The Struggle for Freedom

(A story of contemporary Barbados)


It is difficult to speak of Barbados except in mockingly derisory terms, whoever the writer may be, as Paul Blanshard’s chapter on the island in his 1947 book and Patrick Leigh-Fermor’s shocked remarks on the “unpolluted Bims,” both of them writing from quite different viewpoints, make evident. Even more intractably English than Jamaica, it has been a tropical society modelled on the sort of English life that passed away in 1914. If Trinidad is West Indian Byzantine, Barbados is an English market town, Cheltenham, as it were, with tropical overtones. If the terrible rococo beauty of the line of Savannah villas in Port of Spain reflects the polyglot Trinidadian colonial tradition, the Barbados manor houses are proof, in their solid comfort which excited the envy even of Pere Labat in 1700, of the strength of the English domestic civilisation transported overseas. An almost pure sugar plantation economy, preserved more completely than in any other West Indian island, produced in its turn, a white plantocracy prover¬bial for its reactionary conceit. Barbados, along with Bermuda and the Bahamas, thus became notorious for its entrenched system of racialist prejudice, and at times, it seems that almost every coloured West Indian one meets elsewhere has a half-bitter, half-hilarious story of what happened to him when he visited “Bimshire.” The ancient constitution of the island, never subjected to Crown Colony rule, gave birth to a spirit of Blackstonian conservatism untouched, until only yesterday, by any spirit of Benthamite reform.
The educated Barbadian, under the pressure of a powerful population-occupation imbalance, became as it were, through emigration, the teacher of the West Indies; and, frequently, be it said to his honour, a zealous reformer, like Thorne in British Guiana and Richards in Bermuda.

All of this, together, gave rise to a temper in all classes of smug self-satisfaction so pervasive as almost to constitute a national spirit. “No people,” observed Trollope, “ever praised them¬selves so constantly; no set of men were ever so assured that they and their occupations are the main pegs on which the world hangs.” So, West Indians make jokes about Barbados in much the same way as do Americans about Boston and Englishmen about Wigan Pier. A famous West Indian joke, in which England is supposed to have carried on in 1914 only because of a cable¬gram of Barbadian support against the enemy, sums up the attitude. Probably apocryphal, for Trollope repeated the joke, in a different context, as going back to the period of the Napoleonic Wars, it nonetheless testifies to a temper of glorious self-congratulation most outsiders find amusing, sometimes intolerable. When, therefore, Barbadians do write about themselves, it usually turns out to be, like Louis Lynch’s The Barbados Book, an odd assortment of items, from historical details about the local churches, through a large section for the tourists, to an antiquarian nostalgia for the old folkways and pastimes losing out, as the author sees it, to a loose materialist age. Thus does the Barbadian climate of opinion live under the omnipresent shadow of a romanticised past.