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Reading Barbados

Image: Esther Phillips with George Lamming, on the occasion of her first reading as Poet Laureate of Barbados.

Written by Jeremy Poynting, Managing Editor of Peepal Tree Press

Barbados, Bim or Bimshire, was always known as little Britain – with the apocryphal empire loyalist call in 1939, "Carry on, England. Barbados is behind you." Elsewhere in the Caribbean, Barbados has had the reputation of being less than forthright in its pursuit of decolonisation. No more. Today, 30 November 2021, Barbados moves to a republican constitution – like Trinidad and Guyana – but not yet Jamaica, St Lucia and several others.

Not least does this suggest that the old stereotypes need unpicking. In truth, Barbados has had Britain’s colonial claws sunk into it for longer and without the diverse strands born of other colonial occupations of other West Indian islands – unlike Spain in Jamaica; or Spain, France and the USA in Trinidad; or the Dutch in Guyana. ‘British’ Trinidad only really began in the 19th Century, but Barbados has been a British (in reality, English) colony since 1627.

A better analogy (I forget who made it) is that Barbados is the Deep South of the Caribbean, the place where chattel slavery lasted longest, where the most bitter revolts of enslaved people were fought, where for reasons of geography and the absolute power of the plantation owners, the possibilities of escape from the plantation were least possible (no Cockpit Country as for the Maroons in Jamaica, or undeveloped Crown lands that allowed squatting as in Trinidad, or the emergence of semi-independent small farming sectors in the post-emancipation period in Guyana). The Deep South analogy also had the dimension espoused by white Barbadians that here was a cultivated, civilised society that wrote poems, essays and debated ideas of freedom (but of course, not for the enslaved).

A sampling of this world is very usefully collected together by Kevin Alan Arthur, in Caribbean Treasure: A Trove of 18th Century Barbadian Poetry & Prose. It is a reminder that enlightenment ideas and slavery were comfortable bedfellows. (Where Black Barbadians made their escape after emancipation was to other Caribbean colonies, or to work on the Panama Canal, long before the postwar surge in migration to Britain.)

The planter monopoly over land and the ingenuity of the people in doing their best to counter it is neatly signified in the iconic Barbadian ‘chattel’ house. Now a colourful tourist attraction, few visitors get to hear that the chattel house had to be moveable because when, after emancipation, a family decided it no longer wanted to work for the local sugar estate, they had to get off the land – hence the houses they built had to be portable. Nor do visitors to some of the surviving grand estate houses like St Nicholas Abbey, described on its website as “a lovely colonial sugar plantation” get to hear how many enslaved men, women and children lived out their short, brutalised lives on those lovely acres.

However, visitors to the Drax Hall estate are not receiving such a warm welcome. Owned by the multimillionaire Tory MP, Richard Grosvenor Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax (who also own large chunks of Dorset), attempts to film there have been blocked by denying access to Barbadian Poet Laureate Esther Phillips and a film crew on a road which is normally accessible to anyone. “Because of the negative publicity”, the estate manager explained. As Esther says, “Drax is clearly not happy with the recent developments. Too bad for him since the battle will continue.”

It is not as if Barbados has suddenly woken up, though its cautious post-independence politics – including sticking closely to the neo-liberal right-wing ideologies of the Reagan-Thatcher era – made many feel that along with the overwhelming emphasis on tourism and offering open-house to US and UK money, Barbados had become an exemplary neo-colonial state. But throughout all this, its writers have been amongst the most distinguished articulators of the case for true sovereignty and decolonisation.

Who has contributed more to Caribbean radical thought than George Lamming, Kamau Brathwaite and, in his own way, the novelist and memoirist, Austin C. Clarke? All, though, had to leave Barbados to pursue their writing careers, though George Lamming (now 94 years old) and Kamau Brathwaite both returned to Barbados later in their lives. The same was true of Anthony Kellman (one of Peepal Tree’s most published writers) whose novel, The Houses of Alphonso (2004), makes it clear why in a still white-dominated elite, Black Barbadians felt forced to leave. Tony Kellman, praise be, after a university teaching career in the USA, has found his house and is enjoying retirement in his Barbadian cottage.

But for Lamming and Brathwaite, return was never a simple matter. Kamau Brathwaite’s late collection of poems, Strange Fruit (2016) is a bitter-sweet response to return which involved confronting the realities of old age and the fact that the Barbadian government was threatening to take his land at Cowpasture to make way for an airport extension. And as Esther Phillips records in her moving suite of poems that record her relationship with George Lamming across differences of age and systems of belief, Leaving Atlantis (2015), part of that story was Lamming’s loss of his winter home in the Atlantis Hotel on the Atlantic coast, when its owners wanted to turn its old-fashioned charm into something more modern and expensively tourist-worthy.

Indeed, those years of being half-way in and half-way out of Barbados say something about Lamming’s complex relationship to the island. After his first classic novel of a Barbadian colonial childhood and youth, In the Castle of My Skin (1953), all his subsequent novels traverse the wider, imagined Caribbean: Season of Adventure, Of Age and Innocence (1958), Water with Berries (1972) (the latter two both republished by Peepal Tree) and Natives of My Person (1972).

All these novels move beyond the island localism of empire and colonialism to bear witness to the vast fracture of the world it created and in which, as descendants of coloniser and colonised, we are still living. Not least, readers in Britain should go back to Lamming’s non-fiction book, The Pleasures of Exile (1960), which anticipates our current attempts to make sense of the reverberations of the colonial past by sixty years.

That urge for return speaks of the natural beauties of the limestone island – so different in its geography from the mostly volcanic Caribbean. The appreciation of the flora and fauna expressed in the most exultant and praise-song form is present in Anthony Kellman’s first Peepal Tree collection, Watercourse (1990), and his most recent Casa de las Americas prize-winning novel, Tracing JaJa (2016), where it is the mix of the beauties of the landscape, Barbadian food and the affection of his young carer that restores heart to the exiled king of Opobo in Nigeria, victim of 19th-century British colonial treachery.

The artists of empire also saw beauty, but one where the rolling acres of sugar cane could be softened to look like an idyllic and almost English pastoral. For enslaved men and women, the fact that so much of the Barbadian landscape, without remote mountain areas and dense forest, was richly fertile territory for the all-encompassing sugarcane, meant that there was little chance of escaping from the plantation.

This is the theme of several of the stories in June Henfrey’s Coming Home and Other Stories (1994), where the islands gullies provide only brief respite from discovery for runaways from the local estate. Henfrey’s focus on the gullies is something that Anthony Kellman takes further in his first and hugely rediscoverable novel, The Coral Rooms (1994), where his protagonist, sick of the surface materialism and corruptions of business life in Barbados, goes through a profound, phantasmagorical rite of self-rediscovery when his Virgil, Cane Arrow, takes him down into the depths of the island’s limestone caverns. The Coral Rooms is an individual descent into the past, but it also suggests the spirit of revolt and renewal hidden below the surface of the island.

What cannot and never should be hidden away is the 200 years of enslavement, and the further 100 and more years when very little changed in Barbados’s social structure. Those long years are recorded in the life of five generations of one family from the 18th century to the 1930s in Carl Jackson’s Nor the Battle to the Strong (1997) where after emancipation and until the worker uprisings led by Clement Payne in 1937 (where 14 demonstrators were killed by police fire), working-class Barbadians had to wonder whether anything would ever change in a white-dominated society.

Another, and perhaps even more ambitious attempt to encompass the pain, the step-by-step struggle out of enslavement and the complex attitude of many Barbadians to their country is made in Anthony Kellman’s verse epic, Limestone (2008). This not only covers with sharp and memorable detail the island’s history from the ethnic cleansing of the Amerindians through to the present, including both imagined and actual historical figures such as Bussa and Nanny Grigg, but is made a very specifically Barbadian epic by using the rhythms of tuk-verse, the distinctive folk music of the island. Reading Limestone would be a very fitting way to celebrate the new republic.

It is not surprising that the other novel (published by Peepal Tree) by a Barbadian author about the period of slavery, Kevin Alan Arthur’s The View from Belmont (1997) is not set in Barbados, but in Trinidad, where it is more possible to see the creation of a creole society in the making, which, as Kamau Brathwaite explored in The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770–1820 (1971), was the joint if unequal creation of Africa and Europe. As Carl Jackson’s novel indicates, on an island where the plantocracy controlled the land, little changed after emancipation for more than a hundred years.

The vein of sugar runs throughout, as is vividly portrayed in Austin Clarke’s first novel, The Survivors of the Crossing (1964), republished as a classic by Peepal Tree. With its pointed title, Clarke’s novel, set in the 1950s, explores both the anger and flaws (the misogyny of the strike leadership) of a sugarcane community, still oppressed by its white masters and ignored by the rising political middle-class who have their eyes on the prize of self-rule. Clarke has a sharp eye on how deeply embedded colonial deference is in the psyches of the village elite of schoolmaster and shopkeeper, a theme he carries forward into his second novel, Amongst Thistles and Thorns (1965), a powerfully angry book about the destruction of innocence by the brutalities and racism of the colonial education system.

If Lamming’s ‘G’ in In the Castle of My Skin ultimately escapes from that system and is an onlooker to its sadism, Clarke’s nine-year-old Milton Sobers has nowhere to go but on the run. Only much later in his writing career, after many novels set amongst the Caribbean community in Canada, did Austin Clarke return to a novel set in Barbados, his prize-winning The Polished Hoe (2002), where he resumes his excavation in the postwar period of the continuing structures of enslavement in Barbadian life.

If two centuries of enslavement was once an amnesiac silence in the Barbadian response to the past, it is now in the forefront of the argument for reparations (see Barbadian Hilary McD Beckles, Britain's Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide). Enslavement’s equally suppressed partner was the presence of Africa as the direct heritage of the vast majority of all Barbadians. This was the silence that Kamau Brathwaite confronted in his Arrivants trilogy (1967-69, 1973, and shockingly out of print) and in his celebrations of female and male ways of Barbadian being in Mother Poem (1977) and Sun Poem (1982). It’s a theme Anthony Kellman touches on in Tracing JaJa, where the colonial authorities are disturbed by the interest shown by poorer Black Barbadians in the African king in their midst.

The need to hold fast to African roots and Barbadian folk culture is an important theme in the spoken word poetry of the musician/cultural activist, Andisa Andwele (AJA), in his collection, Antiquity (2002), and in Cherie Jones’s short story collection, The Burning Bush Women and Other Stories (2004), there is a probing beneath the surface of neo-colonial modernity to find a world which is altogether more spiritually magical in its African resonances – stories that Kamau Brathwaite enthusiastically described as poems that “sally forth to sack Rome.”

That kind of displacement of Barbadian surfaces is also to be found in the paintings of the visionary artists Ras Akyem and Ras Ishi who along with the Guyanese artist Stanley Greaves (himself then long resident in Barbados) are the subject of the American poet Laurence Lieberman’s marvellously perceptive and generously illustrated collection Hour of the Mango Black Moon (2004), which celebrates these painters’ subversion of the homogenizing imperialism of western rationalism, consumerism and the market.

As this survey has suggested, the pull away to diasporas of Barbadian life in the USA, Canada and the UK, and longing for coming back has been a constant of Barbadian life. It has been acutely caught in the poetry and fiction of Anthony Kellman amongst others. It is there in his sequence of poetry collections from The Long Gap (1996), Wings of a Stranger (2001) and South Eastern Stages (2012) which explore successive stages of a sense of mixed longing and estrangement – the work of a poet of the highest lyric gifts and a warmly personal voice. It is also sharply caught in Kellman’s part autobiographical second novel, The Houses of Alphonso, which amongst other honesties probes a deeply entrenched discomfort with the always to be hidden existence of disability. Worth revisiting, too, is Kevyn Alan Arthur’s distinctive, ebullient and often humorous voice in England and Nowhere (1993). 

For those poets of Barbadian heritage but born in the diaspora, such as “Brit-born Bajan” Dorothea Smartt, there has been in successive collections – Connecting Medium (2001), Shipshape (2008) and Reader, I Married Him and Other Queer Goings On (2012) – a progressive journey from finding the Barbadian echoes in a South London upbringing, to recognising the network of migrancy and continuing family connections, and arriving at the powerful if sometimes troubled sense of coming home.

Here it is worth noting, with respect to Reader, I married him, that as part of its new aspirational charter, Barbados, once among the most socially conservative countries in the region, with legally enshrined and punitive restrictions on gay rights, for the first time explicitly includes a person’s sexual orientation as a fundamental right. However, it appears that discriminatory laws remain in statute.

And, of course, there are those who remained, who have witnessed and recorded the texture of Barbadian lives as both experiencer and witness. Christine Barrow’s collection of short stories Black Dogs and the Colour Yellow (2018) traverses the country from middle-class suburb to rural villages and in Shivanee Ramlochan’s words, she uncovers the “unsettling undercurrents of loneliness, grief, disrespect and injustice” that flow beneath apparently placid surfaces. A recent novel that probes the violent underbelly of a world that tourists rarely encounter is Cherie Jones’s How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps her House.

When Barbados appointed Esther Phillips as its poet laureate it displayed unerring judgement. From her first collection with Peepal Tree, The Stone Gatherer (2009), through her suite of poems that are concerned with the private and the public George Lamming, Leaving Atlantis ( 2015), and in her recent collection Witness in Stone (2021), Esther Phillips has connected the personal, the family and the national in poems of subtly musical craft that sound, in Edward Baugh’s praise “depths of feeling and stimulate thought”.

In Witness in Stone, she has spoken for the emerging Barbados that seeks to engage with the painful past it had once preferred to forget, and to call out the presence of continuing wrong. As a child who grew up in the shadow of the Drax Hall estate, who was taught about English kings and queens but never about the connections between chattel slavery in Barbados and the making of British capitalist fortunes, she has experienced, as Channel 4’s news item showed and she confirmed by email, the irony of being turned away from the very places where she walked freely as a child. Drax Hall for her is both the childhood place where “poetry began” and the place where the continuing private ownership by Mr Drax, MP, shameless inheritor of the profits of enslavement, is “History’s wound still bleeding / to its last drop” – a wound extending down to a powerful poem in memory of George Floyd in her collection.

So, all praise to Mia Mottley in leading Barbados to this hopeful and necessary stage. Would that we British citizens had the wit of Barbadians to also recognise that monarchies are institutions long past their sell-by date, not least because the “enchanted glass” of our British monarchy has been deeply implicated in the history of slavery, empire and colonialism. If pulling the monarchy off its pedestal and depositing it like a slave-trader’s statue in the docks seems a little too harsh, perhaps a modest but not uncomfortable place in a museum of ancient aristocratic absurdities might be more in order.

JP

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