Barbados: The Harsh Truth Behind the Symbolism of an Emancipation Statue
A few weeks ago, Barbadians erupted in nationalistic pride when a tweet from African American racial justice activist, Samuel Sinyangwe, about the Emancipation statue in Barbados went viral. Sinyangwe was in Barbados and posted two pictures of the statue commenting that he had never seen anything like it in America, this type of monument displayed prominently and designed specifically to symbolise the breaking of chains and the power of black liberation. In his series of tweets, Sinyangwe stated that the story of abolition in America is whitewashed, celebrating people who fought to keep black people enslaved and erasing the efforts of black people who dared to resist. He concluded that “the fact that the conversation in the USA is about keeping/ taking down pro-slavery monuments, not building anti-slavery monuments, speaks volumes”.
The tweet attracted significant attention with many people posting similar monuments from around the world. This morning, someone on Facebook shared an article from Vox that Sinyangwe wrote yesterday about Bussa and the absence of similar statues in the USA. After those tweets in July, I did not find any follow up posts about his experience in Barbados and this article on Vox does not shed any further light beyond his feelings about Bussa, so I am unaware about Sinyangwe’s overall view of Barbados. As a racial justice activist and someone who appears to have an intricate understanding of racism and the effects of colonialism and slavery across the colonised world, I believe that Sinyangwe would have discerned beyond the symbolism of the Emancipation statue had he dug a bit deeper.
I know I will face a barrage of criticism from my fellow Barbadians for what I have written here and I know some of my friends and family will sigh and say “here he goes again, inviting controversy with his provocative views”. I even delayed publishing the article until I saw this Vox article but I am used to being controversial and the disapproval of my countrymen, whether they are of African, Indian or European descent, is nothing new to me. So here goes.
I do not get the impression from Sinyangwe’s tweet that he stopped at the Emancipation statue. Had he done so and read the inscription on it, he would have noticed the “Ode to Jin Jin”. It has been said that this short refrain was sang by the enslaved when they heard news of Emancipation. It salutes Queen Victoria (Jin Jin) for setting the slaves free. The irony of this inscription on a statue commemorating Emancipation is that it takes all agency away from the enslaved whose revolts against the institution of slavery were a major cause in its termination and places it solely in the hands of the white saviour, the benevolent Queen Victoria.
Statue of Lord Nelson in Heroes Square, Barbados. Photo courtesy of barbados.org
If Sinyangwe had ventured a short drive to the centre of Bridgetown, he would have encountered the statue of Lord Horatio Nelson, defender of British imperialist interests. Nelson sailed nearby but never visited Barbados and wrote disdainfully of the island. His statue was erected by white Barbadian colonists even before their counterparts in London had built theirs in Trafalgar Square. Some years ago, the Government of Barbados had changed the name of Trafalgar Square in Bridgetown, where the statue of Nelson is situated, to Heroes Square. Yet it was not courageous enough to move the statue that celebrates the British colonial and imperial enterprise. You see, the voice of opposition to unseating Nelson is too loud. It is led by white Barbadians and receives support from a significant number of black Barbadians. Sinyangwe would find parallels in the arguments espoused in defence of keeping Nelson statue where it is with those in the US protesting the taking down of monuments honouring a brutal past. They range from the farcical ones such as tourists come to Barbados to visit the statue so moving it does not make economic sense to the insidious ones about not erasing our common history, as if the oppressed are obligated to idolise their oppressors. The truth is that most of the people who oppose Nelson’s current location are not calling for the destruction of the statue and would find his repositioning to another area or to a museum acceptable. Meanwhile, in Barbados’ Heroes Square, a space meant to honour those Barbadians who contributed to the progress of the nation, there is one statue, that of Lord Horatio Nelson, defender of slavery, imperialism and colonialism.
This hostility to the mere mention of removing Nelson is symptomatic of the mental toll that the British colonial project continues to exert in Barbados. One only has to glance at the plethora of streets and institutions that pay homage to British royalty. Any calls to rename them to something more apt are met again with accusations of revisionism and erasure of history. Likewise, one only has to look at what the Barbados National Trust focuses its preservation work on to witness how those who command sway on the island feel about its history. If it is a plantation or great house exulting in whiteness and the grandeur of the lives of the enslavers, then expect the Trust to be at the forefront of conservation efforts. Anything venerating blackness, black Heroes and their contribution is left to the wayside by the Trust. Unsurprisingly, one of the past Presidents of the Trust is Sir Paul Altman, real estate developer extraordinaire and a man acclaimed by Barbadian politicians and most Barbadians in general as evidenced by him being awarded a knighthood in 2016. Altman is responsible for the sale of huge swathes of Barbadian land to rich white foreigners, many of them from the UK. Since his land development ventures have led to the environmental degradation of the island, the displacement of black Barbadians and the heinous overpricing of land on the island to the detriment of the average citizen, his claims of being a proud Barbadian are obviously limited to a white elitist Barbadiana.
Altman is not alone with his formidable position and his ability to influence black Barbadian politicians. Numerous white Barbadians employ comparable clout as a result of their lasting economic control. Naturally, when white economic power is spoken of, white Barbadians cry racism and point to black businessmen and Barbados gaining independence in 1966. Yes the island is independent and there are black businessmen. Some of them are indeed very well off and some of them engage in the same corrupt practices of influencing public servants and politicians. Nevertheless, this does not negate the fact that white people in Barbados carry on doing as they please because 300 plus years of economic dominance with its concomitant structural inequalities allow them to. A justice system that treats white people, and rich Indians for that matter, totally differently to blacks is not unique to the USA.
The Europeans created a socio-economic, cultural, political and racial order in their colonies that ensured European pre-eminence and tyranny. This is not something that is simply overturned by a legal independence document. Neither is an arrangement in place for over 300 years just disassembled in a few decades, especially when there is an absence of any concerted effort to do so. Indeed, Barbadian and Caribbean academics including Bedford, Beckles and Carmichael have written about the smooth transfer of rule from the UK to British educated elites in the Caribbean, the confidence of the British in granting independence because they felt secure that the order they fashioned would persist, and the fact that after independence, the state did not embark on a radically altered form of relations with its citizens.
Whiteness, the hegemony of whiteness, the confidence of it, the centrality of it, underpins how everything in America works. While it is on full display there, it operates in a much more sinister form in places like Barbados where the population is majority black and the country is presided over by black people. We have a few white Bajans who try to disguise their racism and the structural racism entrenched in the country in academic terms. They assert that people in Barbados who speak about racism on the island are exaggerating especially as the island has been black led for over half a century. As if the brutal history of white reign and the structures engineered to enslave and exercise supremacy over black people can be erased in a few decades. They claim that it is improper to draw parallels between different countries like Barbados and the USA, as if the European colonisers were disjointed entities participating in separate colonial and imperial ventures at distinctive stages in world history and as if race was not an integral aspect in the colonisation of the world by Europeans. These are the white Bajans I like to call “the contextualisers”. They like to contextualise slavery and colonialism and excuse the genocidal actions of their white ancestors by contending that what occurred during those times was within a period when it was the norm. Therefore, people should desist from looking back into history with sullied 21st century eyes since when they do this, they will obviously regard everything that happened in negative terms. Then we have the Bajan whites who find themselves on social media, unable to resist the “freedom” the platform affords them to spout the most racist and bigoted diatribe against blacks, Muslims and minorities in general. Like Trump supporters they see nothing wrong with their heinous views but are quick to cry out racism and play the victim anytime the topic of race is raised in Barbados. Nonetheless, history reveals that wherever white people have been minorities in areas with a majority of non-white people, they have been the oppressors and not the victims. Barbados is not an exception to this stark reality. All the while, white Barbadians in general fence themselves off in enclaves, socialise among themselves and live a much removed existence from most Barbadians.
I return to street names and institutions that salute the British colonial link alluded to above. When it became independent in 1966, Barbados made a calculated decision not to become a Republic even though it was possible, as other former British colonies had done, to be a member of the Commonwealth whilst being a Republic. The thinking behind this decision was conservative in nature. Barbadians by and large wanted to retain the Queen as Head of State and maintain the ties with the motherland. Moreover, it was undertaken to reassure white Barbadians about their place in society. This did not matter for many of them, who unable to tolerate residing in an independent Barbados with black people theoretically in full charge, migrated to countries like Australia and New Zealand. Their choice of these particular two former British colonies was telling.
Barbados marked fifty years of independence in November 2016 but it is no closer to becoming fully independent. In the mid-1990s, the then Barbados Labour Party administration touted the idea of becoming a Republic and proposed a referendum on the issue. However, there has been no serious momentum to replace the current Governor-General who is the representative of the Queen of England with a Barbadian Head of State. Many black Barbadians are opposed to it with some considering it an unnecessary distraction in the midst of wider socio-economic problems, while white Barbadians are overwhelmingly opposed to it. The price tag for the Government’s activities to observe the island’s fifty year anniversary was hefty, amounting to about 7 million Barbados dollars, and many Barbadians questioned the need to spend this amount in times of austerity. What I found the most objectionable was that at its commemoration of fifty years of independence from the UK, Prince Harry, representing his grandmother, was the focus of attention and commanded centre stage at the behest of the Government of Barbados.
Thus, fifty years after becoming independent, important institutions like its police force and prison service maintain the moniker “Her Majesty’s” in their titles. Furthermore, sovereign decisions such as accreditation of High Commissioners to/from other Commonwealth countries including even members of the Caribbean Community require the permission of the Queen of England. Although this is a formality, I find it offensive that because the Queen remains its Head of State, Barbados must ask for her approval to accredit a High Commissioner to a sister Caribbean island.
The pride in this colonial relationship is deep-rooted and may take another few generations to disappear. The generation that was an eyewitness to independence is definitely not the one to modify the status quo. I remember an occasion a few years ago when a UK delegation met a former Ambassador and me to solicit Barbados’ support for a UK candidate seeking election to a UN body. The subservience displayed to the UK by the Ambassador who was in his 60s and the pride with which he spoke about Barbados being a former colony was not only nauseating but also reflective of the attitudes I have recognised in so many people of his age group. Similar sentiments stressing the positive values Barbados inherited from its British colonial masters were emphasised in varying degrees by former and current Barbadian politicians and civil servants I had interviewed for my Master’s thesis. The thesis had examined how Barbados’ identity, shaped by its colonial relationship with the UK, influences its foreign policy.
The current generation’s allegiance to the British colonial relationship perseveres. I had a few colleagues who saw nothing wrong with Barbados writing to the Queen to obtain permission to give accreditation to a High Commissioner of another Caribbean country. Admittedly, this type of mind-set in younger persons is infuriating and it bothers me when I read the ignorant comments of persons in their 20s, 30s and 40s regarding Barbados becoming a Republic. Some of their arguments are economic and based on a shocking and absolute lack of knowledge of how a Republic works, for example, that Barbados will lose the financial assistance it receives and depends on. Others are farcical pseudo-political claims such as the Queen being the fulcrum on which Barbados’ stability is based and her removal would trigger the descent into chaos of Barbados akin to Jamaica, Trinidad and African countries. Then there are the sentimental and frankly pathetic musings about a supposedly glorious colonial past. One thing is certain- they are all rooted in a serious lack of pride in self.
Barbadians will be aghast at this assertion about lack of pride. After all, we have Crop Over, that ultimate annual display of culture and national pride. Yes, Crop Over, that ode to the days of plantation when the white slave masters would allow the enslaved to celebrate the end of the crop. The end of the crop, signalling bountiful profit for the planters and a few hours reprieve for the enslaved from their arduous labour. Crop Over, the excuse for debauchery where anything goes in the name of culture and anyone who dares raise an objection to people practically having sex in public or to the objectification of women that is normalised by Crop Over music is labelled a prude. Fifty years after independence, the Emancipation Day march and remembrance that culminates at the Emancipation statue struggles to attract people. In contrast, Crop Over events at the same time of the year are sold out affairs even with their exorbitant price tags in harsh economic times.
Yes national pride where fifty years after independence, the wearing by black people of their natural hair in a black majority country remains contentious. Fifty years after independence, black students can be singled out for “unruly hair styles” that are actually just normal natural black hairdos whereas white and Indo Barbadians sport their hair as they please without censure. Fifty years after independence, the Royal Barbados Police Force insists on a dress code for its officers whereby natural hairstyles of black people are banned and treated as offences subject to sanction. The irony in this is that in the UK such a policy does not exist! Neat, unruly, orderly and such type of words are used to demand compliance with standards of beauty wedded to European concepts and are masks for the belief that natural black hair is unacceptable.
The impression one may derive from what I have written is a Barbados plagued by racial strife. That is not my intention. Barbados has undeniably made socio-economic progress since independence with quantifiable gains in the areas of education and health. The island boasts an extremely high literacy rate and there is a growing middle class. Political stability is a hallmark of the island. Even so, the fact is that the conservative nature of Barbadians has also nurtured an environment where questions of race have failed to be confronted frontally, openly and honestly. The term social contract has been used by some to explain why an island with such a brutal past has not erupted into violence and instability. I argue that the social contract is in reality a tacit agreement between economic and political elites to preserve the status quo albeit in a modified form. Economic elites maintain their grip on the major cogs of the economy and even allow some new entrants, particularly from the small Indian community. These relative newcomers some of whom have amassed much wealth and apply their own form of economic dominance and manipulation, add another dimension to race relations on the island. Theirs, though, is a story that has to be told in a separate article. Black Barbadians hold political control and socio-economic advancements have benefitted black Barbadians for the most part. Even so, at its core, the construct of the island in a way that advantages whites endures. I believe strongly that this structure could have been dismantled after independence to bring about a truly transformed society functioning in the image of its people and that this could have been achieved without causing political instability. However, Barbadians in general and especially those with political authority are conservative so the social contract was the method purposely used as the island proceeded into the post-independence era.
Fifty years after independence, we have an island in economic ruin where the rich, overwhelmingly white and Indian, insulate themselves from economic hardship and all of its associated inconveniences. The much vaunted black middle class lives in a state of astronomical debt. Unemployment figures continue to climb steeply. A large proportion of the island’s land is owned by rich white foreigners and Barbadians pay stupendous rates if they wish to own a piece of the rock, as they refer to Barbados. Much of the coast has been destroyed by tourism based