The Bajan independence movement traces its roots to Bussa's Rebellion, an enslaved revolt that occurred in 1816. That rebellion erupted April 14, Easter Monday, when an enslaved driver named Bussa led an army of insurgents against the British colonial militia and garrison, burning cane fields and destroying property for nearly two weeks before the colonial governor, James Leith, managed to restore order.
The only surviving example of any of these flags, made by an enslaved rebel named Johnny Cooper, gives a complete explanation of Black attitudes toward emancipation, the actions enslaved Africans were willing to take to ensure their freedom, and most pertinently, what they expected that freedom to look like.
For example, Bussa's rebels believed they had royal and divine approval. The flag makes this evident by presenting King George III waving a banner declaring "Royal endeavour and forever," a phrase that would have been interpreted as support for the rebels.
Behind the king, Britannia herself sits on a British lion, commenting that she is "always happy to lead any such sons as endeavourance." The enslaved revolutionaries similarly believed that "GOD always saves endeavour." Bussa's rebels evidently believed that the British monarchy understood and were sympathetic to their plight.
But most strikingly, this flag reveals what Bussa's rebels expected their emancipation to look like. The Black man in the center of the banner has a larger crown than George III. This is likely a depiction of a free Black man named Washington Francklin, who the rebels had singled out as the post-emancipation leader of Barbados.
This is further underlined by the Royal Navy vessel exiting the scene eastward, back to Britain. In other words, Bussa and his followers expected emancipation to come with complete independence from imperial rule and the blessing of the British monarch.
This flag explains that in 1816, Bajans of African descent hoped for what was finally fulfilled Nov. 30, 2021.
Whither the Monarchy
Since independence from Britain in 1966, Bajans have wrestled with the question of their royal, distant head of state.
Bussa's coherent and revolutionary vision for Bajans of African descent from over 200 years ago serves as a lesson on endurance for those fighting for their rights. It is also a powerful reminder of a centuries-long history of Black struggles against institutional white supremacy and the ways they continue to resonate.
Lewis Eliot is an assistant professor of history at the University of Oklahoma.