Exploring the world through global cinema

No Future In The Past

The prime directive of this blog is to seek out films from every country in the world primarily for me to broaden my mind through a medium I enjoy. When it proves impossible get hold of a film from the country currently in focus, I turn to whatever I can find, with documentaries and short films usually stepping into the breach. Barbados proved especially difficult, but two programmes recently presented themselves – one produced by the locals, for the locals, the other produced on location by Irish television – both offering insights into Barbadian culture and history. It’s a bit of stretch this week, but let’s launch straight into the first one, that being:

The Barbados Landship

Produced by the Barbados Landship Association

(Apologies for the low image quality in this section)

Knees-up: the legacy of British colonialism.

Those wholly unaware of Barbadian culture might be forgiven for thinking that the Landship is simply an excuse for the locals to cavort about in sailor suits, however this documentary, produced by the Barbados Landship Association, works hard to dispel that perception.

Several centuries ago, when I was a visiting student at the University Of Hong Kong, I had occasion to notice the cultural remnants of British colonialism, wholeheartedly embraced by the locals and modified to suit their tastes. While the overly formal high table dinners never, to my knowledge, involved a group of Chinese youth dressing up like members of the HMS Troutbridge and dancing a sailor’s hornpipe, the origins of both traditions were the same.

Indeed, the Landship movement stretches back almost as far, though instead with working class sensibilities. Obviously, the British navy was omnipresent in Barbados during its colonial period, and in the discipline and camaraderie of that foreign organisation, Barbadians saw something worth emulating in their own society. Thus did groups of locals create what they called ‘land ships’ across the island – essentially small organisations of people operating as ‘crew’ for their naval vessel, permanently moored at a ‘dock’, or club headquarters. Each ‘ship’ had a name similar or identical to the real thing and all those aboard bore naval ranks, from Able Seaman to Lord High Admiral. The movement was founded in 1837 in Britton’s Hill, continuing to this day.

The program seems far more concerned about the musical component than any real study of the Landship movement.

Besides the emulation of the naval character, a key characteristic of the Landship lies in performance. With the men dressed in full naval uniforms and the women in nursing outfits, each ship gives displays to the public suggestive of vessels traversing the ocean. Elements of the performances include jigs, hornpipes, maypole dances, parades, and live band music.

There was an excellent opportunity in The Barbados Landship to explore the deep and long-lasting alien cultural influences worked into the West Indian landscape and mindset over the last four centuries. The whole concept of the Landship after all, seems entirely ludicrous without a good understanding of the indelible British legacy where only then does it begin to make any sense to the outward observer. In the modern age, this quiet mental programming is now the province of an American agency, but the sheer blatancy of Barbadian civilians basing a subculture on the British navy makes it an excellent case study in exterior cultural influence.

“Those wholly unaware of Barbadian culture might be forgiven for thinking that the Landship is simply an excuse for the locals to cavort about in sailor suits.”

Unfortunately, the Barbados Landship Association don’t seem terribly concerned by any of this, preferring, after a short perfunctory historical background to the movement by apparent experts in the field (without which the whole documentary would be utterly impenetrable), to devote the bulk of the program to the interweaving, yet distinct subculture of tuk music. Tuk likewise draws its origins from the British navy, specifically the form of music played by regimental bands, though despite the presence of the double-headed bass drum, has since evolved into sounds distinctly Caribbean. Drawing their inspiration from the same sources, tuk bands and Landship organisations may be one and the same, or at the very least, Landships including a tuk band as part of its public performance.

Wanted: new members for a dying tradition.

All of which would be a far more welcome presence in the program if tuk were the subject, but as presented, seems to simply take over the earlier discourse of the Landship movement and greatly narrow its focus to this one musical element, which is rather like writing a biography of M.R. James and devoting two-thirds of the book to ‘The Five Jars’.

Inevitably, with the influence of Britain long-since waned, its navy no longer ruling the seas to provide ongoing inspiration, the Barbadian Landship movement is apparently in rapid decline as other interests and cultural influences take hold. This ultimately is the raison d’etre for The Barbados Landship. In this, the program does at least still serve its purpose of documenting the movement while it still exists – with the hope of its proponents that this will renew interest. Such efforts are more often than not the rallying cry of a dying art, but it seems safe to assume that the more Barbadian aspects of the Landship will survive.

I doubt anyone from the BLA will object to my linking the video here, so see what it’s all about for yourself.

*****

Redlegs: The Irish Sugar Slaves

(2009) Directed by Shane Brennan & Paul Arnott

“At the end of the 1650s, thousands of Irish people had been transported from the gentle climate of Northern Europe to the deadly heat of Barbados. Although a small minority earned good money by exporting sugar to England, most were stranded in hellish Barbados with no hope.”

In 'Red Legs', a dark colonial past is brought into the light.

The naval lifestyle was of course not the only thing to be transported to Barbados. At the end of the 1640s, future Lord Protector of England led a Parliamentary campaign against Ireland that would span some five year years, the legacy of which can still be felt today. Fiercely Protestant and desperate to quell the enormous civil unrest awash all over Britain, Cromwell saw in the Irish Catholics a serious threat (they had aligned themselves with the English royalists) and a religious blasphemy.  Thousands on both sides were massacred during this time, while 50,000 Irish Catholics were sold into slavery and transported to various colonies across the Commonwealth. In Redlegs, we are told that these were considered by the state to be the most ‘problematic’ or ‘dangerous’ threats to national stability. Though they were joined by similarly-branded Scottish and English prisoners, Redlegs, a production for Irish television broadcaster TG4, brings the focus entirely upon, as the title suggests, its own lost countrymen.

Indeed we are told that until recently, knowledge of this enforced diaspora to the Caribbean and in particular Barbados, the location here in focus, has not been widespread in Eire. The suggestion is that the plight of slaves was not considered of any great import to the prime movers of the time – not enough to set down in record – while those especially concerned were too uneducated, illiterate and otherwise engaged in the business of survival to put pen to parchment. Barbados’s African population, meanwhile, is depicted as having little to no interest in their island’s white underclass, and racial mixing is still seen as undesirable by both themselves and the descendants of the white slaves populating the shanty towns on the west of the island.

“Until recently, knowledge of this enforced diaspora to the Caribbean and in particular Barbados, the location here in focus, has not been widespread.”

Descendants of the original white slaves fare little better several centuries on.

Originally brought to Barbados to work on sugarcane plantations for their colonial overlords, the white slaves quickly found living conditions in the harsh tropical environment almost unbearable. Unlike the African slaves, they were technically paid contract workers, promised freedom and land after the required 3-7 year bondage. Few lived long enough to discover whether or not the agreement would be honoured. Popular folklore on Barbados has it that the term ‘redlegs’ is homegrown, referring to the quick sunburning of the slaves’ melanin-deficient skin. However, the term predates the Cromwell legacy by at least a century, then referring to Irish soldiers. As a result of their unsuitability, the white slaves were eventually displaced by African slaves, who not only could bear the climate, but were uncontracted and skilled labourers. This became the situation du jour across the Commonwealth, with landowners quick to realise there was little to gain in paying unskilled white slaves for work African slaves could perform for free and far better. In the space of a century, Barbados quickly transformed from a predominantly white colony to a predominantly black one. The 18th Century finally saw all slaves given their freedom, but the redlegs were opposed to working alongside their former African counterparts. The latter would go on to build the society found on the island today, while the former lived in pockets of isolation, eking out a lifestyle of bare subsistence and barter. Amazingly, as the documentary shows, this continues today.

Unsurprisingly, the Irish are keen to set the record straight and the redlegs, with no written records of their own, are finally discovering their roots. We see how the descendants of the white slaves live today – remarkably similarly given the passage of centuries, and even how the odd descendant has managed to rise to riches in mainstream society. Throughout, the fierce pride of these people for their identity is made abundantly clear. They are a people who have endured with little to show for it except their community spirit. Like the waning colonial cultural influence in the rest of Barbados, their society is slowly shrinking, yet in its autumn years, the story of the redlegs is being told.

Today's 'Red Legs' face an uncertain future. For them, however, this is nothing new.

Academic balance is not entirely important to Brennan and Arnott, with for example highly-emotive language employed in the narration (“Many of their ancestors were transported mercilessly by Cromwell”) which undercuts the impartiality of the discourse. Equally problematic is the claim that the redlegs are entirely Irish when even the program itself acknowledges that the sugar slaves were also Scottish. At one point, the redlegs are described as a “lost Irish tribe”, fully branding the islands in green, white and orange, and indeed an Irish flag even makes an appearance at one point. Inevitable perhaps, given that the program was made for Irish television, though this shouldn’t really be an excuse. There was even a similar Scottish documentary, Barbadoe’d: The Scottish Sugar Slaves produced by BBC2. One can almost imagine the two film crews jostling with each other to lay claim to their newfound ancestors.

Nonetheless, Red Legs was designed specifically for an audience wholly ignorant of this quiet chapter of history, for which I was most definitely a member. In this, it enlightens well and engages the viewer. Of additional interest was the fact that it was the first time I’d ever watched a documentary in Irish Gaelic, in World On Film terms, the first time since Van Diemen’s Land.

*****

Next Time

Three men who devoted their lives to the traditional music of their country struggle to find meaning in a world where tastes have moved on. Plus, support crews give their account of getting the longest boat race in the world off the ground once every year. World On Film travels to Belize for the thought-provoking film Three Kings Of Belize and the introspective short, Ruta Maya: A Victory From The Sidelines. To view a trailer for the former, click below.

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2 responses

  1. Steve Kelly

    “the redlegs are described as a “lost Irish tribe”, fully branding the islands in red, green and white”

    The Irish flag is green white and orange.

    “with for example highly-emotive language”

    When talking about such an evil man as Oliver Cromwell, it is hard for an Irish person not to get emotional,this show was meant for an Irish audience after all and Cromwell is our Hitler. Irish is also a very different language then English, it is in its nature emotive.

    March 5, 2011 at 3:20 am

    • I appreciate your standpoint Steve, but I don’t believe there is any excuse for eschewing impartiality for subjectivity in what is supposed to be a documentary. The Irish have every right to be emotional over Cromwell, just as the Koreans do over Toyotomi Hideyoshi and the Spanish over Franco. The job of real historians and documentarians however is to present the information ‘as is’ and let people ascribe their own moral conclusions to it. To do otherwise is to fail in that job and to succumb to irresponsible sensationalism. Anyone with compassion will sympathise with the red legs, but it is not the job of the program makers to manipulate us into doing so, by appealing to a sense of nationalism or otherwise. You raise a good point on the different nature of Irish Gaelic and the way in which the very language itself affects the academic process. When one is so entrenched in their native language, it’s easy to forget that that language is only one of many ways of expressing a concept.

      Regarding the flag – quite right, and I’ve fixed it.

      March 5, 2011 at 8:42 am

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