Countdown To A Republic: Culture and Monarchy
Barbadian culture is everywhere. It is in the language, values, norms, technology and symbols of the island. But the culture we celebrate is an amalgamation of English and African customs with European culture dominating our psyche.
From education to religious practices, the majority of our cultural behavior, whether implicit or explicit, has been influenced by colonialism and the presence of monarchy.
Language: Speaking The Queen’s English
English is the first language of Barbados but it is not the language we speak every day. It is termed “broken English” or “bad English” by purists but is what we know as the Bajan dialect. Since the British colonised Barbados in 1627, there has been and continues to be an emphasis to maintain the “Queen’s English” while denying the presence and cultural meaning of the Bajan dialect.
Jeannette Layne-Clarke, an acclaimed Barbadian radio producer, columnist, creative writer, PR practitioner, editor and novelist was known for her literary work in this second language. Despite 55 years of independence, there is a hesitation and aversion about embracing the Bajan dialect in the modern education system. Yet, languages like Spanish and French remain on the Barbadian curriculum.
In 2018, Dr Jeannette Allsopp, Founder of the Richard and Jeannette Allsopp Centre For Caribbean Lexicography at the University of the West Indies Cave Hill Campus noted that there was a relationship between language and class or social standing- the more Standard English is spoken, it was a clear indicator of one’s status in society.
Values and Norms
Lovers of All Things Sweet, Salt Bread and Pork
Barbadians love food. Barbadian culture is a melting pot of fragrant herbs, spices, a combination of sweet and heat in local favourites, coconut turnovers, jam puffs, salt bread, pudding, black cake, fish cakes, fried chicken, chips, macaroni pie, peas and rice, bakes, cou cou and flying fish, pudding and souse and fried pork.
Sugar was the biggest and most profitable crop during the plantation era of Barbados. Its legacy is that Barbadians incorporated sugar and rum into their food and drink.
But from an early stage, colonisers realised that they had to import the foods they desired such as meats, bread and other treats. According to the British Food In America blog, a banquet at Drax Hall mansion featured a variety of meats, starches like potatoes and sweets.
These imported foods, particularly the protein products, were associated with a degree of wealth and privilege as the black Barbadians survived on root crops, salted cod, cassava and corn. If enslaved people received any meat (pig), it was entrails, ears, snout and tail. Some of these parts are enjoyed by many Barbadians today in delicacies like pudding and souse.
Today, Bajans usually consume large quantities of pork and poultry in addition to bread and sweet cakes and pastries. This is evident by the number of street vendors and bakeries across the island. It is also a part of the crisis of the non-communicable disease which the country is facing.
Colourism, Racism and Segregation
The majority of the Barbadian population is of African descent with the remainder consisting of the White and Asian ethnicity. The island which was known as a plantation society was not exempt from segregation and racism. A system stemmed from European feudalism, it was extended by racism and discrimination.
Laws prevented blacks from obtaining the economic freedom to thrive post-emancipation with many having to leave Barbados to find work. According to historian Trevor Marshall, about a third of the population left to build the Panama Canal during the early 20th Century.
Author Mary Chamberlain who wrote “Memories of Race and the Formation of Nation: Barbados 1937-1967” noted there was a high fatality rate among live births during 1955. About two decades earlier in 1938 in the Deane Commission, widespread malnutrition prevented Barbadians from being productive and diminished their health.
In the early churches, front pews were reserved for white members of the congregation. Areas such as Strathclyde, Belleville, Highgate Gardens, Pine Gardens were exclusively white upper classes while Blacks lived in rural villages, tenantries in chattel houses. In Bridgetown, Broad Street held the banks and high-end stores operated by the elite. Light skinned and white individuals provided service in these businesses while black maids and field hands worked for the elite.
Today, as more Barbadians have access to basic needs, education and wealth, lines are still drawn by economic status, the rich versus the poor, the haves versus the have nots. The late Errol Walton Barrow, the Father of Independence sought to provide better opportunities for the struggling black classes by providing free education to the tertiary level, free health care, housing, access to social security programmes, unemployment, maternity and sick leave, pension etc.
In Barbados, some sporting clubs (cricket, sailing) were exclusively white. In the early 20th century, schools were only accessible to people who had money since these institutions charged school fees; few black people with a specific social status had access via limited scholarships or well known social connections.
Creating Uniformity, Denying Identity and Heritage
This social identifier (wearing uniforms) is about control, identity and expressions of superiority. Barbados and most countries within the Commonwealth allow children to wear uniforms in schools.
For those on the lower end of the economic scale, uniforms help children to be a part of a whole and not be ostracised due to their financial inequality. But uniforms in Barbados also determine the rank of “good schools vs bad schools”, an erroneous notion but one that has prevailed for decades.
Older secondary schools such as The Lodge School, Queen’s College and Harrison College, were and are still held in high esteem due to their history as schools that catered to elite, white and upper classes in society. It determined who would become bankers, lawyers, doctors and accountants in society. These individuals tended to create their communities living in the heights and terraces on the island. It also meant that a significant portion of the black underprivileged population was left behind.
Colonial powers and uniforms in Barbados
For the military, uniforms were also used to determine rank and position. In the West Indian regiment, the uniforms of the officers in the 18th century were similar to uniforms worn by the British. But in 1858, the uniform changed to a more “Oriental” look with the dress inspired by “Zouaves” originally from North Africa.
This was outlined by David Lambert and Elizabeth Cooper in “The Changing Image of West India Regiment“.
But while these institutions, schools and military are heavily influenced by the colonial experience and monarchy, other issues have emerged as it relates to heritage and black and African identity.
Beyond the Uniform, A look at Black Hair and Identity
The question about black hair and hairstyles have always been a point of controversy in Barbados. From slavery to post-emancipation, the way the enslaved wore their hair was a problem and early paintings of black people showed that their hair was covered in scarfs and hats or cut neatly to the head.
With the emergence of the Rastafari movement during the 1930s, there was the association of marijuana smoking and wearing dreadlocks. For children who were raised under this religion, faced and continue to face discrimination within the school system because of their appearance. Even school girls with too natural hair and their open hairstyles are penalised for African roots.
The obsession and allegiances to European culture and philosophy have affected dress codes in the modern workplace in Barbados. In 1986, a young Ingrid Quarless argued that she was dismissed from her job in hospitality for wearing braids.
It is with a bit of irony that European and American white tourists come to Barbados and have their hair braided on local beaches by Black beach vendors.
It is these dichotomies that often confuse younger generations about exploring their African heritage and celebrating their black roots.
Censoring Religious Practices
Black enslaved persons were servants, they were deemed non-Christian and treated less than human. There is no denying that the Church and the planter class held significant economic control over Barbados and as a result determined who could be considered a citizen in Barbados. It affected land ownership, voting rights, education and access to education, laws and the right to worship on the island.
One national hero, Sarah Ann Gill was persecuted by the government at the time for an effort to have worship as a Methodist. In 1823, a white group of rioters destroyed a chapel and Methodist Missionary. By law, under The Conventicle Act of 1664, officials continued to harass Gill as she attempted to hold an assembly. Her religion was seen as a part of the anti-slavery antagonism. Despite losing her home during the conflict, a Methodist church was constructed on James Street. By 1825, the House of Commons declared “religious toleration be secured to all”.
Technology and Symbols
Her Majesty’s Prisons and Corporal Punishment
Her Majesty’s Prison Glendairy was built in 1855 and it is a marker of colonialism and monarchy. Located in Station Hill, St Michael, the prison was built to accommodate 350 people but it was housing about 1000 male and female prisoners until it was decommissioned in 2005. A new prison was constructed in October 2007 called Her Majesty’s Prison Dodds with a capacity of over 1 000 inmates.
The penal system of the past is still tied to the coloniser through its disciplinary practices. Despite freedom, more opportunity and democracy, more black young men are going to prison with each decade. It would not be a surprise to find out these young men were born into poverty, living in villages that have generation after generation of oppression, lack of resources to uplift themselves and their communities, a dark legacy of slavery. This remains as well as the cruel treatment of that time.
Flogging and Hanging of Inmates
In an 1875 document entitled “Paper Relating to the Late Disturbances in Barbados” it was noted that the island had higher incidences of flogging than any other island in the West Indies. The document indicated 2 197 flogging for the year with an average of 42 flogging weekly.
The cat-o-nine tails which was used for flogging is an elaborate whip used as a form of punishment on British Naval ships and the British army was also a judicial punishment in Britain. Flogging was discontinued in 1870 by the British Army. The island’s last incident of flogging by the cat-o-nine tails was in 1938 and the last sentence of this kind was during the 1950s.
But for Barbados, it took two centuries, in 1992 when the Barbados Court of Appeal indicated flogging was inhumane and went against the Barbados Constitution. It should be noted that whipping as a form of punishment is still on the statute books.
But the justice system has become more humane; several criminals despite their heinous crimes have been spared the death penalty. Barbados is known as “abolitionist de facto, as it has not executed anyone for over 10 years”. The last person to be hanged in Barbados was in 1984 with a total of 60 occurring since 1924.
A Question of Who Are Our Heroes
Lord Nelson vs Bussa
It took 32 years for Barbados to celebrate its national heroes and 54 years before Admiral Lord Nelson was removed from National Heroes Square in 2020. The coloniser through Barbadian history has shaped the towns and commercial spaces until 1966.
As more Barbadians obtained access to wealth, they displayed by renaming avenues, gaps and streets in their communities. One of the national heroes, Bussa with his broken chains is a symbol of black emancipation and his rebellion of 1816 was the largest in Barbadian history.
While Admiral Nelson visited Barbados in 1805 he was considered a hero by locals due to winning battles against the French.
Presently, Barbados has ten national heroes; other prominent people have over the decades exhibited excellence and heroism. Some of our schools and sporting venues have been renamed after prominent black people in education, politics, the arts and sports.