By ALEX WAITHE
On a beautiful sunny Friday the 13th morning as a fairly large group of us gathered in Oistins, Christ Church, Barbados to commemorate the 360th anniversary of the signing of the Charter of Barbados at the Mermaid Tavern, the rain began to pour as if to ensure that we truly understood the significance of that historical day.
Before the signing of the Charter on January 11, 1652, the rain fell incessantly for three days, and helped the warriors of the Royalist and the Parliamentary factions to soberly reconsider the pending battle in this small fishing village. Thus the “Commissioners of the Right Honourable Lord Willoughby of Parham on the one part, and the Commissioners in the behalf of the Commonwealth of England of the other part in order to the Rendition of the Island of Barbados” were able to conclude these twenty-three “Articles of Agreement”, or The Charter of Barbados, with their signatures and seals on January 17, 1652.
Prime Minister Freundel Stuart succinctly pointed out in his address at the commemoration that the Charter was a compromise between opposing factions that was reflective of the civil strife raging in England during that time, and that it was very much constituted around the economic benefits that would be maintained by the White planter class. He particularly drew attention to Article 12 which stated, “that all persons on both sides be discharged and set free with the full benefit of enjoying these articles, and that all horses, cattle, servants, negroes, and other goods whatsoever, be returned to their right owners, except such servants as had freedom given them, and came on board before Saturday the third of January.”
He also referenced article 9 which states that all port-towns and cities be allowed free trade with all nations in amity with England.
Examining the Charter, one can gain some insights into the society of that time, not only in Barbados, but in the Caribbean islands that were controlled by the English. For example, although these articles stated that there be allowance to all of liberty of conscience in matters of religion, and that there be due process in Courts of Justice, and that no taxes, customs, imports, loans, or excise shall be laid, nor levy made on any of the inhabitants without their consent of the General Assembly, these rights certainly did not include the enslaved Black peoples.
Nevertheless, one can see that among other gains the Charter laid the foundation for the structure of governance which we have in the Caribbean and other democratic places today, and its principle of sovereignty is recognized in the Declaration of American Independence.
Indeed, part of the preamble of the Constitution of Barbados as an independent nation in 1966 refers directly to the Charter in the following terms: “And whereas the rights and privileges of the said inhabitants were confirmed by articles of agreement, commonly known as the Charter of Barbados…”, and “whereas with the broadening down of freedom the people of Barbados have ever since then not only successfully resisted any attempts to impugn or diminish those rights and privileges so confirmed, but have consistently enlarged and extended them: now therefore, the people of Barbados proclaim that they are a sovereign nation founded upon principles…”
Furthermore, the newly appointed Barbados ambassador to CARICOM, trade unionist Robert (Bobby) Morris, stated that the late Right Excellent Errol Walton Barrow, first Prime Minister and one of 10 official national heroes of Barbados, and major author of its Independence Constitution, when addressing the Barbados Constitutional Conference in London in July 1966, made comments that showed his knowledge of the role of the Charter in the history of Barbados.
One such comment was: “In 1651, when Englishmen were cowering in their own homes under the whip of Cromwell’s major-generals, and when they who had lopped off the head of a king sought to enmesh the people of Barbados in their ‘saintly’ tyranny, Barbadians stubbornly defended their respective institutions from Cromwell and in the famous Charter of Barbados which they signed, they have managed to preserve for three centuries the supremacy of parliaments and the liberty of the subject.”
Barrow also remarked: “The strength and durability of our institutions are best demonstrated by the fact that representative government and the rule of law are now administered by people who are different in racial origins from those who established them.”
For more information about more celebrations of the 1652 Charter one may contact The 1652 Foundation, P.O. Box 61 WR, Welches Rd., St. Michael Barbados.
By the way, January 21 is Errol Barrow Day, a national holiday in Barbados, and this year also celebrates 50 years since Barrow, as Premier of Barbados, caused the payment of fees for students at secondary schools to be abolished.