dinner plate, hurled it at the boy, and inflicted a dangerous wound in the boy’s head that was to place the boy in the Mental Asylum for the rest of his life.

Reeves remained at Roach’s Seminary for the customary four to five years. He was now eighteen and had had to think of earning some kind of a living. The question of going on to university had never been raised as only the sons of the very, very rich were expected to cross the seas for university. Furthermore, it could not be truthfully said of Reeves that he had had relatives in Britain to whom he could have been sent with a view to furthering his education. Academically,  he had just reached the limit available on the island, had enjoyed the same circumstances as most of the gentlemen of the island. He could read Latin and Greek, and could pontificate on most British classical thought.

On the other hand, he was now too old to be put to learn a trade, a thing which would have been infra dig for anyone with his classical background a hundred years ago. He never considered teaching as a career andopportunities in the limited civil service were still restricted to people much fairer than himself.  While the same could be said of commerce, inasmuch as the merchants had already had their nephews and wives’ nephews to think about, plus the other literate poor-whites coming down from the hills in the country, before they could get around to having people like him on their executive floor. Indeed, it was not until 1950 and later, that commercial banks with headquarters in Britain and Canada, considered employing coloured people on their staff, other than as messengers and cleaners.

But as a youngster Reeves had been fond of writing; and his headmaster,  who was also the editor of the NEW TIMES, had also given him much encouragement in this particular field. At present, there were as many as eight newspapers flourishing. Thus before Reeves was twenty-one, he had contributed several articles and letters to the NEW TIMES, the LIBERAL and the GLOBE whose editor, Andrew Drinan is reported to “have shown him many marks of favour.” A year later room was found for him on the staff of the LIBERAL, a newspaper published since 1837; and those who had had a hand in the shaping up to this phase of his life must have been very happy. While newspaper work was not the first ambition of the gentry of the day by any means, Reeve was entering a profession with a long and colourful history on the island. Printing was introduced in Barbados about 1730, and the first newspaper had appeared in 1731. The BARBADOS GAZETTE published around that time, also became the first bi-weekly newspaper in the western hemisphere.

Reeves was thirty-three years old when circumstances presented him with the opportunity to go to England to read law.  The several debating and literary societies on the island had provided a scholarship for one of their most brilliant members, and when Luther Elder was unable to accept the scholarship, Reeves automatically became the next choice.  No other Barbadian has been so  completely a product of this country’s history.  He moved and was moved by the times in which he lived.  By common consent, he was one of the few men of these parts whose influence had stretched way beyond his homeland. But even if subsequent generations of Barbadians to on to slight his memory, what he wrote as part of the obituary in the AGRICULTURAL REPORTER on the occasion of Samuel Jackman Prescod’s death will still continue to re-echo throughout the centuries to come.

“The first lesson,” he said,  “which the life of Mr. Prescod has taught public men, and all reforming public men, is to stand to their colours resolutely and enforce their cause with the courage and earnestness which come of faith in their cause, and a determination to bring it to a successful issue.”