Tour Of The Caribbean - The Inland Cliff and the Sea Beaches
( Originally Published 1925 )
BARBADOS is a coral island. A coral reef encircles the greater part of its homely girth, its roads are made of coral of the whitest, while much of the stone of its houses has been fashioned by the coral polyp.
Those who know only the land around Bridgetown will say that the country is flat and monotonous, and that it consists merely of blinding highways toiling through tiresome tracts of cane and cotton, of cotton and cane.
It is true that the trees are limited to the wilds, to the villages, and to the planters' settlements, but there are downs of golden-green grass as well as hollows dappled with yams, sweet potatoes, and maize. Moreover, a hundred acres of rustling sugar-canes thrown into waves and eddies by the rollicking trade wind is no mean sight, while a field of sea-island cotton in bloom is, from afar, not unlike a thicket of Gloire de Dijon roses.
Towards the north of the island are hills, some of which rise to the height of 1100 feet. They are part of a great upland which is cleft, as by a hatchet, along its eastern side so as to leave a raw inland cliff, whose precipitous wall faces the Atlantic for many a mile. From any point on the brink of the escarpment a marvellous view extends. The most perfect prospect is from a spot called Hackelston's Cliff. Here, from a height of nearly 1000 feet, one looks down suddenly upon an immense leafy plain stretching away to the sea, upon a green under-world submerged fathoms deep in a blue haze.
The view is like a view from a balloon. On the flat are squares of pale green to mark the cane brakes, glistening splashes of holly-leaf green to show the bread-fruit trees, a waving patch of banana fans, dots of grey where are negro cabins, and now and then the curve of a white road shaded by palms. Beyond is the beach where the great purple combers from the ocean roll in to break upon the reef with a noise like the crack of a gun.
This little world lying at one's feet is shut in towards the north by miniature mountains, a range of dwarfed Scottish Highlands made up of diminutive peaks and ridges, of cols and valleys all glorious with every tint that grass in shadow and in the sun can give. From the crest of Farley Hill it is possible to look down upon this tumbled country as upon a contour map, and to imagine Ben Nevis and Lochnagar en modele, with the tracks of tarns, the clefts of summit passes, and the cups of mountain lakes.
Near by Hackelston's Cliff I came upon a grinning negro lad who enjoyed an office most boys would have taken much to heart. He might have been called the " warden of the monkeys." At the foot of the precipice, in one of the few shreds left of the primeval forest, dwell a number of apes who creep up the cliff on occasion and make desperate raids among the bananas and sweet potatoes. It was the warden's duty to watch for the marauders, to spy them out as they peered over the brim of the cliff, to let them advance almost to the fields, and then to fall upon them with shrieks and stones and drive them over the precipice in jabbering disorder. It was with sincere feeling that the warden said "he liked his work."
Not far from Hackelston's Point is St. John's Church, one of the oldest churches of the island. It is a solid English-looking building, with a square tower, battlements and heavy buttresses. It stands on the very brink of the cliff, over-looking the same far-away flat and the same long lines of beach and reef. About it is a graveyard, facing seawards, full of ancient tombs, many of which belong to two centuries ago. More than one monument testifies to the deadly climate of times gone by, and tells of wives who died " in a moment " and " in the bloom of youth."
One tablet bears the following unusual inscription :
HERE LYETH YE BODY OF FERDINANDO PALEOLOGUS DESCENDED FROM YE IMPERIAL LYNE OF YE LAST CHRISTIAN EMPERORS OF GREECE. CHURCHWARDEN OF THIS PARISH, 1655-1656. VESTRYMAN 20 YEARS. DIED OCT. 3RD, 1678.
This imperial vestryman should sleep soundly, for the church-yard in which he rests is passing beautiful. Here fall the shadows of royal palms, of lofty crotons, of swaying casuarinas, of hibiscus bushes aflame with crimson blossoms. By the church wall stand Eucharis lilies, over the rusted railings fall jessamine and stephanotis, while between the gravestones are ferns and grasses and an uninvited company of homely flowers. During the church service, when all is still, there can be ever heard —borne by the trade wind—the muffled roar of the surf.
Far away to the north of the island, fifteen miles from the town, and on the flat between the inland cliff and the sea, is a dell full of trees. What lies hidden in this quiet oasis no stranger could guess. It can hardly shelter a planter's house as no sugar-mill chimney is in sight. There is no church spire to be seen nor is there, indeed, even a glimpse of a roof.
The visitor who follows the road into the wood finds himself in an avenue of palms. This avenue skirts a lawn and such a lake as may be found in many an English park. So far there is little that is amazing, but, sauntering in the drive, are some youths in college caps and gowns. As unexpected are these undergraduates as would be cocoanut trees in Oxford.
At the end of the walk is a solemn edifice of dull stone, severely academic, and not to be distinguished from the buildings familiar to an English university town. The place is, indeed, Codrington College (a college of the University of Durham), which was founded as long ago as 1710.
Opening upon the avenue is a stone cloister, through the pillared arches of which can be seen the Atlantic and the waves breaking on the coral reef. In the shadow of the arcade is an English girl in white talking to a small parrot perched on her finger, and exciting by such speech the jealousy of a yapping dachshund at her feet. This lady of the porch is the principal's daughter. It would seem as if there had been transported to this far-away West Indian island a corner of a cathedral close, and when the organ in the chapel pours forth a hymn of the old country the impression is made magical.
The college chapel is exquisite—for its walls are lined with mahogany and cedar wood, while its benches are of that old type which recall the village church of bygone days. The marble floor has been cracked and scarred by the hurricane of 1831, which tore off the chapel roof and filled its aisles with wreckage. The library is stored with books of a kind one would hardly expect to meet with on a coral island—works on theology and conic sections, together with the writings of Sallust and Cicero, of AEschylus and Euripides. A pleasant sanctuary this for the budding scholar who will recall in after life that he first read the Odes of Horace under West Indian palms, and was disturbed in his imaginings of ancient Rome by the vagaries of humming-birds.
The college gardens are the most beautiful in the island, are vivid with the tints of tropical flowers, and hide, moreover, in their depths a swimming pool which is as the shadow of a rock in a weary land.
Hard by the college is the principal's lodge, the original Codrington mansion, which was built in 166o and has seen and survived some famous hurricanes. It is a picturesque building of weather-worn stone with, in front of it, a stately loggia whose arches and columns are overgrown with ferns, woodbine, jessamine and stephanotis. Within is a doorway, flanked on either side by classic pillars worthy of an abbey, upon whose stones the sun and the rain of two hundred and fifty years have wrought tints of warm brown, while weeds have picked out the joints of the masonry with many a splash of green. The slaves who built this place may well have wondered at the magnificence of it.
The founder of the college, Christopher Codrington, was " Captain-General of the Leeward Caribbee Islands." It was his wish that the school should be devoted to " the study and practice of divinity, physic, and chirurgery." In 1742 the original college was opened, and in 1875 was affiliated to the University of Durham. It has done admirable work, can boast a long list of distinguished alumni, and under the present able principal, Archdeacon Bindley, flourishes with persistent vigour.'
The shore scenery of Barbados shows great variety. On the north and east of the island the coast is wizen and rugged. Here are low cliffs of coral rock wrought into fantastic capes and hollows by the sea, or so gnawed at that a great gap in the bank has been in places bitten out. At Crane comes such a gap wherein is a gusty beach edged about with cocoanut palms and nearly filled with bushes of the sea-grape or with sprawling masses of creepers.
Here, as elsewhere, the sea assumes strange and unexpected tints ; it may be violet, purple or maroon, with streaks of lettuce-green or forget-me-not blue, or may show a stretch of brilliant lustre such as shines on a beetle's back, or may shimmer into a lake of lapis lazuli. In calm days the water over the reef will be lilac-or even claret-coloured, or may take the hue of the nether side of a mushroom, while within the reef is that vivid green which can be looked down into from the stern of a steamer among the coiling eddies thrown up by the screw. It is indeed in these West Indian islands that
The rainbow lives in the curve of the sand.
At Bathsheba immense curiously shaped rocks fringe the beach, so that the whole coast in this romantic part of the island is as the coast of Cornwall in miniature. Along the south and west borders of the island winds a quiet strand, with many a creek and cove. Certain of the curving bays are shaded by thickets of trees which crowd to the very margin of the shore. Some are inviting, modest-looking trees, which call to mind the orchard trees in England. They bear, moreover, a small green fruit, an apple, which might tempt a thirsty man. Woe to him if he yields, if even the temptress be Eve ! For these are the manchineel, the poison trees ; the shade they offer is tainted ; their leaves will blister the skin ; their fruit will turn to worse than ashes in the mouth ; their innocence is feigned, for the orchard by the sea is an upas grove, shunned by every living thing except the land crab.
Nelson, in his early days, was made very ill by drinking from a pool into which some branches of manchineel had been thrown. In the opinion of some his health "received thereby a severe and lasting injury."
On the west coast is Hole Town, the most inviting little settlement in the island. It was once the capital of Barbados (page 9). It is now a lovable town of two tiny streets, sleeping out its life in a bower of leaves by the shore. A shop, a post-office, and a worn jetty represent the public buildings in this most unambitious hamlet. The two small streets open on the sea, on a smooth cove of biscuit-coloured sand. Trees line the whole sweep of the bay from cape to cape. They hide the half-forgotten town although it lies so near the water that when the west wind blows the spray will scud along the child-like boulevard. The beach is such an one as the sea seems to love, for each wave as it comes, lingers over it, fondles it, sweeping slowly up the smooth slope and dropping reluctantly back again.
An air of great leisure settles upon this lotus-eater's town. But few of its folk are to be seen. In the shade of the trees, at the edge of the shore, a solitary man is building a boat. There is such simplicity in his methods, and such scantiness in his clothing, that he might be Robinson Crusoe fashioning his canoe on the famous island.
On this very beach landed the inquisitive crew of the Olive Blossome just 300 years ago (page 8), and as the cove was then so it is now, the same inviting curve of tree-encircled sand, the same listless solitude. On just such a tree as stands there yet the famous legend was writ, while here, within a halo of green, is a place well fitted for the wooden cross. Beyond the nodding town are low downs, so like some uplands in Kent that they may well have enticed the Englishmen to make a landing.
By the side of the high road a recently erected obelisk records the coming ashore of the boat and the annexation of the island ; while on one of the postage stamps of the colony is a picture of the gallant Olive Blossome herself, with all her sails set and with the flag of England aloft on her poop.