The Struggle for Freedom


Yet, the name with which modern Barbados is most famously associated is, of course, that of Sir Grantley Adams, so much so that his biographer sees the rise of the modern Barbadian democracy as the story of its great Labour leader. Undoubtedly an exaggeration, it is true. Even so, that Adams’ decision, after 1934, to join up with the local progressive movement marked a turning point in its history, for that act, so startling a break with the placid conservatism of the coloured professional class, and earning for its author, as it did, the dangerous reputation of a traitor to his class, marked him as the Barbadian statesman of the age. Notwithstanding his eclipse after 1961, his personality and philosophy did much to make Barbados, warts and all, what it is today.

It was typically Barbadian that his progress towards socialism was a lengthy and cautious odyssey. As a young student in the Oxford of the First World War period, the earliest and perhaps the most lasting of the intellectual influences upon him was the liberal humanism of Gilbert Murray and T. R. Glover. As a result, he came down in 1925, a confirmed Asquith liberal. As such, it took years of painful experience for him to discover that colonial liberalism had little of the real metropolitan spirit in it. His literary controversy with Wickham revealed him as the anti-socialist, while the acrimonious debate with Father Besant over the divorce issue showed him as the anti-ecclesiastical rationalist. He was spending his powers on a matter hardly calculated to appeal to a mass population, most of whom have never experienced marriage, let alone divorce. (It is odd to note the frequency of the colonial echoes of intellectual controversies long since dead in the metropolitan intellectual circles). It was not until the mid-nineteen thirties that, with the aid of white individuals like E.T. Cox and Dr. Eustace Greaves, he finally identified himself with the radical forces, and the events of 1937-38 cemented the alliance. His 1937 visit to London added new influence of the West Indian groups there and the Fabian Society. On his return home, he almost automatically assumed the leadership of the local movement, as against all other possible candidates, Seale, Clement Payne, and “Chrissie” Brathwaite. What Wickham had called “an inarticulate majority brooding over unredressed wrongs and unventilated grievances”, had at last found their chosen leader. Yet, notwithstanding his splendid record, it is open to grave doubt as to whether Adams, any more than his contemporaries Cipriani and Marryshow, was socialist in anything except the idiom that he borrowed from the British Labour Party. The 1938 programme of the British Guiana and West Indies Labour Congress, including proposals for nationalisation of the sugar industry, limitation of plantation ownership of land, and government operation of purchasing and export processes, to this day remain an ideal only in Barbadian realities. The Labour Party cabinets in practice did not go beyond the acceptance of union bargaining rights and limited consultative rights, as in the 1951 sugar agreement. Generally, a policy of mutual respect and accommodation between capital and labour, this was a far cry, certainly, from the classless society in pamphlet literature bravely talked about. It is true that Frank Walcott has more recently speculated about a land “take-over” policy, but the remarks were clearly obiter dicta, occasioned by their author’s irritation in in a moment of difficulty with the employers’ organisation and, in any case, did not reflect any deliberate group or party opinion. There was, under Labour, an important redress of the balance of social and political forces. For what it achieved, broadly speaking, was the conquest of the citadel of political power in the interests of the rising, educated professional coloured group. But there was no fundamental reshaping of the structure of society. The Adams leadership apparently accepted the widespread Barbadian belief that a radical stance on the sugar question destroys a political career. It apparently also accepted the belief, sedulously spread by the plantocracy, that a nationalization policy would lead to economic disaster and social chaos. Adams, in any case, was first and foremost a liberal constitutionalist, convinced of the primacy of politics: “when the political fight is won, economic ills will disappear.” Major emphasis was laid upon constitutional advance, in willing cooperation with liberal Governors. That explains why, on the economic/social side, little was done to set up a modern comprehensive social security scheme under central control. Only in the very last few months of the Labour Party regime was the International Labour Office requested to report on the feasibility of such a scheme. That explains why, on the political side, no thorough going campaign for independence was undertaken, as in the PNM fashion, for the bona fides of British governments were accepted uncritically. The real tragedy of Adams was not, as the Hoyos book suggests, the dissolution in itself of his dream of West Indian Federation. It was the fact that a Colonial Office for whom he had played so long, the role of its West Indian darling (including his gratuitous defence of the British colonial empire in the United Nations 1948 meeting) should, in the end, have so callously helped destroy his handiwork. The upshot was that, on the domestic scene, the “assault on the oligarchy” left the commanding heights of the economy still in oligarchic hands and that, on the external scene, the struggle for independence was abandoned by default. The Barbados Labour Party, in brief, was the vehicle of colonial socialism, just as the work of Sir Conrad Reeves had been colonial Whiggism. Its essential respectability was summed up in the assurance of one of its ministers, Mr. Cox, to the Annual Conference of the Barbados Workers’ Union. He pointed out that May Day was a Soviet Russian invention with which honest Barbadians, presumably, should have nothing to do. Credence was thereby lent to the legend of the perdurability of the “sacred cows” of Barbadian life: the church, the professions, the elite schools, and sugar estate capitalism.