Rhoda Green, left, president of the Carolina Legacy Foundation, and Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, far right, discuss the potential for future business opportunities between Barbados and South Carolina | Photo provided

A weeklong business and cultural exchange in Barbados by 53 Charleston leaders forged new friendships and experiences that may pay off for the Holy City. But the trip to observe the 25th anniversary of the sister-city relationship between Charleston and the Barbados seaside village of Speightstown also served as a somber reminder that free labor of enslaved Africans helped Barbados to prosper, just as it helped to establish the Carolina colony three and a half centuries ago.

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg joined the group for talks on business, cultural exchanges and climate change.

The recent October visit may strengthen the city’s bond with Barbados and broaden the understanding of it, said Rhoda Green, Barbados’ honorary consul to South Carolina. Leader of a similar trip 25 years ago, Green is president of the Carolina Legacy Foundation and is synonymous with the Lowcountry’s Barbados connection. 

The Barbados government, Green said, “is now seeking to address [slavery] and reposition itself to tell its story from the perspective of those who were enslaved and to deal with that history not as victims but as victors.”

Five area residents on the trip from a variety of fields — business, academia, government and education — shared their reflections exclusively with the City Paper on potential business and cultural impacts of the exchange with Barbados. Their thoughts are below:

On food and culture

Pearl Ascue, East Cooper businesswoman

Gullah Geechee and Bajan (a term that describes Barbadians) people have much in common. While in Barbados, they served us macaroni pie, but we call it mac and cheese. They have peas and rice. Our equivalent is Hoppin’ John. They also served a dish of pickled pig feet and chicken feet with cabbage. The Gullah Geechee version is a stewed chicken feet with rice.

I especially connected with Bajan culture through surnames that are similar to Lowcountry surnames. When I saw names such as Gibbs and Colleton, my thoughts turned to McClellanville. I saw Primus and that certainly brought me to the Jack Primus community near Cainhoy. Surprisingly, I saw the surname of my best friend and husband Timothy “Pete” Ascue. In Barbados it is spelled Ayscue but surely there’s a connection. Dr. Tonya Matthews, president and CEO of the International African American Museum, who was part of the Charleston delegation, was excited to see her family name represented in Barbados.

As we develop our relationship between Gullah Geechee and Bajan people, residents in the East Cooper’s settlement communities of Ten Mile, Hamlin, Remleys Point, Phillips, Snowden, the northern end of Awendaw and McClellanville should remember that Bajan culture did not influence only downtown Charleston. When the Barbados settlers brought our ancestors to the Carolina Colony they might have been sold into slavery in Charlestown, but eventually they brought their culture to the rural plantations.

The settlement communities are a reflection of that Bajan culture through food, surnames and customs. This is an opportunity for us in the settlement communities to showcase our unique culture to tourists.

Charleston has been noted as a prime tourist destination because of our friendly hospitality staff. Bajan people are friendly, too. They often reply to a request with a polite, “Yes, please!” 

On our connection to the past

Alphonso Brown, Charleston owner of Gullah Tours

The trip for me was a spiritual and mind-searching mission. I’ve been to West Africa and other different places. But I never felt the spirit of connection of being at home like I felt in Barbados. When I looked in people’s eyes, and they looked back in mine, the mutuality of our spirits saw a relative, a cousin, a descendent. This seemed to be the case everywhere we went. 

In the villages and rural areas of Barbados, I noticed that very little landscaping is practiced. Wherever a tree or bush grows around a house, it seems to be a natural occurrence, landscaped by nature. Wherever God drops a tree, a bush or upheave a limestone rock that’s where it stays, forming a beautiful natural habitat.

Their love for God is overt. The partying starts on Thursday nights and culminates late Friday nights. Saturdays are set aside for drying out and preparation for church on Sundays. In Rantowles, where I’m from, the partying was only on Friday nights, and drying out on Saturdays. I LOVE Barbados! 

On forging academic relationships

Mary Jo Fairchild, College of Charleston research services coordinator in special collections and archives 

Chauntel Thomas, development officer at the Barbados Museum and Historical Society (left) Mary Jo Fairchild, research services coordinator in Special Collections and Archives at the College of Charleston Libraries (center) and Reginald Medford of Medford Craft World in Bridgetown, Barbados. | Photo provided

Our efforts to build relationships with our Bajan counterparts in museums, libraries, archives and the visual arts began as soon as we got off the airplane! During initial talks and meetings between the Barbados government and cultural heritage leaders in South Carolina, I learned about the Reclaiming Our Atlantic Destiny (ROAD) project, sponsored by the Office of the Prime Minister. In addition to constructing a memorial to people enslaved and buried at Newton Plantation, the ROAD project over the next three years will digitize and make available archival records documenting the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The Newton Plantation Collection is hosted on the College of Charleston’s Lowcountry Digital Library. I also learned that outside of the United Kingdom, Barbados has the largest collection of trans-Atlantic slave records in the world. 

Several days later, I met with colleagues at the Barbados Museum and Historical Society to identify ways in which we could document the experiences of people enslaved in South Carolina and in Barbados.

During our visit, the Rose Hill Tuk band led a procession from the Arlington House to the Speightstown Esplanade where the group presented moving performances and later we savored homemade Bajan fish cakes, conkies, black pudding and barbecue. 

On being ready to confront slavery

Daniel E. Martin Jr., 9th Circuit family court judge

The Haynesville Youth Group and Dancin Africa group performed at the Newton Slave Burial Ground

The buses brought us uphill through a narrow path with 7-foot tall sugar cane that swayed in the trade winds on each side of the road. When we emerged from the fields, we saw the Newton Slave Burial Ground, a beautiful green pasture with a cluster of large shade trees in the middle of it.

The peaceful natural setting cooled by the breeze was quickly interrupted when we learned we were standing on more than 500 unmarked graves of enslaved workers who had died in the sugar cane fields. These unfortunate souls were unceremoniously buried, some stacked three deep. Their inconvenient deaths did not interrupt the production of sugar cane that made Barbados wealthy.

But Barbados, like Charleston, appears to be ready to confront the strange institution of slavery that brought riches to its earliest proprietors. The island is building a museum at the Newton Slave Burial Ground that will honor those who perished in the labor of sugar much like the International African American Museum in Charleston will educate the world of the sacrifice of our African ancestors on this side of the Atlantic.   

On our deep connections 

Victoria Smalls, executive director of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor

Our journey and experiences amplified why we, in the Carolinas, are historically and culturally connected to Barbados. It’s deeper than I realized. Walking in the historic footsteps of the enslaved people of Barbados, accompanied by their descendants, I often wondered, could one of my Smalls ancestors come from this island? When your ancestry is tethered to African enslavement, there are unanswered questions, leaving you searching for answers.

The Bajan and Gullah Geechee people have multiple ties, like our blend of African, Indian, British and European cultures, which to this day are expressed in our distinctive languages that use words like da, dis, dat, der and dey. We enjoyed tasting the cultural linkages while visiting Oistins, a quaint little town on the southern coast of Barbados. We joined Bajans at food stands and dined together on benches outside and enjoyed freshly caught grilled fish.

We witnessed our shared African traditional foodways, with rice, sweet potato, yams and lots of fish. Music is an essential part of both Bajan and Gullah cultures. 

Our delegation was invited to the Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley’s official residence at Ilaro Court where we enjoyed cultural music, dancing and more food.

Meetings were also held to cultivate historic and cultural connections with the Barbados’ Culture and Tourism Divisions and the Charleston delegation. While participating in a libation and prayer ceremony at Newton Slave Burial Ground, a sacred UNESCO site, we were reminded why Barbados was known as the first Black slave society of Britain, why it was once described as the Caribbean model of the pure “plantation” and how they accelerated the brutal pace of mass enslavement of Africans.

For more on the Charleston-Barbados connection, visit barbadoscarolinas.org.

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