Barbados beyond the beaches

It was the sinister skull-and-crossbones carving on one tombstone that made it so conspicuous.

Moss-covered and cracking, the tombstone was wedged between hundreds of others, many of them only centimetres apart, in this crowded 357-year-old Jewish cemetery crammed into bustling downtown Bridgetown, the seaside capital of Barbados.

Were there Jewish pirates in Barbados? It’s easy enough to imagine. After all, there were Jewish pirates in other Caribbean islands.

It’s true that it is possible to enjoy Barbados without ever leaving the beach. From bathing and surfing to shopping and golf, there is more than enough to occupy any visitor to this, the most easterly of the Caribbean islands.

But for the adventurous traveller with an interest in history, there is much more to be discovered.

This country’s wealth was created by African slaves, European landowners and Jews seeking religious freedom. They have all left their marks here, making for some fascinating stories.

According to Celso H. Brewster, manager of Nidhe Israel museum beside the cemetery, the skulls and crossbones don’t indicate the resting places of any pirates.

“That’s what I heard too, until I saw a child’s grave with the same symbol,” he explains. “Obviously there is no way a child would be a pirate!” He believes a more likely explanation is that the symbol was a caution to others not to open the grave of someone who had perished from disease.

The cemetery belongs to the Nidhe Israel Synagogue, located on Synagogue Lane, a few blocks away from the Parliament Buildings. It is one of the two oldest synagogues in the Western Hemisphere. The other is in Curaçao, and there is a fierce debate over which is older.

The original Bridgetown synagogue was built around 1654 by Jews fleeing Portuguese-controlled Brazil from threats of the Inquisition. The building was destroyed by a hurricane in 1831, and rebuilt two years later. Even though they had been forced to convert to Christianity – they were mostly “New Christians” or “Conversos” – many of these Jews had practised their faith in secret in Brazil.

With them, they brought sugar cane to Barbados and helped to kick start the Sugar and Rum Revolution, quickly making the island at the time “the richest spote of land in the worlde,” as it was widely known in 17th-century Britain.

In 2008, an American archeologist who was digging on the site in an effort to find the rabbi’s house uncovered a mikveh (ritual bath). It has been renovated and is now part of the museum.

Just south of the synagogue is Swan St., known as “Jew Street” in the 17th century for the number of Jewish merchants who lived and worked there. Those merchants are long gone, but the street is a thriving pedestrian mall with everything from clothing stores and restaurants, to street vendors hawking shoes and bootleg movies on DVD.

“I doubt it,” frowns an ice cream vendor Ann Cameron, an immigrant from Guyana, when told of its history. “All of these buildings are new – nothing from back then.”

But all over Bridgetown are prominent signs of the colonial past. Barbados was an English (then British) colony from 1627 until gaining independence in 1966.

Just south of the synagogue, on Broad Street close to the waterfront, are the stately Parliament Buildings. The two Gothic structures, home to the House of Assembly and the Senate, were completed in 1874.

Almost 70 years before that, to commemorate victory of the British Royal Navy at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, a statue of Lord Nelson was erected in 1813 just a few metres south, between Broad St. and Wharf Rd. Locals boast that it predates the more famous Nelson’s Column in London by 30 years. In fact, the location of the Barbados statue was called Trafalgar Square until 1999, when it was renamed National Heroes Square.

Some may find it odd that a square celebrating outstanding Barbadian citizens, or Bajans, should be presided over by the likeness of one who never lived there – and indeed, the statue’s very existence has always been controversial. Local calypsonian, The Mighty Gabby addresses the issue in his song Take Down Nelson and Put Up a Bajan Man.

A more fitting place for such a tribute could be at a roundabout that connects Highway 5, heading east from Bridgetown, with the Errol Borrow portion of the ABC Highway. There stands a stark reminder of the country’s painful history.

The Emancipation Statue, commonly called the Bussa statue, was erected in honour of the leader of the 1816 slave revolt. Bussa is one of the National Heroes. The statue depicts a black slave breaking free of his chains and brings home the knowledge that slavery was the engine that drove the economy from the early 17th century until emancipation in 1824.

One remnant of that past and of the plantation culture that continued even after the abolition of slavery is the Chattel House, a significant aspect of Barbadian architecture. Made of wood, they were traditionally built by plantation workers, most of them former slaves, on wooden blocks, instead of a buried foundation. This was because the workers didn’t own the land the houses were built on, so building on blocks made it possible for them to take their houses with them if they had to relocate. Another defining feature of these houses are the bright colours in which they are painted, each having a unique combination of reds, pinks, yellows and bright greens, mostly.

In Holetown, site of the country’s first settlement in 1625, on the west coast north of Bridgetown, there is Chattel Village, where this display of colours is the main attraction. The small cluster of houses are used for souvenir stands, craft shops and restaurants built to lure tourists.

But Chattel Houses are common all across the island. Several are still being used as homes, though they may be built in a more permanent way.

A 45-minute drive North of Bridgetown near Highway 2, at Cherry Tree Hill in the parish of St. Peter is a Great House that, perhaps more than most, gives visitors a taste of the colonial history and plantation culture. All that, and a shot of rum, too.

It is St. Nicholas Abbey, a whitewashed, stately mansion that sits on one of the oldest operating sugar cane plantations on the island, with an estate of more than 100 hectares.

Built in 1658, it is said to be one of only three remaining Jacobeanstyle mansions in the Western Hemisphere. Another is at Drax Hall in the parish of St. George to the south, just off Highway 4. The third is Bacon’s Castle in the U.S. state of Virginia.

According to documents at the Abbey, the estate was originally two adjacent properties owned by business partners Colonel Benjamin Berringer and Sir John Yeamans. They had a falling out, and it is alleged that Yeamans had Beringer poisoned – the two were in contest over the affections of Berringer’s wife, Margaret. Yeamans married the widow while she was pregnant with the dead man’s child. It was then that the two properties were merged.

The current owners, architect Larry Warren and his wife, Anna, purchased the property in 2006 and had it restored. It is now a working plantation that is open to the public.

Much of the plantation from the 17th century has been preserved or restored. Beside the Great House, there is a museum where St. Nicholas Abbey Barbados Rum, made at the plantation, can be sampled. There is also a 19th-century steam mill where visitors can watch sugar cane being crushed to make sugar, molasses and rum.

Just behind the mill, beside piles of crushed sugar cane, are the remains of an old windmill, another reminder of the Jewish and Dutch influences on the island – Dutch Jews introduced the windmill to Barbados. The windmill was used in the early days to grind sugar cane.

Scattered across the island are other Great Houses, like the Sunbury Plantation House in St. Philip Parish, just east of Six Roads and North of Highway 5. Surrounded by the cane fields of other plantations, the house is over 300 years old and has been restored. It has been open to the public since 1984.

Artifacts include, but aren’t limited to, items from 18th-and 19th-century plantation life. There is a fine collection of old carts and carriages including one that is used for state funerals to this day – most recently, for the funeral of Prime Minister David Thompson in 2010.

One of the more intriguing displays is a photograph of Sam Lord, a famous Englishman from the 19th century. It is said that he was a pirate, but there is some dispute regarding this. Whatever the true story, Sam Lord became wealthy from his operations and built himself a remarkable mansion on rocks close to the sea, off the southeast coast of St Philip.

Sam Lord’s Castle was turned into a hotel of the same name, but it was gutted by fire in 2010. The remains are still there, watched over by birds and stray dogs, and a hermit selling coconuts on the beach who thinks the demise of the castle, “is a really, really sad thing, you know!”

Perhaps the castle will one day be restored, and welcome visitors once again. In the meantime, for travellers interested in this country’s fascinating colonial history, there is no shortage of places to visit and things to see.

– IF YOU GO

Air Canada flies non-stop to Bridgetown from Montreal, but has more frequent flights via Toronto. American Airlines flies via Miami and WestJet via Toronto.

The Nidhe Israel synagogue is open to visitors Mondays to Fridays, and admission is free. It is open for Friday night services from Dec. 15 to March 15, the tourism high season. It is open for viewing with no admission charge all year from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The museum is open Mondays to Fridays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and by appointment only on weekends. Admission is $12.50 U.S., half price for children.

Chattel Village is located in Holetown, north of Bridgetown on Highway 1, next to the West Mall Shopping Centre.

St. Nicholas Abbey is open from 10 a.m. to 3: 30 p.m. Sunday to Friday. Admission is about $17 Cdn.

To get around, visitors can rent a car for about $65 Cdn (for economy size). To drive in Barbados, visitors need a local driving permit, which can be obtained by showing a valid driver’s license and paying $10 Bbd. Driving is on the left and most roads are very narrow and winding.

For public transit, buses or large vans called ZRs travel to, or from, Bridgetown – all bus stops are marked “to City” or “from City.” Fare is $2 Bbd one way.

Business hours are generally from 8: 30 a.m. to 4: 30 p.m. weekdays.
(Tags: Barbados, Jewish, History)

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