What the Barbadian Means to Me

It is doubtful whether a man from one society can ever define, completely, all the essentials of another. Even when those two societies apparently share as much in the way of historical and social experience as do Barbados and Jamaica.

The perceptions of childhood, for example, are indispensable to any complete understanding of a community and its people. Not only because any child is more honest than the most truthful adult, but because the child is so often the forgotten camera in the corner. Things are said and done in his presence, secrets are revealed, gestures are made that would be concealed from other adults. And all these are new and huge to the child. He has not had time to learn boredom. He does not have to protect himself, as adults so frequently have to, against new experience simply because the sensibilities are carrying all the load they can bear without burning out. Much of what an adult thinks he sees is simply a projection on to some event or some person of what he himself is; or simply an attempt to find confirmation of his own understandings and prejudices.

This is why I approach the business of defining the Barbadian so cautiously. For me, as a Jamaican, he has always been the most enigmatic, complex (I almost wrote complicated) and challenging member of the Caribbean community. He throws me back on my mind.

This is not to say that he is the man to whom I feel closest. The Port-of-Spain Trinidadian arouses in me a sense of exhilaration, a sympathy of spirit if you like, that I don’t think I could ever feel in Bridgetown. And the Guyanese, of whatever race, I find the most sheerly likeable, the most ‘open’ representative of the West Indian peoples. There is a gentleness, a seemingly instinctive warmth of heart about him that I often pray will not vanish in the anguish of his present history.

But the Barbadian is a ‘problem’. Every other West Indian who knows him at all has searched hard for words, at some point, that will pin him down. His elusiveness has aroused as much irritation, among his fellow West Indians, as it has clearheaded speculation.

In the first place, he is English in a way that the rest of us are not.

History “Englished” him by giving him an exclusive association with that potent and wonderful country just at the time when it was in one of its most creative phases. More Englishmen, from a wider range of social classes, came to Barbados – and became Barbadians – earlier than to any of the other islands, proportionately, I mean, to its size, and to the subsequent growth of the people brought to it from Africa.

The range of classes represented among the first Englishmen is, I believe, important. It meant that some values, some concept of manners, other than the purely materialistic ones of looting and exploitation, had time to take some sort of root. The simple code of grab and ‘cent per cent’ which was, to so large an extent, the legacy left to Jamaica by an ‘overseer’ class had certain refinements added to it in Barbados that would seem to have had a permanent influence. In Jamaica, for example, towards the end of the eighteenth century, education at any thing above the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic was at such a low level as to be written of with contempt by most perceptive travellers. Barbados, which was not as large as some Jamaican parishes, had a well-established foundation that taught the Classics.

Further to this more varied social spectrum among the early English masters was the factor of numbers. There were more whites, again speaking proportionately, in Barbados than in any of the other British Caribbean territories. And, most important of all, more white women. This meant more home life and a further gentling influence on domestic and public manners. Barbados did not, of course, altogether escape the brutalising, coarsening effects of a slave-based plantation system with large numbers of more or less permanent bachelors, whose only sexual release was to be found among the more beautiful black women from the slave cabins, but it did have the counterweight to this I have tried to define above. It was a greedy, cruel place, like any other West Indian sugar island, but certain proprieties, a certain sense of style were observed by a larger sector of its population. These observations may seem to give an undue importance to the whites who were, after all, only a small minority in a community of blacks. But any slave society takes its tone and customary behaviour from the masters. And this was particularly true of the West Indian slave societies in which the slaves were reborn, literally naked, into a world that must have been, literally, unimaginable until they saw it, and in which their tribal and past family associations were broken or discouraged so as to lessen the danger of revolt. As the captive from the Germanic forests taken to Rome had to become a Roman quickly if he was not to remain a mere field brute, so the captive from Africa had to become a Barbadian or a Jamaican if he was not to, perhaps, die of sheer cultural starvation. His only examples for imitation (or re-adaptation if you like) were those who owned him, and there is no doubt that the rewards for the quickest, most successful imitation were considerable: better living conditions, easier work, even freedom sometimes.

Nor should we look on this entirely as a loss, as a destruction of heritage. It gave to the West Indian generally a flexibility of mind, an almost instinctive capacity for creative response to fresh situations and challenges that can be very clearly seen operating in us today. I don’t think it is entirely accidental that our greatest cricket captains, Worrell and Sobers – two of the most subtle strategists the game has yet seen – both came out of Barbados. For the early black Barbadian had a greater variety of fresh situations and more sophisticated challenges to his mind than was often the case elsewhere.

In all this, in his obstinate ‘Englishness’, in his more civil and socially responsible behavior, the Barbadian geography (or, more properly. topography) has played a significant role. It is, first of all, the most un-West Indian of the islands, in appearance and in ‘atmosphere’. Sugar-cane or no sugar-cane, when I as a Jamaican drive through the Barbadian countryside I cannot feel the sense of familiarity and similarity that I feel in, say, Grenada. It is a piece of England, much modified, to be sure, and ‘sunburnt’ by the tropics, but still and stubbornly a corner of the English countryside. And we must never underestimate the significance of landscape in our lives and perceptions. Like the first stories of our childhood, it fashions us in a thousand secret ways.

I hope that you will not think that I am overestimating or exaggerating the ‘Englishness’ of the Barbadian, particularly in the first days of Barbadian independence. But that ‘Englishness’ is there. At least to a Jamaican, it is a striking factor. The tired old story about the cable sent to the English government on the outbreak of the First World War – Carry on England stop Barbados is behind you – may or may not be true. If it is true then only Barbados, of all the West Islands could possibly have thought of sending it, and it probably reflected, faithfully, the sentiments of every Barbadian, black or white. If it is a teasing joke, then Barbados is the only island about which the joke could keep its point.

Nor should the Barbadian be ashamed of his ‘Englishness’. It is a source of real psychic strength. It is one of the inheritances that give him the extraordinary self-confidence and self-discipline that immediately impress every visitor to the island. There is a ‘wholeness’ to the Barbadian that I have not found in any other British Caribbean territory; an awareness of himself as a person that is remarkable, enviable and, in every sense of the word, good. There are no other children in West Indian fiction like George Lamming’s growing boys in Castle of My Skin. Whatever problems of poverty, race prejudice, lack of social structure they face, they operate out from a powerful individuality. They have a cultural reference point that is truly original.

My favourite Barbadian joke is about the governor and his lady who were held up on one of your little bridges by a man driving a cart pulled by one of your ludicrously tiny donkeys. The governor’s wife, a shrew of the first water, leaned out of the window of the large gubernatorial car and began to complain in shrill, ill-mannered terms about the delay. At which point, the Barbadian dropped his reins, climbed down slowly from his cart, walked with slow deliberation back to the car, put his head through the window and said in consoling, understanding tones: “Mass Gov! Don’t mind, eh. I have a bitch at home worse than she”.

Now I can think of a dozen possible responses, from Jamaica right through to Guyana, that a West Indian peasant might have made in such a situation. But it is only in Barbados, I believe, that such a witticism could have been uttered – if it ever was. It contains, in fourteen words, a concern for public order, a compassion for another who must, unwillingly, share responsibility for good manners being destroyed, a civilized and completely unanswerable rebuke and magnificent assurance of self.

And, again, the geography of Barbados must have contributed largely to all the characteristic Barbadian responses I have assumed from the story above. You have a small. flat island, every square foot of which is cultivable. Your water is good and your climate one of the healthiest in the world. People bred easily and lived long in Barbados, in a terrain without frontiers to fill. The virtues of industry, thrift, honesty, care of inheritance, co-operation, strict regard for orderly debate, a compelling sense of your neighbour’s rights and integrity had to be acquired by the Barbadian. These were not simply pious actions inspired by sermons. They were the only possible instincts for successful survival in a territory such as yours. People, in Barbados. could not remove themselves from one other as they could in, say, Jamaica until very recently, up into high, remote mountain valleys of virgin soil, and create lives that had small reference to the lives of their fellow citizens. “Two Barbados”, after Emancipation, was an economic and sociological impossibility: “Two Jamaicas” was an immediate fact which we are still trying to unscramble.

There are, however, no absolute virtues – as there can be absolute vices. The good traits of a personal or communal life, I mean, always contain in themselves weaknesses and possibilities of corruption that the bad traits do not. A cruel or anarchistic man can only become more sadistic or disorderly if he is to remain true to himself. A considerate and disciplined neighbour can become smug, conservative, sanctimonious excessively cautious, a prig.

Many of the Barbadian virtues I have tried to analyse above have been, and continue to be, harshly criticised by other West Indians as virtues that have become decadent. The wonderful and (for some of the rest of us) truly inspiring sense of self is often referred to as self satisfaction. The habits of thrift, good husbandry and industriousness are often called meanness, unimaginative materialism or ruthless and self-centred ambition. Your quite unique nurture of personal and public discipline is often regarded as mere dullness. Your capacity for co-operative action and civil dialogue are often called hypocrisy and compromise, especially when applied to your race and colour relationships. Your ‘Englishness’ is often seen as a smug insularity. Your regard for the necessity of order, protocol and traditional procedure are often dismissed as an infuriating love of conformity for conformity’s sake. Your careful fashioning of a community in which checks and balances had to be respected if you were to survive decently is often felt to be, somehow, a betrayal of the more haphazard, ad hoc approach to social tensions which tends to be the method in other West Indian islands. In a climate of ‘Southern’ attitudes, you are the ‘Yankees’.

There is a measure of truth, obviously, in all these charges. For the very reason I suggested above: that positive virtues always contain the capacity to parody themselves. One is always reminded, in thinking of the Barbadian, of that entry in Sir Roger Casement’s diary where he describes the system of rubber tapping in the wilderness between the Colombian and Amazonian frontiers at the turn of this century. The white Colombian entrepreneurs preferred to employ black Barbadian overseers, because they were honest and could be depended on to account for every ounce of rubber bled from the trees, but also because the cruelty with which they treated their Amerindian serf labour was so much more systematic and efficient than could be got from their Latin American equivalents. The Barbadians almost never cheated those to whom they had contracted themselves. They flogged and terrorised the Indians, discriminately, to ensure that the contract was honoured and that maximum production was maintained.

All the same, it is better for a country to have an ordered abundance of qualities that can spoil or go sour than to have none at all. And one of the more fascinating studies over the next generation will be what the Barbadian makes of himself as a man responsible for his own destiny. Not the least interesting part of this study, to my mind, will be how he modifies his ‘Englishness’. This process is going to be painful for many and to some extent uncomfortable for all for it has, as I have suggested, a cultural root that goes very deep and spreads very wide into the Barbadian psyche.
But some modification will be necessary. The Barbadian is now truly a man of the New World. Between the pull of his past and his conscious manipulation of his future, he should become the subject of one of the most creative tensions ever seen in the English speaking Caribbean. If I am right in my assessment of his other qualities, he should make one of the most creative and original gestures as he attempts to resolve this tension.