Freedom and Slavery in Barbados – Part Two: It’s Not All Black and White

By Abi King | Barbados

Feb 11
Slavery in Barbados - mill

The last mill in Barbados?

Find the first part of Freedom and Slavery in Barbados over here…then come back to read what happened next.

Empty on arrival - Bridgetown, Barbados

When the British arrived in Barbados in 1625, there was no native population there. There was no anyone there.

Powell and co found a few tracks in the earth that suggested some kind of Amerindian presence within the last few years. But that was it.

The Brits moved in – and in many ways never really left. Unlike the squabbles and showdowns that troubled the other Caribbean islands, easterly Barbados remained under British control until independence in 1966. And even then, Barbados kept the Queen as a constitutional monarch and shrugged off the notion of a republic.

They dubbed themselves “Little England,” sending a telegram during the world war to say “Go on England; Little England is behind you.”

Place names like Hastings, Worthing, Brighton and Cheltenham dot the map and there’s even a statue of Nelson on what used to be Trafalgar’s Square.

Today it goes by the name of National Heroes Square, which is perhaps the first sign that life with Mother England wasn’t all cupcakes and scones with High Tea.

Sadly, while the colonial wars never took place, the oppression and slavery did.

Without an indigenous population to deal with, the Brits moved people in. Amerindians from Guiana  to begin with and then “indentured servants,” a kind of slavery in itself, from England and Northern Ireland.

The next twist in the undeniably twisted tale just goes to show how intertwined we all are – and how far-reaching political decisions that exile people can be.
Bridgetown 001

Centuries before the “discovery” of Barbados, religious wars across the Iberian Peninsula led to the defeat of the Islamic Moors by the Catholic Christians and the expulsion of many Jewish communities. Fleeing persecution throughout Spain, Jews brought their skills to Holland and thence to Brazil as more persecution followed. When anti-Semitism drove them from Brazil, they travelled east and further east along the Caribbean islets to settle in Barbados. They brought with them not only European milling expertise but also the technical and financial know-how for harvesting sugar cane.

The sugar revolution arrived – and with it an overpowering economic need for manpower.

The answer, from an economic point of view, was the explosion of the slave trade.

Bridgetown 007

Between 1627 and 1807 some 387 000 slaves were removed from today’s Nigeria and Ghana and deposited on the shores of Barbados. Thousands perished en route, thousands were traded on to Jamaica and the Carolinas and plenty more remained on Bajan land.

Their life expectancy, if they ever made it this far, was an exhaustingly brief eight years.

From an economic point of view, this was a staggering success. The island of Barbados had become one of Britain’s most valuable and profitable resources: an empty land completely repurposed into a moneymaking machine. Ethics, it would seem, simply interfered with good business.

Until you take a closer look.

Amid palm trees and exuberant Caribbean sunshine, Bridgetown’s UNESCO recognised Garrison does just that. It details the natural history of the island, life as a British soldier here, the branding of slaves, the lost Amerindian history, and the discovery of rum.

A little of everything, really. Including the abolition of slavery.

Where once again, Barabados surprised me. Once again, Barbados was different.

Bridgetown church

To be continued…

Disclosure: I was able to bring this series to you thanks to my wonderful sponsors who let me explore Barbados and write about whatever interested me. They are Tropical Sky who arrange holidays in luxury resorts, The Club Barbados Resort And Spa right next to Sandy Lane (part of Elite Island Resorts) and the Barbados Tourist Board. Three cheers for supporting artistic endeavours!

Linda February 12, 2013

This is so fascinating (so lucky to be able to write about what you want to write about!). Learning more about the history of the Canary Islands sparked an interest for me in sugar, which lead to me to the Docklands Museum in London last year to try to learn more. I’m reading Matthew Parker’s “The Sugar Barons” at the moment….no-one would believe the affects on the world of this one (and not really all that necessary) commodity. Can’t wait for the next post!!

Abi King February 12, 2013

Yes – ever so lucky to have such freedom. And such a fascinating history…I’ll keep an eye out for that book. It would be good to learn more…

Matthew Karsten February 13, 2013

Well you’ve certainly got me interested now. Never knew much about the history of Barbados. An 8 year life-expectancy? That’s incredibly messed up…

    Abi King February 17, 2013

    Yes…absolutely awful. What a waste.

Fiona Flores Watson February 13, 2013

Fascinating – who would have guessed that Sephardic Jews brought sugar cane to Barbados via Holland and Brazil! A real eye-opener as ever, thank you Abi.

    Abi King February 17, 2013

    I know – I was so surprised! The world is more interconnected than we can imagine, I think.

      Linda February 17, 2013

      And even more than you possibly might think, because I just read last night that a hundred years before that first date i.e. in the 16th century, the Portugese were buying slaves in Benin, Congo and even Angola and exchanging them for gold on the “Gold Coast.” So there is possibly an irony in that the people who bought and used slaves became slaves themselves, or that they were selling on the descendents of the slaves they’d bought in earlier times. The more I learn the more complicated I realize the slavery trade was. Simultaneously with The Sugar Barons I’m reading John Reader’s “Africa” (bad habit, I know, but it’s a huge book & I have to take it slow), so your current posts are adding layers to what I’m learning. It is a riveting story.

Gayla~ February 17, 2013

This is fascinating historical information. I moved from the US to the Netherlands five years ago and really embaced learning the history of my new home, but did not know about this connection with Barbados. I’m fascinated to learn more about the sugar industry on the island and it’s Dutch/Jewish roots. Disturbing, though, to think of how so much wealth and prosperity came about as a result of the abuse and oppression of humans…and that it continues even today in many places.
Thanks for this post, I look forawrd to the next installment.

    Abi King February 19, 2013

    It reminds me of Balzac’s quote (reinvigorated by the Godfather)

    “Behind every great fortune there lies a crime…”

Lyn March 8, 2013

As a Barbadian, I suggest you visit the recently completed Jewish Museum and recent discovery of a Jewish Bath in Bridgetown. Other books that are fascinating are “To Hell or Barbados” about the deportation of white English ‘slaves’ to Barbados during Cromwell’s time. Book published in 1700’s written by Richard Ligon – this details the day to day life in Barbados. There is also another book called the Redlegs of Barbados. BBC did a documentary on them.There is so much more to Barbados than sea, sand, sun and black slavery. Explore the historical ties between Barbados and Carolina, Boston, Maryland. I love this ‘rock’ as we call our island.

    Abi King March 30, 2013

    I would absolutely love to do all those things. I was fascinated to find out that Barbados was on the main transport route to the east coast present day US for a long time too. As you say, that brought historical ties and a really interesting blend of influences. I’ll have to hope I get the chance to go back and spend more time exploring…

ghostleopard October 11, 2013

What a load of hogwash, why would you begin with 1625? There wasn’t ANYONE there? Did you forget to leave out WHY there wasn’t anyone left? What happened to the “Amerindians”? Read your history lady before you go on representing half truths on the internet. Barbados was inhabited by Arawaks and Caribs at the time of European colonization of the Americas in the 16th century. Frequent slave-raiding missions by the Spanish Empire in the early 16th century led to a massive decline in the Amerindian population of Barbados so that by 1541 a Spanish writer could claim they were “uninhabited”. It is also a well known fact that Spain and Britain engaged in “treaties” with each other, often trading land and slaves.

    Lydia May 17, 2014

    Thank you GhostLeopard. I was wondering who was going to educate her. Her facts (I couldn’t believe what I was reading….) and writing style irked me so much. My family are from Barbados and I was searching the net for information about my country and learned so much until I came across this.

      Abi King May 18, 2014

      I’m afraid I can’t see any basis for why you are both so angry (except for the fact that you don’t like my writing style – that’s fair enough.)

      If you read the article (including the part one referenced on this page) it’s explained why the story begins in 1625. And that frames the whole what and why of the piece.

      It also doesn’t forget to mention the people who lived there before – they are referenced several times. It doesn’t tell their whole story – because you can’t tell everyone’s whole story in one short piece.

      As for the facts? Well, they were triple referenced against the UNESCO-backed museum in Barbados and interviews with the staff, interviews with a local historian and author of the definitive book on the history of Bridgetown and then further checked with the archives of prominent newspapers in the UK and US.

      You could have just come here and said – “what’s even more interesting is to expand on what happened before the British ‘officially arrived’ ” for example and I would have happily joined in on the subject (I have researched that too.)

      So, thanks for popping by but I wish you had done your reading first too.

      Next time, it would be great if you could engage in a more respectful way.

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