Sir Hilary Beckles: “I’m aware of how fragile the Caribbean is” | Own words

Sir Hilary Beckles, Barbadian historian, cricket enthusiast, and UWI vice chancellor, on his intellectual formation, the role of a Caribbean university, and the moral imperative of slavery reparations — as told to Shelly-Ann Inniss

  • Sir Hilary Beckles. Photo courtesy the University of the West Indies

I was a Windrush child, raised by my maternal grandmother before I migrated to England in the late 1960s. She was a Pentecostal pastor in Redmans Village Pentecostal Church, Barbados, and she expected me to follow her into the pulpit. I actually feel evangelical at times when I stand at the lectern. I knew I was going to be involved in aspects of the black journey. I knew I was going to write about it and speak about it. I imagine her saying, “You see!”

As a teenager, I was a conscious activist in the West Indian community in Birmingham, England. I got involved in the Pan-African and Anti-Apartheid Movements very early. By the time I got to the University of Hull at age seventeen, I’d written a few unpublished novels — they were terrible. I have one of them to this day, under lock and key. I was heavily influenced by James Baldwin, who’d impactfully narrated the experience of the black community in the United States, especially those who had migrated from the southern states to flee racism and found themselves in the big cities. I was captivated and very keen about how West Indians were becoming West Indian as well.

I’d never met another West Indian before migrating to England. If your identity was Barbadian, you found yourself as a minority in the black community. We had to blend into our West Indian-ness, and eventually, it became my predominant identity. I wanted to talk about things like that. I wanted to be an activist, perhaps in the political context. I suppose from my teenage years I was global in my thinking.

When I came back to the Caribbean, my passion was for the advancement of the University of the West Indies. While I am not a graduate of UWI in a legal sense, I am a graduate intellectually. As a student in England, the books and essays I studied came out of UWI. The writings of Derek Walcott, Rex Nettleford, George Beckford, Lloyd Best, and other Caribbean intellectuals were framing my consciousness. When I came to UWI, having completed my doctorate, I felt at home immediately, because I was surrounded by the people whose work I had been studying. It felt spiritual.

Every opportunity I get, I play cricket, too. When I was the principal at Cave Hill, I was probably the only principal in the world who had to compete with students for a place on the field. I went to practice, did trials and drills to prove my eligibility. I enjoyed that. There I was in my late fifties, and when I left there three years ago, I was still on the cricket team. It gave me an opportunity to stay close to young people, hear their voices, and socialise with them in an informal setting. I still have that intimacy with my students.

I live in a society where I see challenges and issues, and my first impulse is to research the background of the crisis and write about it. I’m happiest when sitting at my desk with beautiful sheets of white paper and lots of coloured pens. I have a pen fetish — hundreds are in my desk drawers. Anything I do, I write it longhand first, then go on the computer. It’s a ritual. I use different colour inks based on my mood. It gives me tremendous pleasure and fulfilment.

When I joined UWI as a lecturer, I was twenty-four years old. I haven’t left. I became the youngest professor in UWI’s history at thirty-five. I was mentored, nurtured, groomed, and criticised, so I could get better. I took from UWI everything that it could give, and it was my time to give back.

One day, Sir Alister McIntyre, who was vice chancellor at the time, invited me to be a pro-VC. At first, I was deeply ambivalent, as it meant I’d have to stop teaching and writing and enter administration full-time. Writing was something I was always doing — novels, history books, and eventually stage plays. McIntyre said administrators who can bring passion and vision are just as important as writers and researchers for the university to survive and move to a higher level. I felt a responsibility.

I inherited a tremendous legacy from previous vice chancellors. Most of them had different views on how the university should proceed. My views are closest to Sir W. Arthur Lewis, the first VC, and Sir Alister McIntyre, my mentor — both economic historians. We believe in the transformational power of UWI to build Caribbean resilience, and to open a future we can then pursue as a Caribbean nation with a sustainable culture. I’m aware of how fragile and vulnerable the Caribbean is. I believe UWI is a major plank on which it must be built. My role is to participate with my colleagues in creating a twenty-first-century university — to reengineer, restructure, reorganise, and give it a new vision and mandate. We’re making significant headway, too. UWI is now ranked among the top five per cent best universities in the world.

The last fifty years, we’ve built the Caribbean out of the colonial rubble. The issues in front of us this time are very different. An important role of UWI is to help clarify this historic moment and develop conversations about the next half-century. It’s an internal and external process, because the university itself must be strengthened to do this task. My focus was always on economic development and the role that education can play in the economic transformation of our societies. I go to bed and wake up thinking about it. How can UWI play an even greater role in pushing the Caribbean out of this recession and achieve economic growth?

Reparations is connected to economic development. I’ve always sought to balance my multiple roles. I’m the vice president of the UNESCO Global Slave Routes project, the chairman of the CARICOM Reparations Commission, along with other hats. I’m responsible for developing a framework for the research of slavery on a global basis. I spend a lot of time in Africa, Latin America, and Asia looking at how black slavery was globalised. Everything is connected. Britain has a role to play in putting back some of the money it milked from the Caribbean for its own development. Having achieved its own transformation, we’ve been left with the results of that extraction. I believe we have a right! Britain should return to the scene of the crime, and participate in cleaning up the mess it left behind.

Everywhere people were colonised, reparations committees are springing up. We’re part of a global transformation. This century will witness the escalation of the search for reparatory justice. I’m happy, from a Caribbean perspective, to be playing our part in the global transformation.

Reparations is not an overnight issue. It took us the entire nineteenth century to uproot slavery. Haiti was the first country to abolish slavery legally in 1804, Brazil was the last in 1888. Then it took another 150 years to get independence in the Caribbean. The next phase is reparations. If it takes another hundred years, then it will be consistent with our history. The longer the haul, the more energetic you should become. As a university educator in a Caribbean where the majority of our people were enslaved, indentured, and colonised, it is my duty to stand up for them.