The Struggle for Freedom

CHAPTER 3
WHO YOU?

These, of course, were only symptoms of the Barbadian class system, so rigid as almost to constitute a caste structure. More than any other West Indian territory, Barbados society recreated the structural configuration of Victorian England, modified, of course, even in “little England,” by the social fruits of slavery, concubinage, and colour. This was at the same time intensified by the fact that the island was a cramped and introspective community. It was a familiar hierarchy, at the top, the white economic oligarchy, along with the professional echelons of law, church and state. In the middle, the various grades nicely demarcated by income indices, of the “middle classes”, and at the bottom, the heavily negro proletariat. Nor was this softened by any real inter-class mobility. At the most, there were minor movements of status placing such as the process which put the group of salary-holders, especially civil servants, in a comparatively “low income” category in the decade after 1938, occasioned by the fact that their incomes rose much less during that period than the income of the professional and business communities. The stranglehold of the resident whites, not only in estate agriculture, but also in commerce, meant that it took years after 1940 for a coloured outsider family like the Wilsons to break into the trading monopoly of the famous “Big Six” in the Bridgetown shopping emporia. The coloured middle group, that is to say, could not enter the commercial field as tranquilly as they did elsewhere, so that whereas the world of trade took on an Indian image, for instance, in British Guiana, in Barbados it retained throughout an upper-class white image. For the mass of the common folk, life revolved around the daily drudge of village experience, living under the shadow, as Lamming’s autobiographical In the Castle of My Skin portrayed it, of the “big house” from which the white landlord and his coloured overseers exercised their social and economic authority. As the physical embodiments of a world of inter-class relationships in which, although there was little of chronic racial hatred, there was nothing much more than suspicion and mutual distrust.

Each group lived away from the other, feeding the distrust with gross stereotypes that they had of each other. The situation was reinforced by an openly class-prejudiced and class-ordered educational system.
For the Barbadian pride in that system was in reality, the pride of a snobbery that graded the school pupil in the educational ladder in terms of his class position, based on the assumptions of the seminal Mitchinson report of 1875. The purpose of primary education was to create an obedient and honest working class, of middle class education, via the first and second grade secondary schools (that peculiarly Barbadian distinction in itself, a reflection of the snob value that attached itself to “white” foundations like Lodge and Harrison). It was also aimed at an education set within the external terms of the English public school, and of “higher’ education, by means of the glittering prize of the Barbados Scholarship, to work up, by attendance at Oxford or Cambridge, as the Report put it, “the very best raw material” of the island into “a cultivated article.”

Educational culture, in this context of values, meant, as in England, the ornamental development
of the privileged individual, not the general enlightenment of a community. In its colonial manifestation, it meant the subjection of the school population to a murderously competitive regimen, with pupils exercised as race horses in a steeplechase only a chosen few could hope to win, and producing, in those few, the well-known phenomenon of the colonial Oxonian only too often made unfit, by experience, for creative service to his own community.The “Bajan” traditional ultra-conservatism in matters educational meant, moreover, that the perennial current of reform, evident enough in other fields, somehow tended to bypass the school system. One of the ironies of colonialism in Barbados was that, proudly English to its roots, it always remained a generation behind the actuality of its metropolitan model, thus producing the comedy in which, every so often, an enraged local Establishment saw its cherished institutions pilloried by expatriate English who knew better.

That, certainly, was the record of the great “heads”, set in the Elizabethan prototype of the Anglican schoolmaster-bishop of Victorian England, who in the century after Emancipation came to the island to undertake reforms in the teeth of stubborn opposition from the Barbadian vested interests – Coleridge, Rawle, Mitchinson, Anstey, Hughes. It was, as a matter of fact, grim testimony to the continuity of Barbadian life, of which the “Bajan” spirit has been so inordinately proud, that the harsh strictures that Mitchinson passed on the local upper class in the mid¬-Victorian period, castigating its members for their lack of “that higher culture which develops breadth of thought and largeness of view, the absence of which exhibits itself in an almost odious self-complacency or narrow prejudice, the offspring of a besotted ignorance”- could be repeated, nearly a century later, in the now famous farewell Sermon of Bishop Hughes in 1950. For, starting off with the admonition to his Anglican audience that it would be foolish of them to believe that English bishops were waiting in a queue to come to Barbados (a deadly thrust at the Barbadian heliocentric self-image), that address launched into a bitter Christian Socialist denouncement of the Bourbonese mentality of the mercantile-planter interests and of the Anglicanism they controlled. Clergy and leading laymen, the Bishop told them, knew nothing of the social and political awakening of the West Indian masses, for they lived, cyst-like in a little world in which the local Anglican Church Act contained fifteen sections dealing with the subject of pew rents, as if the Christian message meant sorting themselves out on a cash basis every time they attended church.