Doing History in Barbados (part 2)

This blog post was written by Louise Dunn, a student on Will Pettigrew’s undergraduate history excursion to Barbados. 


After breakfast the students decided to spend the morning exploring the local beach and surrounding cliffs. The beach was rocky and the seas were rough as this beach faced the Atlantic Ocean but that didn’t stop some of the students attempt to battle the waves.


After getting our daily dose of Vitamin D, we caught a bus to the outskirts of Bridgetown in which we had planned to spend the afternoon exploring the Barbados Museum & Historical Society.  The museum had kindly organized us a private tour where they showed us around the various galleries. The original use of the building was a military prison; this is still evident through the many fixtures of the building. Our tour guide began explaining the history of the island, with the museum taking a chronological path. He began with explaining the flora and fauna of the island dating back to when the island was first discovered. One interesting anecdote related back to the colonial period whereby they attempted to control the pests of the island by introducing mongoose, however this backfired due to the pests being nocturnal and the mongoose not. Following this the tour guide moved onto the section dedicated to the history of the Amerindian population and their ways of life on the island. The guide mentioned how it was possible that trading between the West Indian islands occurred. However the section which was most related to our course was the section on slavery in the British colonial period. There was much focus on the emancipation of slaves and one song in particular was telling of the experiences in Barbados at the time. The song related to the celebration of emancipation with the freed slaves celebrating Queen Victoria and her apparent efforts in the humanitarian cause. However, it was pointed out that in relation to discussions throughout our course on the abolitionist movement, it can be argued that the emancipation of slaves were a result more of economic rather than humanitarian reasons, which was often overlooked at the time. The song was a good indicator of people’s perceptions on the island at the time of emancipation, and how they viewed Britain and its monarch. The rest of the tour concentrated on the more modern day times, looking at education, religion and law on the island as well as the culture, with our guide singing a couple of the local tales, which was rather entertaining (particularly the dancing!).


The group took a break for lunch before returning for a guest lecture with Dr. William Pettigrew! We were all pleased that we had the opportunity to squeeze some revision in as well as adding a new perspective to the discussions we had in class. The lecture was on Will’s prize-winning work on the Royal African Company and the politics of the Atlantic slavery. The lecture looked at the history of the Royal African Company and particularly its impact on the development of the plantations in Barbados in the 1670s and 80s. It was in high attendance with people from different backgrounds. The talk brought up an extremely heated and interesting debate about the legacy of slavery on the island. Although less focus was given to Will’s thesis itself it brought about significant points in which we may have overlooked in the past. One passionate individual took to questioning the economic prosperity of slavery in the British economy still to this day, which escalated into discussions on the legacy of slavery particularly in Barbados and amongst locals. There is a strong sense that the history of slavery on the island has been brushed under the carpet, with many feeling that there has been too much focus on the independence of the island. There was a general agreement that there needed to be more done to tell the history of slavery in its true form and for people to understand their identity. This identity can be found through their ancestors and efforts are beginning to be made in terms of archeology and trying to piece together as much of the history of the people of Barbados as possible. The discussion was heavily based around identity, and with one of our student’s being of British and Barbadian heritage she was quick to stand up and give her perspective on the identity of herself and her family in relation to Britain and the West Indies. This helped to break down the barrier between the students and those in attendance. Overall it was a very insightful lecture discussion and sparked conversations amongst the group on the walk back to the bus stop. The walk was a bit of a cultural experience and lets just leave it there!


It is fair to say that today has been a real thought provoking experience, and it was particularly interesting to have a debate amongst an audience, which we otherwise would not have encountered at Kent!

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