Finding Freedom in Barbados: It’s Not Black & White

By Abi King | Barbados

Mar 19

Sea view in Barbados

Have you missed parts one, two and three on finding freedom in Barbados? Scoot along and click on the links to read them first. The rest won’t make sense otherwise (chances are it may not make sense even after you’ve read those but what can I say? ;-) )

The Day After Freedom

When the change came, the island held its breath. What would happen the following day?

Would people turn up to work? Or would they leave?

Would it be business as usual? Or would anarchy arrive?

The sun spilled its sparkle across the water of the ocean. And in the morning, those who had been slaves…

…went back to work.

The abolition revolution had come – and already gone.

“One hundred years later,” Morris explains, “those families were worse off than when they’d been slaves.”

We continue our walk past the tombstones outside the church and on to the graveyard by the synagogue.

It’s an interesting thing, freedom. It sings with a breathless promise, and whispers a burden of pain.

It’s an interesting thing, freedom. It sings with a breathless promise, and whispers a burden of pain.

Bajan chattel house

It is one thing to achieve freedom in the headlines and the history books. It is another to find it in reality, to have freedom of thought, freedom of movement, freedom of hopes, dreams and aspirations. Or looking at it another way – to have options that extend beyond “do this” or lose your food, water and shelter.

With no money, no other experience and no other connections what else could freed slaves do but return to the plantations? Barbados, as you don’t need me to tell you, is an island. An island it’s expensive to leave.

So the mills turned and the white sugar continued to bleed from the profitable green cane. True freedom was not an overnight affair.

The drive back from Bridgetown to St James’ parish where the Bajan story began offers glimpses of the sea between the high walls of hotels and private villas and the weather-torn wood of the chattel houses that plantation workers used to fold up and transport between fields in the quest for work.

By the time we reach Holetown, the chattel houses look pink, perky and perfect, marking the gentrified shopping area that runs from The Club Resort & Spa on to the shiny new Limegrove shopping centre.

Barbados Today

Today, Barbados holds the title as the third most developed country in the Western Hemisphere and ranks 4th on world literacy tables. It attracts a pretty jet-set crowd and exports include the songs of an unapologetic Rihanna.

Barbadian culture – or “Bajan if you want to sound cool” according to our driver – is a strong and colourful thing. It thrives on flying fish and cou-cou, world class cricket, Christian hymns and the soulful voice and sinful body (say the radio talkshows) of Rihanna.

The island has forged an entire identity, quite literally, from nothing. From a mix of Britain, Ireland, Ghana, Nigeria,  Brazil, Holland, Guiana and Spain, this island’s success story has written its chapters through sweat and tears and a remarkable scarcity of blood.

Bajan Domino game

A night at Oistin’s, Barbados

“The other Caribbean islands say we’re arrogant,” adds Emerson. “But that’s only we’re because we’re so much better than them.” And with that he doubles over in deep-bellied laughter at his own good humour and fortune.

I’m still thinking about those words, freedom and fortune, as I walk back to my room.

As the door opens, the birds scramble away, sprinkling sugar across the floor. The sky is an empty, coral blue that hangs over water with slow patches that glitter into turquoise and grey.

I switch on my laptop, reach for my cable and let the uploading of photos begin. The modem blinks, I make notes on lined paper and think back on this room and its view of the world.

The truth is, I have seen it before. Nearly ten years ago, I looked out at these waves, heard the tweeting of these small birds and watched the sunset splay drama across the sky. Back when I worked as doctor and remembered my dream to make a living from words.

Back then, I picked up a notebook and I started to write.

In this same room, with this same view, I started again. And in that smallest of ways, I found my own freedom.

insidetravellab in sand

Barbados Today

Barbados Today

Disclosure: I visited Barbados as a guest of Virgin Atlantic thanks to Tropical Sky, experts in luxury holidays and resorts.

I stayed at The Club Barbados Resort & Spa (formerly the Almond Beach Club.)

Morris Greenidge offers several different types of fantastic walking tours around Barbados that focus on the history of the place – contact him at mgevents at

As usual, as ever, as always, I was free to write whatever I liked.

 What would you do if you felt free enough to do it?


About the Author

Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on

Gayla March 19, 2013

Freedom is an interesting concept and it differs from person to person. It can also be one of the scariest things a person encounters in life. This was a great series on Barbados.
I’m really curious, though, to know what cou-cou tastes like. I grew up in southern Louisiana eating couche couche, a fried or boiled cornmeal dish served at breakfast with milk and a touch of cane syrup, honey or brown sugar. I wonder if this is a dish that traveled to Louisiana with the Islanders…

    Abi King March 27, 2013

    I have a feeling it is…I’ll be writing a post about cou-cou later on but it looked a little like cous-cous only stodgier. I only saw it served with a savoury fish dish but perhaps people have it for breakfast as well. The people I met in Barbados said it had travelled there from West Africa…perhaps from there onwards to Louisiana?

Tracy Z March 20, 2013

Thanks for sharing your view, I’ve never been to Barbados but definitely want to go now!

    Abi King March 27, 2013

    Fascinating island – I hope you get to go.

Pigafe March 20, 2013

Your thinking about freedom it’s very interesting. Nice place and photos. I was waiting Rihanna’s photos on the beach with you but I think that she was very busy.

    Abi King March 27, 2013

    Well, she pestered me for days to meet up but I just didn’t have time ;-) You know how it is…

Linda March 20, 2013

I think I already told you how fascinating I found these posts. I’m using slavery as an ESL theme at the moment, so this has been doubley interesting. I’ve found student’s views so polarized, and I can give them a different perspective now, thank you.

Freedom is relative, as I think your own story proves.

    Abi King March 27, 2013

    Oh that’s so interesting… In which direction are the views polarized?

      Linda March 28, 2013

      These are, remember, young people who are being educated in the Spanish system – they tell me that they are taught that Spain wasn’t involved in slavery, and they were surprised when I mentioned Portugal too. Their perception was that it was a British/American thing. They are too young to “blame” Britain, but you could clearly see where the bias in their teaching was. In the same way Drake or Raleigh were pereived as heroes in the history books I had in school, but in Spain schools teach that they were pirates (as if piracy wasn’t a thing common to all nations at the time). They were also taught that all slave owners were monsters, and were surprised to know that some were “paternalistic”; that everything wasn’t so clear cut. They are not taught about the history of slavery in Africa previous to Europeans becoming involved. And this aftermath of freedom was something they hadn’t thought about, the “what to do with freedom once it’s achieved.

        Abi King April 20, 2013

        Thanks for giving us that perspective. My school history days were filled with the evils of the British Empire. There are always so many versions/ perspectives out there, aren’t there?

          Linda April 21, 2013

          Indeed there are, and you just, unknowlingly, illustrated that, because back in the 60s nothing much was said about the evils of colonialism, save but for a couple of outstanding examples of cruelty. Hence in the years around then, 50s and 60s, my immature mind saw the “wars” in which Britain was involved as what we would now call “wars against terror” and not what most were, wars for freedom. I imagine that some of my generation haven’t learned anything since school either.

Indra March 21, 2013

Fascinating posts…really enjoy reading them

Siegrin June 8, 2014

I seriously cannot believe you conflated your decision to become a travel blogger with being freed from literal slavery.

Abi King June 8, 2014

Hi Siegrin, you don’t need to seriously believe it because it isn’t true. What I’m trying to deal with here is the concept that freedom is rarely an on/off switch as most stories cover it. Instead, it is a spectrum with limits that are difficult to define and which must be fought for on a daily basis. It’s overlapping with the series I wrote about on the Cold War. Most accounts of slavery celebrate and consider the job done when the legal ownership of other people is no longer allowed. While that is a crucial milestone (and in case there’s any doubt, by the way, I obviously think that slavery is appalling) very often that does not provide full freedom, and I don’t mean in a rainbow filtered soft music woo-woo follow your dreams kind of a way. As mentioned in this text, if you have no money, no way of leaving an island, no other shelter, no other healthcare and no other skills or education then your options have been limited so much for you that it is hard to say that you are truly free. But without other measures, your employers are still free to abuse you (perhaps even more than before) because what else are you going to be able to do?

Other measures, such as the right to vote, employment law, the right to travel and various laws about rape, assault and property ownership begin to change that. But it’s a long and complex process and only part of the equation.

There are very few who can adjust to the change of mindset required quickly and painlessly and those who do often become group leaders and gain a certain prominence in history. Being “institutionalised” is a real phenomenon that has been witnessed time and time again on an individual level. After a short while, abducted children stay by the side of their abusers, even when it would now be easy for them to escape. On a much larger scale, there are many in former East Germany who miss the days of communist rule: although they had the fear of the State, they didn’t have the fear of having to provide for themselves and potentially not be able to do so. During the Cold War, as long as they “behaved”, they had jobs and healthcare (again, in case anyone is seeking to misunderstand this, I don’t support the methods of the Stasi at all. I’m just reporting some of the many different opinions that people told me – as they’re often seldom reported.)

Stephen Biko, a prominent anti-apartheid activist in South Africa, not only campaigned against the government, he also campaigned FOR the oppressed populations to realise that they were being oppressed. There was a genuine need (for some, definitely not for all) to be convinced that they were truly deserving and that being black or coloured did not equal being inferior.

Again, this is something we see on a “micro” level with regards to domestic abuse. After a time, many victims come to believe that they “deserve” their poor treatment or even normalise it, losing sight of the fact that it’s poor treatment at all.

For most people, in most contexts, recovery from oppression takes time. It is not an overnight affair. It often takes generations.

So within this context of macro and micro struggles for freedom, how does the history of Barbados fit in? It is exceptional, truly exceptional. 100 years after the end of slavery, many were living in worse day to day conditions than before. 100 years after that, as I say, Barbados ranks as the third most developed country in the western hemisphere and 4th on world literacy tables. That doesn’t mean there aren’t problems, of course there are. Some poverty remains and neither of those two statistics presented are infallible. But they are a pretty good indication that something is going very well for the vast majority of people living there.

Why is that? I don’t pretend to have all or even half the answers. But the country does seem to have found more freedom than many others. And it’s that tail end of the spectrum of freedom I was thinking and writing about at the end. Not the opposite end, the part about physical incarceration. But the psychological one.

In classic psychology experiments (probably no longer allowed on animal rights grounds) animals will starve to death in the presence of plenty IF they have been previously conditioned to learn that nothing they do will help and nothing they do will make any difference. Sometimes, this is done through electric shocks, sometimes through a physical mechanism such as a glass plate between the animal and its food supply. Even after the barrier is removed (shocks gone, glass pane gone) the animal doesn’t change its behaviour. This observation has been described as “learned helplessness” and is thought to have a role in many of the above scenarios as well as the development of depression even in our affluent, post-slavery lives.

Although we’re all different, none of us are free from the limits of psychology. Coming back to this travel story set in Barbados, it started with a stroll along a beach that led to a historic monument that led to exploring some of the history of the place and these ideas. Now we are back at the beach. I’m a really great admirer of these words by T. S. Eliot.

“We shall not cease from exploration, and at the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

So I’m back in the room. Some things are unchanged – the view is still beautiful, the birds are still stealing sugar. But after this brief exploration into history, it’s remarkable that sugar (once a daily symbol of oppression and slavery) has now become a trivial, everyday item that we barely spend a moment thinking about.

I’m also thinking about – and feeling incredibly inspired by – the history of a people who appear to have overcome so many of the aspects of slavery (both physical and psychological) in such a relatively short period of time (about 200 years.) I’m dwelling on the words that conditions got worse before they got better and that gets me thinking about the complex nature of freedom – and the implications of economic slavery.

In Barbados, after the abolition of slavery, economic slavery was very real. But in, say, the US and UK today, the fear of economic slavery is real enough and some people do have to deal with it. For many of us, though, the fear is greater than the reality. We are frightened that if we speak out or change careers or disrupt the status quo that, ultimately, eventually, we will starve like those animals in those experiments or be thrown into prisons like our ancestors before us. We may not realise it explicitly but we are taking away some of our own freedoms ourselves through this idea of “learned helplessness.”

I draw inspiration from those who have faced greater terrors than me, who have overcome more and who have achieved such a great deal. And although I write a blog, I don’t put much personal information on it and so it’s fair to say that you don’t know what has happened to me in my past and what I have or have not had to overcome.

The other part of the terrain that has changed when we’re back in that same room is time. Ten years have taken place. The view and the birds are the same. But now a modem is blinking (the world has changed) and I am in a different position in life (I have changed.)

The last two lines say this:

“In this same room, with this same view, I started again. And in that smallest of ways, I found my own freedom.”

Nothing about deciding to become a travel blogger – you’ve read something into the text that isn’t there. To be fair to you, I don’t tell you what I’m referring to. To be fair to me, I don’t compare becoming a travel blogger with being freed from literal slavery. And even for what I am talking about, I do emphasise “in that smallest of ways.”

I’ve tried to explore some complicated aspects of freedom within a travel piece. Perhaps that was over-ambitious, perhaps not. In any case, my goal was to make people think and to offer some inspiration. I hope that you’ll be able to re-read the series and get something different from it this time. If not, I apologise for taking up your time and leaving you with something less than I desired. Either way, wishing you all the best in whatever you have to face in life. Cheers – Abi

curiousrhea June 10, 2014

Hi Abi. Curious, would you say you are writing from an objective or subjective point of view? Can you tell me about conversations you have had with people/families/generations of Barbados? What kind of contact/conversations/dialogue have you made with the people who are affected by this situation? How would you define yourself as an observer? What is the true reason for your trip? If you were staying in a slum to write this piece, would you have still taken the job?
Also, wondering, what languages do you speak, besides English?
Thanks in advance for your sincere discourse.

Abi King June 10, 2014

Hi Rhea,

I’ll do my best here. Subjective or objective? Both – it’s a travel piece based on some of my experiences on the island and based on research, from the sources mentioned above (so that evidence is going to be both.)

Quotes from the people/families/generations of Barbados are in the piece – these are obviously smaller parts of the whole discussion. As it’s a travel piece, there’s naturally a bias towards people who work in the travel industry but I have also met with and interviewed experts in the field (of the history of Barbados.) Everyone who lives in Barbados or visits the country is affected by the situation in some way. I guess you’re asking for something else, though, and I’m not quite sure what that is. Same with defining myself as an observer – I’m not quite sure what you mean.

The true reason for my trip implies there’s a false one somewhere and I don’t quite follow that. Would I still have taken the job if I were staying in a slum? Well, that’s an interesting question for a number of reasons. First off, there was no job to take, slum or luxury hotel. No-one was paying me to travel there and no-one paid me to write the series of articles I have here.

Would I write about staying in a slum on this site? Possibly. The reason I hesitate is because it’s a travel site and I think there’s a fine line to tread between responsible travel and voyeurism. There is a risk of a luxury travel bubble emerging and so I do think that it’s valuable to show more than just resorts, which is what I work hard to do on this site. But to stay in a slum just for the sake of it seems…I can’t think of the words quickly enough and I don’t want to keep you waiting…something like “playing poor.” (Do you know the song “Common People” by Pulp by any chance?)

I have lived and worked in slums before but that was doing different work and so it seemed more valuable. When writing about travel destinations that people are going to visit, it seems more natural to write about the places they will be staying in.

As for languages, I speak both French and Spanish to a reasonable working level and have a smattering of German and Italian.

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