BARBADOS (Naked Departure) — The Oxford Dictionary defines fear as an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous and likely to cause pain or a threat. There are two groups to be feared by black Barbadians. They are the two p’s the police and politicians. The former chase them while the latter strives to main them in a tight embrace. Both actions have produced fear.
The fears of black Barbadians did not begin on this island. Those fears began in West Africa, when the Europeans started the Slave Trade. For one hundred and eighty years or five generations the people of West Africa were living in fear of being captured by slave traders. Little did those Africans who lived on the Gold Coast know that those dreaded steps to Elmina; that wretched castle by the sea with penthouses that accommodated the wealthy and dungeons that would hold them captive, would somehow transposed the fate of the black man in the in the Western Hemisphere. The journey into the unknown was just beginning. For the Africans who survived the perilous journey across the Atlantic Ocean, the worst was yet to come because fear came to dwell by their side.
The Barbados Slave Codes
Let us examine the origins of this fear of the police in Barbados. We must go way back to the year 1661. It was the year that the repressive Barbados Slave Codes came into existence. The Barbados Slave Codes were laws set up by the British to justify the practice of slavery, racism and legalize the planters’ inhumane treatment of their slaves. Under these codes, the slaves had the status of farm animals or chattel and had no human rights. The Barbados Slave Codes allowed the planters to control the slaves by any means they felt necessary without repercussion. The only positive aspect of the code to the slaves was a guarantee of a change of clothing once a year. The planters were given the authority to beat, whip, brand, maim, mutilate burn or kill a slave with no risk of punishment. The slaves became a people without the rights guaranteed any person under English common law. Fear became part of everyday life.
The Codes were so successful that they were adopted for use in the other Caribbean Islands an on the mainland in the Southern States of the USA.
The Slave Patrols
By the 1640s, Barbados had a formal military structure which included white males, indentured servants and even a few free blacks. However, with enactment of the Barbados Slave Codes, slave patrols were created to enforce the slave codes. The aim of the patrols was the surveilling and controlling the slave population while imposing and upholding colonial law mainly through the use of force and coercion. The mere presence of the slave patrol drove fear into the heart of every black person. “Though there be no enemy abroad, the keeping of slaves in subjection must still be provided for.” – Barbados Governor Willoughby.
Dr. Karl Watson noted in Slavery and Economy in Barbados that during the last two decades of the 17th century, that the planter class exercised “greater social control over the black enslaved population, using for this purpose the large lower class white population as a police force. Over 60% of Barbadian whites were poor and some 35% of these did not own any slaves.” This must reference the police slave patrol because the precursor to the Royal Barbados Police Force; the Police Force of Barbados came into existence in 1835.
The paucity of research done on slave patrols is seemingly out of proportion to the large role they played in the perpetuation of the slavery system in the Barbados. Although these patrols had many functions within the community, their one basic job was to act as the first line of defense against a slave rebellion. They caught runaway slaves, enforced slave codes, discouraged any large gathering of blacks, preserved the racial hierarchy and generally perpetuated the atmosphere of fear that kept the slaves in line. There were several rebellions in Barbados so the slave patrol must have played a dominant roll on the island in the 17th and 18th Centuries.
Rugemer in his book Making Slavery English: Comprehensive Slave Codes in The Greater Caribbean during the Seventeenth Century noted that in Barbados, “slave catchers were to bring runaways to the owner, if known, or to the Provost Marshal of the Island, who was made responsible for their care and imprisonment until redeemed by the owner. And if a servant brought in a runaway slave, he or she would be relieved of all future service their trouble.”
Slave patrols also began Southern USA. All white men aged six to sixty, were required to enlist and conduct armed patrols every night which consisted of: Searching slave residences, breaking up slave gatherings, and protecting communities by patrolling the roads. A more graphic picture has emerged as USA Historian Sally E. Hadden, notes: “In the countryside, such patrols were to visit every Plantation within their respective Districts once in every Month and whenever they thought it necessary, to search and examine all Negro-Houses for offensive weapons and Ammunition. They were also authorized to enter any disorderly Tipping-House, or other Houses suspected of harboring, trafficking or dealing with Negroes’ and could inflict corporal punishment on any slave found to have left his owner’s property without permission. Slave patrols’ had full power and authority to enter any plantation and break open Negro houses or other places when slaves were suspected of keeping arms; to punish runaways or slaves found outside their plantations without a pass; to whip any slave who should affront or abuse them in the execution of their duties; and to apprehend and take any slave suspected of stealing or other criminal offense, and bring him to the nearest magistrate.”
The slaves lived in a state of trauma and paranoia due to the terror that these patrols instilled in them. Below is a graphic description of an encounter with a slave patrol in the USA.
“[A runaway] was with another, who was thought well of by his master. The second of whom… killed several dogs and gave Messrs, Black and Motley (patrollers) a hard fight. After the Negro had been captured they killed him, cut him up and gave his remains to the dogs.” – Jacob Stroyer (Neal, 2009).
The Royal Barbados Police Force
With regards to the police, the fear is in essence fear of police brutality. The Royal Barbados police force originated from slave catching patrols to become an instrument of oppression and control. Present day the officers are no longer white but the institution is still racially focused and concentrates its oppression on poor blacks and on poor black neighborhoods. It is supposed to be modelled after the Metropolitan Police Service of London. I have not seen the similarities only differences. Their evolution was not the same and the British police do not carry guns.
A name is a unique identity that is designated to a person or a thing. With the name “Royal” Barbados Police Force one would expect a certain level of esteem or distinction that comes with this designation. There is however nothing “royal” about a police Department that brutalizes and executes the citizens of its country. It is a name only and not a title to a claim of divine right as of the medieval kings. I have wondered many times why it is called a force as opposed to a department. Do they believe that this endowment of “force” in the name gives them the authority or a divine right to commit brutal acts on a section of the population in Barbados?
The written motto is to serve, protect and reassure. One can query whether this statement is still in regards to serving, protecting and reassuring the interests of the descendants of the planter class, white entrepreneurial class and those in positions of power in Barbados. This motto is certainly not directed at those who live in policed neighborhoods where the descendants of slaves live.
- The Force is legitimate proof of the existence of two Barbados.’
- The Force sensationalizes the poor black man who commits crimes as armed and dangerous but never investigates the acts where the elite in society blatantly disregard and break the laws, commit murder or illegally finance elections where sums of money are offered for votes.
- The Force has evolved to become an oppressor of petty crimes, taking black persons to court who can only afford to buy a spliff, while the persons who can afford to bring drugs into the country are given a blind eye.
- The Force is always out on patrol in areas like the Pine, Haynesville, Deacons Farm and Silver Hill. The force picks up young black men for questioning.
- The Force does not pick up a young white man for questioning.
- The Force does not police white neighborhoods.
- The Force has never exhibited any tendencies to protect young black men.
- The Force brutalizes and kills black men.
- The Force has never brutalized or killed any white men.
Is it true to state, as in the case of what is unfolding in the USA that the police in Barbados are now a monopoly of legalized violence against blacks as occurred in the days when the Barbados Slave Codes were on the statute books?
Brutal Beating of Nazim Blackett
Nazim Blackett is no different from any other black young man in Barbados; caught in a system that is not giving him a chance at actualize his dreams, there are thousands like him without hope. The policies taken or not taken by the government has left them to their own fate which is hopelessness. He was brutally beaten while in police custody but the police have not even offered any proof that he committed a crime.
I wrote an article a few weeks ago asking persons to sign a petition among other things to demand justice for Nazim by ensuring that the policemen and woman who were responsible for the brutal acts against him be punished. Fear is all I can blame for the lack of respondents to the petition.
The Acting Commissioner said that the officers would be punished but maybe that statement was to pacify us all because several weeks have passed since he issued that statement and has not taken action. I have not forgotten because what happened to him was the realization of every mother’s fear since the inception of the slave patrol.
Execution by Firing Squad
Recently an unarmed young man named Romario Lashley who was branded as being armed and dangerous was executed by a police firing squad. It was alleged that he had shot a police officer. I was horrified to read in the Barbados Today newspaper that it was only after the insistence by his father that the Acting Commissioner of Police stated that an investigation into his death would be held. Had his father not publicly cried out, would that statement ever have come? It has left me with so many unanswered questions. One of which I hope the promised investigation will reveal is why did the deceased shoot the officer in the first place? The sequence of events that unfolded from the day prior to his execution does not portray law enforcement in a positive light.
If the slave patrol was responsible for imposing the Barbados Slave Codes during slavery, the Court of Law in a post-Independence Barbados exists to determine who is innocent from who is guilty. The actions of the police to harm any unarmed individual are therefore unacceptable. He should have been arrested and charged.
Perhaps the reason why the police have been doing all these brutal acts over the years is because they know that the people of Barbados fear them. Yes we need the police to be strong and to be respected but also to carry out their duties in fairness and on moral principles. However, the people of Barbados must no longer allow traditions that cause discrimination to flourish in their country. The actions of Royal Barbados Police Force have again reduced the lot of black Barbadians to people without rights as occurred in the days of slavery when our forefathers were chattel. It leads to the question of who will police the police. What counter mechanisms will be put in place to deter police harassment, use of excessive physical force and aggressive tactics that escalate encounters?
Instead of instilling fear, the police in Barbados in the 21st Century should be instilling the audacity of hope into every black young man on this island, building positive relationships in communities’ not just outposts. In our 50th year of Independence and 182 years after the proclamation of Emancipation, the majority black population should not be exhibiting such fear and lack of trust of law enforcement? This is the exact opposite of what is occurring in the USA where a minority black population lives in fear and display lack of trust of law enforcement. It is not comforting that there is evidence to support the existence of the former slave patrol.
To the Acting Commissioner of Police, how can we as a people move past slavery when the police force serves as a constant reminder of the brutality of our past? Have you exposed your officers to the history of the formation of your institution? Don’t you think that it is time to destroy every remnant of the Barbados Slave Codes that is still in existence? What occurred in the two cases mentioned implies a systemic failure in training, in policies and is a severe criticism on the top brass of the force. One can only conclude that law enforcement in Barbados is in dire need of serious reform. We cannot go back; we can only change the narrative of our history going forward. If we saw the need to correct ignorance by heavily investing in education early in post independent Barbados, why can we not see the need to end the functions of the fear instilling slave patrol? Heather Cole
1.Hadden, Sally (2001) Slave patrols: law and violence in Virginia and the Carolinas. Harvard University Press.
2.W.E.B. Du Bois. The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America 1638 – 1870 A Penn State Electronic Classics Series Publication. 25 Dec. 2011.
3.Parenti, Christian, (2003) The soft cage: surveillance in America from slavery to the war on terror. New York, NY: Basic Books.
- Potter, Gary (?) The History of Policing in the United States, Part1. EKU Online: Police Studies.
- Watson, Karl (2011)BBC History -Slavery and Economy in Barbados