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“Pa’s pension”: The origins of non-contributory old-age pensions in late Colonial Barbados1

CSSR Working Paper No. 164

Jeremy Seekings

Centre for Social Science Research (CSSR)
University of Cape Town

August 2006

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In 1937-38, the British colony of Barbados in the south-east Caribbean introduced old-age pensions for the poor. This occurred without much comment from scholars at the time, and has attracted no subsequent attention. But it was an exceptional reform. Not only was it the first country or colony in the world to introduce pensions for elderly people not of European origin, but its lead was followed by only a small number of other territories in the following five decades. This radical innovation occurred in Barbados as part of a slow movement towards social (as well as political) reform, driven by a combination of reformist colonial officials and an emergent black political leadership against the opposition of the conservative white planter and merchant elite. The need for reform was deep poverty in an economy dominated by the sugar industry: the open economy made it difficult to redress poverty through wages and employment-related benefits, and patterns of land ownership made it difficult to redress poverty through the promotion of peasant agriculture. Social policy reform predated the outbreak of riots in 1937, but riots certainly strengthened the reformist coalition and weakened conservative opposition. Tax-financed social reforms provided a compromise solution to the partial amelioration, but not the prevention, of poverty. Together with labour and political reforms, they made possible a weak form of ‘welfare capitalism’ in the face of a potentially deepening radical challenge.


‘Ma’ and ‘Pa’ are important characters in George Lamming’s classic semiautobiographical novel, In the Castle of my Skin, published in 1953 and set in the eastern Caribbean island of Barbados in the immediately preceding decades.

Ma and Pa, like most Barbadians of their time, live in their own house – built with money he had made as a migrant working on the Panama Canal – but on land rented from the white plantation-owner. Now elderly, Ma and Pa spend most of the day sitting, smoking clay pipes and talking, watching the world go past their window and door. Every morning Ma goes out to buy food, whilst Pa feeds the pigeons and goats. ‘Once a week, on Saturdays, the old man went to town to collect their pensions which amounted to a few shillings a week’ (Lamming, 1953: 72).

The story of Ma and Pa is one prism through which Lamming relates the processes of social, economic and political change that were transforming Barbados during his adolescence in the 1930s and 1940s. The novel opens at a time when the Barbadian countryside is much the same as it has been for the century since the abolition of slavery. The white plantation-owner lives in his grand house on top of the hill; down below is the poor but close-knit community of black workers, descended from slaves; the economy remains agricultural, and the racial division of society clear. At the end of the novel, the white landowner sells part of his estate to a newly-successful black businessman and politician, who in turn sells prime sites to other members of the new black middle class whose high salaries permit the move from tenancy to land-ownership. The site where Pa lives – alone, after Ma’s death – is bought by the local school principal. The novel closes with the principal evicting Pa. Apparently without kin or community to whom he can turn, Pa is headed for the dreaded almshouse.

Somewhat similar processes of social change were occurring across much of the colonial world. What was very unusual, however, was Pa’s weekly collection of an old-age pension. Pa was collecting a cash old-age pension that did not depend on his having made contributions during his prior working-life.2 Barbados was the first colony to introduce, in 1937-38, non-contributory old-age pensions for poor elderly people. Whilst several other British colonies followed its lead, notably Trinidad and Tobago (1939), British Guiana (1944) and Mauritius (1950), the group of colonies or post-colonial countries with noncontributory old-age pensions remained very small until the end of the Twentieth Century.3

Non-contributory welfare programmes have been much less common in the global South or ‘developing’ world than contributory programmes entailing either social insurance schemes or provident funds. Contributory programmes rarely provide for the poorest half of the population, because they are limited to people whose prior working lives were spent in regular, formal employment, whereas most poor people are either peasants or work in the informal economy or experience protracted periods of unemployment and therefore never make the contributions that render them eligible for benefits later. Contributory programmes entail some pooling of risk and for smoothing of income across life-cycles, but they are rarely redistributive from rich to poor (and may even be redistributive from poor to rich, depending on how programmes are funded). Public welfare programmes need to be fully or substantially non-contributory if they are to benefit the poor. This makes the case of Barbados especially interesting, because it was explicitly aimed at helping the poor, i.e. people like Pa and Ma in Lamming’s novel.

Elsewhere in the world, the introduction of non-contributory old-age pensions in place of earlier poor relief was driven by a combination of social, economic and especially political change. Social and economic change generated growing numbers of poor people anxious about their future incomes; franchise reform meant that more and more of these people were voters. Conservatives sometimes had their own reasons for replacing poor relief, but both authoritarian and democratic regimes generally preferred to co-opt key segments of the working class through contributory pension schemes. The major impetus for non-contributory pensions came from parties competing for the votes of the poor, i.e. the newly-formed ‘labour’ parties and those older liberal parties that had shifted toward the more interventionist tenets of the ‘New Liberalism’. Non-contributory pensions were introduced in New Zealand in 1898, in the various states in Australia from 1900, and in Britain (and Ireland) in 1909, under its 1908 Old Age Pensions Act (Thane, 1996; Macnicol, 1998). In Uruguay, electoral factors were also important in the introduction of non-contributory oldage pensions in 1919, with the Blanco and Colorado parties competing for the votes of the immigrant working-class in Montevideo (Porzecanski, 1978). In South Africa, the introduction of old-age pensions in 1927-28 for white and ‘coloured’ people similarly resulted from partisan competition for the votes of ‘poor whites’ and coloured people, although this was combined with a racist project among sections of the white elite to re-establish a racial hierarchy in which even ‘poor whites’ were raised above the African population (who were excluded from the new pension system (Seekings, 2006)). The USA was a laggard in the payment of old-age pensions. It had provided generous pensions for veterans of its Civil War, as well as their widows and orphans, but only introduced general non-contributory (as well as contributory) pension schemes in the 1930s, first in individual states and then (in 1935) across the USA, in response to the Great Depression.

Barbados was the first case of a colony where old-age pensions were provided for poor people who not only did not have the vote but also were definitely not of European origin. Non-contributory, means-tested old-age pensions were introduced in Barbados under its 1937 Old Age Pensions Act, and were paid from May 1938. This paper examines why Barbados came to introduce these pensions in the late 1930s. The agents of this innovation comprised an uneasy coalition of reformist colonial officials, liberal white Barbadians and – perhaps especially – an emerging black Barbadian political leadership. The context was deep poverty in an economy overwhelmingly dominated by sugar plantations and without land for the significant development of smallholder or peasant agriculture. Although the old-age pensions initiative predated the riots in Barbados in late July 1937, the riots did serve to negate the possibility of opposition from conservative white planters and merchants.

Barbadian historians appear to have largely overlooked the introduction of oldage pensions, mentioning it only in passing. Grantley Adams, who dominated Barbadian politics in the 1940s and 1950s, is credited in passing by one scholar with fighting ‘tooth and nail against the planter and merchant conservatives in the Barbados House of Assembly and Legislative Council in order to secure old age pensions and other reform measures for the masses of the colony’ (De V. Phillips in Howe and Marshall, 2001: 173). But no evidence is presented for this assertion, and Adams’ own biographer does not mention him playing a role in old-age pensions (Hoyos, 1974). Most Barbadian historians are critical of Adams’ political opportunism, and have increasingly emphasised the roles of the more consistently progressive or radical leaders whom Adams came to overshadow: men like Dr Charles Duncan O’Neale, the founder of the Democratic League in 1924, who reportedly called for old-age pensions (Hunte, 1966),4 or Clement Payne, the Garveyite militant who began to organise unskilled workers in early 1937, prompting persecution by the colonial authorities which in turn precipitated riots in July 1937. The 1937 riots, indeed, are widely seen as the starting-point of political and social change in Barbados (see, especially, Beckles, 2004). But, as we shall see below, plans for old-age pensions were already well advanced before July 1937. Whilst Barbadian historians are right to emphasise the general importance of popular struggle and militant leadership in the 1930s, they tend to underestimate the growth of support for social and political reform among colonial officials and a reformist minority of white Barbadians.

Nor do old-age pensions in Barbados receive much attention in studies of changing colonial policy, notwithstanding the acknowledged importance of events in Barbados and elsewhere in the British West Indies in prompting an Empire-wide shift towards new policies on ‘development and welfare’. In 1938, a Royal Commission was appointed to examine the causes and implications of a series of riots in 1935-38 (including in Barbados). The Commission, chaired by Lord Moyne, recommended that Britain invest heavily in promoting development and running social services in its West Indian colonies. The Moyne Commission’s recommendations were reflected in the 1940 and 1945 Colonial and Development Welfare Acts, and in the appointment of development and social welfare officers not only in the Caribbean but across Africa and other parts of the Empire also. In a series of articles, Johnson argued that the impetus for reform predated the Moyne Commission; indeed, that the Moyne Commission served as a vehicle to legitimate a shift in policy which the Colonial Office in London had already embraced. Johnson argues that it was the riots themselves, and the local Commissions of Enquiry into them in 1937 in Barbados (the Deane Commission) and Trinidad and Tobago (the Forster Commission), and not the Moyne Commission, that prompted the actual shift in policy (Johnson, 1977, 1978, 1999).5 Unfortunately Johnson does not take into account the introduction of old-age pensions in Barbados. Doing so suggests a reinterpretation of his argument. The Deane Commission into the 1937 riots in Barbados, and the riots themselves, did not signal the beginning of the process of change in colonial policy on ‘development and welfare’. The process of change stemmed from the political, social and economic conditions in Barbados in the mid-1930, conditions that resulted in both policy reforms and popular protest. Moreover, these policy reforms resulted from local as much as, if not more than, metropolitan initiative. The Barbadian case suggests, further, that the Moyne Commission did have real effects, but that the effects were to change the direction and character of social policy reform rather than to stimulate it; it actually helped to discourage the replication of the Barbados old-age pension programme elsewhere.

  1. I am grateful to Meredith Startz for invaluable research assistance in New Haven, to George Lamming for much advice at the Atlantis Hotel, and to Woodville Marshall for his assistance in Bridgetown.
  2. It should be noted that Lamming projects Pa’s and Ma’s pensions further back, historically, than is accurate. He describes Pa collecting the weekly pensions prior to the riot of 1937, whereas the pensions were first paid out in mid-1938. Lamming, who was about ten years old in 1937, presumably recalls elderly people collecting pensions thereafter and imagined that this had been going on for longer than was, in fact, the case.
  3. The other notable case was South Africa, where in 1944 pensions were extended to the poor, i.e. to people classified as African. See Seekings (2005).
  4. Hunte does not refer to old-age pensions in a longer study of O’Neale (Hunte, 2001).
  5. Parts of Johnson’s argument were anticipated by Thomas Simey, the first Social Welfare Advisor appointed in 1941 to develop social welfare schemes to be funded under the Colonial and Development Welfare Act (see Simey, 1946).

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