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PETER WICKHAM: Thoughts on Independence


PETER WICKHAM: Thoughts on Independence

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THIS YEAR, BARBADOS celebrates its 50th anniversary of Independence and it is appropriate that I publicly express some thoughts on this “achievement” which has captivated some sections of our population and alienated others.

Not being one to follow the herd, my views on independence are somewhat unconventional and as such I run the risk of falling into the category of those who are too young to understand its significance. The historic moment of my birth was as much an accident as the geographic location and I will not apologise for either of them, or accept the argument that persons of my generation should partake of the independence “Kool Aid” without offering some alternative analysis of this moment in time.

In this instance, I am inclined towards a reflection on the so-called “battle for independence” that was inspired by a recent advertisement for a theatrical production in which one of the characters, presumably impersonating the Right Excellent Errol Barrow was heard to have said: “This country will be independent . . . if I have to wake up all the sleeping angels in heaven”. The phrase is clearly well selected and conveys a sense of the passion in the heart of Barrow, the love for his country and his commitment to cause of independence, none of which is questioned.

What I do challenge is the extent to which this presumed fight was ever a fight at all or was presented as such to enhance its “sexiness” (for want of a better term). To this end, my mind is drawn to another epic battle, which was also fought in the Caribbean and this was the battle to end slavery. The stories of the anti-slavery movement’s pioneers such as General Bussa and Toussaint L’Ouverture are compelling; however, I have always been fascinated by the perspective presented by Dr Eric Williams in his dissertation Capitalism and Slavery.

Williams effectively argued that notwithstanding the efforts of these freedom fighters, slavery ultimately succumbed to economic pressures that made the institution untenable. This perspective, therefore, takes shape as the post-slavery era manifested a reality where ex-slaves in places like Barbados and Antigua found themselves tethered to the same plantations that previously exploited them as property, because of an economic reality that was perhaps more humane, but equally offensive.

As Barbados and the region progressed from slavery, the reality of colonialism’s adaptability manifested itself with alternative approaches to the control and management of our islands emerging to ensure that our owners could continue to extract what little benefit was left to take. As the 1900s evolved, it became clear that a century of freedom had not unlocked the promised prosperity for the majority of us, but had unleashed an avalanche of poverty and inequity which were manifested eventually in the 1930s riots.

Summarily, these riots gave rise to the infamous Moyne Commission which made several noble conclusions; however, the most compelling were not stated, but inferred. Lord Moyne’s report effectively set a standard of care for colonies which was well above that which was the British norm at the time and if his principles were to be adhered to, it would mean that colonialism would now become costly.  The colonies were therefore effectively re-categorised as liabilities instead of the assets that they were for nearly 200 years. Needless to say, to tell us that we were to be “sacked” was politically unpalatable and a more attractive strategy was needed. As fate would have it, history presented an effective mechanism and our colonisers immediately set about implanting the idea of independence either as a group (West Indies Federation) or individually, but the theme was clearly independence at any cost.

The idea was well thought out and presented to a group of leaders who were themselves returning from sojourns in the UK at various universities were they were exposed to stories of the American and Indian fights for independence, along with the wondrous virtues of self-government replete with ministerial and prime ministerial trappings. The Caribbean Independence project was therefore easily executed in two-phases. Certainly, if there were a fight, it was one in which we fought among ourselves with groups like the Under-40s opposing independence and helping create a political environment in which those who pushed for independence could emerge as “heroes”.

Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES). Email: [email protected]