In his classic book Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl discusses the internal character which allowed people to survive the Holocaust. He speaks of an “inner greatness”, where despite the horrendous circumstance, one can choose their own attitude, their own way. This is the ultimate human freedom.
We recently saw this inner greatness displayed by an entire nation. The world’s newest republic, Barbados, has broken the last official chain of centuries of brutal oppression.
Once the blood-soaked jewel of the British Empire, slave plantations in Barbados produced the sugar which paid for the great houses and opulent lifestyle of the British aristocracy for generations. Life expectancy of the people who worked on these plantations was short, so a continual supply of humans had to be kidnapped from Africa, and on the way to Barbados and other colonies many died in the putrid holds of British ships.
As Barbados Senator Reverend John Rogers recently stated at a National Service of Thanksgiving, “Our seed is one that survived a journey that many should not have survived. Survived 300 years of a plantation system that many should not have survived. Every child born in this country is a gift of God, specially preserved, specially protected.”
Barbados remained a British colony until it gained independence in 1966, at which time it became a constitutional monarchy. The choice to cut ties with the monarchy and become a republic was a courageous move for this country of under 300 000 people. The primary industry on the island today is tourism and their tourists come largely from Great Britain.
A tradition of courage runs deep in the culture of Barbados, however. The Bussa Rebellion of 1816 was one of many slave revolts as the demand for freedom spread throughout the Caribbean. Today, the Emancipation Statue stands proudly in the capital of Bridgetown, showing a strong upright man with broken chains. Many Barbadians refer to it as the statue of Bussa, in honour of the African who led their rebellion.
It is important to remember as well, that even after slavery officially ended in the British Empire, white landowners continued to exploit liberated Barbadians and their descendants by paying them very little, while slave trading families continued to reap great profits.
Prince Charles, who represented his mother at the recent ceremony in Bridgetown, acknowledged the “atrocity of slavery,” but the truth is that the Drax Hall Plantation in Barbados continues to be owned by and contribute to the wealth of a descendant of the family that first took the land where it stands today. Conservative Richard Drax is possibly the wealthiest member British Parliament and he is fast becoming the living symbol of all that is wrong in the world. Pressure is mounting for Drax to pay reparations, not just from Barbados, but from British citizens who protest outside his obscenely opulent estate.
The truth is, there are only certain things that wealth and power can do. They can build temporary walls of protection around people who want to exploit other human beings. They can pay for propaganda that will fool people for a time. They cannot, however, make what is wrong right. They cannot make the truth disappear, and they cannot stop great people and their descendants from living their greatness.
Today, members of the British aristocracy stumble around like fools, reminiscent of the contestants in Monty Python’s Upper-Class Twit of the Year sketch, trying to minimize their culpability for crimes against humanity.
At the same time, the people of the small island nation of Barbados stand before the entire world and demonstrate the potential of the human spirit. They have been beaten down by cruelty and greed, yet they have maintained their dignity, walking tall with their broken chains lying far behind them.
Gerry Chidiac is a Prince George teacher.