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Garrison Historic Area Gold Cup Races

3rd March 2017

Discovering the Past in Barbados Museum, a Swim at Dover Beach and a Night at Oistins Fish Fry

    A heavy downpour served as an alarm call in the morning, and I rescued my washing off the line before the next downpour of the day engulfed the street. The wind and heat soon rendered the streets dry again.
    The builders slowly arrived in dribs and drabs for their daily toil; there seemed to be no fixed start and end time on the building site. The two large cranes that towered over the hotel development site lazily rotated on their spindly legs, not unlike their avian counterparts, delivering concrete and other materials across the site. I was impressed that they kept working despite the ravages of wind and downpours that battered them. The next fleet of European aircraft were still traversing the Atlantic, probably crossing the Azores at this time of day.
Barbados Museum & Historical Society
    We needed another dose of culture today, so we headed off to the Barbados Museum & Historical Society, sited within the Garrison Historic Area. It was once the home of the former British Military Prison, built in 1818, and extended in 1853. The building, based on West Indies Georgian architecture, became the Headquarters of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society in 1930.
    The museum's exhibits are displayed in a series of galleries set in former cells, covering the history of the island, the colonial era, slavery, emancipation, the military, geography, nature, rare historical maps, and 18th century plantation house furniture.
    The Jubilee Gallery set the scene of the early development of the island. The earliest inhabitants were the Amerindians who were settled in the area between 350 to 650AD. They had arrived from Venezuela. Paddling long dugout canoes, they crossed a narrow sea channel from the Orinoco Basin, called the Dragon's Mouth, which acts as a funnel to the Caribbean Sea and the nearest island of Trinidad. A second wave of settlers, the Arawaks, appeared around the year 800. The Arawaks were short, olive-skinned people who bound their foreheads during infancy to slope it into a point. They considered this along with black and white body painting to be attractive. They were an agricultural people and grew cotton, cassava, corn, peanuts, guavas, and papaws (papaya). In the mid-13th century, the Arawaks were conquered by the Caribs. The Caribs were a taller and stronger Amerindian tribe than the Arawaks, and were politically more organised. The Caribs in turn abandoned the island close to the arrival of the first Europeans.
    The Portuguese visited the island in 1536, en route to Brazil. It was at this time that the island was named Los Barbados (bearded-ones) by the Portuguese explorer Pedro a Campos. It was so named, presumably, after the island's fig trees, which have a beard-like appearance.
    The English first landed on the island on 14th May 1625 under the command of Captain John Powell. The island was therefore claimed on behalf of King James I. On 17th February 1627, Captain Henry Powell landed with a party of 80 settlers and 10 slaves to occupy and settle the island. This expedition landed in Holetown, formerly known as Jamestown. The colonists established a House of Assembly in 1639. It was the third ever Parliamentary Democracy in the world.
    People with good financial backgrounds and social connections with England were allocated land. Within a few years much of the land had been deforested to make way for tobacco and cotton plantations. During the 1630s, sugar cane was introduced to the agriculture. The production of sugar, tobacco and cotton was heavily reliant on the indenture of servants. White civilians who wanted to emigrate overseas could do so by signing an agreement to serve a planter in Barbados for a period of 5 or 7 years. To meet the labour demands, servants were also derived from kidnapping, and convicted criminals were shipped to Barbados. Descendants of the white slaves and indentured labour (referred to as Red Legs) still live in Barbados. They live amongst the black population in St. Martin's River and other east coast regions. At one time they lived in caves in this region.
Flowers in Barbados Museum Courtyard
    In my background reading before I came to the island, I read a fascinating book titled "To Hell or Barbados" by Sean O'Callaghan. This book covered Oliver Cromwell's ethnic cleansing of Ireland. Between 1652 and 1659, over 50,000 Irish men, women and children were transported to Barbados and Virginia to become white slaves. They acquired the name Red Legs or Red Shanks because their legs were burned red in the unaccustomed sunshine. "The church on Sunday reflected the daily organisation of the social hierarchy. White planters sat in the pews closest to the altar, then the white petite bourgeoisie (plantation functionaries such as overseers, book-keepers, etc.), then the black petite bourgeoisie (the local school masters, civil servants, etc.), then the black folk, and in the pews closest to the door the Red Legs, poor white Johnnies in the back row.". The Red Legs thus also gained "the name Poor Bakro because they were only allowed in the back rows. This was a cause for the black slaves to deride them.". As time went by, many were assimilated into the population, but some isolated pockets on the eastern side of the island still shun strangers, resorting to pitch forks if necessary to preserve their privacy.
    The initial establishment of tobacco, cotton and indigo production slipped by the wayside when it was realised that the U.S. southern states were producing those goods more economically. The Bajan climate and soil was ideally suited to sugar cane. The Bajans dominated the Caribbean Sugar Industry in these early years. Indeed Barbados is widely regarded as the first British colony to undergo a "Sugar Revolution," meaning that the entire island's resources (land and labour) were committed to sugar production by the mid-1640s. This was helped by the sugar plantation owners, who were powerful and successful businessmen who had arrived in Barbados in the early years. However, by 1720, Bajans were no longer a dominant force within the sugar industry. They had been surpassed by the Leeward Islands and Jamaica.
    After slavery was abolished in 1834, many of the new citizens of Barbados took advantage of the superb education available on the island. After these citizens had been educated, they wanted something more than working in the cane fields. Some of them gained prominent offices in Barbados. Others worked in common jobs, and still others stayed in the cane fields. A 4-year apprenticeship period was introduced, during which free men continued to work a 45-hour week without pay in exchange for living in the tiny huts provided by the plantation owners. Another interesting book I read, "In the Castle of my Skin" by George Lamming, gives an interesting glimpse of life on the island at this time. Freedom from slavery was celebrated in 1838 at the end of the apprenticeship period with over 70,000 Bajans of African descent taking to the streets with the Barbados folk song:

            "Lick an Lock-up Done Wid, Hurray fuh Jin-Jin (Queen Victoria).
            De Queen come from England to set we free
            Now Lick an Lock-up Done Wid, Hurray fuh Jin-Jin"

    Barbados was first occupied by the British in 1627 and remained a British colony until internal autonomy was granted in 1961. The island gained full independence in 1966, and maintains ties to the British monarch represented in Barbados by the Governor General. It is a member of the Commonwealth. The first leader of Barbados as a free nation was the Right Honourable Errol Walton Barrow, of the Democratic Labour Party.
    Unlike other Caribbean islands, Barbados maintains its sugar industry, although the majority of the economy is now based on tourism and offshore banking. The rate of condos being built along the western seafront is limited purely by the speed at which concrete dries.
    I found the historical traces in the Jubilee Gallery highly informative; I was totally absorbed by it. This gallery naturally led straight into the Harewood Gallery. This covered the ecology of the coral reef, of mangrove swamps and of sea grasses. The fishing industry, turtles and their protection and the harvesting of sea-eggs (urchins) are all examined in the exhibits and are all topics that continue to be relevant today. Emphasis is placed on increasing knowledge of Barbados' natural environment and its protection. Species of animals that are now extinct and those which are endangered are on display. The migratory birds which visit Barbados annually are also featured.
    This led on to the African Gallery, which explores the rise of early humanity and the geography, history and heritage of Africa and its legacy in the creation of Caribbean society. The exhibition entitled "Connections and Continuities" highlights the geographical and demographic diversity of the continent. Four outstanding African kingdoms were also covered, together with the symbols of power employed at both secular and religious levels.
    The Military Gallery details the historical development of the armed forces from the 17th century until the end of World War II. The gallery allowed one to view the significant military milestones of the island from militias utilised in the 17th century to the development of the Barbados Defence Force in the 1970s. The development of the second oldest regiment in the Commonwealth is covered, as is the island's development into the Headquarters of the British Navy and Army in the Caribbean in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the sacrifice of its people in both World Wars. Military regalia, armaments, medals and photographs and the list of names of those Bajan servicemen who lost their lives in World War I and II are all on display.
    Our final port of call in the museum was the Cunard Gallery, which features a wide collection of 65 prints bequeathed to the Museum by Sir Edward Cunard, a collector of West Indian prints. Some of the finest West Indian prints are those by military artists Lieut. J. H. Caddy, whose depictions of coastal and interior landscape scenes of St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Dominica and St. Kitts are skilfully executed in a picturesque series of coloured aquatints; and Lieut. J. M. Carters' series of ten lithographs which deal exclusively with Bajan landscape, typically of buildings, landscapes and street scenes mainly in and around the garrison area.
Barbados Museum Courtyard      (please use scroll bar)

    All three of us really enjoyed our visit to the museum, all gaining a much deeper insight into the island and its history from its many exhibits, displays and artefacts. A magnificent downpour rounded off our tour, and freshened us up for the rest of the day.
    A return to base for fried-egg and tomato sandwiches, and off we marched to Dover Beach for the afternoon. Rex and Meryl explained that the afternoon is not a bad time for the beach since many of the sun beds free up at that time of day. All beaches on the island are public beaches.
    The sea near the shore was a multitude of shades of turquoise and emerald green, with small breakers cascading toward the shore. I could not wait to wade into the water, it looked so inviting. It was deliciously warm without feeling like bath-water, and it was crystal clear with a sandy bottom. Off I swam towards the horizon without a care in the world, bliss. It was not long before I became aware of a strong current pushing me westerly, nothing to be alarmed about, but something to be aware of. I was hoping for lots of fish near the shore, but this stretch of coast was disappointing on that score.
     However, I did spot a couple of turtles just lurking below the surface. Barbados is home to a healthy population of hawksbill and leatherback turtles. Once endangered by over-fishing, these great creatures are now protected and monitored throughout the Island. In some areas the local fishermen feed and care for them, scraping barnacles of their backs and making sure that their nesting area is safe.
    The sky turned black, enhancing the sea's colour scheme further, and I enjoyed the sensation of being in the sea during a torrential downpour, twice in the space of an hour. Rex and Meryl cowered under the giant umbrellas by their sun beds, reading and snoozing, though how anybody could snooze through a Bajan downpour is beyond the wit of man.
    Surprisingly, the beach was not at all crowded. Rex thought this may have been due to the forecasted showery weather. Whatever, I totally enjoyed my first refreshing dip in the Caribbean, an exhilarating experience. Large airlines slowly glided over our heads down an invisible aisle through the clouds to the airport only a few miles away, their occupants wondering why they had left a rainy Europe for a rainy Barbados. The temperature contrast, 28 deg. C compared to 8 deg. C would have provided a degree of consolation.
Dover Beach      (please use scroll bar)

    Friday evening is always Oistins Fish Fry night, and we planned to visit. Named after Austin, the area's first landowner, Oistins is the island's main fishing port and boasts a modern jetty and busy fish market. It has a long history, and in 1652 a treaty was signed at its Mermaid Tavern that led to Barbados accepting the authority of Oliver Cromwell, the military commander and Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland.
    As we waited for a bus, a minibus taxi stopped, and a chap shouted through an open window from the cab, "Oistins, two dollars!" This was the same as the bus fare anyway, so we climbed in and joined a throng of other passengers all with the same idea.
    Shortly afterwards we all tumbled out onto the roadside by a line of stalls, and were immediately pestered by each and every stall holder, "Come and try our fresh fish, the best fish in Oistins!" We just carried on regardless past a dozen or so roadside stalls before diving into the interior of a small village worth of stalls and bars. Large crowds mingled between them all, it seemed as if most of the island was here, all searching for the best deal. Some stalls were crammed, others almost empty.
    Rex and Meryl had been here before, and knew exactly what stall they were heading for. With a twist here and a shimmy there, they soon located it, and boy was it crammed. There was a spare table, half under the awning. We quickly claimed it, but then the heavens opened, and a waterfall started to cascade down onto that very table. No way were we going to sit there. Fortunately, a couple vacated one of the tables under cover, leaving a small space. Nature abhors a vacuum, so a large waitress quickly ushered us into this small space, directing others to move along so that we could squeeze in.
    A couple from the Midlands sat opposite me, and alongside Rex and Meryl an American couple sat. The American chap had liberally covered his fish with Bajan sauce, and despite his weak efforts at grinning, was clearly under some distress from the fiery sauce. The Midlands couple had been here for five days, and were actually staying just around the corner from us. The chap was eating marlin and his wife flying fish. Meryl liked the look of the marlin, so that was her choice. Rex and I opted for grilled red snapper. All dishes arrived in a trice with a combination of rice, pasta and breadfruit, and were very tasty, though Rex found the breadfruit slightly bland. A young British couple replaced the American couple at the end of the table; they had managed to escape a set of parents for the evening. To add to the rapid turnover of clientele, our temporary Midlands friends left, to be replaced by another trio. We soon learned two of the trio were a married couple from Toronto, and their colleague came from St. Louis. Both the blokes worked for a company that insured other insurance companies, and they were here on business. It turned out that the chap from St. Louis moved there from Stoke Poges 30 years earlier. It was only then that I picked up traces of his English accent. Now this guy was a rather cocky chap, putting me down as a Yorkshireman, then as a Lancastrian. I explained that I lived in East Anglia, but had originated in Cumbria. He then waxed lyrical about how that area did not even exist when he left England. "It used to be Cumberland, and Cumbria evolved from Cumberland, Westmorland, and part of Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire," he drooled. This guy knew everything; I just let him get on with it. I could sense his Canadian chums just closed down and let the chap rant.
     We finished our meal as theirs arrived, and departed with a shake of the hands. I gave the ex-Brit a rather firm handshake, his weak Uriah Heep paw withered in my grip.
Domino Players
    Just outside to the rear was a group of small tables, each with four Bajan old salts around them earnestly playing dominoes. This was a deadly serious sport out here. The players would cast furtive glances at each other, banging their pieces down with some force, but at the same time chatting away amiably in some form of Bajan/Creole English that I could not readily follow. I asked the men at one table if I could take a photo of them, to which they gave me a quick visual inspection followed by a nod, and then they carried on.
    Rex and Meryl then took me around the arts and crafts stalls, which brought us to the verge of a dancing area. Here, a chap at a mixing desk the size of a table-tennis table, engineered reggae song after reggae song. Individuals appeared out of the mass surrounding the dance area and strutted their stuff. A couple of young Bajans were extremely agile, dancing and somersaulting around the patch which generated lots of excited approval from the Bajans in the audience. Occasional holidaymaker pairs would move in and jiggle about. I tried to encourage Rex and Meryl to join in and do their "thing", with no success, but Rex did his Mick Jagger impression off stage. He was quite good at that actually; pity I did not manage to record it, but I'll catch him out one day. Most of us around the perimeter just tapped our feet and swayed in unison with the beat. This was good, wholehearted fun. A burly policeman slowly ambled along the perimeter before standing guard over the proceedings.
    We returned to the main square in this village of stalls, where a large stage was permanently erected, and watched a couple of dozen folk on the stage cavorting to even more reggae music. I must admit I was expecting some Calypso music, but not here. Here, a large crowd was slowly gyrating to the music, a very civilised affair with a 50:50 mix of locals to holidaymakers. Meryl was approached by one young Bajan, a lad bedecked in red clothing and a rucksack. He wanted to become Rex and Meryl's butler. It took a while for my pals to extricate themselves from this potential "employee". I watched him try to hook up with all sorts of folk over the next half hour, to no avail.
    Once we'd had our fill of reggae, we returned to base for a well earned rest and kip.

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Garrison Historic Area Gold Cup Races
Last updated 19.4.2017