Charleston is an island. We’re a tinge of blue in a sea of red, a sub-tropical paradise between the Bland Strand and Hilton Hell. We like to think we’re a bastion of culture and higher thought amidst a state of pork-bellied, Fox News-gobbling zombies.
And perhaps we are. Although our city is technically built upon a peninsula, in the 17th century, we were pure Caribbean. Not geographically, but in every other sense of the word, Charles Towne was an island settlement.
There were no roads connecting the Lowcountry with Virginia and the other New World colonies. The Gulf Stream served as I-26, and Charles Towne became the mother of all truck stops for the seafaring 18-wheelers running the Atlantic loop from England to the West Indies and up the East Coast.
Two thousand miles by sea from South Carolina, Barbados seems an odd candidate to spawn the Holy City. Nestled just a stone’s throw above present-day Venezuela, Barbados is just a few hundred miles out into the Atlantic. The voyage by sea between Carolina and the island took at least a month, and often longer when winds died for a week at a time.
Most of us in Charleston don’t realize our Bajan (the common term for “Barbadian”) roots, but the bulk of our early settlers came from the tiny island. The 21-by-14-mile coral rock isle was the sweet tooth of the Caribbean, making many a British family very rich during the sugar cane heyday of the mid-1600s.
With the eldest son inheriting the family plantation, and a finite amount of real estate on Barbados, options were limited for second and third sons of the aristocracy: join the royal navy, go to seminary, or head to the colonies and strike out on one’s own.
Carolina provided an escape, an opportunity for endless wealth with seemingly unlimited land. So Barbados’ sons packed their dialects, their architecture, and their slaves onto the boat and headed for the new island: Carolina.
Just as Charles Towne provided an escape 350 years ago, Barbados today is an enclave for the well-to-do, with posh resorts overlooking crystal-clear waters. The nation is also an early victim of climate change; its beaches are shrinking. Meanwhile, dust from the Sahara Dessert — way across the Atlantic — clouds the eastern shore every day. It is also a proving ground for sustainable tourism.
More importantly, it’s a laid-back little inkblot on the map, rich with cool breezes, sunny skies, and stiff, sweet drinks. It’s a tropical destination where most folks don’t seem to have a care.
For the people of Charleston, there is still much to learn from our mother colony.
Handy Andy emerges from around the rocks, carrying birds carved from coconuts and woven palm frond hats. The Rastafarian grins a glowing white smile as he makes his sales pitch to the families spending the Pentecost holiday at the beach.
Craftsmen like Andy are a modern face to Barbados’ economy since its successful shift from sugar cultivation to tourism. For centuries, sugar was king on Barbados, making many a white plantation owner excessively wealthy at the expense of an enslaved labor force. The remains of windmills used to crush the cane can still be seen across the island’s rolling hills, a reminder of days when the crop grew a dozen feet high across the country.
“Every technological advance in sugar production for 300 years took place in Barbados,” says Bajan historian Henry Fraser, who in 1989 published the now-out-of-print book, Barbados-Carolina Connection.
At its peak, the island had more than 500 operating windmills, with exports peaking at 255,000 tons of sugar in 1966. With only 28,000 tons produced in 2009, much of the interior’s fields now lay dormant, while the busy south and west coasts are abuzz with foreign visitors and new construction sites.
The transition parallels the agriculture-to-tourism economic shift in Charleston. Sugar cane didn’t take as well in the Lowcountry, so after trying cotton, indigo, and ginger, the early settlers quickly figured out that our meandering rivers and marshes made excellent rice fields. Like sugar, growing rice is labor intensive. Sugar cultivation was a tough sell to indentured servants, and it wasn’t uncommon that a London reveler would find himself drugged at a bar, waking up on a ship with the option of “Barbados or swim.” With that sort of coercion required, west African slaves proved a far more convenient labor source. By 1670, blacks in Barbados outnumbered whites 2-to-1.
Thus progressed Carolina as well. Charleston has the nefarious distinction of being the only U.S. colony where the institution of slavery went hand in hand with its founding. Without cheap, captive labor, our buggy, sweltering city would never have grown to become America’s most prosperous colony.
When the frigate Carolina first dropped anchor at Albemarle Point, now called Charles Towne Landing, in 1670, a slave accompanied the 20 white Barbadians aboard. The settlers had come with a purpose: to get rich using the same gang labor system they’d left behind in Barbados. Just as European visitors commented on the lavish lifestyles of the Barbadian elite, the extravagance was to be repeated in Carolina.
“Charleston was designed to be a business,” says Patrick Cook, history and education coordinator at Charles Towne Landing. “We see that planning coming into play very early on.”
The rough-and-tumble Bajans were known for their brutal treatment of slaves and their zeal for fortune. One governor in Barbados, appalled at the cruelty of a few plantation owners, sent three of them in shackles to England. He was promptly executed. Not unlike Wall Street today, making money was the first priority.
Seven of Carolina’s first 21 governors were Barbadian, and the names of those early settlers persist both here and in Barbados: Colleton, Berkeley, Yeamans, and Gibbes. These entrepreneurs also brought with them a distinct architectural style.
To enter the Arlington House, a historic home-turned-museum in the sleepy Barbadian port village of Speightstown, a door opens about halfway down a long porch that runs the length of the building. Inside, the three-story house seems stretched and narrow, one elongated room atop another. We in Charleston tend to claim that style as our own: the “single house.” The rectangular homes, one room wide with a gable roof and a south-facing side porch (the “piazza”), are still the norm in downtown Charleston, but this style originated in Barbados, where catching the breeze is a priceless commodity.
Historian Henry Fraser has gone to great lengths to preserve and promote the early Bajan buildings that have survived centuries of hurricanes. A descendent of the Drayton family and the president of the Barbados National Trust, he’s twice visited Charleston to speak about our shared history. Unlike Charleston, however, where we dignify old homes with plaques and careful building codes, there are few safeguards in place to prevent the demolition of a 350-year-old building in Barbados.
Those still standing, like the Arlington House, are visible proof of Barbados’ influence on Charleston’s architecture. It’s a slightly less subtle connection than the six parochial accents heard around Barbados, each sounding to the white Southerner’s ear like the variations of Gullah found along our coast.
The similarities go even deeper into our joint psyches. In Trafalgar Square in downtown Bridgeport, the capital city, a statue of British naval hero Admiral Horatio Nelson presides high over a major intersection that was once the location of Barbados’ slave auction block. The island’s black majority has long called for the statue’s relocation, claiming that Lord Nelson is not a hero to the Bajan populace. Some have even suggested its replacement with a cast of Rihanna, the current Barbados-born superstar.
Debates over Lord Nelson are not unlike the ongoing controversy in Charleston about honoring presumed slave uprising leader Denmark Vesey. Hanged for his efforts before even enacting his alleged plan, Vesey is remembered as both a courageous liberator and murderous traitor, despite neither liberating nor murdering a single soul.
In both places, although heated racial undercurrents persist, they remain politely below the surface.
“Bajans are very careful. They’d rather not say anything impolite,” says Morris Greenidge, a black Bajan historian who gives tours of the country. “History is history; it’s not a mind game. White and black people in Barbados get along because we understand we might as well, let’s get on with it.”
Independence from British rule in 1966 changed Barbados, and with the black majority in power, the country has thrived compared to many of its Caribbean counterparts. After the U.S. and Canada, Barbados is the third-most developed country in the Western hemisphere. The Bajans are fiercely loyal to their own; you’ll find a hundred-or-so people hanging around the local Chefette fast food restaurants on any given night, but Barbados may be the only nation in the world where a McDonald’s closed down due to a lack of business.
A 1982 ruling entitling many former plantation workers to a 3,000-square-foot home site helped foster a Bajan middle class. The act largely ended the centuries-old tradition of movable “chattel houses,” the four-walled, easily transportable homes that birthed the expression “pick up your sticks and move.”
Today, Barbados’ quarter-million residents live mostly around Bridgetown and along the heavily developed south and west coasts. Resorts like Sandy Lane (famous for hosting Tiger Woods’ wedding) and the Colony Club (where this writer stayed) offer guests constant luxury, but also provide good-paying jobs to locals. Throughout the island’s interior and its west coast, villages are scattered every few miles. Houses are small by American standards, but squalor is virtually nonexistent. All Bajan children are entitled to public education, and literacy rates are high. Crime rates are low, and most people seem to respect the tourist trade for the prosperity it’s brought to the island.
What Barbados has never overcome is the tendency, from settlement onward, to take from the land without regard for sustainability. Once a dense rainforest, by 1670, the hills were stripped, and plantations had to import wooden barrels to hold their sugar, molasses, and rum.
Nowadays, the eco-conundrum has hit the coral reefs. Once flourishing a few yards from the sand, they’re now largely dead. Sea turtles and neon-colored fish still abound, thrilling snorkelers, but decades of developments built atop the water’s edge, along with picking coral to sell to tourists, has decimated the coral within an easy swim of the shore. Climate change hasn’t helped; the beaches in Holetown, on the west coast, were 100 yards wide just a decade ago. Erosion and rising water have now left a mere 20 feet of sand from the pavement to the surf in some places. On the island’s west side, the sky is generally hazy with dust, a new phenomenon blowing clear across the Atlantic from the ever-growing Saharan Desert.
There’s little Barbados can do to curb global changes, but citizens are beginning to call for more planning and foresight as resorts continue to grow.
“My fear is that after it gets more and more built up, people will stop coming,” says Greenidge. Indeed, Barbados’ tourism-driven momentum can be overwhelming; drive to the remote northeast end of the island and you’ll have windswept mountains, crashing waves, and a herd of goats roaming through a coconut tree grove all to yourself. That is, until a horde of tourists riding Segways appears from out of nowhere.
Even in Barbados’ most remote corner, you’re always within half a mile of a rum shop, the corner bars that number more than 1,200 on the island. And while you sip, there’s always a lovely view in sight.
“The place is fruitful and pleasant, the ground producing yearly two crops of corn, gathered in April and October, and ye best being generally moderated with a fresh gale of wind in daytime, and the cold never so great as to require a fire.”
Thus reads the inscription on an early map of Barbados displayed at the Arlington House Museum, written in 1640, just 13 years after the first British settlement. It was only 25 years later that the Bajans would sail for Carolina, establishing Charles Towne under the leadership of Gov. John Yeamans, whose plantation is now Yeamans Hall Country Club in Hanahan.
Yeamans sailed to Carolina with a colorful history; he shot fellow businessman Benjamin Berringer in a duel and later married his wife, Margaret. He then consolidated their two plantations into one at the site of Barbados’ most famous house, St. Nicholas Abbey.
Notable both for its age and Jacobean architecture, the home, along with Mount Gay, is one of the first (and still operating) rum distilleries in the world. Visitors are treated to the rum, both straight and in punch, as they tour the plantation grounds.
But even away from the distillery tours, it’s impossible to escape the smooth, sweet liquor in Barbados. Visit nearly any attraction, at any time of day, and rum punch is almost immediately offered. The finest may be at Hunte’s Gardens, built in the gully of a collapsed limestone cave in the mountainous north.
Bajan botanist Anthony Hunte spent his life traveling the world, collecting plants, and passing his horticultural knowledge onto college students in Bridgetown. Today, his garden is a staggering who’s who of the plant world, with a rainbow of exotic-colored flowers peeking out from every nook of the deep, green sinkhole. With monkeys idly playing in the trees above Hunte’s porch, the scene is made that much more idyllic by his offering of libations.
“It’s 1-2-3-4,” says Hunte, grinning. “Rum, simple syrup of sugar and water, lots of Angostura bitters, and fresh lime. It makes one feel most rambunctious.”
Casually sipping the world’s finest rum hour after hour, day after day, has something of a sedative effect. Life in Barbados moves rather slow. Bajans who have visited London or New York speak of feeling overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle, having grown up at a slow, steamy pace.
And perhaps that’s the single most valuable lesson to take from our mother country. We’ve come a far cry from the easy-livin’ summertime of Gershwin’s days on Folly Beach. Instead, we continue to traffic jam ourselves right through July’s 100-degree days, rarely slowing down to savor the steaminess.
So next week, take a day off to celebrate your heritage. Get a bottle of Mount Gay, sit on a porch, and imagine you’re in Barbados.