Tour Of The Caribbean - The Islanders
( Originally Published 1925 )
THE negro population of Barbados have learnt stern lessons on such subjects as the survival of the fittest, the effects of a generous birth-rate and the limitations of an island. They have crowded the fatherland to its brink, have grubbed up and tilled every yard of its surface, and have only left it when they have been practically pushed into the sea. They have become, by force of circumstances and against their natural inclination, both a hard-working and a frugal folk. They have learnt that patriotism and a clinging to home may mean both an empty stomach and a bare back.
Only of late years has the Barbadian accepted the inevitable, and reluctantly sought life elsewhere. There is now scarcely a quay on a West Indian island where the grinning Barbadian face will not be met with. They have migrated to America and have turned in thousands to Panama, whereby it has come to pass that labour is now not too plentiful in the colony, and the English housewife has begun to experience that dearth of good servants which has long been acute in England.
The negro in Barbados—as in other islands of the West Indies —is the descendant of slaves brought over from the adjacent coast of Africa. The days of their bondage are not so long ago, for slavery was abolished in English colonies as recently as 1834. Traces of old days are constantly to be come upon. Certain of the substantial little houses built for the " blacks " are yet to be found, while on all sides the products of slave labour are in evidence.
Turning over old island newspapers, one meets with such an announcement as this :
" 58 Negro Slaves and 24 Head of Cattle for Sale,"
in the reading of which it is impossible not to be struck with the delicacy which places the slaves before the cattle. In the "Barbadian" for December 17, 1824, I noticed the following paragraph, which is bracketed with one dealing with the sale of " A Handsome Horse " :
"FOR SALE !
"A young Negro Woman, a good house-servant, with her infant child, two months old."
If the infant ever reached the age of seventy he would have been living in 1894, and, should he have had a child, the same might be flourishing on the island at this moment, possibly as a waiter or a chambermaid at the hotel. If he or she talked of " grandmother," it would be of this same young negro woman who was so good a house-servant, and who was offered for sale with the handsome horse.
The subjoined item from the " Barbados Mercury " of the date of August 4, 1787, is also of interest :
" Run away from the subscriber, a tall black man named ' Willy' : whoever will deliver him to the subscriber shall receive one moidore reward."
Now I take the moidore to be equivalent to the sum of twenty-seven shillings, therefore, Willy, in spite of his tallness, would have been little more in value than a pet dog. Indeed, I have seen the reward of two pounds offered for a runaway cat. It is much to be hoped that Willy never came back to the subscriber, but that he hid his pound and a half's worth of flesh in the jungle by the Inland Cliff and there ended his days in peace.
When slavery was abolished, Parliament voted a sum of money to be paid to owners as compensation for setting their slaves at liberty. The total sum thus expended in the salvation of men was nearly nineteen millions sterling. The number of slaves set free was no less than 770,280.
They were probably the only human beings who ever came to know precisely what they were worth, or what was their value in the eyes of others, for in the carrying out of the Act the value of each type of slave had to be defined with great exactness.
A first-class field hand was priced at £94, a domestic servant at £82. It may be imagined that many a dignified black butler, who appraised himself at, at least, £800, must have been hurt by this low figure. The vexation of the handsome negress who found that she was valued at some £2 less than her ill-looking co-worker must have been peculiarly bitter. Children under six fetched £13 17s. 4d. on an average. " Aged, diseased, and otherwise non-effective adults " were lumped together, like soiled goods at a sale, and priced at £10 8s. 5d. each. In this estimate of the value of a marred human life there is a lamentable pathos about the farthing.
Although the Barbadian blacks must have been compounded at the outset from different African tribes, it is remarkable that, by reason of their exclusiveness, they have developed into a definite race, with an easily recognised physiognomy and dialect. A head that is large and round and that is associated with an " open countenance " constitutes the " Barbadian head " ; while the English the people affect to speak is the most curious phase that tongue can ever have assumed. To untrained British ears it is not intelligible, while even the cry of the children, who hold out their hands and grin " gimme a pension," needs to be explained as a demand for a penny.
The Barbadian negro is a fine specimen of humanity. The man may not be noteworthy, but the woman is a model of anatomical comeliness. She has well-moulded limbs, perfect teeth and the eyes of the " ox-eyed Juno." Her neck and shoulders belong to the women of heroic days, while the carriage of her head and the swing of her arms as she walks along the road are worthy of the gait of queens. She is as talkative as a parrot, her smile is that of a child at a pantomime, and without her the West Indian island would lose half of its picturesqueness. She is the life of the gaudy market square, while her black face may appear almost beautiful when seen against the pale green background of a thicket of cane. She works hard and is strong. Her disposition is to carry everything, great or little, upon her head. Thus I have met an old woman bearing aloft on her skull a full-sized chest of drawers and not far behind her a young housewife with a slice of green melon on the black mat of her hair—an offering to her husband in the fields.
The normal costume of the negress is a frock of white, stiffened with cassava, and a white scarf or kerchief bound turban-wise about her forehead. Her woolly hair is covered by the linen cap, and as her white teeth are always gleaming—for she needs must smile—she forms a graceful figure sketched boldly in black and white.
It is curious to see in these dark faces classic types of woman-hood which custom has made the European to associate only with a fair skin. Here, for instance, sitting on a cabin step, crooning over her baby, is a rapt Madonna in ebony. Leaning over a railing and swinging a scarlet hibiscus blossom before her lover's face is a coal-black Juliet, in an ecstasy of fondness. In the market place, in a vortex of violent speech, is a terrible virago with the seams of her features cut out of jet, urging her husband, a timid Macbeth, to avenge certain wrongs incident to the selling of yams.
Unhappily, the negress of Barbados is discarding her own charming costume in order to assume, with great seriousness, the attire of Europe. The result is deplorable, for so eager is the blackamoor to be done with the past that she becomes, in a sense, almost too European. Unconsciously she intensifies every feature of northern dress, making each item ridiculous. She caricatures the lady of the London parks, so that any who wish to see their faults displayed through the medium of exaggeration can have the distorting mirror held up to them in Barbados.
The coloured lady omits nothing. She holds her skirts in the manner of the moment, but, as the mincing mode is apt to be overdone and as clothing in the tropics is thin, the effect is often curious. Although accustomed to a blazing sun the whole year through, and although her race comes from near the " line," the modern negress cannot be seen on Sunday without a sunshade which she will hold up even if the sky be grey. She must not fail to wear a veil, though no exposure to the eye of day can spoil her complexion or add a deeper tint to the shadows of her skin.
The chief difficulties in the way of perfect mimicry are anatomical, being dependent upon the waist, hair and feet. The European waist has been trained for centuries to follow certain lines of deformity, but the waist of the negress is that of the Venus of Milo and it resents the disfigurement very stoutly.
The hair problem is much more grave, and is indeed almost insurmountable. The astrachan-like wool on the black lady's head can be changed by no known art into anything that could be coiled or braided. The fight with the woolliness of wool in Barbados is desperate and discouraging. A young girl's hair is worked out into little tags which hang about her worried skull like black curl papers. These are intended to represent tresses, but although they could not deceive an infant they are diligently toiled at by ambitious mothers. By a bolder display and higher flight of art a bow is fixed somehow to the nape of the neck, to foster the delusion that it ties up raven locks. Some ingenious women have cut or carved out of the solid wool on their heads the figures of braided coils, just as a pattern is clipped out of a poodle's back. These carvings are made realistic by the addition of many combs which suggest that they prevent the " coming down " of hair which would not be ruffled by a hurricane nor disturbed by the thickest bramble bush.
There is an article of the European coiffure called a " slide," a species of brooch used to keep in order any wayward hairs about the nape of the neck. No self-respecting negress is without one of these controllers of stray locks, although in her case it is the hair that keeps the slide in place and not the slide the hair. Indeed there is more suggestion, more pretence, more fancy about the head adorning of a negress than about a Japanese garden.
The skull of the mulatto shows varying grades between wool and hair, and as the difference widens so does the brown woman attain nearer to the standard of perfection. She becomes an object of envy, since a higher walk in life and a loftier social status may be reached by even three inches of reasonably straight hair. To the Barbadian, indeed, combs are more than coronets and lanky locks than Norman blood.
The foot problem is also serious. The negro having found no need for boots has wisely worn none, but as bare feet are de trop in Park Lane so they must not tread the coral paths of Barbados. There is no affectation about the feet of a negress, no pretence that they may be mistaken for " little mice stealing in and out beneath her petticoat." They are practical feet of serviceable size, but by some means or another, groans or no groans, they must be forced into cheap American shoes, and the graceful elastic walk must degenerate into the mechanical-toy mode of progress affected by the higher civilisation.
This attempt to be up to date involves such general suffering that it is not considered demode with the smart set for a lady, when returning from a gymkhana, to take off her shoes and open-work stockings and carry them in her hands. I am told that in courts of law the manner in which evidence is given is apt to be affected by boots ; so that an uneasy witness is often invited by the Bench to remove her foot-gear. If a bride faints at the altar, as is not uncommon, a sympathetic whisper runs through the assembly, not to " give her air " or " unloosen her dress," but to " take off her boots " ; and when the operation has been carried out in the vestry the nuptials can proceed, although the young wife may never recover from the degradation of having been married in stockings.
If the negress must wear boots, she should wear them on the top of her well-balanced head. A pair of crimson satin shoes with gilded heels would look never so well as on the cushion of her woolly hair.
The black man has less wide fields for display than has the black woman. He is, however, strong in the matter of neckties, scarf pins and finger rings. He is strong, too, in waistcoats, which are at times so violent in colour as to be almost explosive. He bases his model in dress upon a blending of Margate sands with the racecourse at Epsom. He cannot appear without a cigarette, nor without a cane which he carries like a Guardsman.
The West Indian negroes generally are a healthy, cheerful and sober people. Professional beggars are unknown among them, as also are " slum children " and the counterpart of the Whitechapel woman. The white folk who live in their midst are prone to say that the more you know of the negro the less you like him. He has certain estimable child-like qualities, it is true, but he is untrustworthy and idle, while his misconceptions of honesty and truth are inconvenient.
If left to himself he tends to degenerate, for the spirit of the wild has not yet died out of him. In up-country districts in any of the islands the black man is respectful to strangers, but in the seaport towns he is apt to be insolent when the opportunity offers. At Roseau in Dominica, for example, the quayside nigger would appear to have lapsed into savagery if the experience of certain ladies who recently landed there can be taken as an instance.
An account of the islanders would scarcely be complete with-out mention of certain other living things which serve to give character to the colony. Conspicuous among these are the black birds—the Barbadian crows. The full and proper title of these fowls is Quiscalus Fortirostris. They go about in companies, being very sociable. They are jet black and have white eyes. Their neatness and trimness are immaculate. They look like a number of dapper little serving-men in black liveries, or may be compared to smart vivacious widows with indecorous high spirits. Their curiosity and fussiness can only be matched by their unceasing energy. There is nothing that goes on in the streets or by the roadside which fails to interest them, while every detail of their lives appears to evoke an endless chattering.
The Barbados sparrow is another very sociable and pushing bird. He is greenish-grey in tint, but what he lacks in brilliancy of plumage he makes up in impudence. He comes to the early breakfast in the bedroom, hops on to the table or a chair-back, and if he is not served at once with sugar or banana will call out petulantly like an old man at a club who is kept waiting for his lunch. He is a thief by conviction, and steals for the mere pleasure of stealing.
The sugar-bird is not so common as either of these two. Archdeacon Bindley, however, tells of his habits and of his ability to make himself at home. He drops on to the breakfast table as if he had been invited, and after he has helped himself out of the sugar-basin will, as likely as not, proceed to take a bath in his host's finger-bowl.'
Another flying thing is the flying-fish, which is as common in the fish market at Bridgetown as is the herring at Yarmouth The visitor will eat him with curiosity at first, but when it becomes evident that no meal in the island is complete without flying-fish, under some guise or another, the novelty abates.
Finally, Barbados would appear to be that West Indian island which is favoured above all others by the land crab. His burrows are to be seen not only along the shore but by the side of every road that skirts the habitations of man. He takes up his abode in the garden, digs his tunnels in the environs of the house, and has turned more than one graveyard into a miniature rabbit warren. He is an unclean beast, his habits are nasty, and any contemplation of his precise mode of living is of a kind that makes the flesh creep. He appears occasionally upon the dinner table as an article of diet. I have eaten him under these circumstances, and the memory of this indiscretion is the only blot in my West Indian experiences. I feel that I have lost all right to criticise people who eat raw fish, snails, snakes and lizards.
The land crab, when he is fully grown, is about the size of the palm of the hand. In Barbados he is usually of a cherry-red colour, a tint which compels the impression that he is distended to bursting with unwholesome blood. He is shy—more shy than he was when Amyas Leigh and Salvation Yeo landed at Barbados on their journey westward. At that time he and his tribe sat in their house-doors and brandished their fists in defiance at the invaders." He is agile, his legs are long and like stilts of tin.
When he walks he moves with a parched, scratching sound that is horrible to hear, and that suggests the fumbling about of a witch's nails.
I can imagine no more awful awakening than that which would befall the exhausted man who, having dropped asleep by the roadside or on the shore, woke to find these dry, crackling, carrion-eaters crawling about him as if he had been long dead.