The Social Transformer
Fondly remembered for laying the foundation of social reform in Barbados, Charles Duncan O’Neal dedicated much of his life to working for the poor and to agitating against the deep-seated racism inherent in Barbados during the 1920’s and 1930’s.
He was considered to be of a high social and professional ‘status’ within the island’s society, as he was a medical doctor of the ‘privileged’ class.
Duncan O’Neal’s stance on social reform was the first time in the island’s history that a university-educated professional had aligned themselves with what was considered to be the ‘lower’ classes of society.
Charles O’Neal was also the first black activist of the time to campaign for free education and dental care for children, improved housing, and the abolition of the Located Labourers’ System and the Masters and Servants Act.
Born in Barbados in 1879, Charles O’Neal left the island after secondary school to study medicine at Edinburgh University in Scotland; it was there that his interest in, and passion for, politics grew.
During this time, he ran for a local government office and in fact won a seat, however he felt compelled to go back to Barbados and spread his socialist message around the island to his fellow Bajans.
In 1910, he did return to Barbados but found the conditions so depressing that he went to live and work in Trinidad and Dominica.
However, after 14 years, he was once again drawn back to his beloved island and it was in October 1924 that O’Neal founded the ‘radical’ Democratic League political group, based on his socialist ideals.
In 1932, O’Neal won a seat in the Barbados House of Assembly as a Member for Bridgetown. During his time in Parliament, he continued to fight for workers’ rights, the poor and disenfranchised, and persistently campaigned for abolishing the practice of child labour.
Honors and Legacy
Charles Duncan O’Neal’s many achievements include the creation of a wide network of grass-root organizations – he founded the Democratic League; in 1926, set up the Working Men’s Association; launched a co-operative venture in Bridgetown; and he also invested in a newspaper called ‘The Herald‘, which promoted a message of social change.
Charles O’Neal is also credited with being the first politician in Barbados to campaign for the improved conditions for women in the workplace, and supported the role women held in leadership positions in the Democratic League as well as the Working Men’s Association.
It’s also worth noting that one of the two main bridges over the Careenage in the nation’s capital-city (Bridgetown) is named after this local legend – namely, the Charles Duncan O’Neal Bridge.
In 1998, by an act of Parliament, Charles Duncan O’Neal was also publicly honoured by his mother country by being named as one of the ten official National Heroes of Barbados, which celebrates those Barbadians who have made outstanding contributions to the country’s history and development.
As testimony to the high esteem in which O’Neal continues to be held in his homeland, you’ll also find that Duncan O’Neal’s portrait appears on the Barbadian $10 dollar bill.
When this legendary Barbadian passed away on 19 November 1936, he left a legacy of an increased political consciousness of the nation and social reform.
By: Brett Callaghan