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History Happened Here

Barbados: Gateway To America

June 2024
6min read

It offers all the pleasures of a warm-weather escape plus a rich serving of history

Few travelers head for the Caribbean island to plumb its history, much less its American history. Escaping from winter’s blasts through sun, sea, and sand is the lure. Yet for some of us that’s not quite enough, and so the islands with the richest assortment of historical treasures catch our attention. Up there at the top is Barbados, the easternmost island of the Windward chain, lying sixteen hundred miles southeast of Miami, and on its eastern shore buffeted by the waves of the Atlantic Ocean.

A unique feature of Barbados’s history is Britain’s tenure as its sole colonizer, from the time the first English adventurers landed in 1620. Not here the talk of how many flags have flown in succession over disputed island territory, or stories of seventeenth- or eighteenth-century European warfare fetching up on these shores.

More recently, with new attention cast on the African background of the island’s dominant population, the mingling of cultures is seen to characterize and enrich Barbados. The island’s wonderful history museum, housed in an eighteenth-century military garrison, devotes a gallery to the vestiges of mostly West African culture—the languages, art, music, and crafts that “are living testimony to the strength of customs which have survived centuries of misunderstanding.”

And then there is the American connection. The island’s earliest ties to the North American colonies were those made by a royal grant from Charles II to eight aristocrats. These Lords Proprietors—wealthy Barbadian planters —were given title to about a thousand miles of the region then called simply Carolina. By the mid-1600s immigrants from Barbados began settling there; they named the first major port city Charlestowne.

In Barbados the plantocracy soon abandoned tobacco and cotton for sugar, the crop that would shape its history, and during much of the seventeenth century the island flourished as England’s richest colony, far surpassing the North American settlements. As younger sons and less fortunate Barbadians made their way north, Barbados became what one historian calls “the gateway to America.” The Proprietors and their agents, known as the Barbados Adventurers, forged family ties with the colonists of North America that survive to this day. By the end of the eighteenth century, emigrants from Barbados had set their stamp not only on the planter culture of the Carolinas but on Virginia and other tidewater regions. And when the nineteen-year-old George Washington accompanied his tuberculosis-stricken elder half-brother, Lawrence, in search of a healthful climate, they chose Barbados, where Lawrence’s wife had relatives. This was the only time the future President traveled outside the country.

For more than a century legend had it that the Washington brothers had occupied a house on Bay Street on the outskirts of Bridgetown, and cabdrivers would direct American tourists to the spot. Recent research has proved that the Washingtons stayed in another Bay Street structure, known as Bush Hill House. Until recently this belonged to the Barbados Light and Power Company, which gave it to the National Trust. Now a $1.3 million funding effort is under way to make it a museum.

Barbadians suspect that history might have pivoted on Washington’s visit. The future President caught a mild case of smallpox while on the island, which may well have immunized him against the disease, letting him live to fight another day when it later swept the Continental armies. “What is not well known,” writes a local historian, “is that George Washington came into contact with many Scottish born men … prominent in the mercantile community. The Scots were sympathetic to Bonny Prince Charlie’s fight against the English in 1745. …Were the seeds of breaking away from the mother country planted in Washington’s mind during his visit?”

Barbadian settlers forged family ties with American colonists that survive to this day.

Once the Bush Hill House museum opens, these and other ramifications of Washington’s stay will be laid out for the visitor. Meanwhile, we have his diary: “In the cool of the evening we rode out… to seek lodging in the country, as the Doctor advised and were perfectly enraptured with the beautiful prospects which every side presented to our view—the fields of cane, corn, fruit trees in a delightful green.” Lawrence’s condition worsened, and after two months they left the island, George sailing back to Virginia and Lawrence trying his luck in Bermuda. He finally returned home to die.

A first-time tourist can get a sense of the very merry life Washington lived in Barbados. The “hospitality and a genteel behavior” he noticed is evoked by visits to the many splendidly furnished homes that still stand. These great houses were the heart of former (and, in a few cases, present) sugar plantations that once covered the island.

I arrived last year at the end of March, just in time for the final open house of a series run for eight weeks by the National Trust. Highgate House, a fine melding of Georgian and Barbadian architecture, was on the tour for the first time. George Washington records a stay there: “We were invited to Mr. Carters and desired to make his house ours till we could provide lodgings agreeable to our wishes, which offer was accepted. …” As the National Trust’s pamphlet notes, the young Washingtons would have admired many of the same details, such as the dining room’s beautiful ceiling molding, that we see today.

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.

—Carla Davidson

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