Imperial Islands, Caribbean Englishes & Atlantic Economies, circa 1630-1980

‘Little England’ & ‘Pidgin’ English:

The British Empire and Commonwealth in the Caribbean and South Atlantic (see also the inset below).
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Some interpretations of Britain’s imperial past have charged the ‘White British’ with using the Caribbean islands in general and Barbados in particular as a ‘dumping ground’ for Black slaves. In fact, the first settlers there were White Catholics, according to the Jesuit priest who met them in 1634, both Irish and English ‘recusants’, looking for somewhere to practice their faith freely, much like the puritan ‘refugees’ in New England. Sometimes called ‘Little England’, Barbados was settled in the 1620s, and quicly became prosperous due to the development of the sugar industry in the 1640s. Later, the British Commonwealth used the island as a place of penal exile for recalcitrant royalists and radicals. Oliver Cromwell first used it as an internment camp for prisoners taken during his battles in Ireland. In September 1649, reporting on his notorious storming of Drogheda (see below) to the Speaker of the English Parliament, he wrote of how …
When they submitted, their officers were knocked on the head; and every tenth man of the soldiers killed; and the rest were shipped off for the Barbadoes.
‘Warts and all’: Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector, c. 1650

This wholesale transportation of some twelve thousand men gave rise to a new verb, ‘to barbadoes’. A letter of 1655 describes Cromwell as a terrible Protector … He dislikes shedding blood, but is very apt ‘to barbadoes’ an unruly man – has sent and sends us by hundreds to Barbadoes, so that we have made an active verb of it: ‘Barbadoes you’.

Meanwhile, the settlement of Jamestown in Virginia had continued to develop in the 1650s, attracting adventurers from England, but also political refugees, including both Royalists and Commonwealth soldiers, deported prisoners and indentured servants, together with many Puritan ‘dissenters’ of the kind who had settled in New England. Many of the prisoners and indentured servants were Irish, not to be confused with the ‘Scotch-Irish’ or Ulster Scots who were also settling as ‘voluntary’ emigrants, and their treatment was little better than the boatloads of Black slaves who were arriving further south at Charleston and in the Caribbean. In due course, these involuntary exiles, who became known as ‘redlegs’, were joined in Barbados by Scottish Highland rebels and, after the failure of the Duke of Monmouth’s Protestant rising in 1685, by West Country Englishmen.

Some of these luckless Barbadians became “poor Whites” after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833, and their descendants settled in a small, impoverished community in the parish of St Martin’s Bay, where they spoke a dialect of English which was indistinguishable from the Blacks known as ‘Bajan’ or Barbadian English. The influence of the Irish is also found on the island of Montserrat, known as “the emerald isle of the Caribbean”. The Irish migrated there to escape from religious persecution in Virginia and on neighbouring St Kitt’s. As early as 1643, an Irish priest, Father O’Hartegan, wrote of French and Irish being spoken on Montserrat, in addition to English. The island has Irish place names, including Glenmór, the ‘big valley’ at the centre of the island. The first ‘free’ Irish planters, the Rileys and the Sweeneys, were joined by involuntary exiles like those on Barbados. When the first Black slaves were transported there (below), some of the Irish took Black wives and mistresses, giving rise to a “Black Irish” community on the island.
Meanwhile, on Barbados, the settlement of slaves from West Africa to work on the sugar plantations (see below) made them dramatically more profitable. It was the first port of call for the slave ships and it was said that that the more ‘unruly’ slaves were shipped up the ‘claw’ of the West Indies, until they finally reached Jamaica. In any case, ‘Bajan’ creole is much closer to Standard English than Jamaican creole.

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Sugar plantations on Barbados

Jamaica: ‘The Wickedest Place on Earth’?

Jamaica became an English possession almost by accident, yet in the eighteenth century it was to be Britain’s most valuable colony. Privateering had been its main source of income, but slowly, as resources were accumulated, a plantation economy based on slavery developed alongside a small-holding sector that produced food. The slave population, however, expanded far more rapidly than the white settlers in the late seventeenth century.

Jamaica in 1685
Jamaica was Britain’s first state-sponsored colonial venture. In 1654 Oliver Cromwell disparched a great fleet to ‘gain an interest’ in the Spanish Indies and, after a humiliating defeat at Hispaniola, its leaders turned on the thinly settled, and ill-defended island of Jamaica as a consolation prize. The ease of the initial seizure proved deceptive, however. Runaway Spanish slaves in the mountainous interior sustained years of guerrilla war with Spanish support which, together with disease, took a heavy toll on the army, in terms of both lives and morale. At the restoration of Charles II, peace was made with Spain, but the King decided to retain Jamaica and establish a civil government designed to encourage private investors and secure the island’s future. The island was ten times the combined size of the other English islands in the Caribbean and promised to provide a valuable extension to the sugar and slave system developed in Barbados. But the English inherited little from the Spanish, except what grew there naturally. Clearing the land and planting cash crops required time and and great capital investment which, despite Charles II’s hopes, were not forthcoming from outside investors. Although the first settlers were given patents for vast tracts of land, it was many years before the resources necessary to convert Jamaica into a thriving plantation economy were accumulated.

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Colonial expansion to 1707: Large-scale emigration began and the sheer volume of settlers crossing the Atlantic proved crucial to the growth of empire.
The colonists exploited the island’s strategic location. Unlike the earlier successful English settlements, Jamaica was at the heart of the Spanish Indies, well placed for both slander and trade, with the additional advantage of a superb natural harbour protected by a long sand spit, at the end of which the English built the town of Port Royal. Privateering required little little capital and provided the funds needed to ensure the infant colony’s survival. In the long run, peaceful contraband trade (especially a slave re-export trade) which also got under way in the 1660s, proved more rewarding. Despite the Treaty of Madrid of 1670, which promised peace and friendship between England and Spain in the Indies, privateers continued to refit their ships and sell their prizes at Port Royal throughout the late seventeenth century. The town, home of Captain Henry Morgan and other famous adventurers and notorious for its rowdy, dissolute, high-spending social life, acquired the reputation of being ‘the wickedest city on earth’. When, in 1692, a dramatic earthquake plunged most of its buildings under water, many saw the disaster as well-deserved punishment from God.
A contemporary account of the earthquake, in Port Royal, Jamaica, viewed by many as divine retribution for the city’s wickedness. Much of Port Royal sank beneath the harbour.

As Port Royal prospered, the island merchants who profited from trade and plunder accumulated the capital to purchase a slave labour force (which increased from ten thousand in 1673 to forty-five thousand in 1703) and plant cash crops in the interior. Cocoa dominated in the 1660s, but was destroyed by blight in the 1670s and superseded by sugar. By 1684 the island had 246 sugar plantations (concentrated on alluvial plains in the south and east, with pockets of settlement along the rivers and coastal St Mary in the north) and sugar exports were approaching the level of those from Barbados. Although the size of plantations in Jamaica was to exceed that of those elsewhere in the English Caribbean, the island also maintained production of a wider range of minor staples than the smaller islands, including indigo, cotton, ginger and pimento (Jamaican pepper). It also had a small-holding sector geared to the internal exchange of food and cattle. The earthquake of 1692, the ensuing disease and the war with France in the 1690s, during which the island was invaded, took a heavy toll on the population, trade and prosperity. The population declined from nine to seven thousand between 1680 and 1700. The lost ground was regained in the eighteenth century, however.

The Roots of Caribbean English:

The British Empire in the eighteenth century.
The making of Black ‘pidgin’ English probably began even before the slave ships arrived on the west coast of Africa, and I have dealt with its development in the Caribbean and the Southern states of North America in earlier articles in this series. In Summary, as shown on the map below, the process began with the development of the ‘Atlantic Triangle’. The slave ships sailed from Bristol, later from Liverpool, with ‘trinkets’ made from various precious metals, together with cheap cotton goods. These were exchanged for cargoes of slaves who were taken to the Caribbean and the Southern states on the notorious ‘Middle Passage’. The ships then returned to the English ports with sugar and tobacco. It was in the terrible holds of the slave ships that the captured Africans began to use their pidgin English as a means of communication with each other and their white captors. When the slave ships arrived in West Africa, the slaves, from many different tribes, each with their own language, had to find a means of communication, and the African tradesmen needed to have a method of bargaining with the White slavers. In America, the first recorded use of pidgin comes from Cotton Mather who used the medical knowledge of the Africans in Boston to inoculate the local people against smallpox.

By the eighteenth century, Black ‘pidgin’ English was not only established on the plantations of the Southern states, but also along the North American coast as far as New York, Massachusetts and Nova Scotia. Here, it had an interesting impact on the vocabulary of the Northern states as slavery ended there. Boss is a typically American word, with enormous cultural overtones, and it came into the language via two routes, one distinctively ‘Black’ and the other just as distinctively ‘White’. In Black American English it is a ‘superlative’; a “boss chick” is a “fine girl”. This usage is also found in Surinam creole, Srana Tongo, as a result of the Dutch migration there after the loss of ‘New Amsterdam’, when it became ‘New York’. That adjectival use was added to by the noun form, as explained by the nineteenth-century American novelist, John Fennimore Cooper. He noted that the White domestic servants who wanted to avoid the ‘slave’ word “master” or “massa” still used by the Black servants after emancipation, would use “boss” as a less demeaning alternative.

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Maritime Pidgin English, the lingua franca of sailors and merchant shipmen, was also well-established throughout the world, mirroring other forms of pidgin – French, Portuguese and Spanish. Words were often borrowed from one form of pigin to another, e.g. beaucoup, bonni-bon. The processes are controversial among linguists, and the arrows on the map below are only intended to indicate the general direction of language traffic accompanying the ocean-going trade.

In the Caribbean islands, the arrival of first the Whites, and then the hundreds of thousands of Black slaves caused an extraordinary transformation of the region’s social and linguistic geography, leading to the making of Caribbean creole. In retrospect, it is as though the Caribbean was a vast language laboratory. The tiny Carib and Arawak Indian population, once native to the region, speaking their own languages, and influencing Spanish with words like cannibal, were savagely obliterated. In their place, creolised forms of the invading European languages emerged. Into the fertile and sugar-rich islands came Whites and Blacks in unequal proportions, able to exploit their agricultural potential. From this meeting of European and African languages and pidgins emerged a Caribbean English which became a link in the chain making up the family of Black Englishes.

Am I not a Man and a Brother? Ending Slavery:

The opponents of slavery, led by Thomas Clarkson, the Quaker, and William Wilberforce, the evangelical Anglican Tory MP, supported by John Wesley, the Methodist preacher, formed their ‘Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade’ in 1787. The former West Indian slave, Olandah Equiano (pictured above?), provided and published information about the barbarity of the Atlantic trade. These pictures and documents, which I have used in previous articles about slavery, exposed the cruelties of the plantation owners in Jamaica. Wilberforce, Clarkson and Equiano organised travelling exhibitions, displaying whips and chains, models of slave ships and the commodities used in the trade of humans. Instead of an image of the king, Clarkson’s famous print of a sardine-can slave ship and Josiah Wedgewood’s ‘mug’ print of a kneeling, exhorting slave were disseminated throughout Britain (below).

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Fundamentally, the campaigners attacked the basic inhumanity of making people slaves, as both John Wesley and George Fox had done, but they also used economic arguments pointing out the pitfalls of colonial Atlantic trade. In 1776, the economist Adam Smith pointed out how expensive it was for Britain to maintain the North American and Caribbean colonies and their trade:
The expense of the ordinary peace establishment of the colonies amounted … to the expense of a very considerable naval force which was constantly kept up, in order to guard, from the smuggling vessels of other nations, the immense coast of North America, and that of our West Indian islands.

Of course, those who continued to trade in slaves from Britain stressed the advantages that the trade in slaves brought in the context of trade in West Indian produce more generally:
The most approved of the Commercial Interests of these Kingdoms have been of the opinion that our West India and African Trades are the most nationally beneficial of any we carry on. It is also allowed on all Hands that the Trade to Africa is the Branch which renders our American Colonies and Plantations so advantageous to Great Britain; that Traffic only affording our Planters a constant supply of Negro Servants for the Culture of their Lands in the Produce of Sugars, Tobacco, Rice, Rum, Cotton, Fustick, Pimento, and all our other Plantation Produce.

The House of Commons in the late eighteenth century.

These arguments, together with the well-organised campaign of the abolitionists, spearheaded by William Wilberforce in Parliament, led to it declaring the British slave trade illegal in 1807. But it took another twenty-six years of campaigning before slavery was abolished in the British Empire. Originally a ‘narrow’ Quaker concern, the abolitionist cause had, by then, swollen to a great evangelical campaign that crossed party and confessional lines. Those who found themselves in a receding minority by the 1830s had to, similarly, find support from people of far broader backgrounds than their own. Using their own ‘authentic’ evidence from the plantations, they argued that slavery benefited the ‘Negro’ slaves themselves. In October 1833, The Jamaica Monthly Magazine published the following condemnation of the abolitionists:
Deluded sons of Britain! Would that ye,
The proud, the omnipotent, the free,
Behold him seated at his ample meal,
With all his children seated at his knee!
As the cartoon below implies, it was also argued that the inevitable price of emancipation of the West Indian slaves, would be the enslavement in poverty of British workers:

Slavery and freedom! – British poverty and West Indian Slavery: A Cartoon from ‘The Looking Glass of 1832’
Although it had to contend with some crude working-class racism fuelled by this kind of propaganda, the abolitionist cause had strong support in Yorkshire and Lancashire, and it was at Oldham in 1832 that William Cobbett finally announced his conversion to it. The abolitionist George Thompson, who risked his life lecturing against slavery in the United States, claimed to have spoken to seven hundred thousand people in meetings in Liverpool alone. The abolitionists were prepared, if necessary, to organise a systematic boycott of West Indian sugar throughout the country which, given the enormous numbers involved in the campaigns since the Napoleonic wars, of commercially farmed sugar beet, might wellhave inflicted huge damage on West Indian slave owners. Hundreds of thousands of signatures were gathered on giant petitions, sewn into one enormously elongated sheet designed specifically for spectacular effect, and delivered to the floor of the House of Commons by supporting MPs, so weighty that it might take four or even eight members to carry them into the chamber. In the first three years of the 1830s, four thousand such petitions were brought to parliament. It has been suggested that as many as one in five adult males had signed an absolutist petition in 1787, 1814 or 1833.

‘Creeping Colonialism’ & the Decline of Transatlantic Trade:

The territory of the empire continued to grow gradually, though by the 1850s, the process of ‘creeping colonialism’ which Britain’s ‘old empire’ had been engaged in following the Napoleonic Wars, had not yet got very far. Most countries made perfectly satisfactory trading partners with little or no persuasion; the sea-lanes between them and Britain were amply secured by the general supremacy of the British Navy. Even so, Britain had acquired a considerable formal empire by the 1850s. It had little to do, however, with her contemporary needs and interests, having been inherited from a previous age when those interests were different. With slavery ended in 1833, the British West Indies had their origin in a now defunct system of Atlantic trade and a few long-forgotten naval victories. Canada, Australia and the Cape Colony had all, thus far at least, been ‘acquired’ with relatively little effort. British India had come into being through an earlier, economic manifestation of ‘creeping imperialism’. These were the largest units of the old empire. Despite the loss of the thirteen American colonies, it was not a negligible inheritance.

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By the 1850s, however, a considerable revolution had taken place in Britain’s relations with her settlement colonies. The result now was that none of them was any longer ‘ruled’ by Britain in the conventional sense. They were dependent on Britain economically, as Argentina was, and militarily, But their political fortunes were in their own hands. If Britain could have relinquished her formal responsibilities in the Caribbean in the same way, it probably would have done so. Superficially, it might have appeared that this was already happening. Most West Indian islands had legislative assemblies modelled on the British parliament, lively and independent-minded, suggesting that the effective transfer of power there to European colonists had already taken place, or would do shortly. But appearances were deceptive. In the other colonies the recipients of responsible government, the white settlers, were clearly the dominant class within their own societies, economically as well as politically and militarily. Their increasing political autonomy as ‘dominions’ was backed by economic stability and, as necessary, military support. In the West Indies this was not the case. The sugar plantation industry on which the European settlers depended had been in decline for some years, unable to adapt itself to the new conditions of free labour and free trade forced upon it by the British Parliament in the 1830s and ’40s, though the decline had begun long before.
Slavery was finally ended in the Caribbean in 1838, and the liberated people now fully embraced carnival as their own. Their ‘Mas’ costumes were often based upon West African myths and were mostly scary rather than sexy. Surviving depictions show black revellers wearing whiteface and devil masks, or dressing as bats, skeletons, and midnight robbers. It was common for revellers to douse spectators with animal bladders filled with water. And, to the immense shock of the authorities, men and women dressed up as the opposite gender, wearing fake genitals or menstrual blood and doing provocative sexualised dances. The Caribbean is famed for its rich musical heritage, from calypso to reggae, but it wasn’t always so easy to play at carnival. After emancipation in 1838, authorities in Trinidad and Tobago tried to suppress carnival’s dangerous energy, and between the 1860s and 1890s banned the lighted torches, drums, and stick-fighting traditions that the people loved so much. Riots ensued.
After 1838, many planters simply abandoned their estates, or had them confiscated in lieu of of debts, returning ‘home’ to Britain or Ireland. A rival agriculture to the plantations sprang up, as ex-slaves set up as independent proprietors on vacant lands, so creating new communities outside the purview, and in continuous friction with, the old ruling classes who wanted their labour. The planters who remained to struggle on in the islands found their dominance there seriously threatened. Wealthy ‘men of colour’ were infiltrating their assemblies, and there was no way for the white planters to stop them short of abrogating their ancient constitutional ‘freedoms’ and ruling through a white oligarchy. So, if the Colonial Office had been bent on ‘responsible government’ for the West Indies, they could only have given it either to parliamentary assemblies of mixed race, or to oligarchies chosen on frankly racist lines. The former could not be entertained. Responsible government, said British parliamentarians, was only applicable to colonists of the English race. At best, a coloured parliament would be a very unpredictable polity; there was no precedent for it, and therefore no means of predicting how it might behave. The other alternative, however, would not be allowed either by ‘humanitarians’ in Britain or by the ‘good sense’ of the government. No such tyranny by a handful of incompetent bankrupts over an alienated population would be off its hands for very long. Very soon, it was thought in Whitehall, the white planters would be back asking for protection from an angry and rebellious population.

The settlers were themselves acutely aware of the weakness of their situation and it needed just a nudge in the 1860s for them to give up legislative independence for the cosy security of direct rule from Britain. In the longer term, and throughout the empire more generally, perhaps the chief effect of the ‘anti-imperialist’ sentiment on practical policy in the 1860s and ’70s was to inculcate a general feeling of resentment against those who had ‘forced’ Britain to take them over ‘against her will’. But occasionally, economic motivations won out, especially with colonies that had a permanent European population strong enough to contain by their own efforts the crises arising within their borders. There Britain could safely economise by delegating the defence of her interests to them. In New Zealand, that was the case, but in the West Indies and South Africa, it was not. Consequently, in those colonies, the imperial government had to intervene directly, and expensively, to defend its interests and, as a consequence, the frontiers of empire crept forward again. In the British West Indies, as the islands were now known, the resolution of the local ‘crisis’ was not a satisfactory one from the Colonial Office perspective. It was a crisis that had been brewing for some time and, like the other crises of that time, it was the result of European encroachment on non-European societies, but here it had taken place many years before and in another place, on the West coast of Africa.
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A planter’s home
What was happening in the West Indies was that the system which had been originally devised for controlling the relations between the two racial groups there after the abolition of slavery was breaking down. Traditionally, the pattern was one of domination of white sugar planters over black labourers, but circumstances had conspired to undermine this pattern, and the ability of the Whites to control the situation. Political institutions devised for a slave economy proved deficient in an era of free labour; inadequate, that is, to preserve a satisfactory degree of white planter dominance. They were being infiltrated by men independent of the plantation economy, and hostile to the planters’ demands. Attempts to manipulate the constitutions of the islands to retain control in the hands of the planters came up against obstruction from the Colonial Office as well as the realities of the planters’ own circumstances as a dwindling bunch of men with little common ability to run their affairs responsibly and without either the financial or material resources to back up their pretensions. In 1853, twelve years before the crisis erupted, Earl Grey had predicted the outcome of planter ‘misrule’:
No one acquainted with the actual state of society in the West India islands … can doubt that, if they were left, unaided by us, to settle among themselves in whose hands power should be placed, a fearful war of colour would probably soon break out … and civilisation would be thrown back for centuries.
All this time, the situation on the ground was deteriorating in the largest of the islands, Jamaica, whose planters had been hardest hit of all by the general economic depression which had followed emancipation and free trade. The cause of the planters’ distress, they claimed, was was the availability on the island of vacant lands, where the ‘lazy’ blacks could settle and provide for themselves, thus releasing them from the need to work regularly on the plantations. On the other islands, the problem was solved, to som extent, by importing Asian labourers to work the plantations. In Jamaica, however, the planters tried to force the Blacks off the ‘vacant’ lands, which provoked riots. Missionaries, especially the Baptists, encouraged the Black settlers in their opposition to the planters. In the Legislative Assembly and in the countryside disaffection grew stronger, tinged with racial overtones. The planters’ order was breaking down.
In these conditions, the only solution was to surrender their powers to the Colonial Office, which was at least kindly disposed towards them and their method of production. It had recently replied to a petition from a group of poor blacks on the island by castigating their ‘sloth’ and telling them to return to the plantations to work for wages. The planters preferred to entrust their fate to Whitehall rather than have it decided by militant Blacks, of whom they were terrified: mindful of the horrors of the Indian Mutiny and of recent events in neighbouring Haiti, they were only too eager to attribute the same bloody intentions to their own ‘Black Rebellion’ when it came, in 1865. Like the Indian Mutiny (or ‘War of Independence’), the Jamaica Rebellion was brutally suppressed, in a manner which caused a storm in English public opinion. Shortly afterwards, the Jamaican assembly voted to relinquish its own powers, and the island’s government was taken over by the Crown. Over the next few years, all the other West Indian territories were which were not already Crown Colonies followed suit, except for Barbados. For the planting community, as for the Colonial Office, there was no other solution consistent with the preservation of the ‘white man’s law and order’ or Grey’s ‘civilisation’.
In the 1860s and ’70s, Britain’s transatlantic trade was becoming less important. The West Indies were stagnant; Latin America and the United States were both taking a smaller proportion of British exports than in the 1840s and ’50s. But over this comparitively short period these changes were marginal: with one or two exceptions, Britain’s best customers in 1857 were still her best customers in 1875. More important than changes in the direction of British trade was its sheer quantitative increase. The 1860s saw the culmination of the period of Britain’s most exhuberant industrial and commercial growth, when the plant nurtured by the industrial revolution and and then liberated by free trade in the 1840s came to flower and filled out into the world. Still unchallenged by effective competition until the last few years of the twenty-year period, way ahead of the rest of the world in its technology and industrial organisation, Britain’s new cheap products found markets almost everywhere, and her demands for food and raw materials eager suppliers. New markets were pioneered and old markets exploited more intensively.
The ‘family’ of the Empire at the end of the nineteenth century.

Protectionism & Progress – The Era of the Wars:

Protectionism as a consistent fiscal policy was almost as unthinkable in the 1890s as it had been in the 1860s; for most sectors of industry it was not yet necessary. The economy was a little sickly, but not chronically ill. There was no reason why Britain should not continue to hold its own in the more competitive conitions of the later nineteenth century, just as it had done in mid-century. This was the generally accepted view in the 1890s, and it left no room for a radical departure from free trade policy. It did, however, leave room for little departures. For while the British economy was fundamentally sound enough not to require special surgery, it might not be so strong as to be able to look on unconcerned while foreigners, by means which might be regarded as illicit, deliberately set out to cripple it. When foreign bounties on beet sugar made the West Indies’ case for retaliation almost unanswerable, and urgent, the British government at last relented in 1902 and threatened to impose countervailing duties if the bounties were not lifted. This worked, but it was as near as Britain got in this period to a retaliatory tariffs. But foreign sugar subsidies, while they might hurt the West Indies, also meant cheap sugar for the British housewife, and at someone else’s expense. Retalitory tariffs would mean higher prices, which was electoral suicide, as proved in 1906. So Britain persisted in playing by the old rules, even though almost every one of its rivals abjured them.
The sugar islands of the West Indies got Ł860,000 in grants between 1897 and 1905, and one or two big loans in addition. But most of this was to save them from ruin, and went to settle debts. Only about a third of it was used for anything more constructive, like agricultural research, roads and shipping. What Joseph Chamberlain, as Colonial Secretary, managed to squeeze out of a reluctant cabinet and Treasury hardly measured up to his own ambitions; but enough was done by way of state-sponsored colonial development to make a difference. The West Indies were saved from economic collapse until the cause of their distress, foreign bounties on beet sugar, had been eradicated by international agreement in 1903. They were allowed to continue the limping decline which the economic facts of life had decreed for them, with even the wretched crutch that Chamberlain had given them, of protection for their sugar exports against foreign bounties, taken from them in the 1908 because it was only ‘prolonging their dying agony’; and if they did not die, it was no thanks to the British government.
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Trinidadian soldiers in 1919
The First World War made the Empire more valuable to Britain, both as a source of fighting men and of necessary imports. In all about two and a half million colonials fought for Britain, with thousands more serving as non-combatants. Economically, the Empire’s contribution was crucial and especially significant were the material goods they they supplied. Many of Britain’s resources, raw materials vital for war production, lay in its colonies, and still more lay in the wider world market which it was part of the colonies’ purpose to defend. Britain’s war economy gobbled up imports during the years of fighting, at a rate which in peacetime would have been considered disastrous to her balance of trade. The West Indies played their part in this, almost quadrupling their exports to Britain from an annual average value of six million pounds in the years 1910-14 to twenty-three million in 1915-20. Winston Churchill told the Commons after the war that …
the commodities which they produced were in many cases vital to the maintenance of the industries, and particularly the war industries, of Britain and her Allies.
In the inter-war years, although it was fashionable in progressive circles to decry the Empire, from Britain’s material point of view it was far from being an anachronism. On the contrary, it was just only just beginning to pay the dividends its old champions had always expected from it, and handsomely. For the giant British-based industrial and commercial combines and cartels which the war and the depression, by weeding out their smaller, weaker competitors, had left in control of some of the empire’s most valuable assets, these dividends were especially high. In the West Indies, Tate and Lyle were major beneficiaries. To a large extent, British industry not only bought its raw materials from the colonies but it was directly involved there in their growth and production, which further cemented the bonds between British capitalism and the Empire. But the imperial system was not without its critics from both inside and outside. Imperialists, as well as Socialists and Liberals, were explicit in their views that the empire could not endure long into the twentieth century if it excluded countries from its self-governing upper echelon on the sole ground of colour. There was trouble in the African colonies after the war, as they had been before. But the organisation of discontent was, as yet, very embryonic, easily suppressed or disregarded locally, and it caused the British little trouble.
From ‘The New Pictorial Atlas of the World’ circa 1933.
The same was true elsewhere in the dependent empire. The West Indies had strikes and riots in the late 1930s which were less easily ‘tamed’ than expressions of discontent elsewhere, but no really effective political organisation emerged until after those riots. Provoked and stimulated by the riots, however, before the outbreak of the war there was a genuine resolution on the part of some politicians and colonial civil servants, to make something more of Britain’s professed aim of ‘trusteeship’ than it had made hitherto. Aside from the West Indies, most of the empire outside India and the middle east remained quiet to the end of the thirties, if not as ‘docile’ ad ‘tractable’ as Winston Churchill had painted it in 1921, then certainly quieter than it had been before that date. The colonies were still too valuable to Britain for it to want to give them up, or to loosen its control over them. But while, at the end of the Second World War, Churchill and other imperialists continued to congratulate themselves on ‘the soundness of our institutions’ as reflected in the empire’s loyalty, there were others who were working hard to improve their colonial institutions and by 1945 solid plans had been laid for a new colonial deal.
The North Atlantic Ocean showing the Commercial seaways, steamer routes, Air Mail routes and Pioneer Flights, circa 1933.

Independence, Migration & The New Commonwealth:

Culturally, the end of the war in Europe marked the origin of the steel bands that then made great use of the empty oil drums left behind by the military. But the ‘new’ rules from the 1890s curbing carnivals stuck, so Trinidadian people had to get creative. So-called tambou-bamboo bands instead invented a range of improvised tuned percussion instruments: bamboo tubes of varying lengths, gin bottles “played” with spoons, metal scrapers, and later biscuit tins, hubcaps, and brake blocks.

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A Jamaican immigrant seeking work and lodgings in Birmingham in 1955.
By the 1950s, if Britain did not any longer have a credible world role, therefore, it still had worldwide economic interests. It continued to depend on the West Indies for sugar, for instance and increasingly for supplies of cheap labour as postwar reconstruction, declining birthrates and labour shortages resulted in the introduction of government schemes to encourage Commonwealth workers, paricularly from the West Indies, to seek employment in Britain. Jamaicans and Trinidadians were recruited directly by agents to fill vacancies in the British transport network and the newly created National Health Service. Patterns of chain migration developed in which pioneer migrants aided relatives and friends to settle. Despite this influx, however, the numbers of emigrants from Britain continued to be greater than those of ‘immigrants’. The 1948 Nationality Act reaffirmed the right of British citizenship to all Commonwealth citizens and colonial subjects and the importance of assigned to the Commonwealth in the 1950s prevented the imposition of immigration controls on New Commonwealth citizens. However, by the 1960s, Britain’s retreat from these ties in favour of European links heralded a policy of restriction, which gradually whittled away the right of New Commonwealth citizens to automatic British citizenship.

Britain’s disengagement from empire was not entirely voluntary. After World War II, Britain’s comparative international weakness required it to grant independence to territories in Asia that were rapidly becoming ungovernable. Further retreats were forced on successive governments by Britain’s inability to the contrary, the Commonwealth never allowed Britain to retain any real influence. For the West Indies, see the inset below.
Britain’s global political interests were not so very different than they had been in the previous decades, though its capacity to safeguard them may well have been. By October 1951, when Labour left office, nationalist demands in various countries were beginning to run on far ahead of Britain’s willingness to concede them. The next eight or nine years were the most difficult for the post-war empire, as nationalist demands became bolder and their methods more drastic, and as the Conservative government came to terms only very slowly and painfully with the full reality of the situation. They professed, at the very beginning of their term, an intention to continue the process towards ‘self-government within the Commonwealth’, and they put no great obstacles in the way of this process in those colonies, like the West Indies, where it was already too far advanced.

In the late 1950s, despite the outcomes of the Suez Crisis and all the other reverses through violent conflict, there was still a sizeable empire left for Britain to save, if it still had the willpower to do so. The progress towards independence of the larger colonies, such as the West Indies, could no longer be prevented, but they might be ‘guided’ towards a form of independence which suited Britain. With the coming into being of the ‘New Commonwealth’ from Britain’s former colonies, to add to the Dominions, and the strength which might still be drawn from it in terms of imperial preferences, there was still a secure framework for British world influence. In the 1960s, Britain was hustled and harried out of most of her old colonies, including the West Indian islands. The ‘Wind of Change’ blew steadily and irresistably across the Caribbean. Meanwhile, in Britain, the 1962 Immigration Act restricted the flow of New Commonwealth immigrants into Britain, but it had the opposite effect: fearful of losing the right of free entry, immigrants came to Britain in greater numbers. In the eighteen months before the restrictions were introduced, the volume of newcomers equalled the total for the previous five years. In August 1962 Jamaica, along with Trinidad and Tobago, became independent, followed by British Guiana (Guyana) in May 1966 and Barbados the following November. The next year, 1967, the Leeward Islands and Windward Islands joined the Commonwealth. Finally, the Bahamas gained their independence in July 1973, followed by Grenada the following February.
Eric Gairy, first Prime Minister of Grenada.
Grenada gained its independence as a sovereign state without breaking formal ties with the Commonwealth, under the leadership of Eric Gairy, who became the first Prime Minister of Grenada, with Queen Elizabeth as Head of State. In March 1979, the Marxist–Leninist New Jewel Movement overthrew Gairy’s government in a popular bloodless coup d’état and established the People’s Revolutionary Government (PRG), headed by Maurice Bishop as Prime Minister. Bishop was later executed by military hardliners, prompting a U.S. invasion in October 1983. The invasion was heavily criticized by the governments of Britain, neighbouring Trinidad and Tobago, and Canada. It led to a famous, heated telephone conversation between British PM Margaret Thatcher and President Ronald Reagan, who was said to be unaware of the Queen’s status as the island’s Head of State. The US later stated that the invasion took place at the behest of the governments of Dominica and Barbados, involving troops from the Regional Security System based on Barbados, with the support of the Governor-General of Grenada. Apparently, Reagan was most concerned about the building of a ten-thousand-foot airstrip which involved Cuban construction workers and military personnel, and which might be used, at a tense period in the Cold War, to refuel Soviet airplanes supplying communist insurgents in Central America. US troop progress was rapid, and within four days the government of Hudson Austin had been removed, the Queen was restored as Head of State, and Grenada returned to the Commonwealth.

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Later in the 1970s, independence followed for Bermuda, St Vincent, Dominica (1978); St Lucia (1979); Montserrat, the Virgin Islands, the Cayman, Turk and Caicos Islands, Antigua (1981); St Kitts and Nevis, and Anguilla (1983). Aside from the Dominions, which at that time included Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the colonies (apart from Rhodesia/ Zimbabwe and Hong Kong) were a scattering of the small islands all over the world which formed a total population of well under a million. Most of them had not been ruled directly, but only protected or subsidised. The island of Anguilla in the Caribbean, which was never a real colony but part of a British ‘Associated State’ with St Kitts and Nevis, caused a flurry in March 1969 when it wanted to break away from St Kitts, and – at its own request – was ‘occupied’ by a force of London policemen who were sent to protect it. On the map below, it can be seen that the British also had interests in central America, along the coasts which were controlled by pidgin English-speaking pirates form the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. In particular, the colony of British Honduras became the independent state of Belize in 1981.

Many Voices & Cultures – the Contemporary Caribbean:

The Caribbean as an oceanic region has the appearance of a certain geographical uniformity to the present day, but culturally and linguistically, it is, in reality, remarkably diverse. Each island has its own strong loyalties and traditions. Even the islands of the former British West Indies did not become a federation, either in political or linguistic terms. Cuba and the Dominican Republic are Spanish; Haiti is French; Trinidad is heavily influenced by Spanish, French creole and immigrant Indian traditions. The most English of the islands are Antigua, Jamaica and, above all, Barbados. These islands also provide good evidence for the the theory of separate language evolution because English is both a first and a national language. The spectacularly different form it took in each island was the legacy of the slave trade as already described.
By the twentieth century, Caribbean creole had developed far beyond its pidgin English roots, while maintaining a vigorous tradition separate from those of West Africa and the Southern United States. Of all the varieties of Caribbean English, Jamaican English (with the most speakers) attracted the most scholarly attention, beginning with F. G. Cassidy’s celebrated Jamaica Talk in 1953. With the development of Jamaican nationalism, E. K. Braithwaite, a celebrated Caribbean English poet and Professor of Caribbean Cultural and Social History of Social History at the University of the West Indies in the 1980s, spoke of Jamaican English as a ‘nation-language’:
The word ‘dialect’ has so many perjorative overtones. You laugh at a “dialect”. It is broken English. “Nation-language” suggests the kind of authenticity which is now becoming part of our expression.

Other poets joined Braithwaite in talking of ‘the Jamaican language’. Jamaican linguists, however, insisted that the language was correctly termed ‘Jamaican creole’. It also continued to be called ‘the patois’ or ‘the dialect’ by ordinary speakers. Visitors to the island could detect that there were two basic levels of ‘native’ language, Standard English, as found in newspapers, books and journals, mildly influenced by Jamaican colloquialisms, and a spoken Jamaican English which was virtually unintelligible to outsiders. Journalists would use a spoken version of Standard English with a number of dialect words such as ‘nyam’ (eat) or ‘tacko’ (ugly) thrown into conversations. Until the 1970s, the ‘Jamaican language’ was a purely oral language of the streets and the home, but then, fuelled by cultural nationalism, reggae and ‘dub poetry’, a written standard began to emerge as an expression of Jamaican speech. Reggae has been described as the ‘heartbeat’ of Jamaica, and ‘dub poetry’ as ‘the baby of reggae’. It emerged in the early 1970s with poets such as Linton Kwesi Johnson and Mutabaruka, a Rastafarian. Johnson described dub poetry as:
a new departure in Jamaican protest poetry. Here the spoken/ chanted word is the dominant mode. People’s speech and popular music are combined, and the Jamaican folk culture and the reggae tradition provide both sources of inspiration and frames of reference.

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Above: the ‘dub poets’, Mutabaruka and Linton Kwesi Johnson, are part of a new generation who express Jamaican English in a written form far removed from Standard English.
The evolution of dub poetry can be traced in the work of Louise Bennett, who used a highly localised dialect of Jamaican form of English. In her own words, “Miss Lou”, as she was known, wrote poems in the free expression of the people … a manner of speaking unhampered by the rules of (Standard English) grammar. She writes out of the oral tradition of Jamaica and Black English, and is inspired by the spoken rhythms of the Bible, the Sankey and Moody hymnal, and the folksongs of Jamaica. Her poetry was at its best when she performed it, manipulating the full range of the language, playing on the nuances of meaning like a music-hall comedian. Her subjects are the life of Kingston – street scenes, public events, local sports and Jamaican politics. Here are some lines from her declaration of solidarity with ordinary Caribbean speech:
Meck me get it straight Mass Charlie
For me noh quite understan,
Yuh gwine kill all English dialect
Or jus Jamaica one?

When Louise Bennett’s poems were first published in a collection in 1966, Jamaica Labrish, a four-page glossary was included which included bockle for bottle, duppy for ghost, ninyam for food. At the time, ‘Miss Lou’ was an almost lone voice in her use of ‘nation language’. Twenty years later, she was at the centre of a vital tradition. Edward Braithwaite described the condition of Caribbean English at that time:
With the new generation, the people who are really using the nation language, the idea is not really to write it at all, but to have it recorded, and best of all, filmed. There you have a complete correlation between what the culture dictates, and what the media would like, and how you communicate it.
Braithwaite goes on to make the point that Caribbean English is refracted through many lenses, historical and local, providing an important model for the development of new Englishes around the world:
All Caribbean people partake in multiple cultures. They partake in the American culture. Some of us partake in the Latin American culture. Then there’s the European culture and the Caribbean culture.
Code-switching from a localised Caribbean English, whether ‘Bajan’, Jamaican, Trinidadian, etc, to Standard English was the upshot of this fusion. Barbadians, or ‘Bajans’ as they are sometimes still called, have a reputation for well-spoken respectability, and Bajan creole is much closer to Standard English than Jamaican creole. The Caribbean writer George Lamming is a Barbadian whose first novel, In the Castle of My Skin, has explored explores the subtle relations, roots and reasons for the similarity between Black and White Barbadian speech:
One of the curious things about Barbados is that given the same region … there is great proximity in accent, and intonation between Black and White … If I hear a voice next door … I would recognise that was a Barbadian speaking. I would not be too sure at first hearing whether that was a White Barbadian or a Black Barbadian. … There will certainly be an element of Irish and Scots and English, greatly influenced of course by the African syntax and vocabulary which has been brought here. … You speak of people who are making a “bassa bassa” is a Twi word, but what it really means is a noise … Teachers would use that: “Don’t make any ‘bassa bassa’ in this classroom.”
At the end of the last century, Barbados itself, barely twenty-one miles long, was still almost wholly devoted, second only to tourism, to sugar production for its income. The plantation boundaries remained much as they always had been. To the north of the capital, Bridgetown, stretches a long plain on which there are many plantations dating back to the 1640s, fringed with hills and majestic royal palms. Much of the fertile ground was devoted to sugar cane, and some of the plantations were still owned by families who can trace their ancestry back to the first White settlement of the island. Their story, and that of the Black workers on their estates expresses much of the Barbadian experience and the development of the English language on the island over three and a half centuries. The older Black men, talking among themselves in the fields, use a Caribbean creole that is difficult for a Standard English speaker to follow. The white ‘bosses’ naturally use the same language, a ‘broken English’ which they refer to as ‘Bajan’, a creole which they recognise as being different from those spoken on other Caribbean islands like Trinidad and Jamaica where:
They’re speaking English but they’re putting different stresses … Bajans themselves don’t understand it although they’re not far away from that particular country. … I become more of a Bajan as soon as I’m talking to … people in the field … But when I’m sitting at a professional desk I’m slightly more English.

Standard English & Caribbean English – Whose Language?:

Standard English evolved slowly in the West Indies during the second half of the twentieth century, being dependent on newspapers, book dictionaries and broadcating authorities, whereas Caribbean ‘nation’ languages from the 1950s have been much more mobile, oral traditions continually searching for new forms of expression. One Caribbean writer whose work typified the transition into a written Caribbean English was ‘Mikey’ Smith, one of the dub poets who established an international reputation. As a young Jamaican drama student, Smith captured the imaginations of his generation in the late 1970s. His career was tragically cut short when he was stoned to death during Jamaica’s political violence. Michael Smith composed orally and made tape recordings. Only later did he transcribe his work, but he was followed by a group of poets who composed their work collaboratively, called Poets in Unity. They chose to write in the language of their own culture rather than in Standard English, and to disseminate it throughout the English-speaking world in performance, records, tapes and books. They were extremely alert to the idea that the language of their poetry might become the future standard language of the West Indians and give their society a distinct Caribbean identity that would not be overshadowed by British or American English. Edward Braithwaite made the point, in talking about English in Caribbean, that what was then commonly called ‘the Third World’ was acutely concerned, as a whole, with language. As he said, We regard words, word play, as an essential part of our personality.
In the 1950s, before the West Indies had had achieved their independence from Britain, the emphasis on Standard English was oppressive. Braithwaite recalled the experience of Jamaicans in the law courts:
The judge would expect the defendant to speak as best as he could in ‘the Queen’s English’. This would come out as broken English and the man would be hesitant and embarrassed. Now, with the acceptance of the nation language, the defendant comes in dressed as he is, and he speaks to the judge as himself, and is much more eloquent, and much more successful in his dealings with the court.

Bob Marley gave Jamaican English a special place in contemporary culture, symbolising the emergence of ‘New Englishes’.
The ‘Jamaican creole’ of Smith and the dub poets was closely related to the language of reggae star Bob Marley (above), having Rastafarian elements and dealing with themes of oppression, resistance and redemption. In the 1980s, Bob Marley was without doubt the most famous West Indian in the world, invited as guest of honour to Independence Day celebrations and peace rallies. His music swept through Britain and the United States, influencing a generation of songwriters. His lyrics gave poignant expression to the Caribbean predicament: an imposed identity caught between an African one and an American one, with a European legacy. His worlwide success gave Jamaican creole a worlwide credibility. Braithwaite commented wryly that announcers on the radio are quite happy to move into nation language. In schools, the trend towards a Caribbean English was emphasised by the emergence of examinations devised and adjudicated not in London or Manchester but in Kingston or Bridgetown. One of the leading spokesmen for the recognition of the Jamaican creole was Hubert Devonish, a Guyanese academic. He wanted it given equal official status as English, maintaining that it was a very old language that the slaves brought from Africa to the Caribbean and had always been on a different ‘trajectory’ from English.
Devonish argued that although the African slaves picked up the vocabulary of English, they retained the grammatical structure of their African languages. No linguist, he claimed, could overlook the fact that all four of the Caribbean creoles – English, Dutch, French and Spanish – were remarkably similar in structure. He therefore argued that from both a historical and linguistic point of view, Jamaican creole was a separate language. Historically, he argued that English was the language of an élite, isolated from the mass of the Caribbean population. If the people of Jamaica were to participate fully in every aspect of their own society, the government should therefore recognise the creole as an official language, separate from English. There was, he said, …
no reason why any élite group within Jamaican society should determine that only one language, that of the dominant European power, should be the official language.
The most effective way of getting Jamaican creole to be recognised by those in power, he suggested, was for it to be a medium of instruction in the education system. He argued that many people were denied proper access to this system because it operated only in English. He believed that the writing system of Jamaican creole should be introduced through a variety of board games, including Scrabble. Others took more of a middle path, arguing that Jamaica had a continuum of language, with creole at one end, incomprehensible to those not living in the society, and Standard English at the other, a medium in which many were never fully fluent. Mervyn Morris argued that the majority of Jamaicans could not be fully bilingual in their code-switching, operating “somewhere in the middle”. For Morris, Jamaicans had two co-existing needs, to “express things about the Jamaican experience” which could not be expressed in Standard English with the same force, and to use Standard English in order not to cut themselves off from “international communication”.
So, the international power of English has been the force which has arrested the full, separate development of the of Caribbean English. Within Caribbean culture, there is still a considerable resistance to the recognition of Caribbean English: a continuing debate about what is ‘correct’, and the absence of a standardised spelling system makes this debate almost irresolvable. Teachers have preferred to teach a Caribbean version of Standard English rather than a more self-conscious, nationalistic Caribbean English. Parents have also complained about their children “talking local” at school. This connects with the external pressures related to the growing demands for International English, which are similar to those experienced in other ‘developing’ economies. Despite the successes of the West Indian cricket team from the mid-seventies to the mid-nineties, the development of a collective Caribbean or West Indian political, linguistic and cultural identity has been slow to emerge, and has been resisted by the individual islands.

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Today Caribbean creole has developed far beyond its pidgin English roots and the influence of Caribbean English is not confined to the Caribbean. Since the 1950s, there have been large, well established West Indian communities in Toronto, New York, London and Birmingham. I have written about the ‘final passage’, the ‘Windrush Generation’ and the British Caribbean communities in other articles on this site. Throughout what was the British Empire, and what is now the British Commonwealth, the independent traditions of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and, more recently, South Africa, have forged and breathed new life into the Englishes which were exported from Britain between two hundred and four hundred years ago. In South Africa over the last half century, it became the language of black consciousness and liberation. In the Caribbean, it has become the focus of new forms of anti-imperialism and nationalism which has served as a model of evolving bilingualism and multilingualism in ‘developing’ countries throughout Africa and Asia.


Nuala Zahadieh (2001), Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin.
Robert McCrum (1986), The Story of English. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Bernard Porter (1986), A Short History of British Imperialism. London: Longman.

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