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Challenging colonial legacy


ELOMBE MOTTLEY was a teenager in Barbados doing his A-levels when the spirit of activism fired up his first act of revolution - the publication of a highly critical paper on his English headmaster and the Government of his paradise Caribbean isle.

Son of Ernest Deighton Mottley – a former politician and mayor of Bridgetown – the young pupil was already acutely aware of the imbalance of power which allowed a white minority to dominate a black majority.

“It was something we had run off a stencil, but we were forced to go around and buy back the paper from everyone we had sold it to,” the cultural historian, activist and author told The Voice.

But the 76-year-old, whose activism is said to have spread to the rest of the Caribbean and inspired the likes of the former politician, revolutionist and Grenadian prime minister, Maurice Bishop, had aspirations to become a medical doctor.

Mottley left Barbados to study medicine in Canada, but during his pre-med studies, he decided to change course and went to the US where he did accountancy and finance and an arts course instead.

Travelling through Midwest America in the early 1960s, he was exposed to the upheaval at the height of the civil rights movement.

“My university in New York was near the theatre district where there was a lot of experimental work happening and many artists that were involved in folk music,” he explained. “I started looking for Barbadian folk music. I found music from every other Caribbean island but nothing from my own country. Then I spoke to some anthropologist at NYU. They told me that most people in the profession considered Barbados too white. Our culture was being stifled, and the 90 per cent black majority was unable to challenge anything associated with Britain. That set me off!”

When Mottley completed his education and returned to Barbados, he started to record and document Barbadian folk music. He also began to raise questions about identity and race.

“I realised that even though emancipation had happened black people were still boxed in - though not physically, but psychologically. There were certain clubs in Barbados we could not join in cricket, in sports and swimming. This unspoken segregation had become accepted as the norm. But I refused to accept it and in order to silence me they accused me of being a racist.”

The activist started challenging white-owned institutions and took on the might of US telephone company Continental Telephone.

“This was a company with an all-white board of directors, who owned businesses across the Caribbean and they were overcharging us - raising telephone rates by 800 per cent. I campaigned against this for 18 months.”
Mottley also used the theatre to fight for change.

“I formed a group to present plays based on the work of black writers like Derek Walcott. I also created a group called Black Night to encourage writers to use our national language.

“In addition to English I was using the Bajan language in my own work. First because I write for popular consumption and there are words in the Bajan language that are more expressive, that captures the meaning I want to convey and tugs more on the emotions than its equivalent in the English language.”

He added: “But there is also a bigger issue with language, because the failure to use our language in our literature is evidence of this belief that it is inferior, and conceptually if you consider your language inferior it means that you consider yourself inferior. So there was a lot of work to do to build the confidence of Barbadians.”


Mottley decided that one way to achieve this confidence boost was by educating people about the achievements of black Bajans in history and to celebrate the successes of those who were making valuable contributions to society.

He said: “I found a book hidden in the museum about an 1860 slave revolt led by a man call Bussa. So I created the Bussa awards, because at the time, black people were not being recognised for their performance and talents.”

The government of the day tried to hamper Mottley’s fight against the status quo with a public order act, to restrict and control the holding of public meetings. But he was resolute.

When he was unable to get his book published, he created his own publishing company, using the skills of Barbadian people.

Mottley wrote and published books that detailed specific Barbadian traditions, like The Story of Stick Licking in Barbados which looked at the traditional stick fighting sport, and Identities 1 and 2, which explored the issues of culture, identity, social and economic justice and race in a way that is accessible at all levels.

A review of the book by the Barbados Advocate said: “Who am I? Who or what is a Bajan? Who or what is a West Indian? What makes me different? Why are some of us black and why are some of us white? Why are we treated differently? Why do I respond to certain music which I was told was bad? That is the barrage of questions Elombe asks at the beginning of his two volume pot-pourri of Bajan life.”

Mottley maintains that these questions are still very relevant today and is encouraging Caribbean people to be proud of their heritage and their artists.

“Look at every culture and you will see that those that are very successful have a complete core of who they are as an expressive entity and they support their arts,” he said.

He added: “We tend to support arts from other cultures. We buy Chinese prints and European art, why not support our own?”

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