Vive la Républic!
Updated: May 29
”The interior is of glaring turquoise and metallic purple. Music blares constantly and they drive fast”
We’ve been making good use of the awesome buses this week to travel around the world’s newest republic in a less tiring fashion than by bicycle. The exterior of the buses is bright yellow. The interior is of glaring turquoise and metallic purple. Music blares constantly and they drive fast. The drivers are accompanied by a younger colleague who yells out of the window all the places they are going to and comes round to collect the fare. They stop and wait for people who are running up the road. All in all, it is a fun place to be a bus driver, they must have plenty of job satisfaction. On these fabulous buses we have trundled north up the west coast, visiting Holetown and Speightstown and to Bathsheba on the wilder wind-exposed east coast.
Holetown is the ‘posh’ part of Barbados about halfway up the western coast with lovely beaches and awesome snorkelling. Palatial homes, one of which seemed to be a full size replica of the Roman Pantheon and fancy hotels overlooked parts of the beach. However, we found a shady area under some trees and alternately sunbathed and swam as we got too hot. Another time we travelled further north up to Speightstown. It was known as “Little Bristol” until the 19th century because of the direct trade in sugar produced by slaves between these two cities. On a wall adjacent to the beach is an incredible mural entitled “The Bridge of Tides.” A 3D optical illusion, you feel as though you are peering through the holes of a crumbling bridge at glimpses of Barbados’s past. These glimpses include Harrison’s Caves with their glinting stalagmites and stalactites, Barbadian green monkeys, Amerindians, slave ships, the raising of the flag at independence and national heroes first Prime Minister Errol Barrow and cricketer Sir Garfield Sobers. The detail is really spectacular. We had some drinks - first in the legendary Fisherman’s pub to watch the sunset and then in the beach bar next door where they had live music - not Rihanna unfortunately, but pretty fun all the same.
But what was that giant object obscuring our clear view of the water? A huge grey megayacht complete with helicopter and numerous little motorboats seemingly being spawned from its underbelly. As the sun went down, the name of the boat lit up in giant capital white letters on the side of the boat, “FLYING FOX”. I took to Google to find out more about it. It turns out it was built in 2019 and is the world’s largest charter yacht at 136m long. On board it has a cryosauna, dive centre and personal submarine. If you fancy renting it, prices start at €3,000,000 per week. The real owner is of course a mystery, although it is associated with various Russian oligarchs, and it cost a reported $400 million to buy. The next night in Bridgetown the Flying Fox appeared again, anchored far out behind us before disappearing in a glow of lights.
Our next bus trip was to the east coast to the town of Bathsheba. The bus brought us through huge tropical cliffs and descended towards the shore with an amazing view of the blue water from the top. We had optimistically brought one of our inflatable paddleboards in the hopes that we could surf, but rocks reach all the way to the shore and in any case the waves were too big for amateurs like us. We walked along the beach admiring the giant rocks along the beach, eroded into magical mushroom shapes by the wave action on the bottom of the rocks. We sunbathed on the sandy beach and then lay in the shallows in the water in little rock pools, ebbing and flowing with the gentle force of the waves. Apparently Bathsheba gets its name from the famed Queen who bathed in milk. The white foam of the breaking surf on the rocks along this beach is reminiscent of this milk.
So what’s in a name? A visit to the Barbados Museum and Historical Society housed at the nineteenth century garrison in Bridgetown helped me find out more about this island, which is littered with colonial names. Carlisle Bay, where we are currently anchored, is named after Lord Carlisle, who claimed Barbados in 1627 on behalf of King Charles I. The loss of royalist forces and beheading of King Charles led to the creation of England’s short lived republic under Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. At the time, Barbados supported the royalists against Cromwell and wanted to be able to trade freely with the Dutch. As Barbadian historian Karl Watson* notes, “it is more than ironic” that the ruling class slave owning Barbadians raged against the “slavery” they felt was being imposed on them by Cromwell’s imperialism. Naturally, tiny Barbados’s attempts at independence were futile and defeat by Cromwell’s fleet led to surrender in January 1652 in the Charter of Barbados.
This wasn’t the only influence that Cromwell had on Barbados. Those of Irish heritage will probably be well aware of Cromwell’s brutality in Ireland. However, there is also a strong connection to Barbados. When I first arrived here, I remarked to Luciano how the distinctive accent sounded a bit Irish to me and an Anglo-Irish friend of mine had already told me of the links between Ireland and Barbados. In the 1650s thousands of Irish Catholic military prisoners were sold to plantation owners in Barbados as slaves or indentured servants. Widows and children of the war were also shipped here. In 1655 runaway African and Irish slaves began attacking local militia forces and fomented rebellions against plantation owners across the island. Many fled to the French owned islands or joined gangs to become pirates of the Caribbean. By the end of Cromwell’s regime, large scale transportations of the Irish stopped and the Irish indentured servants were mostly freed by 1680.**
Unfortunately for slaves of African heritage, they had to wait until 1834 for ‘freedom’ and the period immediately after abolition, known as ‘apprenticeship’ led to an often even more brutal period. As the museum makes clear, on an island where black people outnumbered white by four to one, an effective system of apartheid was implemented to maintain control. Black slaves had to abide by strict rules to stamp down on their culture and freedom, such as being forbidden to be out after dark without a pass, to own property, marry, or play drums. This didn’t stop a strong legacy of African culture in Barbados both during the time of slavery and today. For example, the African practice of burials with the person’s head facing towards the east and being buried with meaningful objects was one that slaves practiced. Today, African heritage is evident in culinary tradition, such as cou-cou (cornmeal and okra) and conkies (a Bajan sweet treat steamed in banana leaves made to celebrate independence day in November) and the Barbadian festival of Crop Over, a harvest festival which originated on the sugar cane plantations during slavery, culminating in Kadooment Day, which celebrates the original slavery emancipation day of August 1 1834.
The seventeenth century also saw the English exploitation of another group in Barbados - Amerindians. Original inhabitants of Barbados, they had left the island by 1500, most likely due to environmental reasons. Descendants were brought back by the English as slaves from Guyana. Remnants of the original inhabitants survives in the material record here dating from about 2000BC. Some of the artefacts include zemis - representations of animist ancestral spirits in the form of humans or animals. Shamans and chiefs would have left food and psychoactive drugs on the flat surfaces of these zemis and would have fasted and inhaled the drugs in order to commune with these spirits. One of these spirits was called Atabeyra - Mother of the Sea. She was the supreme female spirit of human fertility and childbirth and was represented either as a woman or a frog in pots dedicated to her. Pottery making was a female activity and was highly artistic and expressive. The long term legacy of the Karifuna (Carib) and Lokono (Arawak) Amerindian peoples includes in relation to language - e.g. the word hurricane comes from the Amerindian word ‘huracan’.
Despite becoming independent in 1966, Barbados had retained the Queen as Head of State, until 30 November last year. Barbados has a long history of freedom fighting, from the 1816 slave rebellion to pioneering figures, such as the returning WWI soldier Cornell Wickham, and politicians Grantley Adams and Errol Barrow. However, as the Bajan poet Edward Kamau Brathwaite said, “it is not enough to be free of the whips, principalities and powers.”*** Barbados may have only just rid itself of a symbol of its slaveholding and colonial past in the form of the British monarchy, but the History museum is doing a good job of enunciating Barbadian heritage and culture. It works with schools, educating the local children about their African roots, with a focus on the great African kingdoms of Mali, Egypt, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe and the original Amerindian inhabitants and their influence on Barbadian culture. Perhaps the greatest ambassador of this most modern republic is the most famous Bajan of them all and world’s richest female musician - Rihanna - born to an Afro-Guyanese mother and Barbadian of Afro-Irish heritage father. She was declared a ‘National Hero’ of Barbados on the first day of the declaration of the republic. As a billionaire, she is far richer than the Queen and unlike the Queen, is entirely self-made.
* Watson, Dr Karl, The Civil War in Barbados, 2011, BBC
** ‘Shipped for the Barbadoes’: Cromwell and Irish migration to the Caribbean, History Ireland Issue 4 Jul/Aug 2008: Vol. 16
*** Brathwaite, Edward Kamau, The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy, 1973
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