More Island Than Frontier

A look back at Barbados’s brutal history and hopeful future.

Detail from a 1657 map of Barbados, showing plantations and escaped slaves. University of Glasgow Special Collections

Last fall, the people of Barbados celebrated fifty years of freedom. Calypso music and tuk bands took over the streets of Bridgetown, and the general joie de vivre of Crop Over — the island’s Carnival — extended until November 30, Independence Day. The blue and gold flag, often accompanied by the national slogan, “Pride and Industry,” flew over the detritus of British rule, which persists in street names, political titles, and cricket matches.

The year 2016 was also one of somber anniversaries: two hundred years since a desperate slave rebellion, and forty years since the CIA-backed bombing of a Cuban airliner just after it took off from Barbados. (The mastermind of that mass murder, the anti-Castro exile Orlando Bosch, enjoyed political asylum in Florida until his death in 2011.) The island’s unions also organized “Labor Marches On,” a celebration of their part in the nation’s jubilee.

Few Americans or Europeans noticed. Barbados is a small and distant island of only a quarter million people, known mostly as the birthplace of Mount Gay rum and Rihanna.

Even for leftists, the island’s national struggle pales in comparison to the more dramatic stories of Haiti, Cuba, and Jamaica. Barbados is known for piety and stability, for British moderation rather than revolutionary change. “Little England,” people call it.

But the Bajans know better. They are the survivors of the first, most brutal, and most profitable slave state of the modern era, the descendants of a radical venture in wealth accumulation and human deprivation. Today, they are coping with the long-term effects of that calamity — and fighting to build a future free of neoliberalism.

Sugar and Suffering

Portuguese explorers named the place after its fig trees, which looked like they had beards: los barbados. The island was lush and inviting, essentially a large coral formation of gentle hills rather than volcanic peaks.

The Spanish, who followed the Portuguese, couldn’t appreciate the natural beauty. They were looking for gold and slaves to mine it. Barbados had neither — its original Arawaks had been wiped out by the Caribs, who in turn fled before European diseases and slaving parties.

The English colonists who came in the 1620s had other plans. The natural harbors, teeming forests, and fertile land offered a brief respite from the stingy soils and cruel laws of early modern England.

Of course this paradise could not last. As Elizabeth I and James I carved up Ireland, they rounded up rebels and petty criminals for death or deportation. Thousands of Irish were thus “Barbadoz’d,” sent to work for well-connected landlords who quickly pushed out small-scale farmers. Here on the far end of the world, the rising planters turned their backs on quasi-feudal obligations and treated their workers more like POWs than servants.

In 1639, this aggressive elite formed a House of Burgesses, just as their Virginia counterparts had twenty years before. In 1651, they briefly declared independence from war-torn England. More than a century before the American Revolution, they denounced taxation without representation.

The Crown tolerated these upstarts because they had found something more precious than gold: sugar. Cultivation of the addictive powder had spread through the Mediterranean world before landing on the northeast coast of Portuguese Brazil in the mid-1500s. There it stalled for almost a century, hemmed in by the Amazonian and Atlantic frontiers. Enslaved workers could too easily escape to the west, and enemy ships could always attack from the east. Other Caribbean islands were bunched too close together and constantly changed imperial hands.

But Barbados stood alone, over a hundred miles from the rest of the Lesser Antilles and protected on its Atlantic side by steep cliffs. No one could invade. More importantly, no one could escape: there were no swamps or mountains to hide in.

Dutch and English investors began building sugar mills on the island in the early 1640s. Three vertical cylinders, moved by a system of wheels and pulleys and powered by oxen or horses, crushed the cane and forced out the sweet juice. Slow fires under large cauldrons brought the syrup to a boil. After skimming, distilling, and purifying, the brownish muscado or the more expensive white product was finally ready for sale.

No other crop required so much animal- and human-power, so much fuel and care, so much capital and labor. And nothing sold better in Europe. By the 1650s, the planters had used their profits to replace white laborers with black slaves, a generation before this “great transformation” on the mainland.

The working conditions were nightmarish. One slave was usually stationed a few steps back from the cylinders, machete in hand, ready to chop off any arms or legs jamming the machinery. After twenty-four-hour shifts over hot fires, slaves in the boiling houses often fell into the cauldrons.

After the initial sugar boom deforested the island and carried off its topsoil, work in the cane fields worsened. Following the latest scientific advice from the Royal Society, the planters forced their slaves to spread urine and feces for fertilizer. Exposure to waste infected many with parasites, reducing their absorption of food and leading to high rates of miscarriage and still births.

Dental records indicate persistent metabolic crises among Barbadian slaves. The planters called these “starving times” and shrugged that some of their “hands” would expire even as they gorged on beef, fruit, and wine. Dental records also show pronounced decay along the sides of slaves’ mouths: they survived by smoking pipes and sucking sugar cane, held tight in their jaws so that their hands could keep working.

“The more and cheaper we have Negroes,” one planter explained to his creditors, “the more and cheaper we will make Sugar.” As such they had no patience for imperial rules about where they could buy slaves or from whom. Indeed, Barbadians kept doing business with Dutch merchants even as England and the Netherlands fought three wars in the late 1600s.

This insatiable demand for disposable humans reached hundreds of miles into western Africa, and even around the Cape of Good Hope to Madagascar, where drought and war meant plenty of people for sale. By the eighteenth century, Africans who had never seen the ocean knew of a place called Barbados, where white people were said to eat black people.

Race and Revolts

The Barbados elite pioneered anti-black racism as well as all-black slavery. According to a 1661 statue from the island’s assembly, blacks were a “heathenish, brutish” species, more like lions than cattle and not at all like “Christian” servants. This law was the first of its kind, and it spread as white Barbadians sought new frontiers in the Caribbean and the mainland. By the early 1700s, the island’s law was the basis for slave codes in Jamaica, South Carolina, and Virginia.

Pushed to the limits of human endurance, the Barbadian workforce still tried to fight back. In 1692 — the same year that a Barbadian woman in Salem, Massachusetts began a witch hunt — the authorities uncovered a “conspiracy” among the island’s blacks, who now made up over 70 percent of the population. In response they paid a woman to castrate forty-two slaves. Dozens more were burned or crushed to death or “hung out to dry,” hoisted on a meat hook and left to bleed out in the sun.

As rational as they were ruthless, the planters organized work to maximize slaves’ exhaustion as well as output. They covered every square inch with patrols, surveys, and maps, even penetrating the deep caves where a few runaways had once found shelter.

When nineteen-year-old George Washington visited Barbados in 1751, he felt like a provincial in the metropole. The bustling ports, the field-and-factory estates, the titled planters — sleepy Virginia had none of them. And the empire clearly valued the one over the other, as evidenced by the long rows of cannons guarding Barbados’s western beaches.

As the heart of the sugar economy moved to Jamaica and St. Domingue, however, the Barbadians realized that they now owed the empire more than they could offer it. So they bowed to King George III from their “ancient and loyal plantation” and condemned the rebellion that Washington led. A major slave rising in Jamaica in 1776 confirmed their belief that political dissent would unleash black vengeance.

That the planters endured the American, French, and Haitian revolutions is further proof of what a brutal, unified elite can do — especially on a small and remote spot of ground. Indeed, they were confident enough to hire select slaves for skilled work and petty management. Especially with the end of the legal slave trade in 1808, the masters embraced a more “paternal” mode of rule to promote the natural increase of the black population (and their own portfolios).

But they could not escape the labor disputes and economic upheavals brought on by the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Hounded by London creditors, plantation managers tried to wring more profits out of their slaves while the great owners pressed for more protections for West Indian sugar. Rumors that the Crown wanted to end slavery further disrupted the island’s ancien regime.

On the night of Easter Sunday, 1816, lightly armed slaves stormed through the southern and central parishes. They set fire to sugar refineries but killed only one white person. The island’s militia and regulars showed no such restraint. For several days they blasted rebels fighters with cannons; for several weeks they rounded up suspects, killed them on the spot, and displayed the carcasses. “Very horrid,” one planter noted. “Heads sticking all about the country.” Besides the man known as Bussa, the presumed leader and now one of Barbados’s ten National Heroes, perhaps one thousand blacks were massacred.

The carnage stunned the British public. For the first time, metropolitan opinion turned against the sugar planters and their trading privileges. Rising industrialists and “free trade” theorists were happy to outsource slavery to the United States and then sell finished products and tropical commodities around the British-led world. As uprisings and crackdowns spread to other islands in 1822 and 1831, abolitionists argued that slavery was a national sin for which too much blood had already been shed.

Barbados’s black majority made this gospel their own. Instead of breaking into many sects and churches, Bajan Christianity drew Anglican ideals of social responsibility into an ecstatic liberation theology.

In 1834, the island celebrated the end of slavery. Once again, the planters braced for retaliatory rapes and murders, none of which happened.

Unions and Founders

Because Barbados had been so densely populated for so long, its freed peoples could not buy much of it. Nor could they squat on unclaimed acres and grow their own food, as black families did in post-emancipation Jamaica and Cuba. Initially they owed forty-five hours per week to their former owners, who used their share of the £22 million in compensation — reparations, to be clear, to the slave owners — to modernize the sugar plantations. Most Bajans thus settled into semi-customary arrangements on their old estates.

This kind of commercial feudalism gave the large owners a low-cost, high-skilled workforce. It perpetuated sugar monoculture long after the other islands diversified. Now competing with rival producers, the owners kept labor costs to a bare minimum. If the workers themselves ever changed that, one surmised, the whole island would become “unprofitable, and therefore extinct.”

The Great Depression pushed Barbados into a new political age. Black professionals and artisans joined forces with sugar refinery workers and field hands to build trade unions. The old guard responded by exiling the black labor leader, Clement Payne (another National Hero) and enforcing British labor and contract laws. In the classic pattern, they slowed the pace of liberal reform while installing more permanent legal barriers to economic democracy.

As the European age gave way to the global struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, Caribbean rebels pushed for independence during the 1960s. “Comrades, have we not other work to do than to create a new Europe?” asked the Martinique-born Franz Fanon in his fiery classic, The Wretched of the Earth. On many islands the end of colonial rule was followed by the nationalization of sugar and coffee fields.

Yet again, Barbados was the exception. Independent in 1966, the island’s government was at last in the hands of its black majority. But the plantations that still dominated the southern and central plains were Bajan too, owned and operated by families who had lived there for hundreds of years. They already counted as “national.”

Besides, poor Bajans also grew sugar. Especially on Fridays and Saturdays, after the planters had harvested their crop and dismissed their day laborers, impoverished farmers could be found hacking away at their own acre or two of cane. Their wives trudged behind them, carrying the bundled cane on their heads.

In 1981, the US dollar, to which the Barbadian dollar was pegged, rose sharply in value as investors bought shares of Ronald Reagan’s deficits. This was a disaster for sugar receipts, which came in European Credit Units or ECUs. Anticipating the end, the largest planters quickly turned their prime land over to cattle production or real-estate developers. They did so without consulting the refinery owners, to say nothing of the workers.

Eleventh-hour rescue efforts by Barbadian and British financiers mostly helped the larger planters settle their debts. Nor could the island’s masses turn to CARICOM, a common market for island economies. Real power was now in the hands of the IMF and the World Bank, whose neoliberal dogma found plenty of supporters among the old elite.

As one planter argued in 1988, “market forces should be allowed to prevail” on Barbados, so that “the efficient would survive, and the inefficient would fall by the wayside.” Four years later, a British company took over the entire industry and began to sell it off piece by piece. Thus ended the 350-year reign of sugar on the island.

Islands and Archipelagos

Now what? The two major parties, the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) and the Democratic Labour Party (DLP), broadly agree on the twin virtues of island self-sufficiency and Caribbean solidarity. They endorse some of the basics of social democracy: universal health care, public schools, and environmental and labor protections. Above all, they retain deep ties to a strongly unionized work force.

Of course, this kind of national project has few friends in high places, tying the hands of both major parties and of post-sugar Barbados more broadly. In power since 2008, the DLP is casting about for solutions to the great recession. Among these are proposals to sell off national assets and attract new resorts with the usual low-tax, anti-worker carrots.

In an encouraging development, the leader of the BLP, Mia Mottley, has been hitting the government from the left. So too has the new People’s Empowerment Party. Meanwhile, the Caribbean reparations movement is pushing for a formal apology by Britain, France, the Netherlands, and other European states for the slave trade, along with medical, diplomatic, and educational aid to the former colonies. One of the movement’s leaders, the Barbados historian Sir Hilary Beckles, describes “reparatory justice” as the great social justice movement of our times.

In 2017, of course, people like Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders, and Marine LePen will never apologize to anyone, least of all to a small, poor, mostly black nation like Barbados. Between the irresistible force of these right-wing populists and the immovable object of the neoliberal order, it is easy to despair for the island. There are worrying signs: drug violence, high unemployment, and reactionary strains of Christianity.

And yet Barbados is uniquely placed to endure, for it is uniquely experienced in doing so. The Bajans’ way is to accept the boundaries of a Caribbean island along with the humanity of everyone who lives there, to look after each other while seeking common ground with the people of other, equally limited islands. It is to embrace the fact that there is simply no more room for the unbridled exploitation of anyplace or anyone.

This island wisdom might yet protect Barbados from one of the fundamental lies of modern capitalism: that the world is a limitless frontier on which to project fantasies and discard mistakes.