HISTORIAN TAKES A LOOK AT THE LIFE OF NATIONAL HERO, DR. CHARLES DUNCAN O’NEAL
by Cathy Lashley
Published on April 22, 2009

“A champion of the down-trodden” and “a man of the masses”. These are but some of the descriptions used by historian and trade unionist, Robert “Bobby” Morris, to refer to national hero and pioneer, the Right Excellent, Dr. Charles Duncan O’Neal.

This famous ‘son of the soil’ and advocate for the poor working class will be the main focus of this year’s celebrations for our national heroes.

In a recent interview with the Barbados Government Information Service, Mr. Morris, speaking about the life and times of Dr. O’Neal, described him as “a man who wanted a nationalist approach to Barbados’ development and understood the concept that blacks had to work together for their economic survival.”

Stating that the national hero could have been a “wealthy man” in his time, Mr. Morris said he was more “concerned about building Barbados, although he was a member of the black upper class.”

Commenting on what inspired the socialist political views of Dr. O’Neal, Mr. Morris said it was around the time of World War I and the start of Bolshevism and Marxism that “people were getting alternative philosophies in terms of how the world should be organised.

“…As a young graduate listening to the intellectual fervor in the classroom, he would have been hearing about the start of the International Labour Party, the foundation of the British Labour Party, and for the first time, working class men coming to the front and he started looking at these persons and thinking about how he could, perhaps, bring the same movement into the Caribbean,” Mr. Morris explained.

It was in 1924, that Dr. O’Neal started the Democratic League and the Working Men’s Association at his home in the Ivy, St. Michael. And, as pointed out by Mr. Morris, it was very difficult to start a union at that time, since “the laws were very oppressive towards them.”

According to him, the former social activist also showed how remarkable a leader he was by forming a Teachers’ Association and by attempting to galvanise the masses into joining a trade union, because he saw the labour movement as crucial for their enfranchisement. It was also during those times that the now national hero would come into contact with men such as Clennell Wickham, the editor of the The Herald newspaper - an important organ for expressing the views of the day.

In addition, the trade unionist noted that the national icon was very concerned about the educational development of young black children, and was against the practice of child labour. Mr. Morris cited the recommendation by Dr. O’Neal that the age limit for secondary school children be extended to allow them to have more time in an institutionalised setting and to acquire more skills, as one example of his concern about children’s development.

“In fact, he even advocated young people being taught economics, which was a revolutionary concept, even today,” the historian remarked.

In terms of his other socialist views, Mr. Morris stated that the national hero envisaged urban planning which was more of a “village type development” as opposed to housing schemes, which he referred to “as institutionalising them into a ghetto.”

The historian also stressed that Dr. Charles Duncan O’Neal preferred to see people’s lives improved and uplifted and had sought to bring about the abolition of the Located Labourers’ System and the Masters and Servants Act.

Furthermore, he said that Dr. O’Neal also called for government to use its taxes to provide infrastructural improvement with roads being in the appropriate places, and to create medical institutions and social programmes, for the benefit of the masses.

In summing up the philosophy of this noble Barbadian, Mr. Morris opined that he could be described as being very conscious of social planning, against racism and an advocate of gender equality. And, about his character, he said he was “a straight talker, possessing magnetism that came from his sincerity and ability to galvanise people around him.” According to the historian, the national hero also had a gentler side to him, since he loved poetry, with Browning being among his favourites.

Reflecting on his influence and legacy, Mr. Morris said: “I think he was a massive person and I think I would have liked to have met such a man.”

clashley@barbados.gov.bb