In 1838 the last chain link snaps;
the planters scowl, then, think perhaps
it’s an advantage not to care
for their slaves’ food or health, and where
self-serving kindness fitfully held place,
planters’ now show their truest face:
a hobble thrust in freedom’s course
made without one morsel of remorse,
fulfilling with draconian
fist, their divine right since time began.
New order is the same old one,
made to thwart Black folks’ freedom run.
Token coloured ownerships
of land and city businesses –
nowhere enough for equity.
For sure they’ll purge the heresy
of black desire; the insolence to shirk
their destiny of endless canefield work.
When fervent voices urge their dream,
the planters quote the ‘bible’ theme
of duty – out of context: ‘Accept Ham’s curse,
your lot’s to be a docile labour force.’
How keenly the white Assembly vote
in bills, nooses around black throats
protecting order – zeal equal
only to their distaste for all
spending on Black health. Did they lament
Black children dying of malnourishment?
Tax food imports, make cuts in wages;
ignore the deaths, Black mothers’ rages.
More law and order! Who can forget
the raging outbreaks: measles, small pox,
dysentery, yellow fever, whooping cough?
How it took the unbiased sword
of cholera to force an Act? Not a word
till after 20,000 breathed
their last; only then did they concede
expenditure on public health
might in the end protect their wealth.
Now, five days of continuous labour
equals a year’s hire. This to ensure,
intimidating boots resound
as the police comb Black compounds.
Contracts change from one year to a month,
but bring to Blacks no real growth.
Wages reduced for each day absent.
Housing levies a hefty rent.
Shingled, painted chattels built
from used wood, to be moved at will,
if ordered by massa off his land
when he no longer needs the hired hand,
or by workers seeking better wages,
these shacks have, though lasting ages,
a transient look, always on the run.
Perched on stone piles, with one
room only, doors front and back,
humble, but treated with no lack
of pride, broomed clean, inside and out
like others lining the dirt road.
Sun-bleached clothes, laid out like hope,
mottle the nut grass. A wash tub
cradles a scrubbing board that sits
atop a bucket. As he thinks befits
some style, a young man in a felt hat
leans eased against the house to chat
with passers-by. Languid, stern, no
neighbour disrespects him as they go.
These tenantries allow small plots
for growing provisions, neat spots
of green around these Black folk’s homes.
But though there’s access to Barbados loam
no Black can purchase freehold land,
except some planter frees his hand.
(Circled perhaps by death, grateful
for their protection, the occasional
planter bequests ex-slaves a fair
portion of his wealth.) Such acts, rare
as justice, take years to reach Black hands.
Yet, one who’s hooked to the island’s
future, remembering forebears’
endurance through the centuries,
stoic, will wait for twenty years.
Each cheque paid for a lot on old
Rock Hall creates the first freehold
village. In Workman’s, scene’s similar;
land at last to the patient tiller
whose love for freedom’s evident
in the cartful’s of produce sent
to market. But on the estate,
the planter still controls the ex-slaves’ fate.
In shadeless fields, bent scarred men hack
then head the cane – tied to the rack
of the broiling sun – load up mule
and ox carts, feeding endless fuel
to mills and vats for boiling juice.
Whipped by the driver’s crude abuse,
there’s grumbling by the much aggrieved
or the hurt silence of the long deceived.
Outside their chattels, hucksters load
provisions for the weary road
to town: in tunic of sugar bags
an old man, pad of rags
on his head, awaits his burden.
He hails a sharp-faced woman,
head-tied, holding a whip. She’s driver
of the estate’s child gang. Daughter
or wife? It’s hard to say;
harsh labour drains all youth away.
In the city, Nancy Daniels,
African-born domestic dwells,
head-tied, wrapped in dress and shawl
of silk brocade, makes her daily call
on God, her thick-veined hands clutching
her leather-bound Bible, lifting
her eyes veiled with cataract’s stain
or from seeing too much pain.
Hubert, the fiddler, in rolled-up,
holely, hand-me-downs lash-up
from the White family who feeds him,
shakes an old rheumatic limb
for a salesman leaving a Broad
Street haberdasher’s, plucks a chord
for a woman when her brougham stops.
For just twelve cents a tune, he strops
his strings, smiles his ‘much-obliged’ smile,
entertainer in the old-days style.
When the sun is highest in the sky
he finds an overhanging balcony
on Swan Street where, dozing in the shade,
he dreams another life where wealth is made
from his one tune and many songs.
Nearby, a huckster, old but strong,
reaches the city, balancing her load
of yams on her padded head-tied head.
She finds her usual place to stay
bends creaking, putting down her tray,
lays a crocus bag on the ground,
piles her yams in a tempting mound,
cuts one in half: bonus to retain
some faithful buyer. If it rains,
she’ll wear the brown bag as a hood,
cover the produce best she could.
Down at the Wharf, barefooted men
weigh sugar on the steelyard scales, then
stack the sealed barrels for export.
Young boys with skillets, making sport,
catch over-spills, a laughing band,
lick-off the sweetness on their hands.
Taken from the book