The Struggle for Freedom

CHAPTER 2
YOU POOR, YOU BLACK

The social and political modernisation of Barbados, to the degree that it has been at all possible to modernize a society so deeply traditionalist, goes back as elsewhere, to the inter-war period. Overwhelmingly an imperialist sugar economy, the divorce of the people from the land continued in an aggravated form, with all of its evil consequences, unlike other West Indian economies, like neighbouring Grenada, where the introduction of cocoa, and then nutmeg, created the economic base for the rise of an independent peasant proprietary, an end similarly achieved in Tobago through the successful survival of the “meyatage” regime of cultivation. The Barbadian working mass remained, therefore, a permanently displaced population, tied to the estate economy and denied, by reason of geography, the escape to the mountains or the ”back lands” that occurred in the post¬-Emancipation period in Jamaica. Trinidad, as another comparison, was an economy of sparse labour and cheap land, while Barbados was an economy of dear land and over-abundant labour. This did not absolutely prevent the growth of a small proprietary class. But it made it infinitely more difficult, and the economic and social subserviency of the black majority remained intact to a degree unknown elsewhere. How intact can be seen from the general observation of the Semple-Olivier report of 1930 that whereas, on the one hand, the white residents lived agreeably by means of large investments of income overseas, and many of the coloured residents benefited from remittances from kinsfolk working abroad, no such considerations applied to the labouring classes who depended entirely upon wages.

The particularities of that general truth were ominous. There was the primitive housing, with chattel houses built on land rented from the estates, but since the structure was in most cases the property of the occupier, it relieved the estate management of any responsibility for the primitive and unsanitary accommodation; so that the growth of a free tenancy based on an equitable system, a reform regarded by Sewell as far back as 1859 as being urgent, still remained in large part an ideal only. There was the terrible toll of killer diseases. The local committee that reported on nutrition in 1939 noted that, with the lack of milk, eggs and fresh vegetables, many households lived on the borderline of extreme poverty and that many children had no regular meals after Wednesday in each week. The local annual report for the same year noted an appallingly high infant mortality rate occasioned chiefly by infantile diarrhea, congenital debility and congenital syphilis.

It was hardly surprising, then, that Bridge¬town at that time had neither the necessary organisation nor the equipment to adhere, as a port, to the International Sanitary Convention (Paris). The Orde-Browne report on labour conditions at the same time noted how, in the non-agricultural sector of the economy, the imbalance between a high-density population pres¬sing upon limited resources produced a system of sweated labour for shop assistants, low wages for schoolteachers and unduly long hours of work for waitresses, laundresses, bakery employees, bus drivers and conductors. All this was made worse, first, by the particular factor of the decline of employment opportunities in the outside world after 1929, a serious blow to the Barbadian person¬exporting economy, and the decade of the nineteen-thirties which witnessed a flow of returning emigrants home to exacerbate the situation.

Secondly, there was the more general factor of the social climate of indifference to mass suffering. The Duke of Devonshire’s well-known Despatch of 1923 on the unsatisfactory state of health and sanitary conditions in the colony had been cavalierly ignored by the local press, save for the small radical Herald. At the same time, the low level of social thought in the sugar plantocracy can be gauged from the assurance given by one of its members to the Deane Commission of Enquiry of 1938 that the Barbadian plantation worker did not take milk in his tea because he did not Iike milk. There was also the shallow complacency of the myth, clearly a rationalisation of the upper classes, that, as the Minister of Health noted it as late as 1964, the diseases which plagued Latin America, Africa and Asia could have no calling in Barbados because the sea and the sun protected Barbadians from them.