Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Barbados' National Heroes - Samuel Jackman Prescod
He has been described by some as the "greatest Barbadian of all time" and the "saviour of his country", but though for others he shares these credits with a small number of patriots, it was doubtless Samuel Jackman Prescod's mission to improve the conditions of the Free Coloured people as well as to fight for liberating the slaves.
Prescod abhorred the treatment meted out to Coloureds and Blacks by the planter class and that dehumanising and debilitating institution known as slavery. From an early age, he set about trying to unite the masses, Coloureds, Blacks and Poor Whites, into a coalition of the oppressed and to agitate for their enfranchisement.
According to one historian, he fought for all the things he believed in, and people's love for him grew when they realised he was prepared to denounce abuses and support reforms that affected all classes in the community. As a result, the masses put their faith in him and Prescod skillfully used his influence to build up a political organisation - "The Liberal Party" - which fought for social justice for over 25 years.
However, it could probably be argued that Prescod had his greatest impact on people through the printed page. Recognising the power of the pen, he used the newspapers, of which he was editor, to write scathing articles accusing the planters of pursuing policies which suppressed Blacks and so made freedom unimportant.
Through this forum, he also provided free discussion on all topics relating to the labouring population and he tried to unite the Free Coloured, the apprenticed workers and the Poor Whites against the powerful plantocracy.
Among Prescod's early successes was the admission of Free Coloured people to vote in 1831 and from as early as 1839 he recommended that Universal Adult Suffrage be made law, but this proposal was ridiculed by the oligarchy in Parliament.
In the period of limited franchise, he was elected on June 6, 1843, as one of two members for the newest constituency, the City of Bridgetown, thus becoming the first non-White to sit in the House of Assembly. Later, he became the leader of a small group of white members in the House, who agreed with his policies. This was the Liberal Party which functioned as an unofficial "Opposition" for over 20 years.
Born out of wedlock in 1806 to Lydia Smith, a Free Coloured woman, and William Prescod, a wealthy landowner, he was named after Samuel Jackman, a rich white planter in St. Peter. He attended St. Mary's School and was later apprenticed as a joiner.
In this period Barbados was very much "heaven" for the elite Whites, "hell" for Blacks and "purgatory" for Free Coloureds. In this social environment, men of Prescod's complexion suffered humiliations and were relegated to menial positions in every sphere of life.
Fortunately, however, he had no intention of spending his life as a second-class citizen. He therefore "retired to a life of study and contemplation", preparing himself for the struggle against injustice.
His campaign for the enfranchisement of Free Coloureds started in 1829. It gained impetus because he chided them for being too complacent and not going far enough in their demands. When this group started the "New Times" newspaper in March, 1836, Prescod was given the onerous task of editing the publication.
However, after only eight months he relinquished the post because he felt the promise he had been given for full editorial control had been broken. He later joined "The Liberal" newspaper, which was founded by the Poor Whites, and spent 25 years educating the masses through its pages.
So strong was Prescod's belief that this channel of communication should remain open, that when "The Liberal" ran into financial problems a few months after being launched, he and Thomas Harris bought it. He was given a free hand by Harris to continue defending the rights of Blacks and it was probably not surprising that in 1840 he was charged with criminal libel and jailed for eight days.
Prescod's radical newspaper earned him a reputation of being a "counsellor", "adviser", "poisonous revolutionary", "trouble maker", and "enemy of the established order". One thing is certain: He made people think. In fact, historians argue that he was more effective as a journalist than as a Member of the House of Assembly.
Even during the apprenticeship system, 1834-1838, Prescod demonstrated his interest in the development of Blacks and his educational programmes focussed on helping them to know their rights so they could "challenge the plantocracy".
The effort gained him widespread support and respect and he consistently agitated for the establishment of primary, secondary and tertiary education facilities for the children of ex-slaves.
Prescod's courageous feats continued in the House of Assembly for nearly 20 years. He vehemently opposed class legislation and constantly defended the welfare of the underprivileged. He was also instrumental in getting the Secretary of State to decide that certain clauses in the Police Act be reconsidered and readjusted, because he felt they had sought to "maintain unjust distinctions between white and coloured people".
In 1860 he retired from Parliament and later accepted the office of Judge of the Assistant Court of Appeal.
Prescod died on September 26, 1871, at the age of 65 and was buried in St. Mary's Church yard. The "Barbados Times" newspaper, describing him as "the great tribune of the people", said he had not been induced to "swerve one jot or title from his allegiance to the cause of right and justice".
The editor of the "Agricultural Reporter", a newspaper produced by his adversaries, the elite white planters, stated: "Such a man is scarcely likely ever to appear upon the scene of life here or anywhere in the West Indies for the simple reason that the same circumstances can never exist again. His class can never again produce so strong a man in the sense in which he was strong because no one of them will ever (be) required to fight such a battle as that which he fought and won."
The Samuel Jackman Prescod Polytechnic was named after this valiant Barbadian who struggled for the upliftment of the down-trodden.
Photo & copy: www.barbados.gov.bb