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The seven ‘fortunate’ accidents that made Barbados

Black-History-Monthby Sir Courtney Blackman

I have frequently been asked by foreigners: “How is it that so small an island, with so few natural resources, can provide so high a standard of living for its citizens?”

By the mid-1980s the international financial institutions were full of praise for the “skill and acumen” with which we had managed our economic affairs, and were recommending the “Barbados model” as one to be emulated by other developing countries –– the feature of fiscal discipline in particular.

In recent years, the question directed most frequently to me on the Breakfast Club, a radio talk show in Kingston, Jamaica, was: “Why has the Barbadian economic performance so far outstripped the Jamaican in spite of Jamaica’s larger population and superior natural resource base?”

It would be false modesty to deny that Barbadians have done well. With a population of less than 270,000, we boast a per capita income approaching US$7,000, placing us in the World Bank’s category of upper middle income countries, and a literacy rate of close to 100 per cent. A life expectancy rate of less than 15 per 1,000 (maternal deaths during childbirth are a rarity) gives us the demographic profile of a developed country.

Indeed, the latest UNDP Human Development Index, based on the three criteria of national income, education and health, places Barbados 25th of the more than 150 countries surveyed, and first among developing countries. Moreover, the Barbadian dollar which as Governor of the Central Bank I fixed at BDS$2 equals US$1 on July 5, 1975, retains the same value today.

Barbadians enjoy a rare quality of life, with income more equitably distributed than in most countries. We possess a highly developed infrastructure of highways, seaport and airport, electricity, water and telecommunications; a well developed national security safety net for the disadvantaged; a relatively low crime rate, and a remarkable absence of social and political unrest.

At the same time, civil and democratic rights, irrespective of religion, ethnicity or gender, are deeply entrenched in Barbadian society. Indeed, Freedom House in New York City has year after year ranked Barbados among the freest of free nations. I have frequently described Barbados as the world’s most successful predominantly black nation. How do we explain the Barbados Model?

The science of chaos. Casting around for an explanatory model of the development of our island civilization, I gained great insight from the “science of chaos”, invented by the mathematician-meteorologist Edward Lorenz in the 1960s. John Gleick, in his bestseller Chaos, explains the concept: “In science as in life, it is well known that a chain of events can have a point of crisis that could magnify small changes. But chaos meant that such points were everywhere.”

This feature of chaotic systems came to be known as the Butterfly Effect, after Lorenz’s celebrated paper Predictability: Does The Flap Of A Butterfly’s Wings In Brazil Set Off A Tornado In Texas?

What is more chaotic, I thought, than the history of our nation. We have suffered from foreign wars, a mini-civil war between Royalists and Roundheads in the 1640s, slave revolts, riots, droughts, epidemics, hurricanes, mass migrations, and the effects of technological change, all occurring in a unpredictable manner! This led me to search for those historical accidents which collectively have conspired to produce the fortunate features of our civilization –– the Barbados Model, to borrow the nomenclature of the international financial institutions.

Not all of these accidents seemed “fortunate” to contemporary Barbadians immediately affected by them –– least of all those of African descent.

The seven fortunate historical accidents.

1. The first and most enduring of Barbados’ fortunate historical accidents is its geography. Standing aloof from the Eastern Caribbean chain l00 miles into the Atlantic, Barbados would become the first port of call and a springboard for further British penetration of the West Indies and North America, especially the Carolinas where in 1670 Barbadians founded the charming city of Charleston.

Geography was also an important military advantage. In the days of sailing ships, its natural barrier of coral reefs and Atlantic breakers made Barbados virtually unassailable from the east, while the strong prevailing north-east trade winds made it difficult for the French warships stationed in Martinique or Guadeloupe to attack our island from the north-west.

This largely explains why Barbados is the only Caribbean island never to have changed hands during the European conflicts of the 17th and 18th centuries in the region, thus permitting the uninterrupted development of the island.

2. The first fortunate historical accident was reinforced by the second. While their motive for occupying other colonies in the region was territorial acquisition or absentee economic exploitation, the English came as settlers to Barbados in 1672 with the intention of making a second start in the New World. The total absence of an indigenous population spared us the historical trauma of genocide experienced by other Caribbean societies where Arawaks and Caribs were virtually wiped out
by the colonizing Europeans.

In 1655, there were 23,000 English settlers on the island and only 20,000 slaves. The English settlers would put down deep institutional roots: they founded the second oldest Parliament in the New World in 1639; they dotted the island with Anglican churches; they transformed Codrington College into the region’s first institution of higher learning in 1875; for “the education of poor white boys” they established in 1733 my own high school, Harrison College, which in time would benefit poor black boys as well; they transplanted to the island the English Common Law and, above all, the game of cricket, which has flourished even more luxuriantly on our island than in the country of its origin. Sir Garfield Sobers, a Barbadian, is universally accepted as the greatest all-round cricketer of all time.

Sir Garfield Sobers

Sir Garfield Sobers

The commitment of Barbadian settlers to parliamentary government was especially strong, leading them to declare independence from Great Britain in 1651. Indeed, the cry of “No taxation without representation” was heard in Bridgetown before it was in Boston! Their revolt was fortunately quelled by the arrival of Cromwell’s fleet, but the Article of Capitulation signed at Oistins with Sir George Ayescue in 1652 actually reinforced the representative form of government on the island, and came to be known as The Charter of Barbados.

I tease my English friends that it is unclear from the Article who capitulated to whom! The struggle for parliamentary government would be successfully fought again in the 1870s, when Britain’s government threatened the imposition of crown colony government, that is, direct government from London through a Governor and non-elected council. A compromise was reached, with the British narrowly averting crown colony government in Barbados; but this retrogressive regime would stunt political development in the rest of the British Caribbean. It would not be until the post-World War II era that representative government would be restored or established in other British Caribbean colonies.

3. The third historical accident was the early accession of Free Coloured to political and civic rights. Stimulated by the recent success of the Haitian Revolution, Barbadian slaves in 1816 plotted the massacre of the “bad” masters. This discriminating policy aroused suspicion among the “good” masters who sounded the alarm. The price of this civility was the death, in battle or by hanging, of nearly 400 slaves.

Ironically, it was the Free Coloured Militia who first took the field to put down the revolt. So impressed were the white planters with that display of solidarity that by 1820 they had lifted all of the remaining civil disabilities from the Free Coloured. In 1841, Samuel Jackman Prescod, a champion of the recently freed slaves, was elected the first coloured member of the House of Assembly; Sir Conrad Reeves, the architect of the constitutional compromise with the British in the 1870s, became in 1884 the first black Chief Justice and the first black Knight of the British Empire.

Because of their deep passion for liberty, their indomitable courage in battle, and the dignity with which the condemned faced their execution, the rebellious slaves are justly hailed as heroes by their descendants.

Paradoxically, however, the early franchisement of the Free Coloured, who connived in their defeat, must from the hindsight of almost two centuries be seen as a providential outcome for the descendants of slaves. At best, a successful revolt would have replicated in Barbados the history of Haiti; at worst, it would have resulted in a bloodbath as Britain imperial forces wreaked revenge for the death of their kith and kin –– as they would do with such ferocity in suppressing the Indian Mutiny 41 years later.

4. The fourth, and probably most important, of the fortunate accidents was the early exposure of Barbadian slaves to education. As early as 1710, Christopher Codrington, a rich white planter, died and bequeathed his estate to an Anglican missionary organization, the Society For The Propagation Of The Gospel (SPG), for the purpose of educating and making Christians of slaves. Less than ten years after the fall of apartheid in South African, it is heart-warming to recall that a white Anglican Bishop Fleetwood preached in Barbados in 1711 that Blacks “were equally the workmanship of God with [the planters] . . . with the same faculties and intellectual powers . . . and bodies of the same flesh and blood, and souls certainly immortal”. Education went hand in hand with Christianity.

By the end of the 18th century, many slaves had become literate. Ever since then, the instinct has been ingrained in the minds of black Barbadians that education was the most reliable means of upward social mobility and political liberation. Moreover, the remittances from educated Bajan emigrants have been an important foreign exchange earner over the years –– priests, teachers and policemen to the wider Caribbean, nurses and transport workers to London, nurses and sundry university graduates to the United States.

5. The fifth historical accident of the island’s small size has worked to our advantage in many and counter-intuitive ways, but never so much as in the decades following Emancipation, which came partially in 1834 and finally in 1838 when the Apprenticeship Act was repealed. In those Caribbean colonies where lands remained unsettled, for example, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad, the former slaves left the sugar plantations to become peasant farmers or artisans.

By 1847 almost half of Trinidad’s former slaves, and two-thirds of Jamaica’s, had abandoned the plantations to establish free villages. To maintain sugar plantations the planters were forced to introduced indentured labour from India, and, to a much lesser extent, from China.

With the island already totally occupied, Barbadian freed men were forced to remain on the plantation as wage labourers, to accommodate to the ways of the white planters and, in the process, absorb English values and attitudes over the next century. More importantly, as British society became more liberal, so did the Barbadian.

However, I reject Lawrence Harrison’s characterization of Barbadians as “black Englishmen”, even as white Barbadians would reject the sobriquet of “white Africans”. The English settlers were also influenced by the black slaves, and from their interaction Blacks and Whites have developed a unique civilization –– both kinder and gentler than that left behind in either England or Africa.

Confinement to the plantation must have been a bitter pill for contemporary freed men to swallow, but it has paid off magnificently for subsequent generations. Ironically, the Jamaican freed men who became an independent peasantry were to pay a high posthumous price in the illiteracy of their descendants.

6. The sixth of our fortunate accidents must be the noblesse oblige of the Coloured and Black elites in the years immediately following emancipation –– and to this present day. In contrasting the Barbadian Coloured elites with their Haitian counterparts, Lawrence Harrison observed: “Whereas before they [the Barbadian Black elites] in no way identified themselves with the slaves, after Emancipation, they assumed a tutelary responsibility for the Blacks.”

Coloured leaders like Samuel Jackson Prescod fought with great determination to promote the civil rights and welfare of the former slaves. He would be followed by a succession of political leaders from among the rising black elites, who based their political power on the expanding constituency of working class Blacks. Ever since Samuel Jackson Prescod, the politics of Barbadian coloured and black elites has been “populist”.

Following the climactic Riots Of 1937, we were especially fortunate to throw up a succession of three leaders who would have been outstanding in any nation –– Grantley Adams, Errol Barrow and Tom Adams, son of Sir Grantley. Moreover, they arrived in the right sequence: the wily Grantley played the British Colonial Office off against the local white plantocracy in leading us to self-government; the aggressive Barrow launched us on the path to economic development and onto full Independence; the cool Tom Adams steered us adroitly through the turbulence of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Former Prime Minister of Barbados Errol Barrow and the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago Dr. Eric Williams.

Former Prime Minister of Barbados Errol Barrow and the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago Dr. Eric Williams.

They all spent lavishly on education and the social services, placing a sturdy floor under the welfare of the least advantaged. At the same time, they managed the economy pragmatically, and were not seduced by the alien ideologies which have wrecked the economies of so many developing nations, including some in the Caribbean.

Most amazingly, they accomplished the transfer of political power from the white oligarchy to the black majority without physical violence, and with a minimum of personal discomfort to the former. It was indeed a glorious revolution!

7. Whenever a new general was recommended to him, Napoleon’s first question was: “Is he lucky?” The seventh fortunately accident is a composite of a number of lucky breaks which I have subsumed under Economic Luck. I should add that some of this luck has been “manufactured”, to the extent that Barbadians have seized the opportunities presented to them. By the time Barbadian tobacco, the first cash crop of the settlers, had gained its reputation as the foulest on the market, the Dutch introduced sugar cane from Pernambuco in Brazil, a region which I visited for the first time this year.

When subsidized beet sugar production in Europe threatened the sugar industry in the late 19th century, the economic disruption caused by the insurgency under Jose Marti reduced the supply of Cuban sugar and lifted prices on the international market. And when a strange fungus threatened to wipe out the Bourbon cane, the mainstay of sugar agriculture in the region, the path-breaking cane breeding experiments of John R. Bovell, a white superintendent at Dodds Plantation in St Philip, led to the development of new and disease-resistant varieties that literally saved the cane sugar industry from extinction. When all seemed lost, sugar prices would rise sharply during, and in the years following, the World War I and World War II.

In the “hard times” of the early 20th century, thousands of Barbadians would find work on the construction of the Panama Canal, and during World War II in the oil refineries of Aruba and Curacao.

In the 1940s and 1950s, thousands would also emigrate to London to staff the public transport system and National Health hospitals. The advent of the commercial jetliner in the 1950s would launch the tourism industry, which now earns a gross US$600 million in foreign exchange for the island –– while technological advances in telecommunications have made possible the establishment of our offshore financial centre and the marketing of information services, which promise to be our new growth industries.

Conclusion. The question remaining is whether the Barbados Model is sustainable in the turbulent environment occasioned by our transition from the Industrial Age to the new Information Age. Chaos Theory tells us that we cannot be certain that one, or a series of, unfortunate accidents will not overwhelm us as in the case of several other developing countries. We must certainly stick to those fundamentals which have served us so well in the past, for example, investment in education, democracy, the rule of law, the maintenance of our infrastructure, tolerance, and compassion for the disadvantaged. But we must also adjust to the forces of globalization.

Prime Minister Owen Arthur has warned Barbadians again and again that the days of preferences and non-reciprocal trade agreements are numbered, and that we must become competitive in the world markets. We must also pray that most of the accidents which befall us in the future will be as fortunate as they have been in the past, though less, ironic and paradoxical.

(This edited article is from a feature address by Sir Courtney Blackman –– former Governor of the Barbados Central Bank, Barbados diplomat and international business consultant –– to the Caribbean And Latin American Student Association Of Pittsburgh and the Caribbean Association Of Pittsburgh, which he delivered at the University of Pittsburgh on November 8, 1997, during its 17th Annual Caribbean Night which focused on Barbados.) 

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