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Barbados - 20th Century History

For almost 300 years, Barbados remained in the hands of a small, white, propertied minority who held the franchise. Plantation owners and merchants of British descent dominated local politics. Barbados had a house of assembly since 1639 but, due to the property qualifications for the franchise, this was dominated by plantation owners until the franchise began to be widened in 1944. It was not until the 1930s that the descendants of emancipated slaves began a movement for political rights.

Reform finally came after the Great War, however, as a result of ideas brought back by Clennell Wilsden Wickham of Barbados, Andrew Arthur Cipriani of Trinidad, and others who had served in the British forces abroad. Wickham returned home in 1919 fired by enthusiasm to make Barbados a more democratic place. His newspaper articles inspired Charles Duncan O'Neale to organize the Democratic League, a political party that espoused franchise reform, old-age pensions, compulsory education, scholarships, and trade union organization. The Democratic League succeeded in electing a few representatives to the House of Assembly between 1924 and 1932, but it is chiefly remembered for inspiring O'Neale's nephew, Errol Barrow, to found the Democratic Labour Party (DLP).

One of the leaders of this movement, Grantley Adams, founded the Barbados Labour Party in 1938. The Barbados Labour Party (BLP - known briefly as the Barbados Progressive League), which developed out of the trade unions, began working for economic improvement and the extension of political rights. During the 1920s and 1930s, Barbados was confronted with a rapidly growing population, a rising cost of living, and a wage scale that was fixed at the equivalent of US$0.30 a day. Spontaneous rioting erupted throughout the Commonwealth Caribbean in the late 1930s as the region felt the effects of the worldwide depression.

Adams argued that the main cause of the riots was economic distress. Elected to the House of Assembly in 1940, Adams became president general of the Barbados Workers Union (BWU) on its formation in 1941. Under Barbadian governor Sir Grattan Bushe, the constitution was changed to effect a semiministerial form of government, and the franchise was progressively liberalized. During the 1942 House of Assembly session, Adams led a fight for reforms that broadened the franchise by reducing the cost of qualification, increased direct taxation, established a workmen's compensation program, and protected union leaders from liability in trade disputes.

Under the terms of the Bushe reforms, Adams became leader of the government in 1946. Between 1946 and 1951, he presided over uneasy coalitions in the House of Assembly as the BLP failed to win a clear majority. In 1951, in the first election conducted under universal adult suffrage with no property qualifications, the BLP captured sixteen of the twenty-four seats. Although the BLP had finally gained a majority in the House, Adams was unable to hold the party together. In 1955 a split in the BLP led to the formation of the Democratic Labour Party (DLP), led by Errol Barrow.

The BLP and BWU, which had formerly acted in unison, pulled apart in 1954 after Adams resigned as president of the BWU, became premier (the preindependence title for prime minister), under a new ministerial system of government, and neglected to include the new BWU president, Frank Walcott, in his cabinet. Meanwhile, a new member of the House, Barrow, emerged as leader of a discontented BLP left wing, which felt that Adams was too close to the governor and not close enough to labor. Barrow had served in the Royal Air Force in World War II and subsequently studied and passed the bar in London. After returning to Barbados in 1950, he joined the BLP and was elected to the House in 1951. In 1954 Barrow left the BLP and the following year founded the DLP, which he led for the next thirty-two years. In spite of Barrow's defection, Adams led the BLP to victory in the 1956 election.

The BLP, led first by Adams, and after 1958 by Dr Hugh Cummins, gained a majority in the House of Assembly between 1944 and 1961. Thus, by 1957, Barbados had virtual self-government under a democratic system, a status formally recognised in 1961. Barbados had been a member of the Federation of the West Indies, set up in 1958.

This was followed by steps toward increased self-government, and in 1961, Barbados achieved the status of self-governing autonomy. From 1958 to 1962, Barbados was one of 10 members of the West Indies Federation, and Sir Grantley Adams served as its first and only prime minister. When the federation was terminated, Barbados reverted to its former status as a self-governing colony.

When the Federation was dissolved in 1962, the Barbados Government announced its intention to seek independence separately. Following several attempts to form another federation composed of Barbados and the Leeward and Windward Islands, Barbados negotiated its own independence at a constitutional conference with the United Kingdom in June 1966. After years of peaceful and democratic progress, Barbados became an independent state within the British Commonwealth on 30 November 1966.

The DLP was in power from 1966 to 1976, and the BLP from 1976 to 1986, led by Tom Adams, Sir Grantley Adamss son. In 1986 the DLP, still led by Errol Barrow, won a decisive election victory, maintaining its majority in the 1991 elections. This was despite a breakaway movement by DLP dissidents who formed a new National Democratic Party (NDP) but failed to win any seats in the 1991 elections. Erskine Sandiford became Prime Minister in June 1987 after the death of Barrow. Sandiford and the DLP were ousted in September 1994 by the BLP led by Owen Arthur. The BLP won 19 seats (48.3 per cent of the vote), the DLP eight and NDP one.





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