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Legacies of Empire: the good, the bad and the ugly


This commentary is a much shortened version of a paper delivered at a public seminar at London University on May 20th on the Legacy of the British Empire in the Caribbean.

The Legacy of Empire in the Caribbean is a mixed one – some aspects are good, many aspects are bad, and one in particular is ugly. I will start with the good aspects{{more}}:

The Good:


The first is language. Because English has become the first language of international commerce, the legacy of the English language in the former British colonies has been beneficial to the English-speaking Caribbean countries in a range of global transactions.


With regard to institutions related to governance, important legacies of Empire were: an established legal and judicial system; a functional public service; and, at independence, written constitutions based on the rule of law.

These institutions – apart from the independence constitutions – were set up to serve the interests of Britain. The civil service is a particular example where the role of a colonial power group was to carry out the instructions of the British Colonial Office, rather than to bolster policies locally devised by local officials.

A former prime minister of Barbados, Errol Barrow, described the civil service in the pre-independence Caribbean as “an army of occupation sent down to the area by the colonial office”.


Basic education in the Caribbean – largely missionary led – ensured literacy in English at an early stage. Then in 1948 – fourteen years before the first English-speaking Caribbean country became independent – the University College of the West Indies was established in Jamaica to serve the region as a whole.

The University’s second campus was established in 1960, two years before the independence of Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago.

While the British education system was set-up in individual Caribbean countries to serve British colonial interests and was narrow in that context, it was a solid grounding in basic education, sufficient for a region of five million people to produce three Nobel Laureates – one in Economics and two in Literature. Additionally, Caribbean nationals have served – and are serving – in high capacities in Commonwealth and international organisations, in international business institutions and in international courts in a manner that is disproportionate to the small number of the region’s population.

Their accomplishments belie the doctrine of inferiority that underpinned the excuse for slavery and indentured labour in the Caribbean.

But it should be noted that the basic and limited education system was not matched by industrialisation or the building of infrastructure that could create employment or professional opportunities for the tertiary educated. As a major consequence, more than 60 per cent of the region’s tertiary educated people have had to migrate to developed nations such as Britain, Canada and the United States of America.

The Bad

One-crop economies

One of the bad legacies of Empire in the Caribbean was the concentration in production of one crop – sugar, and the non-industrialisation of the economies.

Sugar production for the benefit of British conglomerates remained the mainstay of many Caribbean economies, even after independence.

In smaller islands of the Caribbean – Dominica, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Grenada, British interests turned to another one-crop economy, bananas.

Production in both these sectors was based on low wages and poor conditions of work. While British companies benefitted first from Commonwealth preferences in the UK market and then preferences in the European Market after Britain joined what was then the European Economic Community, workers in the Caribbean remained poor, with all the consequences that flowed from poverty.

Poor transportation links for trade

In the post-independence period, Caribbean countries have sought to diversify their economies and their trade, but these efforts have suffered from the need for vital infrastructure, and from the absence of transportation links to markets. Such transportation links as exist are based on the colonial model, in which to get to Africa, Asia or the Pacific, the route is through Britain with all its attendant additional costs, making trade in goods difficult and expensive.

Divided societies

In Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago, their politics and development have suffered from the racial divisions between their two major ethnic groups: Africans transplanted as slaves and East Indians transported as indentured labourers.

The racial division – which is a direct result of British colonial policy of divide and rule – continues to frustrate the politics and governance of these two major countries in the English-speaking Caribbean and retards their development.

A fragmented Caribbean

A bad feature of Empire in the Caribbean was the acquiescence of Britain in the plantocracy’s determination over 300 years to maintain the region as separate enclaves of influence.

When it was overcome in the late 1950s by the effort of local leaders, it is arguable that the British Government’s abandonment of the Federation of the West Indies by offering Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago the opportunity of independence individually in 1962, assured for the future a weak and vulnerable region.

While the British government’s action was not the sole contributor to the break-up of the West Indies Federation that lasted from 1958 to 1962, the seeming desire to be shed of its Caribbean colonies resulted in the creation of what is now 12 independent states – many with populations of less than 100,000 and each struggling to survive at various levels as sovereign states, beset with high levels of crime, high rates of unemployment, no economies of scale for production, low rates of technological knowledge, and little capacity to bargain in the international community.

The Ugly

Slavery and indentured labour

African slavery and East Indian indentured labour were the mainstay of cheap production of sugar from the Caribbean that contributed for centuries to the wealth, growth and development of Britain.

In 1838, when slavery was abolished by Britain, British slave owners in the English-speaking Caribbean received £11.6 billion in today’s value as compensation for the emancipation of their “property” – 655,780 human beings of African descent that they had enslaved and exploited.

The freed slaves, by comparison, received nothing in recompense for their dehumanisation, their cruel treatment, the abuse of their labour and the plain injustice of their enslavement.

The fact that African slaves in particular received no compensation for their captivity and enforced exploitation is a stain on Britain’s legacy of Empire in the Caribbean.

(The writer is a Visiting Fellow at London University and a former Caribbean diplomat)

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