An artist's depiction of Bussa's Rebellion - an enslaved African uprising against British rule in Barbados.
An artist's depiction of Bussa's Rebellion - an enslaved African uprising against British rule in Barbados.

Britain’s Legacy of Brutal Slavery in Barbados

Yes, the British Empire is indeed one colony smaller as Barbados formally declared itself independent of its colonial rulers after 400 years yesterday in a big ole fancy ceremony attended by all kinds of dignitaries. England’s Prince Charles delivered a message from his mother, Queen Elizabeth, conveying the “warmest good wishes” and said, “from the darkest days of our past and the appalling atrocity of slavery, which, whatever stains out of his study, the people of this island forge their path with extraordinary fortitude.”

It’s nice that he mentioned that appalling history of slavery, but it deserves more than a mere mention because Barbados was, in fact, the first slave society of England and that colony on which Britain began to build its enormous wealth. After a series of wars decimated the English economy, investors decided in the late 1630s to look to Barbados to rebuild their fortunes. Seeing the island nations as a pure plantation, the importation of African people to be enslaved on the sugarcane plantations on Barbados was the business plan that the British investor class and the crown pursued.

Hilary McD. Beckles explains in the 2016 book, The First Black Slave Society: Britain’s “Barbarity” Time in Barbados, 1636 -1876,  that “in 1636, a political directive provided that all Africans brought to the island of Barbados were to be received as lifelong chattels. In 1661, the legislature passed a comprehensive slave law that consolidated this culture and surrounded it with additional reinforcements. Not only were Africans deemed chattels, but subsequent laws also defined them as real estate. The slave laws were not intended to protect lives, but to secure the investment value in those lives. Africans were given but one reason to live, to ensure that they served the investors wealth creation.” 

England gained its first economic success by building the first complete large-scale Black slave society. By 1650, it was universally recognized for its economic prosperity. Barbados was physical brutality and social inhumanity toward Africans. And this was the very polite British. It was the beginning of a new era in global economic development and race relations. 

With the Black slave society, England’s entrepreneurship transformed the world, economic order. Investors and Imperial administrators abandoned traditional labor values and relations and put all their focus, effort, and investment into the sugar plantations of Barbados and the thousands of easily replaceable enslaved Africans. Record levels of white-owned wealth and Black deaths defined the slave plantation as a best practice in this new business culture and Barbados represented, for the English, a symbol of global enrichment. 

Investors representing the English Royal family and its ruling elites, including the military and the clergy rushed to the island to secure their share of the wealth. And this wealth was actually spread to North America when in 1663, eight Lords proprietors in England received land grants in North America from King Charles II for their loyalty to the monarchy during the English civil war. The Lords decided to combine their shares to establish a profit seeking proprietary settlement, Carolina, between the English colony of Virginia and Spanish Florida.

They sent representatives to study the sugar plantation system on Barbados that was making the English so much money and they recruited white settlers from Barbados to come to their new settlement to help launch their settlement. Though sugarcane was not transplanted to the Carolinas, the Bajan* form of plantation slavery was right along with the enslaved Africans and African Bajans* that the white planters brought with them.

Bajan* society became a plantocracy, basically, with white planters controlling the economy and government institutions. Though enslaved people continually resisted their bondage. The effective authoritarian power of slave owning planters ensured that apart from a major slave rebellion that occurred in 1816 that was put down by the local militia and British troops, there was no effective threat to their control.

 But that slave rebellion and so much more of the history of Africans and African Bajans* during that time is incredibly important. And it’s now being revealed. The slave revolt in 1816 was the largest in Bajan* history and was called the Bussa rebellion led by African born enslaved man Bussa. The Bussa rebellions was the first of three major slave uprisings that took place in the British West Indies between the US abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and general emancipation by the British in 1838. And the British library is now set to release a trove of 19th century newspapers that reveal the stories of the enslaved and fugitives from enslavement on the former colony.

According to The Guardian, “agents of enslavement, a collaboration between the Barbados department of archives and the British library, will make thousands of pages of archived newspapers available to researchers and amateur historians to create a new resource for people in Barbados and Britain to find out about their ancestors.” Oh, how generous of them! 

Today we think of Barbados as a getaway paradise and, of course, the home of pop singer Rihanna who was declared a national hero by Barbados Prime Minister, Mia Motley, at the ceremony.  The enchanting golden sand beaches and sugar barons, bungalows that tourists might be able to rent for a weekend, or a destination wedding, they mask a persistent Black poverty polarized in communities of crumbling, chattel houses. Yes, houses where the enslaved used to be relegated to. They serve in an indirect way to suppress the fading, but resilient truth in Barbados and, honestly, everywhere the slave trade touched that this proud politically successful post-colonial nation state was really the home of England’s egregious experiment with African enslavement. An experiment that was obscenely successful for England. 

Today Australia, Canada, Jamaica, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea are among the nations that still call the Queen their head of state. And Barbados, though they do not, will remain part of the Commonwealth, a voluntary association of 54 countries with roots in the British empire.

I’m just wondering why? With the appalling atrocity of slavery and its legacy and all.

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*The people of Barbados are known as Bajans.