It was our lucky day! We called a walking tour on the back of a map of Barbados and Alex, a recent University of West Indies history graduate, took us and our friend Silke’s mum, Christel on a historical tour of Bridgetown.
The first thing we learned was that Bridgetown was once called Indian Town. Barbados was empty of native Amerindians when British colonists arrived, but it did have a bridge. A ghost bridge.
The British must have wondered. Who, what, where did these people go?
The town supposed to have been called Doncaster. Instead, it formed the area that became Indian Town and later Bridgetown. We stood on its namesake, well not the ghost bridge but its most recent replacement. It’s called Chamberlain Bridge now and has a lifting bridge into the inner basin.
‘You can live in Barbados and never see the bridge lift,’ Alex said. ‘I’ve only seen it lift about ten times.’
I pointed and Jack and Delphine. ‘Didn’t you guys see it lift the other day?’
They both nodded. ‘We even went under it in our dinghy when it lifted.’
Alex looked impressed. ‘Wow, you were lucky.’
Jack smiled cunningly. ‘Would you like to come with us on a dinghy tour?’
Alex lifted an eyebrow and paused. ‘Maybe.’
The next thing we did was visit a large car park. Alex gathered us round. ‘There’s no memorial here, no mention of history but this is an important place in our history. In the world’s history too,’ he said.
A large car park? We were bordered by old warehouses alongside the harbour entrance. For centuries, ships came in here, often using the easterly position of Barbados as their first stopping point from across the Atlantic.
Alex cleared his throat. ‘When slaves died on the crossing from Africa to the Caribbean,’ he said, ‘they were often thrown overboard. But the ship owners also had to keep some bodies since slaves were insured as property. The ship owners needed evidence of their deaths to make claims. After they made their claims, the slave bodies were buried here. In the 1990s, a historian, Karl Watson and a team at American University excavated a section of ground. They found evidence of it.’
We looked around at the dusty surroundings. ‘There’s no memorial? No plaque saying so?’
Alex shook his head. ‘Nope.’
We shook our heads. Alex led us back across the bridge. After we stared at Nelson’s slightly murine features on a large statue, we turned our attention to Barbados’ Parliament building. We discovered that the walls are made from the limestone coral of the island. Coral polyps now stand out from its walls. Many of the islands’ oldest buildings are coral, Alex explained. This is because, unlike many of its neighbouring Caribbean islands such as St. Lucia, Grenada and St. Vincent made from volcanic lava flow, Barbados is made almost entirely from coral reef pushed upwards through the ocean.
From the beautiful, coral Parliament, we set off through the narrow streets of Bridgetown. Behind Parliament, Swan Street, originally named after a tavern, was buzzing. This, Alex explained, is where most Barbadians shop. At the edge, there was a busy trade for fresh coconut water. People stood, scooping out the inner jelly happily into their mouths. Alex stopped and pointed to the street corner. ‘You see that cannon?’
A cannon? I followed his finger, expecting the cannon to be pointing at us in its traditional weaponry position. Instead it was half-buried into the road.
‘Barbados has a lot of cannons. And with these narrow streets, it had a problem with horses. The horses often wouldn’t turn in time and carts would damage the corner of these limestone buildings. People began lining the corners with cannons in order to stop the damage.’
From its bustle, the neighbourhood became suddenly quiet. We leaned against a large limestone wall and peered into a courtyard. ‘This is the Nidhe Israel synagogue,’ Alex said. ‘It’s the oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere.’
We were agog in the synagogue. ‘It is?’
He nodded. ‘Jews were instrumental in setting up sugar production on the island. They came from Brazil in the 1630s when the Dutch took over from the Portuguese. Unrest in the Brazilian colony caused a collapse in its sugar economy. At the time, the British were just realising that the Barbados tobacco crop here just wasn’t good enough quality for export. It was full of twigs and considered bitter to smoke. The timing was perfect. Enter the Dutch, the Jews and sugar.’
We went into the synagogue, the men donning kippahs. It was cool and the girls sat down gratefully on dark, wooden seats. Large, glass chandeliers hung down from the ceiling while patterned marble tiles lined the floor. We gazed around appreciatively at the handsome surroundings. Barbados was full of surprises.
Our rest was only brief. Streets narrowed, became older and quieter until, finally Alex stopped. ‘This is the oldest street in Bridgetown,’ he said. The sign read Suttle Street. Little fruit and vegetable stores stood out along it like characters themselves; portraits of men, women and vegetables painted into life. Sweet potatoes, yams, a basket of charcoal.
‘Charcoal?’ Silke’s mum, Christel asked.
A woman walked past, nodding. ‘For flavour. You cook with it.’
Alex said, ‘Did you hear her accent? She’s not from Barbados.’
Jack looked up suspiciously. ‘You want me to go get her for you?’
Alex smiled. ‘No, that’s ok.’
The shopfronts became shells of buildings. Their roofs disappeared. ‘These would have been taverns,’ Alex said, ‘with the brothels located upstairs.’
It reminded me of a saying of colonisation; ‘The first thing the Spaniards build is a church. The Dutch construct a fort. The first thing the English do is build a tavern.’
We turned a corner and were suddenly back in the centre of Bridgetown. Bridgetown has almost exactly the same layout as the 17th century. You’d be able to follow a town map from the time when Edward Teach, also known as Blackbeard, was walking around it. He wouldn’t have seen the 1960s multi storey carpark though. Or at least, lit his beard at the sight.
‘This is the favoured suicide spot,’ Alex said as we walked. ‘Except that it’s not high enough for people to die instantly. Usually they’re taken to hospital before they die. The last person to throw themselves off was a recent wife who found out her husband was gay.’
We winced. Jack was at his side like a shot. ‘Did she do it out of heartbreak?’ he asked. ‘Or because of the stigma of him being gay here in the West Indies?’
‘Barbados is getting better,’ Alex said, ‘people are tolerating homosexuality more and more.’
‘Why do they disapprove of it historically?’ Jack asked.
‘When slave men were punished, plantation owners had a practise to rape them in front of their family. It was a way to emasculate them. At least part of the intolerance of homosexuality in the West Indies stems from this.’
I felt my mouth fall open. Alex finished explaining this just as we were entering Bridgetown’s oldest Anglican church, St. Mary’s. Long, green and white slats of pine covered the tall ceiling.
‘I’m so sorry,’ I said. Alex looked at me like time decided to stay still and history wasn’t history any more. It was breathing in our bone marrow.