Professor Sir Hilary Beckles
Principal of the Cave Hill Campus
by Alake Pilgrim
My maternal grandmother was one of the greatest influences in my life. My parents emigrated to the United Kingdom when I was two years old, so I was raised by my grandmother—a village preacher in the Pentecostal Church and a strong personality, radical in her thinking. Later on in life when I became a socialist and wrote on feminist theory, I realized that I had been influenced early on by her and other women around me. In fact when I was writing “Natural Rebels: A History of Enslaved Black Women in the Caribbean” (1989), I felt at times that it was not me who was writing but that these women were there with me. As a child, we lived in Rock Hall, a plantation village in St. Andrew, Barbados, and our lives gave me a critical perspective on ideology, race and class in Barbadian society and an awareness of social injustice and economic exploitation.
At age thirteen, my parents sent for me and I went to live in England. My transition to the United Kingdom (UK) can be described as “shock and awe” because I moved from a rural village to the industrial town of Birmingham and from Coleridge and Parry Grammar School, a prestigious school in Barbados, to a British industrial school that did not even offer GCE’s. My parents were not equipped to navigate this new reality that I was facing. So I remained there until my older brother came to visit from the USA and realized how much my development was being stunted. He advised our parents to send me to a community college where I did O-Levels and A-Levels. And at age 16, I graduated from the community college where I did quite well.
The Principal of the college was quite concerned about me hanging around Birmingham after graduating, because at the time there were serious clashes between black youth and the police, resulting in beatings, imprisonment and deaths. He called a friend at Hull University who requested that I be admitted and they accepted me as an undergraduate student. I was accepted to study Philosophy but by the end of my first term I met a Jamaican friend, a mature student from my community college, who was reading Economic History. I was encouraged to enter the Economic History programme, which was known in other universities as Development Studies. It was a fascinating programme looking at the development and underdevelopment of countries around the world.
When I completed my undergraduate degree, I received a distinguished scholarship to pursue postgraduate studies. Ordinarily this scholarship was only available to students who had graduated with first class honours, which I missed because I was too busy that summer playing cricket for the university! But apparently, my involvement as a student activist (in the Pan-African movement), athletics and cricket impressed the faculty, because I was given the scholarship and completed my PhD at the age of 23.
Legacy and Return
With my doctorate in hand, I applied for university jobs in Kenya and the UK. There were very few Black British PhD’s at the time and there was pressure from my community to stay in the UK and become a role model to other black youth. I met Professor Woodville Marshall while visiting Barbados as a graduate student and he told me that UWI was looking for a temporary lecturer at the Mona Campus. Professor Brinsley Samaroo had also offered me a three-year contract at the St. Augustine Campus. I really wanted to get to know the Caribbean as an adult, but I also wanted to travel in Africa. I couldn’t seem to decide which path to take, so I tossed a coin! And I went off to Mona to replace Professor Elsa Goveia who was on a one-year sabbatical. Soon after I returned to the UK from Mona, Professor Goveia sadly passed away. I was offered the opportunity to live up to her great legacy. With deep admiration for her, I took up the challenge.
The political and social climate in Jamaica was one of contestation between the socialist and capitalist models of development. I was a Michael Manley man. During those exciting times in the late 70’s and early 80’s, the Mona Campus was an intellectual heartland and the perfect beginning to my academic career. I worked across both the Faculty of Humanities & Education and the Faculty of Social Sciences with intellectuals such as George Beckford and Douglas Hall.
Then in 1985, I returned to Barbados to replace Keith Hunte in the Department of History at Cave Hill because he had become Campus Principal. I replaced him again in 2002; this time as Principal, after having served as Head of the History Department, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Undergraduate Studies.
The Time for Change
In my early days at Cave Hill however, things were very different. Although the campus was less alive academically, Mona had prepared me well. So through writing, public lecturing and popular engagement, I entered the public space. I became very unpopular on and off-campus for pointing out that since the mid 20th century very little had happened in terms of the economic enfranchisement of the Black community in Barbados. There was a highly publicized struggle to get representation on the boards of companies such as the Barbados Mutual for the people who, ironically, made up the majority of the policy holders. I even received death threats after publishing a book on the struggle entitled “Corporate Power in Barbados: Economic Injustice in a Political Democracy”.
Today, as Principal of the Cave Hill Campus and member of the Board of Directors of companies such as Sagicor, it is interesting to see that many of the things we were advocating for then, people now see as common sense today. The struggle was worth it, if it continues to help us view our history and society differently; charting a more equitable and just direction as Caribbean people than the one laid down in our colonial heritage.