Caribbean Culture: Historic Barbados

Barbados is rich in colonial history.
Barbados is rich in colonial history.

As I walk the serene streets of Holetown — just a short trek from posh resorts along the sun–tinted western shoreline of Barbados — I am suddenly immersed in this island nation’s rich colonial history. A pathway shaded with wispy pines has lured me to St. James Parish Church, the oldest place of worship on Barbados, established a year after the first British settlers arrived, in 1627.But what intrigues me the most is what I find outside St. James’ sturdy stone walls. Under a porch sits a small bell on a white stone pedestal with the inscription, “God Bless King William.” It’s dated 1696 — more than a half–century before the casting of the Liberty Bell.

On the rugged, undeveloped eastern shore — across the island’s hilly terrain carpeted with swaying sugarcane fields — I find yet another fascinating gem of Barbados’ past. This time I’m walking amid the worn gravestones outside St. Johns Parish Church when I see the 19th century crypt of a British officer standing right side up.

“He requested to be buried standing instead of lying down because he never wanted to rest at his post,” explains tour guide Sue Ann Tannis. “He wanted to be looking out to the sea, almost in salute.”

Intertwined within this Caribbean paradise’s scenic beaches, high–end resorts and lush, tropical landscapes exists a distinct culture that was formed by a harsh 17th and 18th century slave trade, and the British, who governed well into the mid 20th century. During two days of exploring this 21–by–14–mile island, I find its history clearly evident in old parish churches, plantation homes, forts and other treasures that have helped shape a proud heritage.

The island’s capitol is Bridgetown, on the island’s southwestern shore. The Barbados Parliament was established here in 1639; it’s the third-oldest parliament in the British Commonwealth. Opposite the Parliament buildings, in National Heroes Square, stands a statue of Battle of Trafalgar’s victor, Lord Nelson.

“We celebrated our 375th anniversary of Bridgetown [in 2004] with festivities that lasted a whole year,” says my taxi driver, a soft-spoken Bajan named Rufus.

Rufus takes me into the heart of the city, where vendors at the busy Saturday afternoon marketplace sell deep-fried fish cakes and island fruits. He points out the beautifully restored Synagogue, one of the oldest in the Western Hemisphere (the original building was erected in 1654), and St. Michael’s Cathedral, first built of wood in 1665, and rebuilt (of stone), like many other structures, after devastating hurricanes.

While leaving town, I admire the dramatic aquamarine water and warm, brackish breezes as people stroll along the boardwalk alongside the Careenage — an estuary at the mouth of the Constitution River — where rustic, colorful watercraft hug the docks. At the historic garrison area in Hastings, on the outskirts of Bridgetown, cannons still stand guard under the clock tower at St. Ann’s Fort.

The nearby Barbados Museum and Historical Society, housed in an original 19th century military prison, traces the island’s natural and cultural history though a collection of fossils, artifacts, pottery, maps, model ships, paintings and other artworks.

A short walk away, the George Washington House is where the founding father of America lived for nearly two months in 1751 when he was 19 — the only place he ever visited outside continental North America. Washington accompanied his sick brother Lawrence, who was stricken with tuberculosis and who came for the tropical climate.

Washington’s words recorded in his diary still accurately describe the warm Bajan hospitality that remains to this day. “Hospitality and a genteel behavior,” he wrote, “is shown to every gentleman stranger by the gentleman inhabitants.” The house is being refurbished with mid 18th–century period furnishings to show how it might have looked when Washington lived there.

In Speightstown, north of Holetown, I come across more colorful island produce. Vendors on narrow streets display their spreads of fresh bananas, sweet potatoes, mangos and green peppers, complemented by sweet grapefruits and apples. Village elders relax on benches along the beach dotted with overturned and worn boats.

A sharp turn inland brings us to the top of Cherry Tree Hill, with its stunning view of rocky knolls spiking out from blanketing sugarcane fields. Peculiar-looking blackbelly sheep — a cross between African and English breeds — graze on the hillsides.

 

In the distance, white-capped waves send their frothy turbulence to the island’s eastern shoreline. We stop at St. Nicholas Abby, with its Dutch gables and finials of coral stone; it’s one of the oldest Jacobean mansions, built in 1658.

Barbados has amazing beaches.
Sun worshippers relax on the beaches of Barbados

Barbados’ plantation homes — now museums — reflect the luxurious 18th and 19th–century lifestyle once enjoyed by the island’s elite. Showcasing fine furniture, crystal, silver and china, the homes provide insight into the life and times of early settlers.

Two homes worth visiting are the Francia Plantation House, in St. George Parish, in the center of the island, which features a collection of antique West Indian maps, and the Sunbury Plantation House, in St. Philip Parish, on the east coast, which displays the largest collection of horse–drawn carriages in the Caribbean.

Along busy streets and on many winding roads, meanwhile, stand homes of another sort: simple and charming one-room chattel houses. Popular after the emancipation, these humble abodes once used by plantation workers are brightly painted in Caribbean blues and banana yellows, and feature designs based on the island’s Dutch and British ancestry and decorative windows.

I admire several depictions of the small shacks through the gracious strokes and spotty dabs of watercolors by artist Larrie Belgrade, who displays his wares at the Bridgetown Market. “I paint the chattel house because it’s a part of our culture that’s dying,” he tells me. “Instead of having them refurbished, most folks tend to build walled structures. Chattel dwellings are a part of our heritage that should be preserved.”

The island’s history is also reflected in the vivacious and colorful Crop Over Festival, a traditional celebration that dates to the days of slavery, when the sugarcane harvest came to an end. Each summer, the island gears up for four weeks of concerts and other events, with music and costumed competitions held during the festival’s last weekend.

The climatic finale is called the Grand Kadooment, when hundreds strut to the spicy sounds of Calypso as they perform for judges and spectators at the National Stadium before parading in the streets during daylong festivities. The locals will tell you it’s on par with Trinidad’s grand Carnival.

“I’m really proud of it — it’s the spirit of the people,” says one Barbadian. “Calypso has been a method of expression since times of slavery, from where it really evolved. Americans may have their hip–hop, their pop or rock ’n’ roll,” he explains, “but this is the music of the Caribbean and Barbados. It has been a way to express our feelings of happiness, joy, pain and sorrow.”

At nightfall, I head back to my hotel to be enchanted all over again when I hear the mellifluous, mechanical–like singing of the whistling frog. And as I end my day, I recall the words of a young taxi driver named Winston. “I could go on speaking about Barbados for a whole day. I would not get tired talking about my country,” he told me. “Barbados is a paradise. Like one of the wonders of the world, you get lost in it.”

If You Go

Barbados Tourism Authority

212-986–6516

www.barbados.org

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