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The idea of Barbados

Vincy leader says island most conservative and progressive

by Ralph E. Gonsalves


Barbados is an idea which has, over time, become manifest in reality. The idea of Barbados encompasses more than a nation-state or a national community. To be sure, it flows from a national community which has been in ownership, not residence, of an especial or particular landscape and seascape.

Still, it is more than this; and it assumes a veritable autonomy as a category beyond the community. The Barbadian diaspora, scattered overseas, has come to draw from this “specialness” known as the idea of Barbados.

This idea acknowledges that Barbados is unique, sui generis, of its own kind. It is connected to –– nay, derived from –– the physical and historical condition of Barbados, yet transcends it.

The unique “idea of Barbados” does not, and cannot, make Barbados immune from the universal “laws” of history, society or political economy. Indeed, the idea of Barbados has been fashioned through a parallelogram of historical forces and contemporary circumstances, global and regional, which have shaped and conditioned the home-grown evolutions, adaptations, alterations, and changes.

More than any other Caribbean society, with the possible exception of Cuba, Barbados has arrived at a place where its uniqueness represents a model of governance, political economy, way of life, and social order, which invites emulation elsewhere in the Caribbean and further afield, albeit with appropriate amendments. Barbados’ high quality governance and level of human development have been a marvel to objective observers, including reputable international agencies.  

On a wide range of governance and developmental indices, Barbados is in the top rank globally; indeed, overall, it is a developing country with developed nations’ governance and human development attainments. All this is extraordinary for a country of 166 square miles and a quarter million people, which is less than 200 years removed from slavery and less than 50 years as an independent nation!

I make bold to say that other CARICOM member states aspire to being an “idea”, but none has quite achieved that status. Jamaica is a brand, but not an idea. Rastafarianism, Bob Marley, Usain Bolt and Sandals have helped to shape the Jamaican brand, a marketing tool to attract visitors, but it is not a transcendental idea that infuses the body politic and society to consolidated progressive achievements, nationally.

Trinidad is an incomplete national formation with immense possibilities but constrained by a bundle of limitations, including rising lawlessness.

Guyana’s natural condition is still untamed, but a nation that possesses enormous potential. The member states of the OECS in one way or another, consciously or unconsciously, aspire to the Barbados “model” of a maturing social democracy.

“Successful” British colonies such as Bermuda and the British Virgin Islands are, in many ways, artificial societies. The French overseas territories of Martinique and Guadeloupe are subsidised enclaves in the region, in search of a Caribbean identity. Puerto Rico is a Caribbean outpost of the American empire, a confused and inchoate territory with an ill-defined future.

This idea of Barbados is not coterminous with a narrow chauvinism, island nationalism or a jaundiced arrogance, though some within and without Barbados may mistake or confuse these with the uplifting “idea” itself. The “idea of Barbados” has saved Barbados in the past and will surely enable Barbados to meet successfully its current economic challenges brought on largely, though not exclusively, by the prolonged global economic slowdown from 2008, and continuing.

Barbados is at once the most conservative and the most progressive society in the Caribbean, bar none! It extols continuity yet engineers, and embraces, change. It is the only Caribbean country that has had, since conquest and settlement, unbroken representative government, albeit on a restrictive franchise until universal adult suffrage in 1946.

It is the first Caribbean country to have attained mass adult literacy, universal primary and secondary education, and “free” university education. It is the first Caribbean country to have transformed its economy from sugar to tourism, international financial services, and other services. Very early it embraced the Caribbean Court of Justice and cut its judicial umbilical cord with the British Privy Council, yet it values its connection with the British Crown.

Barbados is possessed of “a starched Anglicanism”, to use Gordon Lewis’ telling phrase, but is more relaxed, informally, about homosexuality than any other Caribbean society. It places a premium on the maintenance of law and order, yet zealously guards individual rights and freedoms. And the list goes on!

In Barbados, there is an invisible “genius of the people” which is the foundation of the idea of Barbados.  Modern social scientists refer to this social foundation as “social capital” but it is more than this. I find the category of “social capital” an inadequate proxy for the grounded common sense of Barbadians, their social solidarity, their ability to enhance their capacity to come to terms with their condition and environment, and to address in an efficacious way any set of challenges that arise.  Other Caribbean societies, including St Vincent and the Grenadines, display these qualities, but Barbados seems to have them to an extraordinary degree.

There is an undoubted Barbadian sensibility that informs or shapes the individual and collective responses of the Barbadian people. Many other Caribbean nationals perceive this, quite wrongly, as a sense of “Bajan superiority”. It is not that; it is an attribute of quiet assurance, a manifestation of the virtue of self-mastery.  That is the wellspring of a civil, and civilized, people steeped in progressive values, but on the bedrock of core values lodged in the social consciousness.

More than any other Caribbean nationals, they appreciate that a progressive society is not built on leisure, pleasure and nice time, but on hard, smart, productive effort. All this is part of the idea of Barbados.

An acute and dispassionate observer of Barbados notices a distinctiveness that goes beyond, and is partly evident from, an especially unique accent in speech, a restraint in the use of bombast in day-to-day language, an intolerance of slipshod work, an insistence that Government delivers basic services of quality, a settled but not unsettling “mirror image” of themselves, and an elemental patriotism devoid of gaudy exhibitionism.  These observances are evident in the outlook of Barbadians of all walks of life: rank-and-file Bajans, intellectuals, businessfolks, Bajan Rastafarians, writers/performers in the field of the creative imagination, civil society leaders, and assorted professionals.

It has always struck me, for instance, that Barbadian entrepreneurs, be they the offspring of the traditional planter-merchant elite or of the newer type, commit themselves to Barbados in a way which appears to be different and better when compared to the commitment of most of the other Caribbean entrepreneurs to their respective countries. Examples abound from Barbados: The “Big Six” owners, Kiffyn Simpson, the Goddards, C.O. Williams, Rayside, Nassar, Husbands, James Tudor of blessed memory, and other entrepreneurs of more recent vintage.

Likewise, I have noted that Barbadian writers of the creative imagination, an invariably restless breed who roam regionally and globally, return and stay in the land of their birth and socialization. The most striking example of these is the iconic George Lamming. They simply conclude that Barbados is their natural place to be in very much the same way that international organizations and embassies with assignments to the nation states of the Eastern Caribbean set up comfortable shops in Barbados.

They, too, acknowledge the convenience and modernity of Barbados, but it is their unarticulated recognition of something special: the idea of Barbados.

I have observed that, generally speaking, the best and brightest of Barbados enter its Public Service whether in the Civil Service, the teaching service, the judiciary or politics. At the leadership levels Barbados has been blessed by brilliant and grounded personalities such as Grantley Adams, Errol Barrow, Tom Adams, Bernard St John, Henry Forde, Richie Haynes, Erskine Sandiford, Owen Arthur, David Thompson, Freundel Stuart  and Mia Mottley. Surely, this constellation constitutes and abundance of riches over a 60-year period.

Errol Barrow

Errol Barrow

Of this galaxy, I am of the considered opinion that Errol Barrow is the greatest leader that our CARICOM region has thrown up since universal adult suffrage. In national and regional impact and influence, Barrow compares with Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore. This high quality leadership over a sustained period is a manifestation, and a buttress, of the idea of Barbados.

In the complex and competitive modern global circumstances, the nurturing of continued quality leadership is an awesome challenge for Barbados. The idea of Barbados is in danger of being undermined if the political system fails to renew and replenish, on an ongoing basis, its leadership stock from the best and brightest of Barbados.

I am satisfied that the “idea of Barbados” in tandem with a mature regionalism in CARICOM is the vehicle through which Barbados will successfully meet its current and prospective economic challenges. The idea of Barbados is a shared experience of Barbadians; it belongs to them. However, this shared experience must become a conscious expression and a fully articulated language for action.

It is the frame of reference for continuity and change, orderly governance and profound alterations in the political economy to accommodate the circumstances at hand. The maturing regional matrices and an alive internationalism provide the context, space, and nexus for the full flowering of the “idea of Barbados”.

In this vein, I pose an overarching query which I raised recently in the context of my Budget Address for St Vincent and the Grenadines.

The query for Barbados is this: can the socioeconomic model initiated by Errol Barrow, perfected by subsequent governments, and which came to maturation under Owen Arthur, be sustained in a period of prolonged global economic slowdown and continued economic uncertainty? If the answer is “Yes”, a temporizing wait-and-see attitude or approach may be in order. If the answer is “No”, alterations and adaptations appropriate to the condition are clearly necessary and desirable.

In St Vincent and the Grenadines, and I suspect in Barbados, a temporizing or wait-and-see is out of the question.

An appropriate strategic framework, balancing prudence and enterprise, coupled with specially targeted interventions, is likely to foster economic growth and fiscal consolidation.

The correct answer to the overarching query which I have posed, within the articulated context of “the idea of Barbados” and its regional-international linkages, is likely to yield uplifting results. Thus, rather than propose a particular policy without an articulated context, the policy should be put within the appropriate strategic framework.

Once it is appreciated that the extant socioeconomic model is not sustainable at a time of a prolonged global economic slowdown and that Barbados has always triumphed in challenging circumstances, the people are likely to respond understandingly and favourably. So, for example, a contribution from students to their own educational investment at the tertiary level is less likely to be opposed.

If the answer to the overarching query, articulated context and strategic framework (including targeted interventions) are fully elaborated, references to “Barrow’s legacy” or “Bajan’s birthright” would be seen as intellectually/practically untenable and demagogic.

I am grappling with similar considerations and policy/programmatic issues in St Vincent and the Grenadines.  Unless we have intellectual clarity ourselves, the pandering foolishness emanating from some quarters, that ought to know better, would gain currency.

The issues at stake for St Vincent and the Grenadines, and probably for Barbados, include efficient public expenditure; the containment of recurrent expenditure; efficacious debt management; optimal tax administration; economic growth; job and wealth creation; social cohesion and a reduction in social inequality. These are very challenging and not amenable to quick fixes, particularly in small, open, resource-challenged economies in the context of a global economic slowdown. The chatterati, with their feet firmly planted in the air, have all the facile answers, but no responsibility for their invariable wrong-headedness.

Fundamentally, “the idea of Barbados” faces enormous challenges from the process of globalization and its attendant discontents. Globalization facilitates an increasing homogenization of culture propagated by a dominant cultural imperialism. Globalization is impatient of “localization”, but the idea of Barbados strengthens the quest for a particular space within a wider universalism.

This dialectical engagement between “the local” and “the global” does not necessarily presage an undermining of the idea of Barbados, but an enrichment of it. Still, it is a challenging endeavour. We must have faith that the idea of Barbados will endure, but faith is made complete or perfect with deeds.

30 Responses to The idea of Barbados

  1. Elroy Doyle
    Elroy Doyle April 4, 2014 at 6:40 am

    A very long read, but interesting!

  2. d smith April 4, 2014 at 7:34 am

    Your Honourable Sir. thank you. Short as this piece, it read as like a good book. All Caribbean nations should thank you, but many would start throwing they toys out of they prams.

  3. ARG Chronicles April 4, 2014 at 8:02 am

    This is an amazing article, one which every Barbadian young and old, might want to take a read of. It’s pretty deep and really leaves food for thought..

  4. harry russell April 4, 2014 at 9:22 am

    This is a particularly interesting article. I agree with the concept of the ‘idea of Barbados’. I am at one with the point that many sons of the soil go away and succeed but come back to live because living here provides more satisfaction. The challenge is to ‘renew and replenish, on an ongoing basis its leadership stock from the best and brightest of Barbados.’

  5. Angel OfThunder
    Angel OfThunder April 4, 2014 at 9:33 am

    We have ideas to sell ideas that can’t be turn down, bet ur top dollar on it……

  6. Bajanwoman April 4, 2014 at 9:58 am

    After reading this … I love my country evenmore… and wish the youth coming after me would understand what it means for this nation…

  7. G. J April 4, 2014 at 10:09 am

    I wish our own PM could have verbalised and articulated such in the form of social and economic plan. Maybe it is time for the next Caricom step … and whither LIAT, whether economical sea transport?

  8. bimjim April 4, 2014 at 10:12 am

    The guy’s on crack, or has been smoking SVG weed too long. The “Idea of Barbados” is long – LONG – gone, replaced by the same self-centered politicians and greedy (mostly Trinidadian) businessmen as Ralph is familiar with who are sucking the soul out of the middle class and poor and taking and/or selling off everything that is not cemented or chained in place. The only “Idea of Barbados” left now is poverty, devaluation, unemployment and high crime rates, the detritus of people like Gonsalves himself. That there was even a proposal to cement over a good part of the island’s prime agricultural land, and this signifies how far business and politics has gone down the slippery slope. Gonsalves and Jean Holder make a good pair – two aloof incompetents clearly divorced from reality and with control over hundreds of millions of dollars of other peoples’ money.

  9. Dave Holder
    Dave Holder April 4, 2014 at 11:17 am


  10. Brerlou King April 4, 2014 at 11:25 am

    I was a student leader at Cave Hill during a part of Ralph Gonsalves’ stay there as a young man, possibly a teenager. Before I read his essay, I remarked to myself that he’d better say nice things about us, because he always acted as though he enjoyed every minute of his stay here.

    He has instead hit on every thing I have wanted to say about the spirit of Barbados, well nearly, and I have very little to add. He UNDERSTANDS the essence of the Barbadian spirit, unlike many of his contemporaries who poked fun at what they perceived as our stuffiness and conservatism. This is the kind of third party endorsement of the Bajan gestalt that we need to promote to the world.

    Finally, I notice he has used the word “model” at least twice in this piece. I have used it over and over again during my prolonged sojourn in the USA. In fact I liked to point out that the population of the USA is almost exactly a thousand times more than the population of Barbados, and the educational level and quality of life is about the same. This could make it an important test bed for financial and micro-economic initiatives which American leaders might want to examine or pursue. (Theirs is a large open economy (LOE), ours is a small open economy (SOE), but we share similar budgetary and foreign exchange problems.) So there is a lot they can learn from us and vice versa.

  11. Ejam. April 4, 2014 at 11:26 am

    Thank you, Mr. Ralph E. Gonsalves, for your honest and clearly written impression about Barbados. I’ve been living overseas for many years, and have traveled back to the place of my birth for short vacations to attend specific events. I’ve never heard one of my countrymen discuss Barbados ‘ like what you have written. Now, I can discuss my homeland with more confidence, even if the economic conditions deteriorate, because the island has reached its goal in educating it’s nationals, and I know that with the clear thinking members of Parliament, and the leaders in different areas of government and private businesses, Barbados will survive. My only concern is the direction in which the youths of today are heading;, because the survival of their integrity will depend on good leadership and the teaching of values in every section of the community. We have to remember that many empires have fallen, and do there has to be a stance by Barbadians to maintain their high standards, and not to Globalization, regardless of the influential nation/s, to make Barbados lose its place of value on this earth. Thanks again.

  12. Alex Holder April 4, 2014 at 11:47 am

    Very interesting read Sir. The “idea of Barbados” is still very much present in Barbados. And while it is an “ideal” position for all Caribbean nations to aspire for… we must all realize that the region – like the rest of the world – is getting increasingly smaller!

    “There is an undoubted Barbadian sensibility that informs or shapes the individual and collective responses of the Barbadian people. Many other Caribbean nationals perceive this, quite wrongly, as a sense of “Bajan superiority”. It is not that; it is an attribute of quiet assurance, a manifestation of the virtue of self-mastery. That is the wellspring of a civil, and civilized, people steeped in progressive values, but on the bedrock of core values lodged in the social consciousness.”

  13. Cassiesmart April 4, 2014 at 12:07 pm

    I wish to thank the honourable SVG PM for tasking the time to pen this script. It is a firm reminder that we have set certain benchmarks in history which are to be upheld. It calls us to be reminded of our past and to emphasize the ‘role’ our nation plays to ignite others within the region.

    Most importantly, it reminds us to be proud of our heritage, to be appreciative of where that heritage has delivered us and to act/behave/perform accordingly at ALL levels of society. It alludes to the ‘underpinning reality’ of whether we are now able to sustain the legacy inherited in “the idea of Barbados”, what’s for our children and their future children.

  14. d smith April 4, 2014 at 3:58 pm

    If Mr bimjim is a bajan, you are very disrespectful, and should enter an apology to the honourable gentleman. Any individual failures in Barbados, can be laid on certain shoulders. would you really want to see the demise of our Barbados. A proud bajan once said , the people in Barbados who makes the most noises are the ones who has never contributed to the economy of the island. We use to blame the whites , now we are blaming the trinnis.

  15. Jacqui Baptiste April 4, 2014 at 4:21 pm

    Having left the island as a child, reading the above article has simply afforded me a feeling of great joy and pride about the writer’s tribute about the island. I do hope that the island does not depart from its Christian heritage as international ‘ social pressure’ forces it to conform to so called ‘modern trends’.

  16. Peter Thompson April 4, 2014 at 6:40 pm

    Gonsalves’ analysis is cogent, if a little over optimistic. There are parts of it to which we all should pay more attention:
    * “extols continuity yet engineers, and embraces, change”
    * “more relaxed, informally, about homosexuality than any other Caribbean society”
    * “steeped in progressive values”
    * “More than any other Caribbean nationals, they appreciate that a progressive society is not built on leisure, pleasure and nice time, but on hard, smart, productive effort.”
    * “zealously guards individual rights and freedoms”

    If we cultivated these values of tolerance and industry we would have less time for complaining and backstabbing.

  17. Winston Arthur Trechane April 4, 2014 at 11:32 pm

    My fellow West Indian is imprecise in “global economic slowdown”. Precisely it is ‘pending global economic death’.

  18. UKBajan April 5, 2014 at 5:45 am

    I don’t see why Mr Bimjim should apologise for his comments. It’s an open forum and we learn much from disagreement.
    If we re-read the last 4 paragraphs of the article and the challenges outlined, they tie in with the very issues Mr Bimjim has raised.
    d smith points out correctly (though that was not the intent) that Barbados used to be run by, and for the benefit, of the white elite. Now it is perceived to be Trini businessmen.
    So, what is our plan to meet the challenges coming our way? The article above ends by saying clearly that ‘but faith is made complete or perfect with deeds.’ So, what action (deeds) are we putting in place to stop selling off everything, prepare for the challenges as the global economy changes and tackle the issues raised by both Mr Bimjim and the article?

  19. Volcano Bdos
    Volcano Bdos April 5, 2014 at 8:46 am

    Well written Comrade, Well written!!!!

  20. Greg April 5, 2014 at 8:07 pm

    Hats off to Comrade Ralph, who simultaneously explains what makes us special and challenges us to keep it that way. Well done, Sir!

  21. Walter C. Charles April 5, 2014 at 11:48 pm

    The information in this article should be passed on to ALL of the other “leaders” in the other Caribbean islands. The Bajans have achieved a political maturity that is missing in the other islands. Hopefully the other Caribbean leaders read this article and begin to move their individual island towards the Bajan idea. On a larger scale it would be greater if we could see a “West Indian” idea.

    • Sandi Megill June 2, 2014 at 9:09 am


      more than anything else I appreciate your desire to see the progress of the region. Let us all strive to use whatever we have learnt to advance the whole region, as we are each a small piece of the larger picture.

      Sandi Megill

  22. Gerald La Touche April 6, 2014 at 2:02 am

    Very interesting read – progressive reflection on a Caribbean (Barbadian) society. However, this analysis takes a lot of liberties, poetic licence and makes strange assumptions (great expectation) – for example the statement, “I am satisfied that the “idea of Barbados” in tandem with a mature regionalism in CARICOM is the vehicle through which Barbados will successfully meet its current and prospective economic challenges,” assumes a lot of what many consider to be a failed CARICOM regionalism (since 1972) which has not managed to achieve or move beyond economic integration since the failed Federation of the West Indies (1958-1962)!

  23. Denise Edwards April 6, 2014 at 8:39 am

    A very well-reasoned article.should be required reading for all students who struggle with the notion that we haven’t contributed anything to the world…the writer must also remember the contributions of the ordinary folk who make this island what it is…but all-in all an insightful look at BIM.only last week recalled the contribution of Bajan teachers, policemen, firemen and prison warders to the workings of so many Caribbean islands….

  24. David Straughn April 6, 2014 at 11:59 am

    Ralph E. Gonsalves is perhaps the most qualified person in the region to make such deeply thought provoking observations as penned in this article.
    Dr. Gonsalves is probably one of the very few in the Carribean to possess the unique (and I daresay enviable) juxtaposition of being a long-time resident of Barbados and a member of its intelligetsia, where global observations of this nature would have been unpacked and debated on a daily basis. Despite what some may perceive as Dr. Gonsalves’ politics or his philosophical grounding, this article transends narrow political partisanship and is one of a most highly qualified commentator. Apart from one other very uncharitable and indeed acutely personal attack, most others seem to get it.
    I choose to embrace the sincerety of this article coming from no less a person than the LEADER of another teritory with NOTHING to gain either economically or politically from Barbados, as a call to arms to our PEOPLE (not its impotent Government) to chart the way forward for the sake of the Caribbean People.

  25. Gerald La Touche April 6, 2014 at 5:49 pm

    Dr. Gonsalves makes some very bold suggestions for a wider Caribbean societal development model more generally based on his analysis of “the idea of Barbados” more specifically. I believe different scholars looking at this from different angles could come to different conclusions for the development of the “idea of Barbados” and what it represents (but to whom?), although Dr. Gonsalves paints quite a rosy and positive picture – and at the expense of “the idea” of any other Caribbean nation state! We are minded of Fidel Castro, “Ideas never die”. We can also agree that the many and differing variables (of ideas) that are at play in the shaping of an “idea” of self, place, identity, development, nation-state, etcetera, etcetera, are so fluid, dynamic and wide ranging, that the idea of replication or for some politically engineered cloning is at best fanciful! There was an “idea of a West Indian Federation” once, there has been an “idea of a Greater Caribbean/CARICOM Regional Unity” for a while now…. So even the best of “ideas” need continuous nourishment and renewal…. Is the good doctor’s conclusion therefore a recognition that Barbados has been better at its continuous intellectual nourishment and renewal than other Caribbean nations? Can we honestly say that apart from Barbados, no other Caribbean nation, post-colonisation, has developed a sense or “idea” of itself?

  26. Paul Kersey April 6, 2014 at 10:16 pm

    Dr. Gonsalves wallows in academia. Bimjim’s reply to this nonsense from Dr. Gonsalves is like the little boy exposing the Emperor because he wore no clothes. The drivel is now exposed.
    This is the same Gonsalves that advocates turning the Caribbean into a cannabis haven, I know that he cannot be a doctor of psychology. This man is a kook who espouses the ideas of a pothead. Read the following link in its entirety:

  27. Modeste Downes April 6, 2014 at 11:20 pm

    A very analytic and cogent perspective by one of the region’s leading intellectuals. It is my view that PM Gonsalves might have served the Caribbean better in academia than in the trenches of divide and rule politics.

  28. Daud Haqq April 14, 2014 at 3:49 pm

    This is a very good and interesting piece. The concept of “The idea of Barbados” as put forward by the Hon.Ralph Gonsalves is,to say the least, is very intriguing. I humbly concur with you Sir, that Dr. Errol Walton Barrow was indeed, the greatest leader produced by the Caribbean region. He was quite a visionary.

  29. E. Murray April 15, 2014 at 3:56 pm

    Dr. Ralph Gonsalves you now put the Barbadian back to sleep.
    That Barbados is an idea, which has, over the time, become manifest in reality. That why some people will walk all over them, because they are living a big lie. You make it all sound rosy, but if they do not wake up and smell the coffee, that is brewing at this time, they will, never get the essence of what you are saying to them.
    The other Caribbean brothers and sisters does fight for their right, but we stand in the back and tell other to go forward for us we will follow..


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