Learn about the tragic history of the slave trade on Barbados and tour religious landmarks that celebrate its people’s strength.
Most visitors come to Barbados for its pristine beaches, turquoise waters, snorkeling, swimming with sea turtles, and tropical breezes. But after you’ve enjoyed these languorous pleasures, you can add to your appreciation of this Caribbean nation by diving into the island’s intriguing history and rich religious heritage.
My husband and I learned about Barbados history from The Characters of the Town, a company that offers tours of its capital city of Bridgetown, whose historic district is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site,
Bob and I already knew that Barbados has the closest ties to Great Britain of any Caribbean island. Here you can have afternoon tea at the Fairmont Royal Pavilion, for example, and then attend a cricket match or thoroughbred horse race. Cars drive on the left side of the road, the parliament meets in Neo-Gothic buildings, and a statue of the British naval hero Lord Nelson stands in its capital of Bridgetown (it’s actually older than the one in London’s Trafalgar Square).
But as we strolled with Dawn-Lisa Smith, the owner of the tour company, we learned that many cultures, not just the British, have shaped Barbados—and it in turn has had an influence on countries that include the United States.
“During the Colonial Era, Barbados was one of the wealthiest places in the British Empire,” said Smith. “It was so rich that it founded South Carolina as its own colony. George Washington came here as a young man and was influenced by its system of government, and the Boston Tea Party was inspired in part by our own agitation against British rule. For a small island, Barbados has had a surprisingly large influence on world history.”
As we walked the narrow, winding streets of Bridgetown, Smith spun a complex story. When the British arrived in 1625 the island was uninhabited, but the 21-mile island soon became a center for the slave trade and sugarcane production. Barbados was part of what became known as the Triangle Trade. Ships would sail from England to Africa with bricks for ballast. From there they’d head to Barbados, where they’d unload both the slaves and the bricks, then pick up barrels of rum that they’d take back to England.
Smith pointed out landmarks from that era, including warehouses that once housed enslaved people and buildings constructed from bricks used as ballast in slave-trade ships.
“All African slaves destined for any British territory in the Western Hemisphere first came to Bridgetown,” said Smith. “The growing of sugarcane depended upon their labor. And the plantation system that was developed in Barbados was later exported to the colonies in America.”
Smith has a passionate desire to share the history of her homeland with both visitors and with locals who may not know much about their own own heritage.
“When I was growing up, we didn’t learn much about our country’s role in the slave trade,” she said. “But it’s part of our past and it’s important that we remember it. We can’t change that sad history, but we can learn from it.”
We explored happier parts of the island’s history as well, including the beautiful grounds and stately buildings of Nidhe Israel, the oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere still in use. The site includes an historic mikvah (a ritual bath) and a museum that details Jewish history on the island, which began when Sephardic Jews arrived in Barbados in 1628 from Brazil.
We learned more about the religious history of the island at the James Street Methodist Church. The church is best-known for its association with Sarah Ann Gill, who fought for the abolition of slavery and freedom of religion in the early 1800s.
Born in 1795, Sarah Ann Gill was of mixed ancestry, with a black mother and a white father. Though she was a free woman, she experienced the racism that was endemic in Barbados at that time. As part of her fight against discrimination, she became a Methodist, a denomination active in the movement to abolish slavery.
The Methodist Church was not welcomed by the white-dominated Church of England on the island, which included many of the plantation owners.When a mob destroyed the Methodist chapel in Bridgetown, Sarah Ann offered her own house as a meeting place. The authorities harassed her and she received many threats against her life, but she stood up for religious freedom and for the anti-slavery cause. Her activism created such a stir that word of it reached the House of Commons in England, which in 1825 extended the rights of religious toleration to all of His Majesty’s dominions.
Standing at her grave behind the James Street Methodist Church, I was pleased to hear that in 1998, Sarah Ann Gill was named as of the ten official National Heroes of Barbados, the only woman to be so honored.
“We still honor her legacy here in Barbados,” Smith said. “We haven’t forgotten her bravery.”
Our walking tour next passed another landmark related to the Triangle Trade: the place where rum is said to have been invented in the seventeenth century.
“A byproduct of sugarcane processing is molasses, which was once thought nearly worthless,” said Smith. “Legend says that a local tavern owner named Captain Rumball discovered rum by accident when he tasted some fermented molasses in the bottom of a nearly empty storage barrel. The spirit was named after him and became an important export for Barbados, a tradition that continues to this day.”
After leaving the downtown district, we next headed to the British Garrison, which is also part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s the most intact eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British garrison complex in existence and includes one of the oldest racetracks still in operation in the world. We viewed the impressive Changing of the Sentry Ceremony, which is held each Thursday in front of its 1804 guardhouse, then visited the Barbados Museum. Housed in the garrison’s former military prison, its exhibits trace the island’s cultural, historical and environmental heritage.
Later that evening we returned to the garrison to attend one of the most-memorable dining experiences in the city: a meal with George Washington himself. Dinners with George Washington are held in the house where the nineteen-year-old Washington lived for six weeks in 1751. As a violinist and cellist played period music, we dined on foods that included fish-and-yam pie, split pea and eddo soup, and rumbullion’d bread and butter pudding.
“My time in Barbados was very influential in my life,” said George Washington (played with flair by historian Karl Watson). “I came here to be with my half-brother Lawrence, who was suffering from tuberculosis. It was here that I first heard the phrase, ‘no taxation without representation’ and where I learned how the government of Barbados had negotiated some measure of independence from the Crown. I also took good notice of how the British military worked, which I put to good use later in my life.”
With a soft tropical breeze coming through the open windows and the room lit by the flickering light of candles, the dinner made it easy to imagine that we’d traveled back in time. I was grateful that my introduction to Barbados history had helped me know this beautiful island at a deeper level.
For more information, see Barbados Tourism.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.