Letter from… St Philip, Barbados
Dear Cricket Monthly,
We moved from Trinidad seven years ago and, against the run of their education, play, and our politics, enrolled our children at Barbados' most prestigious primary school* because religious instruction there was limited to reading nice little Bible stories with positive moral messages; all other schools insisted on teaching all students (Christian) belief as fact.
Despite my own hard-won agnosticism, I understand that without a deep and unshakable faith, most of us West Indians would have perished. I remember, half a century on, one of the most loaded sentences I've ever read - and I've read Faulkner, Joyce and Proust - from my primary school history book (Nelson's West Indian Reader), about the reaction of native Caribbean peoples to being enslaved by their 15th-century European conquerors: "The Caribs and the Arawaks pined away and died."
Pined away and died. Genocide case closed.
Our next wave of forced labourers avoided pining away and dying by becoming unquestioning believers. No matter how bad the reality got, they clung to the fantasy that they would reap their rewards after death; that they believed they would be saved by the same God who allowed their inhuman subjugation seemed not to have troubled them then any more than it does now.
The primary school my children attended is set on the grounds of an old sugar plantation. The 11-Plus examination class (from which both went on to state secondary schools) is in the old 15th-century Great House. The half-mile, half-moon driveway encloses the school's main playing field. Football goalposts are set at what, I suspect, used to be deep fine-leg and deep extra-cover: the man who laid out the original estate was English, as all planters of Barbados were; and the reason, I suspect, so many cricket grounds still dot the modern Bajan landscape is because every 17th-century plantation owner wanted his own pitch, and what the planter wanted, the planter got. West Indian planters were lords unto themselves, with the very power of life and death lying not just within their scope but at their whim.
The cricket world, hankering after the great old days of Sir Frank Worrell, Clive Lloyd and Sir Viv Richards, would like us to find our way. But we won't
Arriving early to pick up my kids from school one day, I sat in the old Great House gardens to spend a quiet hour in serene surroundings; but peace of mind eluded me.
The ground at my feet was perfectly flat and as wide as a tennis court; it could easily have accommodated a bowls tournament. The stones defining each of the garden's three terraces were made of large, hand-hewn white coral bricks. Arbours at the end of each strip of garden led to a fish pond set on different levels, laboriously created mini-waterfalls linking each. It was all breathtakingly beautiful.
And there was not one piece of it that had not been created out of the excruciating pain of a human being; louder than the gurgling waterfalls, I could hear the whip on the bare backs of the men who, crushing their own fingers, laid those heavy bricks so precisely, 300 or 400 years ago, that they remain perfectly in place today.
Seventeenth and 18th-century visitors to the West Indies or the American South invariably expressed surprise at how often an ordinary day's peace would be shattered by howls of agony as slaves were punished; and their hosts, charming and considerate to a fault in their attentions to visitors, seemed not to hear the screams of their property, just as modern Caribbean people genuinely don't notice the crickets and cicadas that drive tourists half-crazy until they acclimatise.
From the 1640s, all of Barbados was organised around the cultivation of sugar - but the entire society was only ever arranged around the planters. It was deliberate policy to locate Great Houses on the edges of their own plantations and, if feasible, within easy walking distance of other Great Houses, for society - and for security: in the event of the perennially feared slave rebellion, the plantation owners could defend one another.
In Jamaica, there were many slave rebellions; in Barbados, in 400 years, there was one, the Bussa Rebellion of 1816, put down in under three days. In Jamaica, slaves who rebelled were punished with extreme cruelty. Limbs were hacked off, eyes gouged out, bodies bound in barbed wire and torched, and then what remained was hung in open cages in trees to die slowly, so all those minded to be cheeky could contemplate the end result of disobedience.
Through personages like Vladimir Putin and Rupert Murdoch, the world is just beginning to understand leadership of the traditional West Indian type: the man in charge is absolutely in charge and draws no line beyond which he will not pass - and takes a special delight in crossing with disdain the last line drawn by others. Today, warlords in Darfur alone wield the kind of power - instant, total, whimsical, savage - of the original West Indian authority figure. It is the only kind of authority we recognise. It is what we emulate when we rise from lower, more compassionate levels of society, into the ruling sector. (We cannot use the term, "ruling class" in the West Indies, for ours exhibits none.)
Groovy times: West Indian fans glory in their team's deeds at Lord's in 1973
© Getty Images
Groovy times: West Indian fans glory in their team's deeds at Lord's in 1973 © Getty Images
The cricket world watched in horror last October as a West Indies team of moderate ability abandoned a tour of India, the centre of world cricket. If only in their own financial interests as professionals, it was the last thing the team should have done.
But any West Indian could tell you it was bound to happen; it has been happening the same way here forever.
The West Indies Players' Association and the West Indies Cricket Board, on opposite ends of a disagreement, had one thing in common: the conviction that their own power was absolute and their say-so was enough to end the matter in their favour at once, or there would be hell to pay for the other side.
What happens when both sides in a dispute believe they are absolutely, unquestionably right? Add "blind faith" on either end and you see the result illustrated in the clashes between Palestine and Israel in the West Bank, India and Pakistan in Kashmir - and the WIPA and WICB in the middle of any cricket ground. Our cricket team and its management, in their determination to whip one another into shape, have bungled their way past self-flagellation into suicide.
The cricket world, hankering after the great old days of Sir Frank Worrell, Clive Lloyd and Sir Viv Richards, would like us to find our way. But we won't. We are West Indian and, for nearly 500 years, we have daily lived a horrible truth: what matters to us is not glory but power.
*The school's accepting our children no doubt lowered its prestige
BC Pires is a Trinidadian writer living in Barbados with one wife, two kids, three cats, four dogs and a parrot. He writes about cricket from beyond the boundary
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.