By Alvette ‘Ellorton’ Jeffers
Our ancestors were conquered people. We, the descendants of those who were conquered, enslaved, dehumanised and exploited, celebrate our ancestors’ struggles to regain control over their lives. We continue to learn from them the important lesson that laws which justify the conquest and control of economic resources and the domination and organisation of people and labour for the benefit of Empire, foreign capital or State, are not immutable. We best honour our ancestors by confronting and eliminating all hierarchical structures that reinforce forms of socioeconomic domination that hinder us from creating the condition that allows for our total mastery over our spaces and existence.
Our ancestors were up against a formidable enemy. It has been estimated that by 1913, according to Wikipedia, the British Empire “had sway over 43 million people, 23% of the world’s population…and by 1920 it covered 13,700,000 square miles.” Wherever they went, the British colonisers compelled the colonised to submit to their authority at the point of a bayonet. Violence, death and forced displacement were the results of conquest. Despite its formidability, there was always resistance to British colonial rule, for it constructed a socioeconomic system which delayed and undermined the social and economic development of the colonised people while, manufacturing at the same time, the white myth of African inferiority. Colonialism represented a real threat to the development of Africans everywhere. Urged by a compelling desire to end their continuing debasement, Africans had to resist because it was in the process of resistance that they continually affirmed their own humanity. It is in the process of revolutionary struggle that human beings discover both their capabilities and limitations.
Every 9th December, Antigua celebrates Heroes’ Day. Antigua’s heroes get noticed because they refused to accept the social limitations that British colonialism imposed on the African Antiguan working class and estate workers. Those leaders that we now venerate, were up against a legal system that codified oppression and repression. All this was occurring when Africans in Antigua and Barbuda were being denied political representation. It seems to me though, that in our celebration of the past, we totally ignore or downplay working class struggles against colonial rule that preceded the arrival of V.C. Bird et al, in 1939. It is my humble opinion that these struggles are not made significant on Heroes’ Day because they were led by ordinary working class leaders whose emergence undermined the idea that everyday people are incapable of self-mobilisation and organisation. An important historical uprising which took place in 1918 is of great significance for us. It had the capacity to undo the colonial system and it was more incendiary than any single event that took place in the 30s and 40s. Those who are interested in the story of this insurrection are advised to read Professor Glen Richards’ “Race, Class and ‘Moral Economy’ In The 1918 Antigua Labour Riots (Google). These insurgents were sugar cane workers who initiated a general strike to control how sugar cane was weighed. They brought their protest to the streets where they faced the armed might of the colonial State. Two persons were killed by the armed forces of the State, James Brown and John Furlong from the Point area. Fifteen were wounded and twenty-two were indicted for participating in the 1918 insurrection, according to Professor Richards. They challenged the plantocracy and colonial State that supported it. They caused the ruling classes to shudder, to the point where colonial rulers sought military help outside of Antigua to prop up their rule.
The attempted slave rebellion in 1736, the insurrection of 1918 and the labour struggles between 1939 to the 1950s, are all significant moments which influenced political developments in Antigua and Barbuda. Though not the most important conclusion, what we can draw from those past struggles is that they all contested the authority of the political and economic classes who wrapped around themselves a fragile, legal shield to ward off any complaint about the illegality of their domination over land and people. I do not know any African existing today who, in looking back at the past, would assert that the laws the slave masters and colonisers made to legalise ownership of captured black bodies and land, were laws that the enslaved, dispossessed and displaced had to honour.
I certainly would be flabbergasted if I were told that was the case. Why? Not even the European countries that competed with each other for possessions in the Caribbean accepted each other’s claim to land as a fait accompli. Those matters were settled on the battlefield and on sea. After the battles, treaties were signed and then, occasionally, honoured in the breach.
Those who have been uprooted, dispossessed, displaced, exploited, degraded, and disregarded are placed in a position where the only alternative they are offered to end the process of their dehumanisation and stultification is to attempt to end the conditions that deny their humanity. Their liberation is the sole justification for their struggle. Ruling classes never sanction liberatory actions that are aimed at their demise. Every obsolete ruling class tries to hold on to power until the moment that it is left with no other alternative but to give up and adjust to the new order or perish. Any student of the French, American, Haitian, Russian and Cuban revolutions would quickly recognise this fact. In opposition to a ruling class and in the process of struggle, the revolution establishes its own rules as it overturns all hitherto existing political and economic relations while building its own. The revolution justifies itself. The 1804 Haitian revolution ended French rule in Haiti, and it established itself as the only successful slave uprising in history. Africans all over, look admiringly at what the Haitians achieved in 1804, in much the same way we look back at our own efforts to end the colonial legal, political and economic arrangements that impeded our forward movement.
I write all that to bring me to Barbuda, some may say, in a very circuitous way. Barbudans say that the land on which they were enslaved and have continued to live from the 17th century up to the present moment belongs to them. That is more than three hundred years in the same place. A respected Antiguan who occasionally advertises his opposition to all things colonial, has written that Barbuda’s claim to the land is invalid because their enslavers and the colonisers whom he claims to despise, did not pass title to them. His position converges with those of the Antigua Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP). Others have pointed out that the Barbudans lost command over their lives the moment Barbuda was linked to Antigua in 1860. They say, metaphorically, that this one hundred and sixty-years-old long iron chain with each of its rusty links stained with the dried blood of our ancestors eternally binds Barbuda to Antigua, even if Barbudans’ lives remain an ignoble one. Britain and the island’s white administrators made a decision about the future of two people on two separate islands and never asked either what they thought about the decision. At that time, blacks were unable to vote and trade unions were illegal. Those who oppose Barbuda’s land claim and their efforts to be self-determined have summoned the ghost of the colonisers to their side. Their pronouncements on Barbuda, express and endorse colonial notions and practices of property rights; the same rights and practices that Antiguan sugar workers contested and lost their lives or were imprisoned for doing so. Yet they celebrate Antigua’s anti-colonial struggles, while overlooking or devaluing Barbudans’ effort to redirect their lives which cannot succeed if they are not free to organise their resources to support and manage their own development. They also support black self-determination and self-reliance in Africa, but encourage foreign control of Barbuda. When, in the 19tth century, an overseer observed that Barbudans “acknowledge no master and believe the island belongs to them,” it was a confirmation that Barbudans had a vision of living that was in opposition to the life the colonialists had designed for them in 1860. It is a life of self-determining, which this overseer, like Gaston Browne today, would have been hostile to. (See Justin Simon, Observer Newspaper, September 01, 2020) This is the starting point of all great revolutions. It is where the Haitian and American revolution began. The rejection of “masters” puts on the agenda, the overthrow of the old order. Scholars who have written to defend the authenticity of the 1736 planned rebellion against Antigua’s slave masters to make themselves “masters” of the land, do not admit to a similar value in Barbudans’ expression to be “master” of their land. They equivocate about it or fight it, either out of prejudice or in deference to the wishes of the government that they represent and willingly serve. Barbudans will, nevertheless, write their own history and the Antiguan working class and everyday people will help them when they too fulfill the dreams of their ancestors by becoming the true masters of their own land.
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