THUNDER BAY, ON - October 20, 2009 - A centuries-old document on exhibit at one of Barbados’s oldest plantation houses, St. Nicholas Abbey, was a stark reminder to me of the reality of slavery. The document was a chattel inventory, listing the plantation’s 184 slaves and carefully written beside each, their value in pounds. Here at the magnificent Abbey – and elsewhere on beautiful Barbados – the sensitive history of slavery is open and up-front.
Barbados (population 268,000+) is a fascinating mix of year-round tropical paradise (one of my top five travel destinations) with a rich vibrant fusion of African and British history and culture that goes back almost 400 years. Located just northeast of Venezuela, this small pear-shaped coral island – only 21 miles long and 14 miles wide – is the easternmost island of the Caribbean.
Already by 1660, about 40,000 settlers lived on Barbados, mainly English, Scottish and Irish. There were also over 1000 plantations, 500 windmills, and the busy port of Little Bristol (now Speighstown) that welcomed over 200 ships annually. From 1700s onward, slaves were in the majority, with 5 to 1 ratio.
To get an overview of Barbados history, I toured the three-storey Arlington House Museum located in the centre of Speighstown. Built in the 1750s for the merchant Skinner family (they had a lucrative business supplying schooners), it is now a state-of-the-art interactive museum chronicling Barbados history, a different theme and era on each floor. Ground floor (once the ship chancellery) is “Store Memories” with historic prints and photos depicting the island’s business life. The second floor (originally the living room) is “Plantation Memories”, telling the good, bad and everything-in-between about colonization, sugar and slavery. And the top floor theme of ‘’Wharf Memories” invokes a jetty scene when Speighstown was a busy ocean-trading hub known as “Little Bristol”. .
The next day I headed over to the magnificent St. Nicholas Abbey to get a glimpse of colonial life on a sugar cane plantation (it was never a religious order). Built in the 1650s, this beautiful mansion is the oldest English Jacobean house in the Western Hemisphere, and carries within it some fascinating tales of romance, intrigue, and murder (beginning with the builder/first owner wealthy Lt. Col. Benjamin Berringer who was poisoned by his partner and co-owner John Yeamons, so he could marry Benjamin’s wife, which he did.)
A self-guided tour is a great way to see why the Abbey is called a ‘’Treasure of the Caribbean”. Meander through the mansion (only one floor open to public), drink a complimentary rum punch on the terrace, and chuckle at the outside old communal bath house and four-seat lavatory. Behind the mansion are the Rum and Sugar Bond (aged Barbarian rum, sugar and molasses still made on-site), a theatre (the 20-minute 1935 film about St. Nicholas is riveting, well worth the time to watch), and a small museum (where the slave list was on exhibit).
The current owner is Bajan architect Larry Warren. I chatted with his wife Anne and was surprised to learn she was familiar with my home turf of Northwestern Ontario. It seems every year the Warrens fly to Kenora on the ‘’Bear” – affectionate name for Bearskin Airlines – to spend a few months at their Lake of the Woods camp. (More synchronicity – one of the pilots on my Westjet flight to Barbados was former Bearskin pilot, P. J. Joseph; he and his wife lived in Thunder Bay for four years.)
Stepping forward to the 21st century, Barbados has a world-class aviation museum in its Barbados Concorde Experience located in a huge hangar next to Grantley Adams International Airport. Featured inside is the actual British Airways Concorde G-BOAE (Alpha Echo) that flew every Saturday morning to Barbados from London (one of only four regular Concorde destinations). You can touch, feel and board the Alpha Echo, and sit in one of the 100 leather seats that passengers paid $8000 one-way to fly in.
“Flying at Mach 2.0 -- twice the speed of sound -- and cruising at 60,000 feet, the Concorde’s aluminum skin would stretch seven inches during flight,” said our guide Allison, who originally hails from Edmonton. “In November 2003, Alpha Echo was the last Concorde to fly over the Atlantic. It was also the only Concorde to ever fly through a hurricane.”
(Did you know the technology foundation for the Concorde was Canada’s supersonic Avro Arrow project, which was suddenly and mysteriously scrubbed in 1959 by the Diefenbaker government? Hm...wonder why after 50 years, the Canadian government files on the Avro are still classified, ‘’secret’‘?.)
Barbados is a great Caribbean destination for both relaxation (the beaches are awesome) and exploring interesting histories in its cultural treasures.
Arlington House Museum
St. Nicholas Abbey
Barbados Concorde Experience
Elle Andra-Warner is an award-winning journalist/photographer and best-selling author, based in Thunder Bay, Ontario. She is a member of TMAC, PWAC and TWUC. Her latest book is Edmund Fitzgerald: The Legendary Great Lakes Shipwreck.