Farewell, Prof. Sutton
By Peter Wickham
Posted 2 September 2018
NationNews of Barbados
“I have retold the story of the 1958 strike in order to give voice and visibility to Barbados’ sugar workers whose active role as players in the grassroots struggles for economic justice has not been memorialised. Today workers face different, more complex, and more unequal economic configurations.
“The lessons they can learn from the 1958 wildcat strike are indirect since there are so few people in the agricultural workforce. Nonetheless, what the analysis of the strike reveals is workers’ views of democracy and that direct democratic action can be effective as well as empowering.”
In 2014, Elombe Mottley launched his series “Better Must Come” and mentioned the name Professor Constance Sutton as he recalled conversations between Sutton and his father, the late E. D. Mottley, in the 1950s at their home in Eagle Hall. Elombe talked about the interaction and Sutton’s profound interest in Barbados and the extent to which her perspective on “us” was useful in helping to better understand ourselves.
As one of few people present who actually knew this American professor of anthropology, I agreed and could attest to the depth of her interest in “us” and the profound and personal way in which it was manifested.
The lasting relationship between Barbados and Constance Sutton started in 1958 when she came here to execute an anthropological study, opting to live in Ellerton, St George which was a typical agricultural community at that time.
Thereafter, Sutton adopted Barbados as she studied and wrote about our evolution as a country and the maturing of our institutions paying special attention to the labour movement. In this regard, it was prophetic that she chronicled the 1958 sugar workers wildcat strike which engulfed close to one-third of the labour force.
At that time, it was a reflection of the fact that Barbados was a monocrop plantation economy for close to 300 years and at that time sugar represented 45 per cent of GDP and 95 per cent of exports.
Sutton would not then have known the extent to which she was chronicling a watershed in our socio-economic history; however, as fate would have it, that strike was a turning point for workers and the conditions they endured on the plantations, as it was a turning point for the rights of women who she noted were the bulk of the agricultural workforce and a defining moment for the Barbados Worker’s Union’s efforts to organise sugar workers.
Sutton’s adoption of Barbados was comprehensive and included her academic exploits, one of the more recent being an edited volume Revisiting Caribbean Labour (2005). There was also a long list of personal friendships with Barbadians from all segments of society that she cultivated and maintained over the years.
I last visited with Professor Sutton in October, 2017 and was impressed that at 91 she was anxious to commence another Barbados project which pulled together several articles she had written under themes which reflected contemporary developments.
We spoke extensively about the political scene and pending elections as she took a keen interest in the political journey of E. D. Mottley’s granddaughter who she was happy to later learn became our first female Prime Minister.
The excerpt from Sutton’s 2005 article does not attempt to speak to the entirety of her philosophy or contribution to Caribbean thought, but simply to a concern that a voice be given to grassroots workers and moreover that we understand the role these events play in our contemporary development.
Sutton joined the ancestors last week and while those of us who either knew her or knew her work will greatly miss her, we now celebrate the contribution of this outstanding friend of Barbados and the Caribbean.
Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).