We were first in Barbados about thirty years ago on an emergency trip from London in search of some March fun in the sun. Darling Wife S. and I had booked rather late, but there were many flights on British Airways to the former island colony. In fact, Barbados did not get its independence and enter commonwealth status until 1966, so the remnants of the Caribbean raj were still much in evidence. If one stayed at the iconic Sandy Lane, (still going strong), one might have thought to be on the coast of Devon with, of course, some tropical accoutrements.
Today, things have changed. Time does that, doesn’t it? I no longer hear the lilt of of the natives speaking with a faint English accent. Believe it or not, it’s now the American that I hear coming through. All along the beach at least, near the Cobbler’s Cove hotel where we stayed, are now very large, maintenance-deferred, somewhat tawdry beach mansions built, I assume, by the English in better days. Greek Revival, faux Mediterranean, and a little of everything else. Oh, don’t get me wrong, you can still get kippered herring for breakfast, but the bacon has become Americanized.
I detected a little melancholia in attitude of the locals that I spoke to. Our guide and driver, Adrian, lamented that tourism was the only revenue producing industry still standing – besides rum, that is – and even rum making is in jeopardy due to the islands inability to consistently produce enough sugar cane syrup. Later Adrian admitted that the island was self-sufficient only in a surfeit of tourists. Not enough oil, not enough food, no (or little) high tech, no off-shore finance. Just a constant stream of cruise ships and airplanes bringing pasty-skinned gringos in search of early spring sun with their dollars and pound sterling in pocket.
I’m sure that most of you are up to speed on your Barbadian history, but let me refresh you on just a couple of points. Barbados was initially inhabited by the Amer-Indian around 500 CE, probably from Venezuela, and a later wave of Arawaks in the 8th century, and finally the Caribs (a mean group if there ever was one) in the mid-13th century. Sooner than you you would think, the Portuguese were poking around the islands looking for gold, as was their wont, and stumbled on the eastern most of the Caribbean islands. They named it Barbados, or the “Bearded One.” No, the Caribs had not forgotten to shave, the beard idea came from the local fig tree that sported long tendrils much like a beard. Go figure. Not long thereafter the Brits showed up and stayed the course for some 300 years. Finally in 1966, the island gained its independence and assumed Commonwealth status which it still enjoys, or doesn’t, depending on who you talk to. However, the Brits have not stopped coming here for the very good reason that the weather really sucks around March in England, and most self-respecting Brits are looking for someplace with certain sunshine to repair too. Just as my family did in 1986, our first visit to the island.
Oops. One important part of Bajan history that I omitted. Slavery. Yep, they had that here too. It was here from the beginning – initially established by the Portuguese and Spanish. It continued on as the need for cheap labor on the sugar cane plantations overwhelmed common sense and humanity…at least until 1807, when a first step was taken by the British to abolish the slave trade, but not slavery. Clever fellows those Brits. There were a few hiccups along the way. In 1816 a mass slave rebellion was undertaken by a chap named Bussa and about 20,000 of his fellows. This uprising ended like most of its ilk with lots of black slaves being killed and a few hundred white plantation owners made richer. In 1834 when England abolished slavery for themselves and all of its colonies, the then governor in Barbados slipped in a four year “apprenticeship” clause wherein the former slaves still weren’t paid, but provided a form of housing and a continuing “job” in the sugar cane fields. Again, clever fellows those Brits.
Fast forward to 2017. A lot has changed, perhaps some of it is even for the better. They still drive on the wrong side of the road and navigate roundabouts instead of intersections. There is still kippered herring on the breakfast menu, they are still a member of the Queen’s commonwealth, and the people here are still friendly to the tourists, but one has to think that there’s more that could have been done. While education is compulsory and free for children until age sixteen, they only have one two-year community college and one four-year Anglican college. They are members of the University of the West Indies which serves eighteen English speaking countries in the Caribbean. The problem, of course, is that few can afford even the nominal costs associated with higher education. It is, more or less, Commonwealth oriented with an enrollment of 36,000 on four campuses…but none in Barbados. Their balance of trade is a disaster. They export roughly $600 million and import about three times that. The commercial landscape is dominated by British and American brands. Barclay’s Bank, Kentucky Fried Chicken, et al. The one Barbadian brand that has been a winner is the convenience-store-cum-fast-food franchise, Chefette. Okay, I know the name could use some work. They are known locally as the McDonald’s killer. Get this. They were recognized by Travel+Leisure magazine as one of the top fast food chains.
I dunno where this all goes. Every Barbadian I talked to loved their country, and wanted to spend their lives here. They all have relatives in New York City or Houston or London. But home is where their heart is. There is an Association of Caribbean States composed of twenty-five countries of the Caribbean Basin, but it hasn’t been seen to make much of a positive difference in the economic development of the region. I wonder if anything can.
So back to Cobbler’s Cove. This hotel is tipped to be one of the top two or three on the island, but I suspect the final standing depends on what you’re looking for. As I said, it has its quirks, but they go into the mix…which comes out charming if you’re somewhere north of Medicare age and obviously don’t have kids; or are from the north of England and will do anything or stay anywhere there is sun and other Brits, kippered herring, and The Daily Telegraph. I was amused by the Rules of the Road for using the restaurant. It said that children were allowed “so long as they could sit up properly in their chairs and did not run around.” I swear. Those are the exact words.
We did not meet nor socialize with any of the other patrons, which is true to form for us in most cases. Although I was tempted last night. There was an American blowhard in a navy blazer complete with pocket hanky and no socks (that’s three strikes from the outset) holding forth at the bar. S. and I were minding our own business playing a pre-prandial game of electronic scrabble, but I could not help but overhear this guy’s BS. When he got around to Martha’s Vineyard for the second time and his boarding school experience, I could take it no more. I made a move to the bar, but S. gave me a deadly finger wag for which I learned the meaning long ago. I tried to explain to her that all I wanted to do was provide some learned and well-cultivated counter-BS. It was to no avail.
As I mentioned at the outset, it’s been thirty years since our last visit here, and I suspect it will be at least another thirty.