Barbados emerges from its colonial past to shine with vibrant colour, by Joe Yogerst. Photos by D.Hump.
BENEATH Lord Nelson’s steely gaze, I stake a claim to a seat in Trafalgar Square. The weather couldn’t be better – bright blue sky with Rubenesque clouds that wouldn’t look out of place on the ceiling of some baroque chapel. A perfect day for eating outside. And the perfect open-air lunch: fish and chips from a nearby cafe.
A policeman struts his stuff across the cobblestones, stopping to chat with a group of American tourists trying to find Parliament. An image of Queen Victoria glints in the stained glass of a lovely Neo-Gothic edifice on the edge of the square. And in the distance, the bells of a great cathedral peal the noon hour.
It’s the kind of scene that could easily unfold in London on a summer day . . . but for a few minor details. My al fresco lunch is flying fish. That friendly cop speaks with a thick West Indian drawl. And the flag fluttering above Parliament is not the Union Jack, but the blue-and-gold standard of Barbados.
Perhaps the epithet “Little England of the Caribbean” is a bit of a stretch more than 30 years after independence. But even ardent nationalists are willing to admit that Barbados retains more British flavour than any other island in the West Indies. “We have adopted and kept many English customs,” says Victor Roach, president of the Barbados Horticultural Society, which itself is a relic of British colonial days.
There were many times when I had to remind myself that this was indeed the Caribbean and not some small slice of England that has gone adrift. It wasn’t just the roundabouts and left-hand-drive, the cucumber sandwiches and fried tomatoes, nor even the warm beer. But something much more profound. Like an old oak,
England has put down deep roots on this tropical island, extended its branches in all directions, cast its shadow over nearly everything in Bajan society.
Time has not withered this hardy English foundation. “We’re very British in many respects whether we like to admit it or not,” says Hamish Watson, the son of a Caribbean cane planter and now a local hotelier.
Double exposures abound as you drive around the island. Palm-fringed beaches, calypso music and rum punch betray the West Indian side of the Bajan psyche. But rocky windswept landscapes, Anglican psalms and afternoon tea are equally typical.
Why does Barbados stand apart from other Caribbean isles? I put that question to a number of Bajans. Nearly everyone attributed this lingering Anglophile ambience to more than 370 years of continuous British rule prior to independence in 1966.
“We had one colonial power our whole history,” says Penelope Hynam Roach, executive director of the Barbados National Trust, a nonprofit group that safeguards many historic sights. “One system of law, one system of schooling, one social structure. We didn’t have the upheaval of adopting French or Spanish systems and then all of a sudden switching to the English system.”
Lesley Barrow-Whatley, curator of history at the Barbados Museum, tends to agree. “The British were never threatened here,” she explains. “This was the center of the British Empire in this part of the world.”
That’s a marked contrast to most Caribbean islands, which changed hands about as often as a pirate hoard. Nearby St Lucia suffered through 14 exchanges between France and Britain. The Virgin Islands have endured six different colonial masters. But not Barbados, first settled by Britain in 1627 and populated by staunch royalists who never yielded to foreign invasion. The Bajans even resisted Oliver Cromwell’s revolution, the last speck of British soil to hoist his banner.
“The Britishness of this place also has something to do with our character,” Mrs Roach adds. “Bajans are very reserved in a British sort of way. Which, I think, has something to do with our geography. Barbados was too small a place. People had to be accommodating with each other. They learned the art of compromise very early on.”
Part of that comprise was dealing with the fact that society was multi-coloured. Barbados was one of the earliest places anywhere on the planet to integrate all races into the political system (Barbados elected its first “coloured” representative in 1831) and mandate compulsory education for all citizens. Thus, it avoided many of the racial and political problems that plague other West Indian nations today.
In fact, the racial harmony that permeates Barbados is one of the first things that I noticed. Not once did I feel the tension or threat I know from so many other Caribbean islands. And even though Barbados had its rich and poor, I never got the feeling that class warfare was brewing just below the surface. This remains the kind of place where people greet strangers – white or black – with a smile and a hardy “good morning.”
“We don’t dwell on the past, on the slavery and colonial days, like so many other West Indian islands,” says taxi driver Emerson Clarke, a black Bajan. “We look at the present and the future, because that’s the only way you get ahead.”
That kind of gumption seems to run through much of Bajan society. The Puritan work ethic is still firmly in place and respect for tradition has not diminished. Many attribute this to the abiding influence of the Anglican church, which has managed to hold its own in Barbados despite the arrival of other Christian denominations.
Like Mother England herself, an ancient stone church still holds pride of place in each of the island’s 11 parishes. To a large extent, these are still the fulcrums of community life. Weddings and funerals, baptisms and confirmations. A perpetual cycle of ceremony passed down through the ages and still beholden to the Archbishop of Canterbury. “You’ll find that Bajans are into lots of pomp and pageantry,” Clarke added.”We just love that stuff – we’re like the English in that way.”
I had a hard time finding an empty church in Barbados. I stumbled onto a Saturday afternoon wedding at St James’ – a local farmer’s daughter marrying a banker’s son from London. Loads of rice and flowers and frilly white lace. Out on the rugged east coast, I found myself caught up in a most unusual traffic jam: mourners making their way to a funeral at St John’s. And just when I thought I had St Thomas’ church all to my own, little old ladies began to arrive for choir practice. Not wanting to disturb them, I started to leave. But they insisted that I sit and listen to their trusty English hymns, which drifted through the open doors and out across the parish’s vast sugar cane fields.
The island’s other “religion” is cricket, another holdover from colonial days but now thoroughly Bajanized. From youngsters on the beach to the famous test ground called Kennington Oval, cricket is played with unrelenting passion each weekend.
At a cricket ground on the south coast, I huddled beneath the meager shade of the clubhouse as players waited their turn to bat. They took me under their wing, these white-clad weekend warriors, tried to explain the intricacies of their beloved game – alien terms like “stumped” and “leg before wicket”. Indeed, I was stumped by their explanation. But I was far more interested in their fervor.
“We play nuf cricket in Barbados,” one of them claimed. Meaning they play a lot and they play it well. “The Barbados team could beat the rest of the West Indies combined.”
That’s probably not far off the truth. In the Barbados Museum, I found a whole display extolling the virtues of local cricket. The game has been around since 1806 when the British garrison scratched out the first batting crease. English touring teams have been visiting Barbados since 1895. And many of the sport’s all-time greats – legends like Sir Frank Worrell and Sir Garfield Sobers – were born and raised on the island.
That afternoon, I savored another great English tradition that has lingered in Barbados: gardening. Not ordinary gardening, which entails mowing the lawn and pruning the roses. Rather gardening with the passion that verges on fetish.
The Barbados Horticultural Society stages a programme each winter during which private gardens are open to public viewing. On this particular weekend, the home of Mr and Mrs R. DeVere Cole was under scrutiny. Fortified by generous portions of planters punch, green-thumbed devotees poured over a property with sweeping lawns, immaculate flower beds and separate hot houses for orchids and anthuriums.
“It’s a lot of work,” Mrs Cole exclaimed as she showed me her prize-winning anthuriums. But she isn’t the only Bajan who minds getting her hands dirty. Local gardeners have captured six gold medals at the Chelsea Flower Show in London over the past 10 years, more than any other Caribbean nation. A BBC film crew is currently producing a documentary on the gardens of Barbados. And many of the country’s most popular natural attractions – Andromeda Garden, Welchman Hall Gully and Farley Hill National Park – are privately developed gardens that were later bequeathed to the nation.
Like many of the island’s English customs, gardening has transcended colour and class barriers, reaching into nearly every part of society. “Organizations like ours were viewed as elitist in former times,” says Victor Roach. “That’s because they were mostly white. But now you find that more and more coloured Bajans are getting involved in the Horticulture Society and National Trust.”
But that’s not to say that planter society has faded away completely. Unlike other Caribbean islands where “white flight” coincided with independence, Barbados retained much of its rural aristocracy. These clans may have been parvenus back in England, where it’s not unusual to find family trees that stretch back more than a thousand years. But in Barbados there’s still a certain cache in claiming that your family goes back 300 years on the island.
“Many of the original British families still live here,” says Philip Atwell, manager of one of the island’s largest plantations. “They’ve kept up their ties with family and friends in England for hundreds of years.”
Of course, times have changed. Sugar is no longer than golden goose that it once was. The plantations, and the families that run them, have had to adjust to late 20th century economics. Atwell’s property, for instance, has diversified into beef and dairy cattle, and tropical flower cultivation.
Many of the island’s “great houses” have been lovingly restored, preserving the grandeur and style of bygone days with their Chippendale staircases, Wedgwood china and Waterford crystal. And not unlike their counterparts in England, the owners have had to open their doors to tourism in order to pay for these restorations.
At St. Nicholas Abbey, I watched home movies with Lt Col Stephen Cave, great-great-grandson of the British planter who took over the property in 1820. The black-and-white reels, shot by Cave’s father, depicted Barbados life in the 1930s. People in pith helmets riding around in horse-drawn buggies, barrels of rum and molasses along the Bridgetown waterfront, workers harvesting sugar cane by hand. A fascinating insight into colonial life.
Lt Col Cave later showed me around the house and grounds. Despite the lavish furnishings, I was most intrigued by the old bathroom: a wooden bench seat with four holes. The colonel laughed: “In those days you either went by yourself or took the whole family along.”
Another buttress of plantation society is the Barbados Polo Club, where grunts of man and beast are nearly indistinguishable on weekend afternoons. Like a furious cavalry charge, polo teams storm up and down the emerald-green turf, the thunder of the hooves interrupted by a sharp crack of mallet against ball. And anyone who thinks this is good-natured fun should see the gritty determination in the players’ eyes.
The several hundred spectators are equally keen. Perched on the hoods of mud-encrusted Land Rovers, ensconced on picnic blankets, they clap and coo their encouragement until the chukka ends. Then it’s time for champagne and caviar – and cucumber sandwiches, of course – as everyone chats about an upcoming match against a team of British rock stars.
“Polo used to be small in Barbados,” says Peter Ward, foreman of the polo stables. “But now it’s really big. A lot of rich men wanna play this sport. They’re coming down from England all the time.”
Until it was retired in 2003, Concorde whooshed many a jet-setting Brit down Barbados way on weekly flights from Heathrow. Mere mortal aircraft fly the trans-Atlantic route nowadays but Barbados remains one of the few places in the tropics that’s a legitimate long weekend getaway from London. “Concorde changed this island,” Hamish Watson told me. “Making it even more British than it was before because it has stimulated a new invasion of British and Irish landowners.”
Even beyond the island’s well-tended gardens and homes, much of Barbados tends to resemble the British Isles. The highland Scotland District is the spitting image of its Caledonian namesake: rolling green hills grazed by sheep and russet-colored cattle. The area is bleak and windswept like the Scottish moors; a dramatic landscape that’s ideal for hiking and horseback riding.
I toured the Canefield Plantation with Nicky Greenidge, a young equestrian guide whose family probably worked the sugar cane fields a generation ago. As we galloped through a deep glen, she pointed out a huge wooden box with rusty metal skids, once used to haul sugar cane up the slippery slopes of the valley. “We had our sugar sleigh long before the Jamaicans had their bobsleigh team in the Olympics,” Nicky laughed.
Poised on a ridge near the island’s highest peak, we gazed down at the Bathsheba coast on the eastern flank of Barbados. With its boulder-strewn beaches, white-washed fishing villages and pounding Atlantic surf, this shore could easily pass for Devon or Cornwall. In fact, much of the east coast is still populated by the descendants of English political prisoners exiled to Barbados after the failed Monmouth Rebellion of 1686.
Several days later I explored the Bathsheba coast on my own, trekking the long white strand at Barclays Park. The beach was vacant, just me and the ghosts of the British Empire. I came upon a boulder with a bronze plaque proclaiming that Queen Elizabeth had once trodden upon this spot. It must have been a ludicrous scene, the queen in formal dress and floppy hat, striding across the sand with an entourage of local dignitaries. The Union Jack flapping in the breeze. A military band playing Rule Britannia or some other little ditty. How very British. How very Bajan.
In Bathsheba village I popped into a cliff-top pub called the Round House Inn, serving fine British brew since 1832 – although the beer is chilled these days to cater to the beach crowd. I had the house specialty – flying fish pate served with toast points and chopped onion – and then continued down the coast. A narrow-gauge railroad once ran out here from Bridgetown and the quaint Victorian station still stands above mushroomed-shaped Bathsheba Rock. The old railroad right-of-way makes a convenient footpath along the base of the windswept cliffs.Indeed, you have to step back and remind yourself that you’re not in Thomas Hardy country.
A short drive south of Bathsheba is another vestige of colonial days. Codrington College was founded in 1745 to educate the sons of local planters and later became the first degree-issuing institute in the English-speaking Caribbean. It’s been fully integrated for more than a century and in many respects is responsible for establishing the strong academic foundation on which modern Bajan society is built.
With its Jacobean balustrades and richly decorated chapel, cows grazing the cricket pitch and Norman-style church crowning a rise in the distance, Codrington is like a little Oxford of the tropics. More than any other place on the island, this is where I felt a sense of far-flung empire. A sterling example of how the British tried, quite successfully, to export their culture to every corner of the globe. In most other places that influence had slowly faded away. For whatever reason it lingers in Barbados, where the sun has yet to set on Mother England.