Sugar

Barbados: The Caribbean’s First Slavery-and-Sugar Plantation Complex and the World’s Newest Republic, Part I, by Luis Martínez-Fernández

I would have not known that it was about to happen had I not been watching “The Rachel Maddow Show” on Monday night (Nov. 29). It was a news-heavy day — every day seems that way: anticipation over a potential government shutdown later in the week, Supreme Court oral arguments over Mississippi’s abortion law, the new omicron variant of COVID-19, the ongoing Congressional Jan. 6 investigation, and MAGA Gen. Mike Flynn peddling QAnon-themed products online. That’s why I was surprised to see Maddow devote her show’s opening five minutes to a major development in Caribbean history, which is my primary field of interest and expertise.

When the clock struck midnight a few hours later, Barbados, the United Kingdom’s second-oldest former Caribbean colony (1627), independent since 1966, removed Queen Elizabeth II as head of state, replacing her with a black woman named Sandra Mason who was inaugurated as first president of the newly established Republic of Barbados. Another black woman, Prime Minister Mia Mottley presided over the ceremony; she had spearheaded the push to sever the four-centuries-old bond with the British Crown.

The following morning in my Caribbean history class, I shared the news with my students. We had read about Barbados earlier in the semester when we studied the 1600s “sugar revolution” and had discussed the fact that Barbados had earned the nickname “Little England,” for being the most English of the West Indies: most English in religion (Anglicanism is still the official national church) and education (aligned with the British system); in public architecture (i.e., the Parliament Building and St. Michael’s Anglican Cathedral); most English in great house architecture (still-standing Jacobean-era Drax Hall and St. Nicholas Abbey); in politics (Westminster-style democracy), and until recently, in monarchism.

Reflective of Barbados’ Englishness was the construction of a Trafalgar Square and erection of a statue in honor of Horatio Nelson in Bridgetown decades before in happened in London; more on the square and the statue later.

We searched “Barbados Head of State” and there it was: Wikipedia had already dethroned the British queen.

For an island of its size (only 167 square miles) Barbados has figured prominently in the history of the Caribbean. It was there that the region’s (actually, the world’s) first sugar revolution took place. Settled by a predominantly white population, half of them indentured servants who cultivated tobacco, cotton and indigo in small farms, the number and proportion of black slaves remained small, some 800 out of a total population of around 30,000 in 1644. Barbados, by itself, had a larger population and was a greater source of wealth than all of England’s North American colonies combined.

Dramatic changes swept through Barbados starting in the mid-1640s when sugar cane began to swallow most of the island’s arable land. This was the start of what historians call the “sugar revolution,” a profound, interrelated transformation of the economy, society and government. Renowned historian of the Caribbean B.W. Higman, summarized the process succinctly: “a shift from diversified agriculture to monoculture, from small to large farming units, from low to high value output, from sparse to dense settlement patterns, and from free labour to slavery.”

From Barbados, which was the Caribbean’s entry point for the sugar virus, the disease spread gradually to almost every island in the region. Everywhere it came to depend on African slave labor; everywhere it led to the consolidation of land into a few hands; everywhere it produced aristocracies that gripped both economic and political power; everywhere it fostered colonial dependency; everywhere it bred corruption; everywhere it led to violence and moral degradation; and everywhere it sparked slave resistance and rebellion.

First published almost 50 years ago, Richard S. Dunn’s “Sugar and Slaves” is perhaps the best history of the English-speaking Caribbean during the 1600s and 1700s. I still assign it to my students because it takes us beyond economic, demographic and political changes. Dunn invokes the “beyond the line metaphor” to explain the moral degradation of British settlers, who “flouted European social conventions.” The sugar islands’ average Briton was lazier, crueler, greedier, and drank more and prayed less than his European counterpart.

Continued in next week’s column.

Luis Martinez-Fernandez is author of “Revolutionary Cuba: A History” and “Key to the New World: A History of Early Colonial Cuba.” Readers can reach him at [email protected] To find out more about Luis Martinez-Fernandez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www. creators.com.




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