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Of chattel, marinas, and more

by Baba Elombe Mottley

Ever seen

a man travel more

seen more


than this poor


less, harbour-

less spade?

– Kamau Brathwaite, “Rights of Passage”

I am profoundly concerned about Barbados and the Caribbean and our failure to focus on what is necessary for us to develop in a manner that would give profound satisfaction to the majority of our citizens. The process of moving from chattel slavery to citizen is one that called for great patience, sacrifice and suffering.

Generation after generation struggled in the face of deprivation to advance themselves through the formal teaching of the public school and the informal tutelage of the village.

I want to remind Bajans about some basic facts on who we are as a people and the reality of where we live. We live on an island that has an area of 166 square miles and a population of nearly 300,000 people. Being an island it means that we are surrounded by water and the only way to leave it is by boat or by plane. This also implies that for anyone to get to Barbados, they have to come by the same boat or plane, none of which we own.

I sleep in Jamaica now. It is also an island of 4,224 square miles and a population of nearly 3,000,000. Guyana is on the continent of South America. It is 83,000 square miles and a population under 800,000.

The combined population of Barbados, the Eastern Caribbean and Trinidad cannot reach 2,000,000. Similarly the total land mass can fit into Jamaica; and Jamaica and all the islands of the Eastern Caribbean can be hidden in Guyana’s Rupununi Savannah.

All of these islands and Guyana had Crown lands (i.e. owned by the government) and many of the enslaved African descendants left plantations and established free villages after Emancipation. They were mostly squatters. Barbados did not have any Crown lands, as all the land in Barbados was owned by plantations.

Furthermore, the plantocracy passed a law that prohibited the former slaves who lived in the nigger yards from selling their labour to the highest bidder. They were required to live on what was now called tenantries. In other words most of these former slaves were landless and imprisoned by the Located Labourers Act until well after the middle of the 20th Century.

In Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad, with no one to work the plantations, Indians, Chinese and free Africans were brought in. These new people established their own villages and communities based very much on the cultural traditions they brought with them. The free Africans also brought their own traditions and were free to integrate them within the existing black population which helped to strengthen waning African traditions.

In Barbados, whites never forgot the Bussa Revolt in 1816 and they were so out-numbered by blacks that in order to sleep well at night, they encouraged Bajans to go to Guyana during hard times and help out with their crop season. Some came back as is evidence by some of the songs I collected in the rural villages of Barbados, while others stayed and contributed greatly to the development of Guyana.

All of those Guyanese names that sound like ours are family to us here in Barbados. I know cause I have family down there too. Remember that Guyana was really three colonies controlled by the Dutch before England took them over in the 1810s and consolidated them into British Guiana in 1831.

Trinidad was similar. Because the schooner traffic to Trinidad and Guyana was ubiquitous, many Bajans descended on Trinidad from the 1850s onward. Trinidad did not want Bajans and the French Creole speakers referred to them as Bah-john which became in English badjohns. And they were bad. They were sticklickers. They were policemen. They introduce Bajan music to Trinidad. Ask Trevour Marshall.

They were involved in the development of steelband according to Dr. Kim Johnson. Check the names. I have family there too. In the other islands, they were revolutionaries as in the Virgin Islands. They were teachers, policemen and civil servants all thru the Eastern Caribbean.

In Panama, they formed the backbone of the silver men. After helping to build the canal, some migrated to the United States, some to Brazil, some to Surinam, some to Peru and some to Cuba. I know cause I have family in US, Panama, Brazil and Peru. Some also stayed in Panama and changed their names to sound Spanish — names like Forte became For-tes, and Blades became Bla-dez as in Ruben Blades the musician, actor, scholar and politician.

For the record, let me include Liberia and Sierra Leone in Africa and the United Kingdom in the late 1950s.

I have given this brief history of what happened to these “poor landless, harbourless spades” who took their chances in new countries to free themselves from the plantation tenantries and the Located Labourers Act which was only abolished in the early 1940s.

During this same period, immigrants came in trickles from England to run the small civil service, the police force, the army, and as teachers to indoctrinate the brightest of us about the glory and superiority of England and Europe. Many stayed to marry the daughters of the plantocracy and the merchants.

Among these trick-lers were also a few Pakistani and middle Eastern (Jews, Lebanese, Assyrian) door to door salesmen. These itinerant sales people bestowed deceptive credit to Bajans as they walked the breath of Barbados selling their wares. Soon they were on bicycles, then motorcycles, then motor cars and then a Swan Street store. We hardly noticed because they kept to themselves and maintained the old ways. However, their children were full fledged Bajans and slowly became part and parcel of this culture of ours which they were entitled to do.

All the while, we remained on the plantation, or on the sidewalk, or in the market, hoping that Moses and Dipper and Papa Motts somehow would be our saviours and release us from the mental bondage. Yes indeed they were our saviours in many ways.

Let me step back a ways and tell you something. I am not recounting these issues to be malicious but to give you a comprehensive understanding of the odds we faced. For many years we controlled the supply of food to households. We bought ground provisions from the plantations and walked around Barbados with trays on our heads or on donkey carts selling directly to households.

Do you know why we used to set up in alleys in Bridgetown selling every and anything? A law was enacted to stop us from selling on Broad Street, Swan Street and all the streets in Bridgetown and especially walking on sidewalks with trays on our heads. We used to sell water to the ships in the careenage and those outside. Another law was passed to restrict that occupation also.

In the late 1930s, one hundred years after Emancipation, the former enslaved people in Barbados (and across the Caribbean) lived in some of the most atrocious physical, spiritual, and intellectual conditions to be found anywhere. The riots of 1937 attributed to Clement Payne shook the establishment to the core. The commissions of enquiry spoke of the appalling housing conditions and social degradation faced by these refugees from plantation tenantries to urban tenantries — Golden Square, Pondside, Green Fields, Cat’s Castle, The Orleans, Carrington Village, et al.

In the last 70 years, the DLP Government cleared Golden Square and built the Central Fire Station opposite the Empire Theatre; the BLP government cleared Pondside and built the multi-storied London Bourne Towers; The Orleans and Carrington Village were restructured by private developers and sold as house lots.

Across Barbados, poor landless Bajans built their houses in such a way as to make them capable of being moved from one tenantry to another, from one house spot to another. They were like ships at sea looking to find a harbour that they could drop anchor. The artisan class — carpenters, masons, blacksmiths, boat builders, joiners, tailors, dressmakers — as opposed to agricultural and dock workers, used the chattel house as the basis of demonstrating their standard of living.

The chattel house required no mortgage to be expanded. It was like a train adding additional cars as required. There was a system that involved purchasing necessary materials and storing them under the cellar until needed. Expansion of the chattel house matched the expanding family. Verandahs, surrounding the front house, bell hoods over the windows reflected the rising status of the family. Conversion of the house to “wall” started from the back to the front. The yard surrounding by a paling was basically an outdoor room for “stock” to finance their children’s education for drying clothes, for outdoor toilets and showers.

But the chattel house was much more. Although it evolved to meet the demands of those harbourless spades, it was ecologically a marvelous conception.

* It was cooled by the use of louvred windows and doors that were also used to protect the glass sash windows in the more upscale versions.

* The steep pitch of the gable roof help force hurricane winds upwards and over the house.

* The small louvred windows on each side of the inverted vee formed by the roof allowed hot air to dissipate and created a draft that kept the house cooled.

* It was expandable and did not require any mortgage.

By the 1960s, this indigenous technological housing solution was being abandoned as Canadian and English banks persuaded us not to postpone the pleasures of achievement by persuading us to use their money now and pay them back over the next 20 years.

Lack of understanding of the benefits of the steep pitch gable roof led to its abandoned for the flatter-roof timber house that now proliferate the Barbadian landscape. Unfortunately this type of roof makes it extremely vulnerable to hurricanes.

Government persists in believing that it can provide all the housing solutions for those in need. It cannot. It has turn to top-market developer Bjorn Bjerkhamn to provide a solution. Maybe because he is accustomed to the rarified stratosphere, Bjerkhamn has produced a development that is totally insensitive and unappreciative of the Bajan need for a harbour.

I am not aware of how sales are going, but with a better understanding of the society in which he lives, Bjerkhamn could have provided a harbour to parallel the two marinas he has built or is in the process of building up in St Peter. If only Bjerkhamn had lifted those houses eight feet above the ground, he would have demonstrated his understanding and sympatico for the Bajan well-being.

These upstairs houses would have allowed purchasers to use the old chattel house expansion concept by building out the bottom floor, doubling the size of the house which would allow the family to have a larger house or a space to rent out to offset the cost of the mortgage.

Alternatively as I pointed out to the Barbados Institute of Architects some years ago, Government should provide sites and services. Architects and engineers should provide modular timber panels that can be designed to be bolted together unto the concrete slab by the prospective owner who can purchase them from a hardware store. When he can afford it, the owner can replace the timber panels with concrete blocks and resell the used panels to others. But more importantly, this modular system could be exported!

It is not about economics. It is about the culture. Every harbour is not the Bridgetown Port, Port St. Charles or Fort George. It is about respect for a people and understanding their culture.

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