Sugar









"Lick an Lock-up Done Wid, Hurray fuh Jin-Jin (Queen Victoria).
De Queen come from England to set we free
Now Lick an Lock-up Done Wid, Hurray fuh Jin-Jin"

- Barbadian folk song sung on the day in 1838 that full emancipation for the island’s former-slave majority was achieved.[i]










In repetition and without assumption the Caribbean waves fold and sea-whisper, as they slide across the white Barbadian sands.  Like a life for but a short while they linger, before retreat.  And what do they say?

The tides bring the waves higher and send them lower at lunar interval, through azure sky day and pink sunset, through the calamity of each hurricane and Atlantic brewed storm, through the time of slavery and into the enlightenment of independence.  It’s the Bar-bajan story, it is.  Thirty-four by twenty-three, the island nation of three lacs people is a creature of the waves.

They flock in to soak up a few sun rays, they do, as their work leave permits and you wonder at the Europeans and North Americans, what they make of the carefree palm fronds swaying in the breeze.  With careful hands the resort-tourists spread out their beach towels across the sand.  They reach for the sunscreen.  The sea is their recreation for but a short while.  Barbados only lasts a week.

It wasn’t always leisure, it once was wealth that brought them in, the British incidentally, who followed the waves to shore with the desire to add sugar to their Indian tea.  They created their own seas in sugar cane green and at first compelled fellow Britons to work them, indentured labourers bound by their debts; and there were Amerindian slaves to tend the household.  It was later the African slaves were brought and bought, at least the ones that survived the horrific Middle Passage across the Atlantic.  About 360,000 Africans were forced to Barbados to tend the plantations in the course of two hundred years.  They became the majority; their descendants are today’s Afro-Bajan community.


But before even the British the Portuguese had spied her, and they had called the island ‘Os Barbudos’, the bearded ones, in reference to the shaggy hanging roots of the coastal Bajan fig trees. (ii)

You wonder at the Scottish-inspired Bajan accent and the old man, that Euro-Bajan who sits about on the veranda at the guest house.  He’s neither guest nor employee, just an islander who won’t stop talking.  Barbados is the world’s most developed developing country he says with pride, and there’s no wishing it developed as being developing has advantages, although he’s not sure what they are. 

In petite Bridgetown the cruise ships dock and the cruise-tourists find their way along Broad Street, they do, swinging into the various shops and locating an upstairs terrace for lunch.  They mingle with some of the locals who also stroll about in summery fashion.  After lunching, out on the street the cruise-tourists fiddle, with money belts and camera lenses, pausing, stepping to find an angle, focusing and snapping.

There’ll be a picture of the petite thirty-seat Parliament Buildings that were built in the 1870s, but how many could say that Barbadian independence arrived in 1966 or that its first assembly met in 1639?  There’ll be a picture of the Chamberlain Bridge that crosses the Careenage where the yachts shelter, but how many could say that the first bridge was probably made by the Taíno people who called the island Ichirouganaim, the ‘Red Land with White Teeth?’  There’ll need to be a souvenir too, to impress the friends back home; it should be something that screams ‘Island in the Sun’ and it’s all a bit rushed since Barbados only lasts a few hours.

You wonder at the Zed-R shared taxi stand with a few petite buses in the mix, at the top of the Bridgetown centre.  There’s reggae music pumping and locals bustling about in bright clothes and casual voices.  They’ve come in from Speightstown, Holetown, Bathsheba and Oistins, from the Parish of St. Lucy and the Parish of St. George.  From all across the island they’ve come and you’re amongst them; you came squashed inside one of the Zed-Rs too, facing the Barbadian jams that aren’t exactly the image of the island.  But it’s a densely populated place.  You wish you could make contact to talk to someone seriously about their history and their ideas of life but everybody’s got something to do, so instead you make your own way to see the Nidhe Israel Synagogue at least from the outside, since it’s one of the oldest in the western hemisphere.  You see the churches too.  There are a handful of small minorities in Barbados: Chinese Bajans, Gujarati-Muslim Bajans and people from other Caribbean islands.  You suppose the most developed developing country is something like the Zed-R stand, the promise of activity pulling the people in.  

The old man at the guest house, you wonder if his ancestors rode chestnut geldings and wore broad-brimmed white hats, if they lived in one of the manor houses surrounded by the sugar-seas that can still be seen in the island’s interior.  Or perhaps they were like the majority of Britons in Barbados, indentured labourers, his forebears.  Whatever his precise heritage he won’t stop talking and is it the history in the waves he fears, what he might hear when the silence comes?

One of the newer arrivals is Brenda, the guest house guest, who has hopes of finding a job serving tourists in a restaurant or a hotel.  She packed up her life in Jamaica to come, bringing her own sunbaked accent, the one from among the archipelago of accents that happened to settle upon Jamaican shores but sounds altogether foreign in Barbados.  Barbados can mean a wage and a future; and she’s worried for her children’s futures.  She frets for them.  

You wonder at the abolitionists and the end of slavery across the British Empire in 1834, at the foresight and statesmanship and at the liberating not only of the slaves but of their masters, who might once again comprehend the idea of human dignity and expunge the stain of slave-owning from their souls.

You wonder how it was, that greatest Bar-bajan day in 1838 when full emancipation of the then 70,000 Afro-Bajans was realised, after four additional years of harsh, indentured service.  They took to the streets and sang they did.


And when you’re from a country of human rights poverty like Australia, which practices mandatory detention for asylum seekers including children and unlimited detention based on clandestine bureaucratic decisions for some refugees, mainly Sri Lankans, you wonder at how almost two centuries ago the Bar-bajans implemented the benefits of minimum standards in how we treat our fellow human beings.  How so long ago they achieved emancipation for one and all.  It’s impressive, it is.  Perhaps one day Australia could learn the Bar-bajan story, it could.  


It’s already evening and at the beach the resort-tourists are packing their things.  They’ll be heading off to the laid back restaurants for pasta or pizza while the waves of the Caribbean carry on.  And in the silence, what is it they sea-whisper, the waves?  Is it ssslavery?  No, wait.  I think they say: liberttty…







With only sugar there's not much to do.  You need a cup of tea or coffee or forget about the beverages altogether and go wandering in the mountains of the Philippines. 


This article is also published in Star Magazine, here: Sugar



[i] From www.barbados.org/history1.htm
(ii) some say it was the Spanish who found 'Los Barbudos'.  I'm not sure which is correct.
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