Errol Walton Barrow, PC, QC (21 January 1920 – 1 June 1987) was a Caribbean statesman and the first Prime Minister of Barbados. Born into a family of political and civic activists in the parish of Saint Lucy, he was educated at Harrison College. He was also known as “Dipper Barrow” within the country itself.
Errol Barrow served in the Royal Air Force during World War II. He enlisted in the RAF on 31 December 1940 and flew some 45 operational bombing missions over the European Theatre. By 1945 he had risen to the rank of Flying Officer and was appointed as personal navigator to the Commander in Chief of the British Zone of occupied Germany, Sir William Sholto Douglas.
After the war he studied Law at the Inns of Court and economics at the London School of Economics concurrently, taking degrees in 1949 and 1950 respectively. During that time, Barrow also served as Chairman of the Council of Colonial Students where his contemporaries included Forbes Burnham, Michael Manley, Pierre Trudeau, and Lee Kwan Yew, all destined to become political leaders in their home countries.
He returned to Barbados in 1950 and was elected to the Barbados Parliament in 1951 as a member of the Barbados Labour Party (BLP). Feeling the fever of anti-colonialism he had inculcated during his student days in London, he quickly became dissatisfied by the incremental approach to change advocated by the party stalwarts.
In 1955 he founded the Democratic Labour Party as a progressive alternative to the BLP. He became its leader in 1958 and the party won parliamentary elections in 1961 within his constituency of St. John. Barrow served as Premier of Barbados from 1961 until 1966 when, after leading the country to independence from Great Britain, he became Prime Minister. He served continuously in that capacity as well as stints as Minister of Finance, and Minister of Foreign Affairs for the next ten years. During this period he had a lengthy affair with American musician and civil rights activist Nina Simone, who had fled to Barbados to avoid prosecution for tax resistance.
During his tenure the DLP government accelerated industrial development, expanded the tourist industry to reduce the island’s economic dependence on sugar, introduced National Health Insurance and Social Security, and expanded free education to all levels.
Barrow was a dedicated proponent of regional integration, spearheading the foundation of the Caribbean Free Trade Association (CARIFTA) in 1965. Eight years later CARIFTA evolved into the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), when Barrow, together with Forbes Burnham of Guyana, Dr. Eric Williams of Trinidad & Tobago and Michael Manley of Jamaica enacted the Treaty of Chaguaramas to bolster political and economic relations between the English-speaking Caribbean territories.
After another landslide victory in 1971, the DLP returned to the electorate in 1976 for a mandate after two years of bitter controversy over constitutional amendments put forth by the government. Barrow, who had invited public comment on the amendments verbally lashed out at those who had been critical of what he viewed as a minor procedural change in the appointment of judges. A general economic downturn which affected most countries in the hemisphere contributed to a shift in public sentiment resulting in the party’s election defeat.
As an indomitable advocate of Caribbean sovereignty he fiercely opposed interference in Caribbean affairs. As opposition leader in 1983 he spoke out forcefully against the United States invasion of Grenada and he was scathing in his criticism of other Caribbean leaders who kow-towed to Washington in the hope of getting economic handouts:
“Mr. Seaga (Prime Minister of Jamaica, Edward Seaga) thinks that the solution to Jamaica’s problems is to get President Reagan to play Santa Claus. I do not believe in Santa Claus.”
In May 1986, after 10 years in opposition, Barrow was re-elected as Prime Minister in a landslide victory in which the DLP won 24 of 27 seats in the House of Assembly. The campaign was notable for an address he gave at a political rally some two weeks before the election which came to be known as the “Mirror Image” speech. In it, Barrow rhetorically asked Barbadians what kind of a future they saw for themselves when they looked in the mirror; contrasting a life of menial labour as an émigré in the developed world, or staying and building a strong and independent Barbados to rival other small states like Singapore.
His re-election served as a catalyst for resurgent nationalism in the region, which by and large had subordinated itself to U.S. aid policy in the early 1980s. Barrow wasted no time in distancing himself from the “mendicant mentality” of his predecessors J. M. G. Adams and Bernard St. John. In his first press conference as Prime Minister he referred to Reagan as “that cowboy in the White House”. In a British interview he characterized the President of the United States as “a zombie; he’s programmed, a very dangerous person”.
He chastised Washington for its treatment of not only the Caribbean states, but also of Canada and the United Kingdom, which he described as Barbados’ closest allies. His political opponents deemed his attacks on Reagan as “tactically stupid”, but for most Barbadians his outspokenness meant that “The Skipper” was back.
A year after his re-election, Prime Minister Errol Barrow collapsed and died at his home on 1 June 1987, becoming the second sitting Prime Minister to die in office.
By an act of Parliament in 1998, Barrow was named as one of the ten National Heroes of Barbados.
His sister, Dame Nita Barrow, also became a social activist, humanitarian leader and later Governor General of Barbados.
The Errol Barrow Centre for Creative Imagination, at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, promotes the making, study and appreciation of the arts. It is “a hub for creative expression and the creative cycle: creation, production, distribution, appreciation and preservation of art”.