One of the most famous men to have walked on this Earth was Julius Caesar. The exploits of his life are well known up to this day having been immortalized in the works of the great playwright William Shakespeare. The conspiracy that led to his assassination has left phrases that are still in use. They are ‘beware of the Ides of March’ and what has been attributed to be his last words as he lay dying on the Senate floor, ‘et tu Brute?’ There is another phrase that is less well known but more important that was also coined after Julius Caesar because it assisted in changing the course of history. It is “crossing the Rubicon” and it has survived to refer to any individual or group undertaking an irrevocably risky or revolutionary course of action. It has come to mean “passing the point of no return.”
‘Crossing the Rubicon’ may have been the most profound act of Julius Caesar. It was his act for change, change in political leadership. In 49 B.C. he disobeyed the orders of the Senate to step down from his command and return to Rome. In defiance of that order from the Senate, Julius Caesar stood on the northern bank of the Rubicon River in Italy and led an army against the Roman Republic. It was an act of treason that plunged the country into three long years of civil war. In the end he was victorious and became the supreme ruler of the Republic. He brought swift changes with a programme of social and governmental reforms.
History has shown that ancestors of the peoples of Barbados have passed the point of no return on several occasions. On the coast of Ghana, there is an old slave fortress named Elmina Castle. It housed luxury suites for the Europeans in the Upper levels while its dungeons contained cells which held Africans captive in filthy conditions. On the seaboard side of the Castle was the Door of No Return, the infamous portal through which the Africans boarded the ships that would take them on the treacherous journey across the Atlantic known as the Middle Passage. By the 18th century, 30,000 people would have passed through Elmina’s Door of No Return each year. When our people stepped out of that doorway from Elmina Castle to board the ships that took them into slavery, they were “passing the point of no return.”
According to the work of our noted historian Dr. Karl Watson, the struggles in England in the 1640’s between the Monarch and Parliament led to the Barbadian planters developing a strong sense of autonomy and they engaged in free trade. However, “with the execution of Charles I, the de facto truce changed to one of enmity between the royalist supporters and those who supported the Commonwealth. The Barbadian royalist planters exiled all the Commonwealth supporters who went to London to complain to Oliver Cromwell. This was tantamount to a declaration of independence. Cromwell sent out a fleet and troops to besiege the island.” There was no going back for the planters as they were ‘passing the point of no return.’ They engaged in a battle against Cromwell’s Army which ended in a truce, out of which the Charter of Oistins was signed.
The Irish prisoners’ of war who were captured during the invasion of Ireland in the English Civil War 1642 t0 1651, were given a choice, prison or deportation. The vast majority chose the latter and many of them were sent to Barbados. When they saw the port of Bristol disappearing in the distance, they too were ‘passing the point of no return.’ They were called indentured servants but there lot was no better than that of the slaves, for they too had journeyed across the seas to a place that destined them to poverty. They endured the harshness of servitude but they were not docile, they wanted change. In 1649, the Irish joined with the African slaves in a rebellion against the English in Barbados. In response to the rebellion, many were hanged, drawn-and-quartered and their heads deposited on pikes on high ground where the entire population of Bridgetown would see them as a warning against future rebellions.
We do not know if he was of noble birth like Julius Caesar, or if he was a warrior. No famous phrases have been coined after him. We do not know the name of the person who betrayed him or the actual circumstances of his death but, what we do know is that like Caesar, he led an act of defiance to pursue change. Having known about the Haitian Revolution, on the night of August 13th 1816, Bussa with revolutionary ideas in his head and a plan for its execution was ‘passing the point of no return.’ The next day he began to execute his battle for revolutionary change but it failed. By the 16th of August no revolution was under way but a rebellion was crushed by the British Militia and no one knows for sure how many slaves were murdered on those three days.
The Bengalis were the first east Indians who came to live in Barbados in the early 1900’s. Later the people from the villages Gujarat arrived. They and the thousands who left poverty stricken provinces of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in the mid-19th Century, were also ‘passing the point of no return’ when the left India to journey to the Caribbean and British Guyana in search of a better life. Some of the descendants of latter later migrated to Barbados from Trinidad and Guyana.
During the 1930’s, the entire British West Indies was in turmoil. The social upheaval that took place in Barbados for workers’ rights occurred amidst a harsh economic environment which was plagued with unemployment and poverty. The Barbados Workers Union was at the forefront agitating for workers’ rights and in 1937, when the people thought that the police had detained Clement Payne they rioted. They too were ‘passing the point of no return.’ To this end, the Moyne Commission was set up to create a process for reform in the British West Indies.
When Errol Barrow went to London in 1965 to make a case for Barbados’s independence, he argued that the by the Treaty of Oistins, England had allowed the island to keep its “representative” institutions, including the right to make our own laws and that the island was never a crown colony. So on November 30th 1966, Errol Walton Barrow believed that he was ‘passing the point of no return’ in Barbadian history because full independence was achieved. This paved the way for an evolution of social, economic and political changes were put in place to transform the island into becoming a first world state. His greatest success was the transformation of the educational system. Free tertiary education became the new doorway for the upward mobility of the blacks into the middle class. Just as the Door of No Return had destined many to slavery, an education at the University of the West Indies was the symbolic way out of poverty. However by 2014, all of Mr. Barrow’s post independent tertiary educational achievements had vanished into thin air.
In Caesar’s time the problem was the political system, for the English settlers it was an invasion, for Bussa it was slavery, for the Irish it was deportation, for the East Indians it was poverty, in the 1930’s it was unemployment and poverty and in 1966 it was colonialism. These were the forces that caused the people to cross the Rubicon. In 2016, the problems are too many, sustainable access to water, burdensome taxation, lack of social services, inflation, unemployment, poverty, crime, the need for proper health and sanitation services, political miss-management, corruption, poor governance, lack of integrity, free tertiary education and the lack of a sustainable development model.
The present government has no solutions. There are no ships to take us back to Africa, England, Ireland or India. We are at the point of no return. Shall we be like Caesar and mount an act of defiance against Rome? Shall we go like him and change Rome? All Barbadians are waiting for Election Day but first there must be the crossing of the Rubicon River. Perhaps Robert Lowry the American poet left us this question to haunt us when he wrote the Hymn “Shall we gather at the River?” We can gather at the Constitution River and wait for our Julius Caesar who is part of the old system to lead us over, not only to an election victory but to swift social, economic and political change. The only questions that remain are who is this Julius Caesar? And, is the time drawing near?