PEP COLUMN: Who are the real revolutionaries?
If there had been a CNN or a BBC 350 years ago – in 1652 – Barbados would have been the leading international news story of the day. All over the world, people would have been talking about the remarkable news of the signing of the Charter Of Barbados at Oistins Town.
Journalists would have been marvelling at the fact that a number of the inhabitants of the small colony of Barbados had exhibited the audacity to unilaterally declare their independence from Great Britain; had gone on to fight a war of independence against Britain; and had finally been forced to capitulate in January 1652, but on terms that did much honour to Barbados.
People all over the world would have been thrilled to read the text of Barbados’ declaration of Independence:
Shall we be bound to the Government and Lordship of a Parliament in which we have no Representatives or persons chosen by us? In truth, this wouldbe a slavery far exceeding all that the English nation hath yet suffered. . . .
So we will not alienate ourselves from those old heroic virtues of true English men, to prostitute our freedom and privileges to which we are born, and we cannot think, that there are any amongst us who are so simple, and so unworthily minded, that they would not rather choose a noble death than forsake their old liberties and privileges.
Furthermore, all the political pundits would have noted that the Charter of Barbados had established the fundamental political and economic principle of “no taxation without representation”, and that Barbados had dealt with and resolved the fundamental issue around which the American Revolution was fought and won, 124 years before George Washington and the other American revolutionaries fought Great Britain.
But in the midst of all this excitement, the more thoughtful analysts would have noted that underlying the seemingly stirring Barbados story lay some very harsh, dark and ignoble contradictions and realities.
Firstly, they would have recognized that the Barbadians who spoke and wrote so magnificently about “freedom” were all white men who had reduced tens of thousands of African men and women to slavery in Barbados, and a similar number of poor Europeans to indentured servitude.
Secondly, it would not have escaped them that the Barbadians were declaring Independence not so much of Britain, but of “Republican Britain”! The Barbadians had declared Independence in the midst of the English Civil War, and at a time when the anti-monarchy forces under Oliver Cromwell had defeated the British King, and had declared Britain to be a Republic.
The Barbadians were therefore repudiating the progressive political ideal of republicanism, and were wedding themselves to the backward and obsolete institution of the British monarchy.
Unfortunately therefore, these harsh contradictions and realities take the gloss off an episode in our history that we would otherwise wish to celebrate.
The fundamental point to be made therefore is that while the revolutionary activism of the wealthy, white, slave-owning Barbadians of 1652 is of great historical importance, yet it pales in comparison to the thoroughgoing, uncompromised revolutionism of the enslaved Africans and the white indentured servants of Barbados who set out to overthrow an evil system of human oppression.
Barbadians need to spend much more time investigating and getting to know their own history, in order to develop a collective firmly rooted sense of Barbadian identity, and to arrive at a place of greater racial understanding and acceptance of each other as fellow Barbadians.