Tour Of The Caribbean - Barbados
( Originally Published 1925 )
THE Royal Mail steamer reaches Barbados at daybreak. On the present occasion of her coming the sun had just risen, yet there was still a full moon shining, like a disc of steel, in the grey. The steamer crept to her buoy in Carlisle Bay, and by the growing light there could be seen an island of low pale-green downs, fringed at the water's edge by a belt of trees, with red-roofed, white-walled houses dotted between them. The green uplands were brakes of sugar-cane. There was no indication of a definite town ; no evident landing-place. But for a few palms and casuarina trees, negroes in boats, and a number of bright-hulled schooners from " down the islands," the place might have been a bay in England.
As seen from the ship it did not fulfil the florid conception of the tropics nor the idea of a coral island.
Barbados is about the size of the Isle of Wight, and at the commencement of the seventeenth century it represented—with the exception of Newfoundland—the sole colonial possession of England. Indeed, in 1605, it could have been said that the empire of Great Britain beyond the seas was constituted only by a vague line of half-frozen coast and this tropical Isle of Wight, for the two represented England's insignificant share in the New World.
Barbados is the only West Indian island which has been English from the days of its beginning until now.
The manner in which it became a part of the empire is curious. In 1605 a certain Sir Oliver Leigh, of Kent, incited by tales of rich lands in the West, equipped a ship called the Olive Blossome, and sent her across the seas. In due course the lumbering craft came in sight of Barbados, and the sailors, attracted by a sandy cove and shady trees, rowed ashore and landed on the beach. " Finding no opposition," these good men from Ramsgate, Deal and Dover took possession of the island in the name of their country.
The ceremony attending the annexation was unaffected. On the beach they put up a cross, to give the function a religious tone, while one of their number carved on the bark of a tree the inscription,
" James K. of E. and of this island."
The cross was probably made from the staves of a beer-barrel, and the graving on the tree, no doubt, was done by a dagger sharpened on a leather jerkin.
It may be imagined that when the ritual was over these pioneers of empire bathed—for the sandy shore would have reminded them of Thanet—chased the land crabs, or threw stones at the monkeys who still haunt this corner of the island. They then jumped into their boat, each with a handful of strange flowers, pushed off to the Olive Blossome and sailed away, for they were bound for the Main.
The annexation ceremony took place near to the spot on which Hole Town now stands (page 22), and compared with the pomp and glamour observed by the Spaniards on like occasions, the proceeding was little more than a schoolboy affair, a frolic of a party of Deal boatmen.
It may be said by some that Trinidad holds precedence of Barbados in the matter of annexation, for in 1595 " the Honorable Robert Duddely, Leiftenance of all Her Majestie's fortes and forces beyonde the seas," took possession of that island, with infinite solemnity, in the name of his Queen. He nailed to a tree "a peece of lead " inscribed with the Queen's arms, and an announcement in the Latin tongue. He caused, moreover, trumpets to be blown and a "drome" to be beaten. Unfortunately, the island was at that time in the possession of Spain, and in spite of the " peeve of lead " continued a colony of that State for long years after. Robert Duddely's affair was indeed little more than a common act of trespass, in which he was fortunately not detected.
It was some twenty years after the coming of the Olive Blossome that the first settlers made their home and built their log huts in Barbados. They sailed from England in a vessel named the William and John, belonging to Sir William Courteen. They made for the same sandy bay—by that time almost legendary—found the place of the cross and the writing on the tree. In a clearing in a forest near by they began the first town, Hole Town, erected a fort and made themselves masters of at least the west coast of the island.
Things, however, in Barbados were neither quiet nor well established for many years after Courteen's settlers founded their little city. For it happened in 1627 that King Charles, in a moment of incoherent liberality, granted all the Caribbee Islands (twenty-two in number including Barbados) to the Earl of Carlisle. Now, few of these islands were in the King's gift, and he might as well have presented the Earl at the same time with the Atlantic Ocean, the Equator, and the North and South Poles.
However, in July 1628, a confident body of settlers landed on the south of the island, under the protection of the Earl of Carlisle, and established another town, which they called Bridge-town, because they found there a bridge which the Indians had built across a creek of the sea. The bay in which they beached their boats is called Carlisle Bay to this present time.
As may be supposed, Courteen's settlers—being the old and original inhabitants of the island—thought so ill of this counter-enterprise, that they fell upon Carlisle's men and beat them grievously. Later on it transpired that the King, when in a previous island-scattering mood, had already promised Barbados to the Earl of Marlborough. Lord Carlisle thereupon approached the Lord of Marlborough and found that peer (who probably had vague ideas as to what and where Barbados was) most ready to forego all claims to the property in consideration of a sum of 300l. sterling paid in cash annually.
It may be conjectured that one party to this bargain sauntered down St. James's chuckling over the solid gold coin he had obtained for an estate as shadowy as Prospero's island, while the other hurried to his ship-master to assure him that at last—and for the paltry sum of 300l.—Barbados was his.
Yet scarcely had the money been counted out upon the Earl of Marlborough's table when Sir William Courteen forced himself into the lordly presence and pointed out, possibly with some emphasis and heat, that Barbados was his, and that he was possessed of it prior to 1627, at which time the generous King gave it away, with adjacent parts of the globe, as if it had been a mere bonbonniere.
Thus began squabbles to which the cudgel play in the environs of Bridgetown and " The Hole " — as the scoffers called the metropolis of Barbados—was a small thing.
Barbados is very densely populated. Its inhabitants number some 200,000, nearly all of whom are negroes. The patriotism of the Barbadians is unbounded, and in these unsentimental days, is pleasant to contemplate. " They cling to their home," as Froude remarks, " with innocent vanity, as though it was the finest country in the world." If they do leave it, it is only for a time. Many of these loyalists have been attracted recently to the Canal enterprise at Panama by the high wages which obtain there. But the stay of the exiles on the Isthmus is short. They go thither in order that they may enjoy Barbados the better. The heavy toil and the hard climate are forgotten when they return to the island and can indulge—if only for one day—in the supreme luxury of driving through the town in a buggy, in a black coat and bowler hat, lit up by a necktie of fulminating colours. There will be then so wide a grin on the ci-devant navvy's face that the rows of white teeth can hardly hold the penny cigar. The anticipation of this one triumphal progress through familiar streets will have kept alive for months the germ of hope in many a labourer's breast at Colon.
Barbados, too, is intensely and seriously English. " It was organised," writes Froude, " from the first on English traditional lines, with its constitution, its parishes, and parish churches and churchwardens, the schools and parsons, all on the old model, which the unprogressive inhabitants have been wise enough to leave undisturbed."
In the heart of the capital is Trafalgar Square, and in the centre of that square (just as in the Mother Country) is a statue to Nelson. London, indeed, may be said to have imitated Bridge-town in this particular, for the monument in Barbados was the first erected to the hero of Trafalgar. In defence of the English metropolis, however, it must be stated—and it is to be hoped with-out jealousy—that this rival statue is not impressive, while the famous mariner is made to look bored and jaundiced, although he is no longer " pea green " as he was when Froude saw him.
The city of Bridgetown is full of bustle, dust and mule teams, but it is not attractive. The suburbs, on the other hand, are beautiful—beautiful as only the outskirts of a town in the tropics can be. There are villas lost in ample gardens, avenues of palms, white roads barred by black shadows and made glorious by mahogany and banyan trees, by the cordia with its orange-coloured blossoms, by the scarlet hibiscus, by walls buried under blue convolvulus flowers, by over-stretching boughs from which hang magenta festoons of Bougainvillea. Here can be seen that most stately of all palms, the palmiste or cabbage palm, with such trees as the tamarind, the mango, the shaddock, and the curious frangipani, looking as bare as a plucked bird.
On the outskirts of the town, and indeed all over the island will be found in rows, in clumps, in halting lines, or in infrequent dots the dwellings of the negroes. These are tiny huts of pewter-grey wood, raised from the ground on a few rough stones and covered by a roof of dark shingles. They are as simple as the houses a child draws on a slate—a thing of two rooms, with two windows and one door. The windows have sun shutters in the place of glass ; there is no chimney, for the housewife does her cooking out of doors in the cool of the evening.
Such is the original Uncle Tom's Cabin, scarcely changed these two hundred years. More picturesque little toy houses can hardly be imagined, but it makes one gasp to think how many human beings crowd into these tiny rooms after sundown, for the negro sleeps with firmly closed doors and shutters to keep out "jumbies" and ghosts, which are both numerous and trying in the West Indies, centipedes, which are ten inches long, snakes, vampire bats, and other horrors of the tropical night.
These fragile huts are those which are referred to in descriptions of hurricanes in which it is said that " over 3000 houses have been blown down, six villages have been levelled with the earth, and 10,000 people are homeless."
It is not uncommon to meet a house on the highway in the act of being " removed." It is placed on a cart flat-wise, like a puzzle taken to pieces, the four walls being laid one above the other as if they were pieces of scenery from a theatre. The roof is indistinguishable as such, the tiles are in the bottom of the cart, and while the owner of the residence will carry the front door on his head, other kind friends will assist with the window shutters, the doorstep and the fowlhouse.
About each tiny pewter-grey house will be the comfortable green of bananas and guinea-corn, a clump of rustling cane, with possibly a papaw or a bread-fruit tree to shade the threshold. In what may be called the policies are half-naked children, some fowls, a pig tied by the neck, or a goat tethered in like fashion.
The climate of Barbados in the winter is healthy and agreeable. The little island lies far out to sea in the very heart of the trade wind. That genial breeze blows steadily from November to May. To sit in a draught in scant attire so that a strong east wind may play upon the sitter like a douche is one of the chief objects of life in Barbados. The thermometer varies from about 76° to 82° F. There are no sudden lapses of temperature, none of that mean chill at sundown which falls like a footpad upon the sojourner in the Riviera. It is possible to be out and about all day. There is no need of any sun-helmet. The straw hat of the river Thames is all the head-covering required in this or any other West Indian island. The badge of the raw tourist is a white helmet and a mosquito-bitten face. The one is as superfluous as the other when the management of mosquito-curtains has been learnt As a matter of fact, mosquitos and insects generally give very little trouble in Barbados.
The climate, as a whole, may be judged by the circumstance that the medical men of Bridgetown cling all the year round to the black frock coat and tall hat, which are the delight of the profession in Great Britain. The air is comparatively dry. The roads throughout the island are excellent, while the sea-bathing cannot be surpassed. The sky in the dry season is now and then clouded over, and there is occasional rain, two features which will be appreciated by those who have been wearied by the unfailing sunshine of the " cold weather " in India. The island has an excellent water supply, while both malaria and yellow fever are practically unknown. Barbados has had no experience of earthquake, it possesses no volcano, and the hurricane season is limited to the months of summer and autumn. The island, therefore, presents an admirable climate for those who cannot, or will not, winter in northern latitudes.
While on the subject of health matters, it may be noted that the West Indian islands still suffer—in spite of every care and of ceaseless investigation—very seriously from leprosy. The disease is limited to the " coloured " sections of the creole population, being rare in the white creole.
At Barbados is an excellent lazaretto, maintained by the Government. It is a model institution of its kind, and reflects great credit upon its medical chief, Dr. Archer. The lazar-house is situated by the sea, in a pleasant garden facing to the west. Around the garden is a very high and woeful wall, like the wall of a convent or a prison. Those who are within the garden are captives for life. All have had forced upon them a vow never to look upon the world again, for there is no way out to the high road except through the gate that leads to the burial-ground, It is a garden that sees only the setting of the sun.
All who walk its weary paths are condemned to die. There is no ray of hope in the lepers' pleasance. The shipwrecked man on a raft may search, day after day, for the gleam of a sail, but on the horizon of these poor castaways there will be never a speck to be seen. The days are horrible in their mockery for they are nearly always sunny; the trees are bright with blossoms and alive with birds. The birds are free to come and go, are busy with their mating and the building of their nests. The men and women who hobble and sigh and curse in the shadow of the trees have no one thing to look forward to but a lingering death. If the days are hideous the nights at least bring forgetfulness and peace.
" How sweet to sleep and so get nearer death," must be the cry of each one of these lamentable outcasts.
If all were old and had lived their lives the fate would not be so tragic, but in this garden of Gethsemane there are budding maidens and sturdy lads. Among the newcomers I saw a girl of seventeen. She had all the freshness of perfect health, but certain loathly spots had appeared upon her skin, and then had come—the inquisition, the wrenching from home, the banishment to the house in the garden. She had, a week or so ago, such a life before her as is dreamed of by a girl of seventeen. She had a lover, perhaps, but now the iron gate of her Paradise has shut with a clang behind her and she is doomed to a slow rotting of the body, inch by inch.
She can see in the lazar-house, depicted with brutal candour, the future of her days. Her fingers will slough off like the hands of this poor woman who looks at her with such compassion. Her face will become hideous with toad-skin growths until she will be as little human looking as the dulled, distorted creature who sits on a bench waiting for the laggard end. She will change to a thing as repulsive and gargoyle-like as that horror in the corner of the ward whose sightless eyes can happily no longer see the vileness of her own deformity. The fresh young face will become the Medusa's head. She is looking at her forecast as if it were shadowed in a wizard's mirror—and she is but seventeen.
In the road beyond the garden wall can be heard the laughter of those who pass by to the town, while within is being dragged out, act by act, one of the saddest tragedies of human life.
It was a relief to pass from the lazaretto to even such a haven for the helpless as the lunatic asylum. This is a new, admirably administered building under the competent charge of Dr. Manning. The best remembered feature in the asylum is an open quadrangle covered with grass. Around each side of it runs a low shed or verandah upon which open the barred windows of many rooms.
In this strange caravanserai are gathered a great number of insane folk, mostly negroes. In the centre of the quadrangle a grey-headed mulatto is kneeling in the sun and praying with breathless eagerness. He is a religious monomaniac.
A comparatively young man, sweating with excitement, and puffing out his cheeks like a dog who dreams in his sleep, is calling out that he is Lord Nelson, and that he wants boots. Lying senseless in the shade is a man recovering from a fit. Drooping on benches are listless melancholics, while among them is a man who sits bolt upright and for ever pats his hand to the moaning of some fragment of a song. A very cheerful being, squatted on the ground, is professing to make a hat out of grass roots collected with infinite assiduity. There are, besides, idiots and dotards and the absolutely mindless.
One figure amidst this nightmare crowd attracted my attention. He was a white man of about forty, with long fair hair. He was clad simply in a shirt and trousers. His feet were bare. He never ceased to walk round and round the shaded alley, persistently, laboriously. His lips were compressed, while there was a look of forlorn determination in his eyes. He had been in the asylum seven years. He was a Scotsman, and was reputed to be a sailor from Aberdeen. He had been left behind sick, and apparently dying, by a ship whose master had never called at the island again. Every effort to trace the man's friends had failed. Since he had been in the asylum he had never uttered a word, nor had he once replied to the persistent questions put to him. For seven years he had kept silence. For seven years he had tramped, day after day, round this walled quadrangle, picking his way through the mumbling crowd. To what far-away goal he was travelling, along what endless road, amidst what horrors and under what crushing vow, who could say ?
Here he was, a derelict ; one of the " missing," one of those who had gone under. In some Highland village they may still tell how " Jamie " went to sea and was never heard of again, or how he was put ashore ill on a West Indian island and died there. He must have died, his mother will say, or he would have written or come home. He has never written; he will never come home, but will tramp, a lonely man, round and sound this circle of purgatory until his foot falters and he stumbles into the dark.