An Extraordinary Emblematic Flag

July 17, 2020

I visited Barbados on a teacher professional development trip in 2018. My assigned research topic for the trip was Bussa’s 1816 slave rebellion. Within three days in April of that year, the rebellion had spread to most of the southern half of the island.

Slavery in Barbados was addressed in a limited way by tour guides and historians on the island. There were not accounts from the slaves to detail their life experience. During this trip, I viewed the rebellion as evidence that slaves were not satisfied with the conditions of their lives and wanted their freedom. In a roundabout on one of the highways in the country, there stands a statue of Bussa- hands raised, fists clenched, chains broken. However, there is no diary entry from Bussa, just accounts from the British of the importance of putting down the rebellion. We can only make assumptions about Bussa’s objectives, but we are missing his words.

In an account written in a private letter on Tuesday, April 16th, the slaves were described as carrying “an extraordinary emblematic flag.” British sketches of the flag, now housed in the National Archives in London, are the only record of the goals of the slaves. They were striving for the freedoms that had been denied to them. They wanted to marry and have access to the privileges of the planters. But they did not want to overthrow the British Crown. They wanted to be British citizens.

This flag is the voice of Bussa and his followers. Slaves were often kept illiterate in order to limit their access to the tools and ideas to agitate for freedom. In this way, their voices are lost. Without those voices, it is possible for historians and individuals to imagine what slaves would have thought or said. But those imaginations do not allow for the complexity of human thought and experience. We are missing these people and we will never truly know their lives. It is unique to have evidence of what Bussa really thought. It contributes to the recognition and understanding of the humanity of Bussa and his followers.