- Historic Sites
Barbados: Gateway To America
It offers all the pleasures of a warm-weather escape plus a rich serving of history
February/March 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 1
The open house was particularly agreeable because of the friendly, casual atmosphere that surrounded it. People strolled the lawn, sipping at complimentary rum punch and engaging newcomers in conversation.
Later, at an open-air concert, I caught another updated glimpse of the Barbadian society George Washington had so easily attached himself to. Taking place on the grounds of a former plantation house, the Holders Season is an annual concert series held in March and April. Last year’s programs included a cleverly staged hybrid of words and music called “An Evening with Mr. Mozart and Dr. Haydn,” which I attended.
It had grown dark by seven, when the first notes drifted through trees and shrubs wrapped in tiny pinpoint lights. Because of the early hour, most of the audience came supplied with champagne on ice and hampers of food. Everybody sat on simple plastic chairs, but I could see that most of the rows of seats were labeled and reserved. Names like Bank of Montreal, Barclays, Price Waterhouse, and Ernst and Young showed that modern Barbados, more prosperous and stable than most of its neighbors, is the Caribbean’s business center of choice.
One day, driving along a narrow country road, I saw a satellite dish growing out of the top of an old stone sugar mill, one of hundreds of surviving mills that testify to Barbados’s central role in the profitable sugar and rum trades. Barbados’s stately homes are another reminder. In North America three mansions remain from the Jacobean period, and two are in Barbados. One of these, St. Nicholas Abbey, still has a family member living in part of the house, but the ground floor and outbuildings are open to the public on weekdays.
The romantically gabled St. Nicholas Abbey is filled with furnishings favored by generations of inhabitants, including some very eccentric late Victorian pieces. Also on display are records from an earlier time of the plantation’s property: its horses, its china, and its slaves.
The high point of a visit is an eight-mm 1935 film, screened several times a day in the former stables. The narrator, the present owner, explains that he uncovered this treasure made by his father only in 1980, never having previously known of its existence. It is a haunting and skilled amateur record of his father’s trip out from England to stay at St. Nicholas Abbey. We see the plantation manager in white suit and pith helmet riding out to survey the workers: women wielding hoes and barefoot children helping cut the cane as it has been cut for more than three hundred years in this very place. Later the owner is rowed out to a waiting ship that sails for England.
The visible record of Barbados’s history is growing all the time. An impressive new project of the National Trust is the Tyrol Cot Heritage Village, an assembly of reconstructed historic buildings set on three beautifully landscaped acres. The centerpiece, for which the village is named, is an 1854 structure, the first house museum on the island to salute a black patriot. Sir Grantley Adams, Barbados’s first premier, lived here for sixty years starting in 1929. (His son also became premier but died in office.) A tour through the house acquaints the visitor with Adams as the island’s most important political leader, known as the Father of Democracy, whose career reached from 1937 to 1960 and who in many ways struck me as his nation’s FDR.
Other buildings on the site include a replica or a slave hut, a working blacksmith’s shop, an old-fashioned rum shop (a Barbados bar and hangout), and many crafts shops. These last are housed in examples of the island’s indigenous architectural form, the chattel house, tiny but often finely proportioned cottages that sprang up after the days of slavery. When those who worked the land as sharecroppers had to be ready to pick up and leave, they could disassemble their houses and put them up elsewhere. You still see chattel houses all over the island. Since their inhabitants usually now own the land they stand on, the structures have been expanded and improved.
It might seem that I deliberately made my way through Barbados without giving a moment to sun, sea, and sand. Not true, but I took them in small measures and with caution. Relentless heat often drove me into shade, when I could find it. “I am obliged to ride out by the first dawn of day,” Lawrence Washington told his father-in-law, “for by the time the sun is half an hour high, it is as hot as at any time of the day.” Things must have been starting to pall for the Washingtons when Lawrence wrote: “This is the finest island of the West Indies, but I own no place can please me without a change of seasons. We soon tire of the same prospect. Our bodies are too much relaxed. … We have no kind of bodily diversion but dancing.” The Barbados of today offers many more diversions.