On October 26, Jason Opal – the author of Avenging the People: Andrew Jackson, the Rule of Law, and the American Nation – presented a wonderful paper on Barbados and the sugar economy for our History of Capitalism speaker series. He turned his paper into a blog post. Enjoy!
It is easy to despair in 2017. Western democracies are in deep crisis. Recent elections have brought some superficially new faces to power, but the ruling ideology remains neoliberalism—the belief that markets rather than nations must decide and that competition rather than cooperation is the only human way. The main alternative is a nasty nativism that scapegoats non-white newcomers. (Donald Trump, among others, embodies both.) As a result, the usual players in world politics cannot address their own social and economic problems, to say nothing of the global calamities brought on by rising waters, intensifying storms, and collapsing ecosystems.
Perhaps it is time to look beyond the “major countries,” and not only because they bear much of the blame for our woes. Perhaps it is time to learn something from the smaller nations of the world, to find inspiration in modest places. The tiny island of Barbados, on the southeastern fringe of the Caribbean, may seem like an unusual choice. Its population is only 280,000, and its influence even in regional politics is slight. But this nation deserves to be known, and not just as the birthplace of Mount Gay rum and Rihanna.
Settled by the English in 1627, Barbados turned from white servants to black slaves long before the mainland colonies of North America made a similar change. Its planters used the phenomenal profits of sugar—as addictive as cocaine, but perfectly legal—to buy more slaves, whether from Dutch or Portuguese or English slavers. They bought people not just along the west African coast but also deep into the central and southern parts of the continent, and even from Indian Ocean traders on Madagascar. Some 600,000 people were eventually brought in chains and cargo-holds to this tiny spot of coral in the sea, never to return.
One could argue that colonial Barbados was the most tyrannical slave regime in history. While the Spanish and French at least pretended to show some Catholic paternalism to their slaves, the rulers of Barbados called black people “lions” and brutes who could only be ruled through terror. Slaves in Jamaica, Cuba, and Brazil sometimes escaped to the mountains or forests, but the masters of Barbados dominated every square inch of this relatively flat and isolated place. And Barbados slaves were almost never freed, as many black and some white slaves in Islamic societies were.
Perhaps the slaves of ancient Rome, cloistered in their masters’ villas or made to murder each other in the Colosseum, suffered as greatly. But they were not compelled to work around the clock for a global market, whereas Barbadian owners forced their slaves to toil for 24- and even 48-hour shifts over boiling cauldrons. Dental evidence suggests that the workers were often starving, which along with the savage repression of the authorities explains why there were no large-scale slave revolts on Barbados from 1692 to 1816.
And yet the islanders, known as Bajans, practiced a gentle form of Christianity that never lost sight of what Christ said about forgiving one’s enemies. Even during the uprising of 1816, only one white person is known to have died. (The island militia showed no such restraint, killing hundreds and leaving severed heads posted along the roads.) And when the Empire moved to end slavery in the wake of the bloodbath, the Bajans did not take revenge. Instead they sought liberation in personal endurance and mutual care.
In the 1830s, the British formally abolished slavery and paid reparations…to the former owners. The sugar planters dominated Barbados for another century, paying a tiny fraction of their profits as wages and suppressing any form of labor organizing as criminal “conspiracies.” They doubled down on sugar monoculture, inflicting still more damage on the island’s lands and waters.
Still, the Bajans endured—and coexisted. Instead of leaving the island for greener (or whiter) pastures, the English, Scottish, and Irish descendants of both planters and servants remained, proud of their “little England.” They helped to cover it with roads and schools and to connect it with British cultural and intellectual life.
In Barbados as across the Caribbean, independence movements gained speed after World War II. They prevailed on the island in 1966, thanks largely to black labor unions that wanted to break free of European power. Compared to other Caribbean islands, however, the people of Barbados remained relatively united, their politics relatively peaceful. Under the national industry, “Pride and Industry,” they built a reputation for both stability and progress.
Once a tool for the masters, the small scale of this island is one of the keys to its democratic character. There is simply not enough room for the full-blown exploitation of any person or place. Especially with the fall of the sugar industry in the 1980s, the Bajans must find a more sustainable mix of manufacturing, agriculture, and tourism. They have no choice but to care about each other and their common home.
Today, the island’s politics reflect this happy dilemma. The Barbados Labour Party and the Democratic Labour Party broadly agree that everyone has the right to education and health care. They compete in fair and transparent elections. They have good relations with the British Commonwealth but share a deeper bond with other Caribbean nations. They are happy to welcome US hotels but careful to protect their citizens and environment from American hyper-capitalism.
None of this is to minimize the many problems and deep poverty that Barbados faces. Nor is it to overlook the keen frustration that many islanders feel for politics-as-usual. It is rather to highlight the island’s remarkable progress and to appreciate the wisdom that this and other small nations can offer the big ones. After all, they know better than we do how to make peace with the natural limits of the world and to take care of their own without turning their backs on everyone else.
J.M. Opal is Associate Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal and the author of Avenging the People Andrew Jackson, the Rule of Law, and the American Nation
Cover Image: Ralph Stenneth and Neele & Son, Slaves in Barbados, 1818. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.