Doing History in Barbados (part 3)

This blog post was written by Matteo Carignani di Tolve and Jon Minter, students on Will Pettigrew’s undergraduate history excursion to Barbados. 

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With a packed day of places to visit the students finished their breakfast and promptly set off to explore the east coast of the island. An off road track led us to our first destination, an abandon house modeled on the old plantation houses. The house which overlooked a beautiful beach highlighted the contrast between the natural beauty of the island and its sinister past. The house itself, demonstrated the objective of the Barbadian planter; to portray a life and status of grandeur and power. Its Roman arched walkways highlight not only the wealth of the planters, their grandeur, but also the reminder of that great powerful republic of Rome, a republic built upon the backs of slaves. Despite its lavishness, the house had fallen into disrepair, the walls peeling, beams scattered across the floor, and the absence of any windows or roof.

Upon leaving the abandoned plantation house we travelled to Codrington College, today linked with the West Indian university’s theology courses. Before being a college however, it was one of the wealthiest plantations in Barbados. In contrast to the abandoned plantation house, visited in the morning, Codrington Colleges’ splendor remains present for all to see. More importantly however was learning of the relationship this ex-plantation and one of the Oxford colleges. This demonstrates the lasting impact of slavery in Barbados, and the harrowing evidence of the exploitation of the islands natural resources and people, by British plantation owners and institutions.

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A long and bumpy climb up the hills which offered the students a spectacular view of the entire east coast. After pausing for the necessary panoramic photographs, we arrived at St John’s Parish which was situated atop of the hill. St John’s Parish is splendid church with wonderful views of the island, however once we entered the church itself a different history was presented to us. Situated next to the Pew, memorials had been erected to the former plantation owners who had built the church in. St John’s Parish reaffirmed the connection between slavery and religion. Yet also raised questions to how people who saw themselves as morally righteous could partake in the heinous institution of slavery. Seeing the memorial to former plantation owners was a harrowing experience, and it was quite disturbing to see that they were seen to be good people. Although we gave come across this view in our readings this year, seeing it personally was an enlightening experience and greatened our understanding of the institution of slavery.

The group arrived at St Nicholas Abbey, a former plantation house formerly owned by the ancestors of Benedict Cumberbatch. With a few minutes before the tour of the house began the group went to see a fully functioning sugar cane presser, where workers were grinding sugar cane. Physically seeing the process of making sugar, was a real eye opener and highlighted to us the difficulty and physical toll that it took to produce sugar. Those working today use machinery to collect and produce sugar, the plantation house which maintained the original furniture in the house, emphasized the wealth that plantation owners had managed to generate for themselves through slavery. However, despite this display of wealth, the tour guide didn’t really focus upon the plantations dark history of slavery. Reaffirming the sentiment felt at William Pettigrew’s talk on Wednesday, the seeming absence of slavery’s impact upon Barbadian identity, was demonstrated throughout the tour.

As the rain began to descend, we weren’t complaining it was still warm and was wonderful relief from the baking sun. Tucked away in Farley Hill National Park, there was an abandon plantation house. Although the house was in disrepair with forestry taking over the structure, in its day it would have been a splendid house. The house was a real power symbol and once again was evidence of the power and wealth that plantation owners wished people to see. There was a vantage point that allowed us to gaze down to the coast. It was a wonderful view and it was easy to imagine seeing the coast covered in trading and slave boats in the 18th and 19th century. With the group beginning to tire after a long day, we called it a day.

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