Thursday, 18 September 2008

A Caribbean Diversion

Strange as it may seem, a work project has brought me to Barbados for a couple of weeks. Being here, I have begun to understand some of the unacceptable details that went together to constitute British rule even in the second half of the twentieth century. I realize that, though no fan of imperialism, I had entertained a naive Whiggishness about its final chapters. I chose to see the post-war period as a time when increasingly liberal values were at least as important as economic decline in sealing the British Empire's fate. Occasional massacres and reactionary regimes, such as that in South Rhodesia, were anomalies. I would never be so naive and idealistic where Russian history is concerned.

In Barbados at least, the realities were different. Independence, which was granted in 1966, did not seem close in the years preceding. And the question of who would be taking up the reins of power was also a thorny one. Bridgetown is proud to host one of the oldest parliaments in the world, in continuous existence since the 1630s. But for most of that time it was a whites-only institution. Formal racial discrimination was removed in stages: slavery was aboloished, voting was extended to those who did not own land, income thresholds for being placed on the electoral register were reduced. Full adult suffrage, the only measure that would give black votes the full weight that was proportionally theirs, was introduced in 1951.

However, I was shocked to be told on the way to work this morning by the man driving my car that there were areas of Bridgetown where blacks were not allowed to go right up until independence in 1966. The particular place he mentioned was Strathclyde: the home of wealthy whites, including many who worked in the Colonial Service. It was sandwiched between two neighbourhoods where ordinary Barbadians lived. But they were not allowed to go through Strathclyde unless they were delivering something. The Royal Barbadian Police officers who patrolled the area were assiduous in stopping and questioning interlopers. Of course, they too were black: this sort of perverse irony is unfortunately common to all multi-ethnic empires. Boys like my driver was at the time were warned to stay well clear of the place.

Some internet research brought up an interesting article by Mary Chamberlain which deals with the racist realities of late-imperial rule in Barbados: In it she mentions Strathclyde and another place called Belleville. She says that the Yacht Club and other exclusive places were effectively out of bounds for blacks until independence, and that churches' seating plans informally heeded colour difference. If the stories were from the 1920s I would understand. But they are from the 1960s, and from an island that was supposed to be one of the most peaceful and harmonious places in the whole empire. (The picture at the top of this post is of Horatio Nelson and it stands at the centre of Bridgetown, though feelings are mixed amongst ordinary Barbadians about how much longer it should stay.)

Sure, there were good aspects of the legacy left by imperial rule. Barbados is a well-governed place and the levels of accountability and media scrutinty of politicians are impressive by any standards. I used to think these bequests came close to outweighing the bad that was done by the British Empire. Now, I'm not so certain. It may be that, like the Soviet public transport system or their construction of girls' schools in Afghanistan, they just aren't enough to justify what was, in most other respects, totally unacceptable.

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