This book examines the processes of nation building in the British West Indies. It argues that nation building was a complex and messy affair, involving women and men in a range of social and cultural activities, in a variety of migratory settings, within a unique geo-political context. Taking as a case study Barbados, which, in the 1930s, was the most economically impoverished, racially divided, socially disadvantaged and politically conservative of the British West Indian colonies, the book tells the messy, multiple stories of how a colony progressed to a nation. It tells all sides of the independence story.
By the time George Lamming wrote In the Castle of My Skin, he was able to translate the fear, misery and violence he had witnessed into a sophisticated literary analysis of the complexities of poverty and powerlessness. His arrival in Britain coincided with an explosion of Caribbean literature and poetry. Freedom was essential if the individual was to become fully human and the ego whole rather than incomplete. For Lamming, the search for authenticity necessitated a profound reworking of the colonial relationship. All of Lamming's fiction is concerned with migrants, leaving or returning to the Caribbean. He has been as involved in politics as in literature and for over a decade published no novels, focusing instead on critical, editorial and political work. His aesthetics led him to reflect on authenticity and oppression, to translate those philosophical musings into political action and critical reflection on the lingering impact of colonialism.
Mary Chamberlain, oral historian of both Britain and Barbados and creative writer, here turns her attention to the work of family history and asks, what is the edge, if any, that a family history gives that other forms of historical inquiry lack? Family history is about the narratives we construct for ourselves which position us in liveable ways, which guarantee us a place in a national history in which we played no named part. But how is the family defined, who constitutes family? In a modern world defined by migration for so many, moving made roots hard, and both the English labouring poor and displaced Africans were potentially stripped of history. Family stories can work as engines of inclusion not exclusion, emphasising global connections and shared communities, diasporic memories can celebrate family and affirm survival – these are tools of remembrance for a post-Emancipation world.
After the withdrawal of Jamaica and Trinidad from the West Indies Federation, Britain proposed a new federation of the East Caribbean with extended revenue raising powers, freedom of movement, a customs union and full internal self-government, leading to full independence. However, a series of reports on the economic and fiscal state of the islands and the levels of support and investment required for a viable federation, coupled up with withdrawals by Antigua and Grenada and the anxieties of Barbados led to the collapse of federation negotiations in late 1964. The United States on the other hand began to distribute its aid on a piecemeal basis and finally opened its doors to West Indian migrants in 1965. Finally, Barbados, under the leadership of its Prime Minister Errol Barrow, set its sight on independence and which despite its poverty and racial problems, achieved independence smoothly without any violence or political tensions.
Distance, perspective and an ‘inclusive nationhood’
This chapter focuses on how the migration of the Caribbeans to various countries and their exposure to various political activities in their host countries led to the foundation of the Federation of the West Indies. Apart from the racist discrimination, West Indian migrants in the United States also experienced a political freedom unknown in the West Indies, where conditions and censorship stifled free debate and few had the right to vote. This led to the formation of Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and African Blood Brotherhood (ABB), which played important role in mobilizing the West Indian migrants in the United States. Migrants particularly in New York also developed a unique radicalism based on West Indian consciousness and for whom national boundaries became increasingly meaningless. These political ideas gradually came home to the West Indies through various diasporic channels, thus making the West Indians at home aware of their race, the need for redistributive economic and social policies and some form of self-governance for the West Indies, principally through the mechanism of a federation.
The Great Depression of the 1930s devastated the national economies of West Indies, which also had to already dealing with low wages, unemployment, malnutrition, illiteracy and deplorable housing. Barbados was one of the poorest areas in the West Indies with the lowest life expectancy and highest rate of child mortality. It was a white oligarchy that was wholly dependent on sugar and due to the steady fall in its prices, arable land was also turned to sugar production and rural workers with access to small plots of land were forced to grow sugar as a cash crop. The arrest and subsequent deportation of Clement Payne, a socialist from Trinidad, in 1937 finally led to the outbreak of riots in Barbados, which was followed by Bahamas, Jamaica, Antigua and British Guiana. These region-wide disturbances highlighted the need for social reform and forced the British government to appoint a Royal Commission, under the chairmanship of Lord Moyne, to investigate the causes of the riots and dissent and make recommendations.
This chapter focuses on the various cultural activities in colonial Barbados and the role played by them in forging a West Indian identity. Various societies such as Dan Blackett's Social Physical Cultural Club, the Bank Hall Cultural Club, Arlington Newton's Universal Ulotrichian Society and the Forum Club were established with the direct objectives of debate, education and raising cultural consciousness among the Barbadians. Magazines such as Forum and Weymouth Magazine published a range of chapters on political and cultural developments, short stories and poems and advocated a common, West Indian literature and a Federated West Indies. Societies such as the Barbados Memorial Association or the Clennell Wickham Service Club aimed to offer adult education and publish cheap biographies of prominent Barbadians whereas sports Clubs such as the Empire also provided avenues for robust co-operation and the indigenisation of cricket.
This chapter discusses the problem of racism in Barbados and the role played by it in nation-building. Race was the external marker of status and the internal regulator of attitudes of inferiority and superiority where white people dominated the legislative chambers and courtrooms and owned most of the land and the major businesses. Leisure spaces were segregated, access to secondary education was limited and certain shops, banks and residential people were out of bounds to black people. Racist attitudes were also institutionalised within the Colonial Civil Service and the Colonial Office and all the lineage of racism could be traced directly to slavery. For some, suffrage, democracy and self-government provided a way to create a nation out of this racially ruptured society which was finally achieved by the time of independence when the political, legal and judicial executive became pre-dominantly black.
The British, the Americans, the War and the move to Federation
This chapter focuses on the role played by the United States, Great Britain and the Second World War in the formation of the Federation of West Indies. From the start of the Second World War, the Americans started to evince their interest in the British West Indies for its strategic importance and favoured political reforms and economic improvements. The British were also increasingly fearful of West Indian loyalty against the backdrop of Nazi Germany taking advantage of the inherent racial tensions in the British Caribbean. After the end of the war, both British and American efforts clearly backed the independence of the British Caribbean colonies and the formation of a West Indies Federation as the best bulwark against Communism. Although the Federation was launched in 1958, the inability to achieve consensus on issues such as location of the Federation's capital, migration and the free movement of labour and the ambitions of individual islands' leaders finally led to its dissolution of the Federation.
Barbados was one of the poorest of the British West Indian colonies with deplorable public health and high rates of infant, malnutrition and child mortality. The wages were also the lowest in the region which reflected the stinginess of the sugar plantation owners, who also tied plantation labourers to the plantation by linking employment with land rental. There was no assistance or public relief for the unemployed and thus the combined effect of low wages and no unemployment benefits often resulted in subsidising kin in times of hardship, an additional expense that aggravated their own impoverished conditions. The central tool for the British to combat the poverty in Barbados was the Colonial Development and Welfare Fund which was set up by the Colonial Office and was answerable to the British Treasury. However, the Colonial Office and the respective governors were reluctant to challenge the grip of planters over the economy and hardly drew up any alternative forms of economic development or organising and increasing agricultural production.