The Struggle for Freedom


Nothing could have better illustrated the crass philistinism of a colonial ruling class posing as a metropolitan aristocracy, without possessing any of the liberal qualities of the English gentle¬man class it professed to adore. The effects of that pretence in a mixed community like Barbados. whether in politics or religion or education, were tragic.

It was the same story, more or less, in the politico-constitutional field. The literary theory of the famous Barbadian constitution was that, in the words of Sir Conrad Reeves, “here in Barbados, all our institutions are framed to meet exigencies of a single community, though made up of different classes, and to fit them for enjoyment of that self-government which is the common right of the entire colony.” Early on, it is true, the claim had been sincere and perhaps valid enough, for it had been based upon the conviction of the early English settlers, enshrined in their colonial Whiggism, that their position as an English community overseas entitled them to all the rights and liberties of Englishmen. Davis, in his book The Cavaliers and Roundheads of Barbados, has described how in the 1650s that feeling of separate and equal Barbadian identity gave rise to a social truce in which the local planters, of both Royalist and Parliamentarian persuasions joined together to prevent the extension of the English Civil War to the colony. This was thereby, showing, too, incidentally, how early in the colonisation process, a Creole society had been formed which, while not yet culturally homogeneous, was already oriented in terms of separate colonial life.
But with the development of a slave majority that theory of an English community rapidly became invalid and anachronistic. It degenerated, inevitably, into a defense of the classes against the masses. Every attempt to give some concrete embodiment to the Reeves ideal met, as a matter of fact. with tenacious opposition. These included Robert Bowcher Clarke’s defense of the apprenticed labourers after 1834, the long struggle of Samuel Jackman Prescod, himself the first coloured member of the House of Assembly, the “O’Connell of Barbados”, to integrate the free coloured people into the political system, the efforts of Reeves himself to liberalize the franchise, the fight of Sir Herbert Greaves to humanize the administration of justice, and Charles Pitcher Clarke’s championship of income tax as a necessary prin¬ciple of public finance. It is possible to argue that in opposing the Colonial Office scheme for Federation in 1876, the Barbadian oligarchy were defending the vital principle of representative government against the attempted imposition of Crown Colony government. But it remains true that in that fight, the oligarchy were thoroughly unscrupulous, even going so far as to compound popular ignorance on the subject of federation by telling the workers that the scheme, if successful, would mean the restoration of slavery. The depths of Barbadian reaction can be gauged from the fact that none of the Liberal leaders who opposed it were in any way extremist. Sewell, in insisting that the free coloured population of the post-1834 generation ought to obtain political ascendancy as the logical sequence of Emancipation, abjured any intention of upholding the “absurd pretension of social equality”. Likewise, every Barbadian liberal took for granted the colonial social structure, seeking solely to soften its harsh edges. That they were vilified by the oli-garchy only testifies to the deep power of the reactionary spirit in the insular life. The conclusion – as it was drawn by an English visitor as early as 1825 – was inevitable, that although Barbados appeared externally to be governed on the English model, in reality, it participated only in a small degree in the genuine spirit of the mother country. The forms of the mother-Parlia¬ment were thus too gigantic for the capacities of such little islands.The colonists were not elevated by the size, but lost in the folds of the mighty robe which was never destined for their use.

That, all in all, remained the position until the period after the First World War.