Happy 54th birthday Barbados (Buhbados/Bimshire/Bim/de Rock), my island home! Happy birthday Joe-Ann! I’m a day late, but hey, I’z a Bajan!
I always feel nostalgic in November. I have vibrant memories of Independence performances; the annual Independence Day parade; joining hands in the chain-link around Barbados in 1979; Jackie Opel‘s music; the iconic Barbados Landship; tuk band music; conkies (stew dumplings); salt bread; fishcakes; bakes; sweet bread; cou cou; tamarind balls; guava cheese; sugar cakes; sno cones; lollies; Mr. Dips; cane; dunks (Ziziphus mauritiana); fat pork (Chrysobalanus icaco); sea grapes (Coccoloba uvifera); and more 😁.
This November the nostalgia was imaginably stronger because I haven’t been home since February and I know I’m unlikely to be the home before next summer. Plus, I’ve been listening to a lot of Bajan music in November, even more than usual, and that made me yearn for home (and Cropover) just a bit more.
At the end of October, I committed to completing 60 miles and raising at least $300 for the American Cancer Society and Bajan music powered me through those miles. The 4 miles I did yesterday brought me to 90.1 miles completed for November – running, walking, hiking and spinning (only 6.3). I jogged 3 of yesterday’s 4 miles to celebrate the birthday of the country where I was born and raised. The country that I will always recognize as ‘home’. To further commemorate this birthday, I want to share a bit of Barbados with you and highlight why, for me, it will always be home. My country is much more than white powdery sand beaches, blue refreshing seawater, and beautiful, friendly people, though those elements are also important.
Facts About Barbados
- A sovereign nation, Barbados became independent from the United Kingdom on November 30, 1966
- Population: 286,100 (2014 estimate): Black 92.4%, Mixed 3.1%, White 2.7%; South Asian 1.3%.
- Prime Minister: The Honourable Mia Amor Mottley, Q.C., M.P.
- Leader of the Opposition: Bishop Joseph J.S. Atherley
- Governor General: Dame Sandra Prunella Mason, GCMG, D.A., Q.C.
- Ultramarine – representative of the sea and sky
- Gold – for the sand
- Black Broken Trident – of Neptune the mythical god of the sea, representing Barbados’ break from its colonizer.
- Motto: Pride and Industry
- National Flower: Pride of Barbados (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) also known locally as Flower Fence and Dwarf Poinciana
- Coat of Arms:
- Pride of Barbados flowers, the National Flower
- The Bearded Fig Tree (ficus Citrifolia) common on the island in the 1600s when it was settled
- A dolphin symbolizing the fishing industry
- A Pelican symbolizing Pelican Island, a small island which previously existed off Barbados but was subsumed into the Deep Water Harbour
- The arm and hand of a Barbadian holding two pieces of sugar cane symbolizing the sugar industry.
I pledge allegiance to my country Barbados and to my flag, To uphold and defend their honour, And by my living, to do credit to my nation, wherever I go.
In plenty and in time of need When this fair land was young Our brave forefathers sowed the seed From which our pride is sprung, A pride that makes no wanton boast Of what it has withstood That binds our hearts from coast to coast - The pride of nationhood. Chorus: We loyal sons and daughters all Do hereby make it known These fields and hills beyond recall Are now our very own. We write our names on history's page With expectations great, Strict guardians of our heritage, Firm craftsmen of our fate. The Lord has been the people's guide For past three hundred years. With him still on the people's side We have no doubts or fears. Upward and onward we shall go, Inspired, exulting, free, And greater will our nation grow In strength and unity.
Differences, Naivety & Black Trailblazers, Some of Whom Were/Are Women
I had plans to be in Barbados late November/early December because 2020 was themed as We Gathering, a government led campaign to bring more of the Bajan diaspora back to Barbados this year. I knew that the celebrations planned for November would’ve been extra special and I hoped to be home to enjoy some of them. Enter COVID-19, flagrantly poor management of the pandemic in the US by the federal government and my current reticence about flying. Celebrating Independence on de Rock became a mental trip (take that how you will) with dreams about conkies, mauby, spouge, and all of the other goodies and traditions I mentioned earlier and a reflective journey following women in politics in Barbados and the Anglophone Caribbean.
Barbados is a small country of just 166 sq. miles, yet in 54 years of nationhood we’ve achieved so much more than would be expected of a country of our size with limited natural resources (e.g. basically free education at all levels and healthcare) and a democratic system of governance. This year, I’ve been reflecting a lot on elections and governing, public service, education, healthcare, community, civic engagement, heeding the call to serve, nation building, and so on, while pondering more than usual, the differences between the US and the other former colonies of the UK in the Americas.
Some of the aforementioned differences had become more vivid during Barack Obama’s campaign to be the democrats’ presidential nominee in 2008, the presidential campaign, and the eight years of his presidency. They were underscored again during the last four years under the current US federal administration, and particularly came to the fore this year with Kamala Harris’ campaign to be the democrats’ presidential nominee, subsequent acceptance to run as the VP candidate with Joe Biden, and success in the recent election to become the VP Elect.
As part of my reflection and through conversations with some of my closest friends from the Caribbean, some factors that I’ve always known but took for granted rose to the top of my consciousness. Growing up I never wondered about what I couldn’t achieve because of the colour of my skin or my gender because throughout my life Black people sat in the most powerful positions in my country. Women also sat in some of those positions. It had been that way long before I was born. In 1961, Barbados achieved full internal self-government from the UK, a precursor to independence. In 1966 when it became an independent nation, it was under the leadership of a Black premier, Errol Walton Barrow, who then became our first Prime Minister. He was not the first Black or person of colour to be an elected Member of Parliament or leader of a political party.
In 1831, prior to the abolition of slavery, free coloureds who met the property ownership requirements attained the right to vote to elect members to the House of Assembly. Subsequently, they also became eligible to be elected to that House. In 1843, voters from the City of Bridgetown elected Samuel Jackman Prescod, a coloured man, to the House. Universal adult suffrage was attained in 1950, with property ownership and minimum income requirements removed as criteria for both voting and running for the House of Assembly. In 1964, the age to be eligible to vote dropped to 18 years.
While slavery ended in Barbados in 1834 and apprenticeship in 1838, the island remained a UK colony for another 128 or so years. There was a similar situation in the rest of the Anglophone Caribbean. Contrast our situation to that of the US. When the US became independent in 1776, slavery did not end. In fact, it would take some 87 years for the Emancipation Proclamation to be issued in 1862 and come into effect in January, 1863. So American independence meant freedom from the shackles of British colonialism for some but not for all.
Conversely, when British colonies in the Caribbean gained their independence, our people were already free and the movement to gain independence was largely led by Black and other Caribbean born nationalists. Needless to say, I grew up seeing people at all social and political levels who looked like me. That is not to say that we were then, or are now, all fully emancipated from mental slavery (I think that remains a work in progress) but the notion that the political ruling class (versus the economic ruling class) had to be white was not something I saw as a child. Unquestionably, in those formative years, I missed the various nuances of shades of Black, socio-economic status, overt and covert political power and influence, etc., but I started to notice them in my teenage years.
I attribute part of my awakening to simply learning more as I got older. I attribute part of it to moving on to a secondary school where I met many others who were like me in various ways, and at the same time, quite different. Such had been my life as a child in a rural primary school that I didn’t understand my family and therefore I, was in the lower economic realm, until I was 11 years old and entered Harrison College (est. 1733), the top secondary school in the country. It was my academic ability and not my family’s money that earned me my place in that institution. If our education system had been set up in an alternate way, the trajectory of my life may have been quite different.
In the same way that I didn’t always see barriers based on race, though intra- and inter-racial barriers long existed in the foreground and background of Barbadian society, I didn’t always see barriers based on gender. Women in Barbados became eligible to vote and to be elected to Parliament in 1944, they just had to meet the same income standard as men: sterling £20 annually, down from the £50 that had been set in 1884. Just a few years later in 1948, the first woman, Muriel Hanschell, was appointed to the Legislative Council and in 1951, Dame Edna “Ermie” Bourne, D.A., a Black woman, became the first woman elected to the House of Assembly, representing her constituency until 1961.
By the 1980s, it was not unusual to see women in a range of occupations in the country and an increasing number becoming involved in politics. Many of my teachers in primary school (like my godmother Rosina), secondary school, and later tertiary institutions were women. Several politicians were women, elected Members of Parliament, who throughout the years held a range of portfolios within government. Women also represented Barbados on the global stage.
On a more personal level, all of the adult women that I knew worked, for example, in cane fields and other areas of agriculture, retail, clerical positions in government, and supervisory and management positions in the public and private sectors. I saw women in enough different occupations that I don’t recall ever thinking as a Black girl, Black teenager, Black woman that I couldn’t aim high because of my race and gender.
In hindsight, maybe I should also be grateful for the naivete of youth, which meant I perhaps set goals before I had any real inkling of how I would achieve them. My challenges tended to be more on the financial side – as I said, we were poor-ish – but my mother frequently reminded me that if I worked hard, I would always find a way to figure ‘it’ out, to make ‘it’ happen. Whatever ‘it’ was. My academic ability, the relatively level playing field of our education system, and my family, allowed me to do just that.
I’ve mentioned a few women in politics from a historical perspective, but their names were not the ones I heard most when I started paying attention to election campaigning, annual budget debates and so on. Following is a selection of women who quickly come to mind when I look through the lenses of my earlier years and others who a quick search brought to light.
Dame Billie Miller, D.A. – Barbados’ first female barrister (lawyer) (1969). Elected as a Member of Parliament in a 1976 by-election. First woman to become a Minister and serve in a Barbados Cabinet. Deputy Prime Minister from 1994 to 2003. Held various portfolios in Cabinet including Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and International Business; Tourism and International Transport, Health and National Insurance; and Education and Culture. World renowned for her work in gender equality and family planning/planned parenthood. Is still politically active and currently Ambassador at-large and Plenipotentiary for Barbados. Is also a member of the Dispute Settlement Panel of the World Trade Organization and Patron of the Caribbean Institute for Women in Leadership.
Dame Ruth Nita Barrow, G.C.M.G., D.A. – A nurse by profession with a long and distinguished career in public health, serving in such positions as Nursing Advisor to the World Health Organisation and the Pan American Health Organisation. A staunch advocate for women’s rights and access to health care. Became the first woman to serve as Governor General in 1990 and stayed in the post until her death in 1995.
Dame Mazie Barker-Welch, BCH, CHB, DBE, LLD – Member of Parliament who represented St. Joseph from 1986 until 1991. Was Parliamentary Secretary in various ministries including Education and Culture, Labour and Community Development as well as Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office (1990-1994). A teacher by profession as well as an advocate for women’s rights. Held positions such as President of the Barbados National Organisation of Women; Barbados’ representative at the first UN Conference for Women on Population Development (1973); Barbados’ delegate to the Inter American Commission of Women (1986-1994); and President of the Inter-American Commission of Women (1990-92).
Hon. Mia Amor Mottley, Q.C. – Current and 8th Prime Minister of Barbados. Barbados’ first woman Prime Minister following other firsts as Attorney General and Leader of the Opposition. The youngest person to become a Queens Council in Barbados. First elected to Parliament in 1994. During a 26-year period, held portfolios such as Education, Culture and Youth, Home Affairs, Economic Affairs and Development, Finance, Economic Affairs and Investment (current), and National Security and the Civil Service (current). Served as Attorney General, Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the House from 2001 to 2008.
Henrietta Elizabeth Thompson – A lawyer by profession. Elected to Parliament in 1994 and served until 2008. Held ministerial portfolios in Health & Environment; Environment & Physical Development; Housing and Lands; Energy. Served in the United Nations as Assistant to the Secretary General (2010), as Special Adviser to the UN President (2013 and 2014), and Senior Adviser on Sustainable Energy for All (2014 and 2015). Currently Barbados’ Permanent Representative to the United Nations.
Since universal adult suffrage at least 15 women have been elected to Barbados’ House of Assembly, 28 appointed as Senators (with Kerry Ifill becoming the first woman and first visually impaired person to serve as president of the Senate in 2012), and 17 who hold/held parliamentary secretary or ministerial portfolios. A woman, Verla DePeiza, is also the leader of the Democratic Labour Party, the other large political party in the country and the one that was in power when the country became independent. Compared to the number of men who have held these positions, we still have some mountains to climb, but they are surmountable and we are but 54 years old.
I’ve emphasized Barbados because it’s my home and I’m celebrating its 54th year of independence but there are notable examples of women in politics elsewhere in the region. I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge a few of them.
First and foremost is Dame Mary Eugenia Charles, the only woman to date to be the Prime Minister of the Commonwealth of Dominica (1980, two years after it became independent) and the first woman elected to head a government in the Americas. Dame Eugenia served as Prime Minister for 15 years, notably, the third longest time a woman has served in such a role. She was also the first woman to be called to the bar in Dominica (1949) and was first elected to the House of Assembly in 1970.
Current Women Prime Ministers, Heads of State, Opposition Leaders in the Caribbean
- Lucile Geore-Wout, Governor, Curaçao (2013 – )
- Dame Cecile La Grenade, Governor-General, Grenada (2013 – )
- Hon. Palmavon Webster, Leader of the Opposition, Anguilla (2015 – )
- Hon. Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Leader of the Opposition, Trinidad and Tobago (2015 – )
- Hon. Sharlene Cartwright-Robinson, Premier, Turks and Caicos Islands (2016 -)
- Hon. Evelyn Wever-Croes, Prime Minister, Aruba (2017 – )
- Paula-Mae Weekes, President, Trinidad and Tobago (2018 – )
- Susan Dougan, Governor-General, St. Vincent and the Grenadines (Aug 2019 – )
Past Women Prime Ministers and Heads of State in the Caribbean
- Ertha Pascal-Trouillot, President of Haiti (1990 – 1991)
- Claudette Werleigh, Prime Minister, Haiti (1995 – 1996)
- Pamela Gordon, Premier, Bermuda (1997 – 1998)
- Janet Jagan, President, Guyana (1997 – 1999)
- Dame C. Pearlette Louisy, Governor-General of Saint Lucia (1997 – 2017)
- Jennifer Smith, Premier of Bermuda (1998 – 2003)
- Portia Simpson-Miller, Prime Minister, Jamaica (2006 – 2007; 2012 – 2016)
- Dame Louise Lake-Tack, Governor-General of Antigua and Barbuda (2007 – 2014)
- Michèle Pierre-Louis, Prime Minister, Haiti (2008 – 2009)
- Paula Cox, Premier of Bermuda (2010 – 2012)
- Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Prime Minister, Trinidad and Tobago (2010 – 2015)
The more aware I’ve become, the more my knowledge has expanded, the more I appreciate the vision and fortitude of these women and what they accomplished – they broke through many, many barriers, ceilings, stereotypes, etc.. Even more women are continuing to break through in business, politics and other areas of Caribbean societies.
Even understanding a lot more US history than I did 10-15 years ago, I am still confounded by the fact that a country which proclaims itself as the leader of the free world and believes wholeheartedly in its own exceptionalism, did not elect its first non-white (not just Black) president until 2008, only just elected its first VP of colour and first woman VP, and may take years yet before it sees a woman presiding from the Resolute desk in the Oval Office. I haven’t even mentioned the conundrum of one person one vote juxtaposed against the specter of the electoral college, a duppy that should have been conquered long ago.
In many ways, I was very fortunate to grow up in Barbados and to be exposed not just to developments there, but throughout the English-speaking Caribbean. Black heads of state (prime ministers, deputy prime ministers, presidents, governors general) – we did that. Black women in all of the aforementioned positions, we also did that, decades ago. Black leaders at all echelons – we did that. Free education – we did that. Free healthcare – we did that. I haven’t even discussed how Barbados and other countries in the region could provide a master class on managing the COVID-19 pandemic. We certainly have our issues, but we continue to punch far above our weight.
Bim/Bimshire/Buhbados/Barbados, “how do I love thee? Let me count the ways …” (Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnet 43). I love you as much as the Mighty Gabby loves Emmerton 😍.
Want to Know More?
- A History of Barbados: From Amerindian Settlement to Caribbean Single Market. Hilary McD Beckles (2006).
- The Life and Times of Errol Barrow. Peter Morgan (1994).
- Women in Political Leadership in the Caribbean. Jennifer Rust (2018).