Missing in action: Clement Payne

James Ferguson looks at Clement Payne and how his deportation from Barbados changed the course of Barbadian history

Illustration by James Hackett

Two hundred years after the slave trade was outlawed by Act of Parliament on March 25, 1807, throughout the British Empire, we were treated to a feast of commemorative coverage in the media. Schoolchildren were encouraged to imagine a world without freedom and where they are denied even their name. Britain’s National Trust was asked to consider the discomfiting fact that many stately homes and other “heritage” sites were built on the profits of slavery and the slave trade.

We were all faced with awkward truths: that a significant part of Britain’s multicultural fabric is the result of a barbaric past; that Caribbean societies still bear the imprint of this terrible history. In one TV programme a black Londoner found out that his great-great-grandfather, who was one of the last Africans to be shipped to Jamaica, was sold by African slave traders and later became a whip-wielding foreman on the plantation. Few interpretations of Britain’s slaving past have produced clear-cut heroes or encouraging moral conclusions.

But Prime Minister Tony Blair did try to put a positive spin on the whole business. While acknowledging that the British role was “shameful”, he celebrated the nation’s cultural diversity, emphasised the government’s commitment to reducing poverty in Africa and pointed out that slavery, in many guises, still exists today.

It would be difficult to argue with any of these sentiments. But one claim cannot pass unchallenged. “Thankfully,” Blair announced, “Britain was the first country to abolish the trade.”

Here, the Downing Street speechwriters might have done well to check their facts. While Britain was ahead of France, Portugal, Spain and Holland, it lagged behind an unlikelier participant in the triangular trade. Denmark abolished the slave trade by a royal edict of March 16, 1792 (even though, unfathomably, the edict did not come into force until 1803—still four years before the British).

It seems improbable that a beacon of Scandinavian tolerance has such a disreputable past, but the Danes were always keen, if small-time, players in the international people-trafficking industry. The nation had minor imperial ambitions, too, grabbing the Caribbean islands of St Thomas in 1665, St John in 1684 and St Croix in 1733 (buying it from the French). And as Nordic contract workers failed to thrive in the cotton, tobacco and sugar plantations, the Danes—like everyone else—resorted to African slaves, shipping an estimated 85,000 Africans across the Atlantic over a period of 196 years. This, of course, was peanuts compared to the British.

Denmark sold its African enclave, Christianborg (now part of the Ghanaian capital, Accra), to the British in 1849. In a rather canny exercise in colonial withdrawal the Danes also flogged off their Caribbean possessions—for US$25 million in gold—in 1917.  They became the US Virgin Islands, and Danish influence remains only in old houses, forts and place names.
The slave trade anniversary has revived the British cult of William Wilberforce, “conscience of the nation”, and a film, a biography and endless “celebrity” events have led us all to believe that abolition was pretty much the work of one man.

The idea that history was the work of “great men and women” was, of course, unfashionable for many years, as Marxist-influenced theory taught us that it was rather the outcome of class conflict and mass movements.

But sometimes the individual can, almost unwittingly, act as the catalyst of change, and one such individual was Clement Payne, who, on July 26, 1937, was bundled onto a boat and deported from Barbados. His crime, on the face of it, was hardly heinous. He had told the immigration authorities upon arriving four months earlier that he had been born in Barbados, but although he had spent his youth on the island, it transpired that he was, in fact, born in Trinidad.

This was not the real issue. Payne was a trade union organiser, and a highly effective one. He had arrived in an island beset by economic problems and hardship—in the wake of the Depression sugar prices had fallen catastrophically and plantation owners had responded by slashing wages. Payne, influenced by the nascent Black Power ideology of Marcus Garvey and the growing radicalism of Trinidad, delivered a shocking message: that the black and poor majority in Barbados should organise themselves into a union and confront the planters and their allies.

Not that Payne advocated violence. His motto was “Educate, agitate, but do not violate!” But his speeches drew big crowds to hear fiery denunciations of injustice and deprivation. The colonial authorities were predictably hostile to this firebrand orator, and the constabulary warned him that he was under observation “each moment of the day and night”.

When widespread labour unrest broke out in Trinidad on June 19, 1937, Payne was eager to tell his audience what the authorities would rather have swept under the carpet. The whole of the Caribbean, he said, was on the move, and justice was there for the taking. Despite police attempts to block it, a public meeting voted to form the Barbados Progressive Working Men’s Association.

At that point the colonial government acted. Payne was charged and found guilty of making a false statement to the immigration authorities. He appealed and then organised a march on the Governor’s residence, demanding an audience with Governor Mark Young. Again he was arrested on public order charges. Payne hired a young lawyer, Grantley Adams—later Barbados’s first premier—to represent him. But it was too late. Payne was forced onto a Trinidad-bound boat, never to return.

When his supporters heard that Payne had gone, their anger quickly turned to violence. A mob rampaged through central Bridgetown, smashing shop windows, damaging cars and pushing them off the Careenage into the sea. As the police struggled to contain the unrest, it spread, lasting for four days and leaving 14 people dead, 47 injured and 500 under arrest.
The ferocity of the protest shook the colonial establishment, all the more so because similar disturbances had swept through almost all of Britain’s Caribbean colonies. As the British always do in difficult situations, they organised a commission of enquiry. Led by the experienced former minister Lord Moyne, it held hearings throughout the Caribbean in 1938 and 1939, listening to hundreds of people from all walks of life.

Its aim was to analyse what had gone wrong and to propose suitable reforms.

War cut short its conclusions, but in 1945 the commission recommended legislation to create and protect trade unions, to establish wage boards and unemployment insurance, and to move forward with universal suffrage and democratic elections. Within a decade, the first substantial moves towards mass political representation had been taken, unions were active and local leaders like Grantley Adams were close to obtaining full independence from Britain.

As for Payne, he never had the chance to see what his brief but powerful involvement had done to change the course of Barbadian history. He died suddenly on April 7, 1941, at 37, shortly after addressing a political meeting in Trinidad. He was later made a Barbados National Hero, and a political movement and cultural centre were named after him.

Clement Payne has rightly been credited with creating the situation in which the colonial authorities had no choice but to concede hugely significant reforms.

But what, one wonders, would have happened if the police and Governor hadn’t decided to throw him out? After all, it seems that his absence, after his deportation, ultimately proved more decisive than his presence beforehand. All of which suggests that not only can individuals affect the course of history, but also that they don’t even need to be there to do so.