Some years ago, I was in Barbados, in the Caribbean, and a local historian named Trevor Marshall took me on a very unusual tour of Bridgetown.
We passed by fruit and vegetable vendors who sold their produce in the streets outside of a sprawling indoor local food market.
“Where do you think these people come from?” Marshall asked me.
The answer was obvious. They had black skin, wore splashy, brightly-colored clothes, carried hand-woven baskets, and sold foods and spices that came from a continent which lay across the ocean.
“Africa, of course,” I replied.
“Africa, of course,” he echoed, “but they don’t think they come from Africa. They think they are English. They know about every Henry and George who ruled England, but they don’t know anything about their own history. Watch this. I’ll ask them.”
He stopped several people in the street. They all seemed to know him, because he was a TV personality. When he asked where they came from, as he had predicted, they answered, “England.”
“Now perhaps you will understand England madness,” Marshall said, and then he launched into a story I will never forget. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, there were hard times in Barbados and about 55,000 Barbadians, or almost one-third of the population went to work in England. They thought of themselves as Brits, settled there, raised families, and became part of the country’s fabric. In the 1960’s, England fell prey to racism and anti-immigration propaganda, whipped up by politicians like Enoch Powell, who predicted that the country would have racial tension and violence like the U.S. if immigration wasn’t checked. “So immigrants were largely Anglo-Saxon, and older Caribbeans who were no longer useful were sent back to Barbados. It seems that they weren’t English after all. They silently suffered the humiliation of being discarded. When they arrived in Barbados, they no longer fit there either. Some went mad and were committed to institutions. It’s called England Madness. The majority came back with deep psychological scars. They had gone to the mother country but it turned out to be an evil stepmother,” Marshall explained.
According to Marshall, Barbados was the first British colony to be settled, the first British colony to be involved in the slave trade, and the first stop for slave ships coming from Africa. And to add to that distinguished list, it now had England Madness from rejection by Britain.
In my life, and in my travels, I encountered forms of madness among many people whose reality and sense of belongingness has been denied. If you’re raised in a family and count on them for love and support, you can be seriously whacked when they turn on or betray you. Many of the juvenile prisoners I worked with were abused or emotionally and physically abandoned by the parents they were born to. Often, they joined gangs to get back that sense of belonging. Friends whose families withheld from them essential information about their relatives, history and origins frequently had a vague sense of incompletion and lack of connection.
Knowing who you are, where you come from, and whom you can count on for love and support may provide you with a secure, solid foundation in life. Having information about your origins withheld from you, or not knowing where you belong or who cares about you can plunge you into highly detrimental states of shame, worthlessness, solitude and yes… madness.
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All photos by Paul Ross
Judith Fein has written for more than 100 international publications and is the author of LIFE IS A TRIP: The Transformative Magic of Travel. Her website is www.GlobalAdventure.us