Freedom & Slavery in Barbados. It’s Not Black & White

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The Club, Barbados

My room has the perfect view. At dawn, sparkle spills across the ocean as the sun breathes life into the space of another day. Before twilight, she blazes behind the choreography of clouds to the crescendo of sunset and throughout the day the water forms a canvas for me to watch the world go by. A small sailboat, gleaming white. A painted “tomahawk” chugging ahead by the efforts of a small motor and a man whose shoulders slope down and seem to have done so for year upon year.

I see jet skis. A man, alone. He wades between the rocks, clasping nets against his chest, searching for fish. Birds – small, brown and swift – flit in and out across the balcony, scattering sachets and their torn components across the floor at every startle.

I press my fingertips into the white crumbs they leave behind.

Sugar. The very crop that explains Barbados. Or at least that explains why we’re all here.

I look back out at the perfect view. And I think about this room.

Outside, there are two choices. Turn left to the groomed, tamed and tan beach of the celebrity-studded Sandy Lane Hotel. Turn right to reach across the rocks to a different stretch of sand.

I turned right.

On the east coast of the island, waves pound the shore. Here on the west are all the best beaches. Here, the water seems to loosen its tie, slip off its shoes, reach for the paper and maybe even think about a cup of tea.

Barbados, it would seem, hits the laid back Caribbean vibe with a strong splash of British reserve. And I’m about to find out why.

Just footsteps from my room at The Club, I reach a special stretch of water. Still, stodgy and wearing more than a hint or two of brown it leads inland from the seafront to an incongruously named place called Holetown.

This spot, this saggy stretch of water, marks the sand where the British first arrived – and where I learned to readjust my opinion of colonial history.

The man to make that happen was Morris Greenidge, a man who researches Bajan history in depth and who leads walking tours in his spare time.

Slavery in Barbados

Here’s how the story usually goes. Colonial power arrives, slaughters the native population, rapes and pillages at whim, and ships in slaves from Africa.

Life is miserable.

Eventually, the oppressed revolt, kick out the imperial *******s and live happily ever after. Apart from in a few spots like India and Pakistan. And Northern Ireland and America. But we’re drifting away from the point…

And the point is this: that Barbados has a different story.

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Slavery in Barbados - mill
The last mill in Barbados?


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.


The Slavery Problem

The problem, if you happened to be a slave owner, was that slaves just kept on dying. It was bad for business. Arguably, this also caused problems if you happened to be a slave, but with no money, possessions, healthcare, family, freedom, vote, and only an eight year life expectancy, as a slave in Barbados you had plenty of problems rather than just the one or two.

For slave owners, the equation was simpler. Slave deaths required fresh imports. And fresh slave imports cost money.

At some point, some bright spark with a better head for economics than philanthropy realised that more money could be made by shipping in a few more women and then raising the standard of living. The island could prosper enormously by growing their own slaves for less – and so that’s what they did.

Unlike many other Caribbean islands, Barbados wasn’t just made up of slave owners, slaves and oppressed natives. Barbados also had a free but impoverished white population as a hangover from the days of indentured servitude (a kind of short term slavery with forced relocation and labour until debts were paid off) and a settled Jewish population fleeing from persecution.

In short, a population available for policing, teaching and providing healthcare. And no-one with a passionate drive to reclaim Barbados as their “home.”

Women slaves arrived, life expectancy increased – and Barbados duly prospered.

Chattel House Barbados
Today it’s chic. Back then, these chattel houses were so called because they had to be portable so that slaves could move their homes to suit the plantations

The Abolition of Slavery

By the time the talk of abolitionism came around, Barbados was primed to promote the idea:

–        They wouldn’t lose their workforce since they’d grown their own

–        They had enough poor white folk to police the newly freed blacks

–        Their island lacked volcanoes, deep caves and forests for newly freed slaves to hide in or gather an army. Plus, it was an island. Hard to escape from without means…

–        And finally, slave owners received flipping great wodges of cash from the British government to “compensate” them for their losses.

At least, that’s the cynical view. In my outline of events here, I’d like to pause and show some respect towards those who could have preserved their own power instead of pursuing the end of slavery. And even more respect to those who were slaves and who rose up in rebellion to try to change their fate.

Ultimately, though, a combination of diplomacy and economic pragmatism had the final say.

Barbados History Plaque

Barbados was the only one of the British Caribbean islands to support the abolition of slavery.

Barbados was the only one of the British Caribbean islands to support the abolition of slavery

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…

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.



Thank you to my lovely sponsors:

Flying out with Virgin Atlantic thanks to Tropical Sky, experts in luxury holidays and resorts.

Staying at “The Club Barbados Resort and Spa ” on the West coast of Barbados thanks to Elite Island Resorts.

Plus some added adventure courtesy of Barbados Tourism.

As to what I say here…Well, that’s never up for grabs. I say what I like. See the exciting disclosure doo-da…

More About Travel in the Caribbean

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