Book synopsis: Barbuda, an island in the Eastern Caribbean, is one of the few remaining places in the world where the entire island practices communal land ownership. In 2017 Barbuda was destroyed by the Atlantic’s most dangerous storms ever, hurricane Irma. As a result, the islanders are now facing disaster capitalism and cultural genocide as their land is being taken for development. This is a historical account of Barbuda’s struggle to maintain a traditional and sustainable common land system from pre-emancipation to the present day.
In the acknowledgments at the back of the book, author Asha Frank – a teacher and beauty queen cum politician, herself part of Barbuda’s political lineage – notes that Dreamland Barbuda “is only the ‘tip of the iceberg’ when it comes to Barbuda’s vast and unique history”. That is a true assessment because, while the book, first printed in 2018, introduces the reader unschooled in Barbuda’s affairs to that history, in all its interesting unusualness, it only begins to tell the story – for instance, the book could have benefited from including more detail re the post-Irma (i.e. late 2017) developments with specificity as this has been among the most volatile and divisive chapters in the narrative of the twin island state of Antigua and Barbuda. Perhaps the publishing cycle didn’t allow for that – perhaps it wanted to be part of that conversation in real time, but the absence of more detail of that current conversation is felt.
That said, the book packs a lot of information in to its nearly 90 pages, and it being bite-size does make it manageable to consume in a few sittings. Antiguans especially but also Barbudans should read this history of the communal land issue to better understand the contentious place in which we find ourselves (as written about in my 2018 Huffington Post article) and why Barbudans are so fiercely insistent on their land rights. In fact, I would recommend it as a social studies reader. Though tonally it is so anti-the-long-and-current-ruling Antigua Labour Party (“the oppressors”), anti-Antigua too in some ways, it’s doubtful that will happen – but I’d be happy to be surprised.
That’s unfortunate because it is an informative read which brings receipts to underpin its argument. And it is an argument – a combative little book – notwithstanding the scholarly distance suggested by its sub-head ‘A Study of the History and Development of Communal Land Ownership on the Island’.
This book is decidedly not distanced from the fight, with its dedication, “to all Barbudans who fought for what is rightfully theirs against all odds”, it declares its hand. But it does, as I would say to participants in my youth media training workshops, work to back up its chat (defend its position with facts and present its case within a clearly articulated framework).
The book opens with a Caribbean map which does what many maps even maps of the region fail to do, clearly identify Barbuda as an entity occupying space in its own right in this Caribbean sea. Highlighted in red in case your eyes are inclined to slide past it – a country used to being overlooked insisting on being seen. Then we get a timeline of the Barbuda land issue, and in that a timeline of Barbuda itself. It just so happens that I am simultaneously reading a thesis on Barbuda in the time of the Codringtons, who leased the land from the crown back in plantation time (i.e. the colonial era). Because of that thesis, I came to Dreamland Barbuda with some insight to the independence cultivated among enslaved Africans on Barbuda which was not a sugar producing island – rather provided food stuffs to the Codringtons’ estates on the Antigua, selling the rest to the navy and other estates, also salvaging from the ships which routinely crashed off the island. The rigor and routine of plantation life over generations was not experienced on Barbuda the way it was in Antigua and other islands of the Caribbean – the attendant brutality and stifling of the spirit found no purchase on Barbuda. That’s not insignificant. Any Antiguan who’s been to Barbuda, as I have 1990s to present, will have felt that differentness in the energy. You may come away from Dreamland Barbuda with an understanding of why. And it is for that reason why I feel Antiguans need to read it – and younger Barbudans who may have become untethered from that history or perhaps frustrated with the pace of life on an island that considers itself largely neglected and exploited by the mainland government, more so since 2017.
In the timeline, readers will learn how in 1834, at the time of Emancipation, the enslaved on Barbuda refused to be removed to Antigua. Sidebar: if I could change one thing, it would be the author’s use of slave to refer to the residents of the island instead of enslaveds, enslaved people, enslaved Barbudans, or enslaved Africans – any variation of which underscores their humanhood over their condition as a defining characteristic. Readers will learn that as far back as the 1860s, Barbudans resisted being incorporated in to Antigua in large part because of the freehold land issue v. the communal land ownership enjoyed on Barbuda (and likely the post-emancipation reality that had not, per books like To Shoot Hard Labour, changed considerably for former enslaveds on Antigua and would not shift considerably until the labour movement of the early to mid 20th century). The timeline shows that Barbudans could not be compelled to pay taxes or rent (in the 1870s when the Codrington lease ran out) on land they already believed to be their own. We see from the timeline that they had successfully pushed their position, winning some victories (a 1901 ordinance, the 1976 local government act, the 2007 land act) along the way; but more recently suffering losses like a 2015 act – currently being challenged in the courts – which bypassed the 2007 Barbuda land act on the point of consultation with the people, and the 2017 amendment to the land act, hastily pushed through after the Barbudans had been evacuated en masse to Antigua post-Irma, to allow freehold ownership of land for the first time in Barbuda’s history.
The book could be a good resource for anyone anywhere studying issues (and seeking a case study) re the rights of indigenous people, displacement of same, the politics of rights and ownership, and the like, and the work is mindful of this in setting out its premise (and with the comparison it presses between the Barbuda issue and Diego Garcia).
“Exploitation of small communities similar to those in Barbuda is a common occurrence in the history of the world; it is a product of imperialism and domination. But unlike other indigenous communities (my note: some will debate the meaning of indigenous but the colloquial understanding of it to mean Black people descended from people worked the land in bondage is, I believe, partly the intention here) that have either been completely wiped out or moved to unwanted, enclosed pieces of land such as the Arawaks and Caribs, or the Native Americans, Barbudans still have their tenacious hold on Barbuda land. It is clear that Barbudans are accustomed to a lifestyle that is a result of their isolated past. The relative freedom that the Codrington family gave to Barbudans in terms of movement and acquisition of land, contributed to their arguments and avid defence of the land in later years. It influenced them to claim a piece of this earth, which will forever be theirs, now protected by law from any future possibilities of exploitation.”
Except, the fight is not over – and that the book, apart from the mention of post-Irma legal battles in the timeline and a short chapter summarizing the post-2017 developments does not detail.
What it does really well though is give the history especially, per its stated aims “three principal periods in Barbuda’s history” – how the attachment to the land developed forward to the post-Independence (i.e. 1981 forward) era struggles re the use of Barbuda’s resources (notably sandmining and resort development, but at the root of it dis/respect for Barbuda’s rights of self-determination). Particularly compelling are the details re these post-Independence political and economic injustices and related legal battles as recounted via first-hand accounts (interviews with British lawyer John McDonald and Barbudan politician Mackenzie Frank), case studies (used to illustrate the exploitation issues and the resulting resistance and divisions), and documentation (e.g. council records re the crazy volume of sand mined over a 10 year period between the 80s and the90s, with the money being pocketed by several named politicians and other non-Barbudan investors while the island itself benefited very little, not to mention the environmental damage).
Moments like when “a collective of Barbudans, angry with the arrogance of the developers towards them, push an entire container of their building equipment off the nearest cliff.”
I recommend this book in spite of its shortcomings including some of the graphics (the blurriness of some, the too-fine print of others, particularly the newspaper clippings) and the acknowledged limitations re tangible research data (the history of Africans in the Caribbean being largely oral, and much of the documentation being British and hard to access) to anyone truly interested in understanding what all of this land business in Barbuda is about. I thought the author did a good job of using the legislation supplemented by interviews and news articles to lay out the history. Yes, tonally, it is accusatory but look past that if you can (no matter your political stripe) and ingest some of the Barbuda point of view and what informs it.
It won’t take long.
Dreamland Barbuda is a quick read (very quick, with roughly 2/3s of it being taken up by the bibliography and appendices), and for this time in the history of Antigua and Barbuda, an essential one.
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