Like a horrific traffic accident, the 2017 Hurricane season gripped much of the world with a morbid and awe-filled fascination. Through the remarkable advances of technology, Nature’s wrath as viewed from space was presented across all media in highest definition to date. As the first category 5 plus hurricane barrelled into the Caribbean Archipelago, Irma stunned Meteorologist and Climate Scientist in its sheer size and magnitude as it sat over the island of Barbuda for hours. When Irma passed, the destruction was catastrophic. Ninety-five per cent of the island was completely destroyed and one soul was lost. As in all societies, the death of a child is an inconsolable occurrence. In a society as tightly knit as Barbuda, the fatality was felt even deeper. With another hurricane close behind, the evacuation of the Barbuda seemed somewhat prudent albeit unprecedented. For most of the Barbudans, leaving houses and moving to the twin island of Antigua was believed to be a prudent solution and a temporary one. But Hurricane Irma and the evacuation brought with itself much more than environmental and social devastation: it opened the doors to a political project enshrined in the 2017 Barbuda (Amendment) Act and the Barbuda (Amendment) Bill of 2018. To understand the present and the future of the island, it is important to look backward.
In Whitehall Correspondence, by the early 1700s, Barbuda was referred to in a loaded term as : “The Problem of Barbuda.” As the personal property of the British Crown, the socio-cultural practices and history of Barbuda differed greatly from the nearest larger island of Antigua. The first Barbudans were blacks brought from the British Isles and were literate and skilled artisans. Subsequently blacks were brought from Africa, some whom were skilled in ironwork and tanning. The next wave of blacks was brought for what in modern terms would be labeled eugenics but was historically referred as ‘animal husbandry’ for the specific purpose of breeding.
The complexity of the Barbudan society is also reflected by the communal ownership of the Island, a long and complicated system that goes back centuries and reflects the stratification of diverse and sometime conflicting social and environmental practices. To reduce, as happened in 2017, the possession of Barbuda by Barbudans as the beneficiary of an island that was once being “gifted” by a “benevolent” slave master is thus false. However, Hurricane Irma provided an opportunity to re-write a fascinating and peculiar history of a unique people.
Words like ‘peculiar’ or ‘unique’ are neither superlatives nor a hyperbolic when talking about the construction of society and the system of communal land in Barbuda, but rather a statement of fact. One characteristic of this peculiar history are its glaring contradictions, most of which are overlooked or silenced when the recitation of the history of Barbuda takes place. For example, the term “Slave” is used when referring to the persons transported to the island from the British Isles, although these people were paid in accordance to the level of their artisanal skills, given supplementary rations, land to erect their own shelter and provision grounds. No chattel slave is remunerated for their labour. An Indentured Servant is, by definition, “a person who signs and is bound by indentures to work for another for a specified time especially in return for payment of travel expenses and maintenance.” Similarly, it cannot be forgotten that the island of Barbuda was the personal property of the British Monarch, a unique exception that stands alone in the history of the British colonial project in the Caribbean. It was leased by King Charles II to two British subjects, Christopher and John Codrington, by letters Patent on 9 January 1685 “to hold them their Executors Administrators and Assigns for the term of Fifty Years…” The lease was renewed by Queen Anne in1705 extending it to Christopher Codrington, “ ‘in consideration of [his] service…and his having built a castle on said island which was defended at his own cost and expense’, for a period of 99 years from that date. In return, Christopher Codrington was to yield and pay ‘unto Her Majesty yearly and every year one fat sheep if demanded.’” The nominal rent for Barbuda demonstrates that it was a private property.
If the island was leased for expected profit, it was certainly not a dependency of the colony of Antigua – itself part of the British colonial project – nor did the legislation of Antigua extend to Barbuda. When the Slave Emancipation Act of 1834 was enacted in Antigua, Barbuda had no resident with the standing or means to qualify as voters or legislators. Indeed, Barbuda appears as a ‘legal vacuum’ in the history of colonialism: after the abolition of slavery, there was no legislator on the island, no subordination to the Laws of Antigua and, most important, there were no obligations to the Antiguan Treasury. The status of the island within the British Colonial System was, at best, unclear and, from the perspective of the colonizers, at worst a dangerous precedent. In response, a 1858 intervention of H.M the Queen of England confirmed an Act passed by the Antiguan Legislature to have Antiguan Laws extended to Barbuda. However, Barbuda was not like any other colony. On the contrary, the Act could not be enforced as a valid lease of the privately held island was in place and the lease was inherited by the deceased Sir William Codrington’s minor son. Under the Codringtons if a Barbuda was found to be unruly he was banished to the Antigua plantation where he was made a slave and ceased to be known as a Barbudan. In short, over fifty years after the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies, the people and the land of Barbuda existed outside of both the Laws of Britain and its colony Antigua, despite their union in name only. This exceptionalism and uniqueness never pleased the Antiguans and the Crown.
Forty-three years later, in 1901, Antigua successfully extended their laws to Barbuda. This was done in the 1901 Barbuda Land Ordinance, a decision that concerned the licensing and the importation and keeping of livestock; it was there, in Section 5 of an Ordinance aimed at governing animals, that all persons inhabiting the island were defined as “tenants of the Crown.” Despite an Amendment passed in 1904 repealed the 1901 Ordinance and referred to Barbudans as “beneficiaries of the trust” (in line with the private nature of the island), the Barbuda Land Act of 2007 codified the practices of land tenure from 1901 and the idea of Barbudans as tenants of a Crown and bound by the laws of Antigua. It was then, in an Act which was central to the political campaign of the United Progressive Party (UPP) and its unified vision of Antigua and Barbuda, that the definition of a Barbudan was first introduced, thus codifying the “otherness” of the Barbudan as different from the Antiguan, a moment where difference became formalized and the Barbudans became by law the largest minority in the Nation.
This condensed history of the legislative relationship between the two islands provides the necessary perspective to begin to understand the Land Tenure system of Barbuda
The 1976 the Barbuda Local Council Act was a central piece in the recognition and strengthening of the Barbudan communal land system. It was also an act of resistance against the supremacy of Antigua that benefitted from the support of the United Nations and the discussions about New International Economic Order and post-colonial development. The Law was written by two Barbudan siblings, a lawyer and an economist. Prior to presentation to the people of Barbuda, the Act was presented to the Under-Secretary General of the Legal Office at the United Nations, Constantin A. Stavropoulos to ensure that the Act would be universally recognized.
The 1976 Act, read in conjunction with the 1904 Act that referred to Barbudans as ‘beneficiary of the trust’, effectively codified the position of the Barbudan within the State of Antigua and Barbuda by establishing the Council as the State’s only local government whose function was to administer the wishes of the People of Barbuda in respect to land use. In the context of people’s sovereignty over natural resources and right to self-determination, the term land was used in the economic sense, i.e. as natural resources used to produce goods and services, including the land itself; the minerals and nutrients in the ground; the water, wildlife, and vegetation on the surface; and the air above. The 1976 Barbuda Local Council Act was enshrined in the Constitution of Antigua and Barbuda upon independence from Great Britain.
Then came Irma and with it the Barbuda Land (Amendment) Act 2018, which divests the Barbudans of their land, strips the Barbuda Local Government [Council] of its historical powers and function and renders the Barbudan an undesignated entity: they are now “residents” with no nationality, not even that of Antiguan. With the stroke of a pen, the Central Government of Antigua and Barbuda, led by the Antigua Labour party, took a page out of their Colonizers’ history book and, as was done in the Antipodes, first emptied Barbuda by means of a mandatory evacuation and then crystallized material emptiness in law by creating an unconstitutionally long State of Emergency where the island is Terra Nullius. Opportunity grew exponentially.
The arrival of Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres on the island of Barbuda was, for the Barbudans, the beginning of the end. The older and better educated Barbudans were surprised by the Secretary General’s almost fugue state in inspecting the ghost island that Barbuda was made. Almost all were surprised to learn that they had been labelled by him “internal refugees” as if, they wondered, “the victims of Katrina were ‘internal refugees’ in their own Nation?” The elders were the first to understand what had been done.
At stake there was not only the reconstruction of the island, but the hard fought and won battles with first Great Britain and the Lessees of the Crown, the successful struggle with the Antiguan Delegation at Lancaster House Conference to defend and maintain their rights going into an arranged independence and the 2007 Barbuda Land Act. At stake there was (and there is) the existence of Barbuda and of the Barbudans.
Sir Eric Burton, a principal Delegate for Barbuda to the Conference lamented to me: “My Dear, my dear these young people do not know that all that glitters is not gold. The land is the beginning and the end…anyway, all that The Social Democratic Party of Germany did was legal.” The United Nations and Prime Minister Browne saw an opportunity and they seized it. They looked at Barbuda as an opportunity to engage the Paris Accord and implement the Sustainable Development Goals. The UN, in particular, through UNDP and other Programs and Agencies has set the goal to “Develop” Barbuda by “Building Back Better” based on international financing architecture and debt-based support like innovative lending and countercyclical loans. More important, the actions of international donors had implemented their own vision of the present and future of Barbuda.
Antigua and Barbuda was a twin island state on 6 September 2017. By a slight of hand in the definition of the reconstruction plans and the disbursement of funds, when the UN Secretary-General left after his one-day visit a month later it miraculously became a “unitary state” where the largest minority were systematically stripped of their constitutional rights, their land rights, their human rights and ultimately their humanity. Ironically, as this was the new normal for the largest minority population of the State of Antigua and Barbuda, the UN welcomed an individual who purchased his citizenship to Antigua to speak for a people who, in effect, have been undergoing a post-catastrophe form of cultural and legal cleansing by means of authoritarian assimilation.
Adding insult to injury, the actor Robert Di Niro spoke in the Trusteeship Council Chamber on behalf of the Barbudans, a room devoted to decolonization and granting independence to new Nations. An accounting of the hundreds of millions pledged and donated to the recovery is not available to the Barbudans. Even some of the donors seem to be unaware. It is almost too easy – although arguably correct – to label this event “Disaster Capitalism” or another case of land grabbing. Barbuda is ground zero for twenty-first century genocide. Endless wars, gas, bullets or even the liberal use of eminent domain is so last century. Rather than killing to obtain desirable lands, the authority and violence enshrined in modern sovereignty can erase the people—step by step. By the stroke of a pen, by a reconstruction plan, by a willing omission and the crystallization in law of a bias history, people can be made invisible and all that is left to do is blame Nature’s wrath.
—Hall, Douglas. Five of The Leewards 1834-1870 (Caribbean Press), 1971. Chapter Four
—The Triumph of the Commons: Barbuda Belongs to Barbudans Together. By Lowenthal and Clark at https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230605046_12.
—Ecology and Politics in Barbuda Land Tenure. By Riva Berleant at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/284179427_Ecology_and_Politics_in_Barbudan_Land_Tenure
Teckla C.Negga Melchior is a Delegate to the Economic and Social Council at United Nations HQ for the International Union for Land Value Taxation and Free Trade an NGO based in London that enjoys Consultative Status, and was the former Chief Delegate. An ardent advocate for the people of Barbuda’s Land Tenure System and seeking to establish Protected Persons Status through UNESCO for the people of Barbuda in excess of ten years. She continues be a vocal opponent of Citizenship for Investment Programs around the world. Trained in Cultural Anthropology and Urban Anthropology and Design she is a consultant on issues of housing/homelessness, education community planning, issues surrounding race and ethnicity, Land Tenure and International Relations.