Who de house belong to?
by Baba Elombe Mottley
The Barbados National Trust, founded in 1960, is an organisation which works to preserve and protect the natural and artistic heritage of Barbados and to increase public awareness of Barbados’ historic and architectural treasures. These include a number of different cemeteries, gardens, historic houses, nature reserves, park areas, windmills and coastal areas.
The Trust also runs museums displaying a collection of artefacts owned and made by Barbadians, as well as an education programme, focusing on the island’s history and what it means to the future.
The Barbados National Trust has built a good working relationship with other National Trusts worldwide, equally with the organisations and their members, in places such as Canada, Scotland, England, Ireland, Wales, and the United States.
During a trip to Barbados last year, I visited Tyrol Cot, a house that I am very familiar with having spent a year or so back in the late 60s chatting on a daily basis with the late Sir Grantley Adams. This visit was based on a complaint from someone who called me in Jamaica to say that the windows on Tyrol Cot were falling off and that the Barbados National Trust was paying little attention to what was happening.
Indeed I found that the windows were in bad shape and the building, the grounds and the landscaping seem in need of regular maintenance. Considering that this was the residence of one of our National Heroes, I found this unbecoming and unacceptable.
What was even more worrisome was that I was able to walk through the house and no one was around to stop me. In addition, the house was wide open and anyone could have walked out of the place with any of the artefacts or any of the valuable pieces of furniture in the building. I am sorry that I did not remove some items that I could use to emphasize my point.
As I understand it, Tyrol Cot was purchased with funds provided by the Barbados Government and other donors and the property was handed over to the Barbados National Trust. The BNT has leased the property to the Foster & Ince Group of Companies, tour operators among other things. To quote from their website “The company is also involved in the Barbados National Trust and also ensuring that other attractions in Barbados are maintained at an acceptable level.” What in God’s name is the narrative that Foster & Ince use to present it to foreign visitors?
Let me quote some more from their website: “Foster & Ince has been in the tourism business for over 40 years and during this time has invested wisely and widely in the attraction business in Barbados. Our list of attractions includes our Mountain Biking at the Highland Adventure Centre. We are involved in Sunbury Plantation Great House, The Flower Forest, Orchid World, Banks Brewery Tours, Tyrol Cot, and Ocean Park.”
Those attractions that Foster & Ince imply that it has “invested wisely in” are all privately owned by different entities. I have already identified Tyrol Cot but the BNT owns other properties on behalf of the people of Barbados which are important to the psyche of the Bajan people regardless of how we look, what we own, or what we do.
Let me make this point for those who are antagonistic to the BNT. Although the BNT was established to maintain and project Barbados’ heritage, its members and supporters chose to emphasise a Eurocentric bias in how this heritage was defined, implying that only plantation great houses, gardens and gullies maintained by them were worthy of preservation. (I remember well when Keith Melville, the owner of Sunbury Plantation Great House use to complain bitterly about how the tour companies use to ignore him!)
In the early 90s, I recognised that a number Bajans who considered themselves white were transferring their energies from the Barbados Museum and Historical Society to the BNT when they realised that there was a democratisation taking place at the museum.
In the 1980s, the museum found it difficult to maintain its work as a museum as well as safely maintain its existing collection. They were unable to pay rent for the buildings they occupied, they were unable to pay their electricity bills for air conditioning, and it was in danger of collapsing as a museum. They also needed funding to modernise the museum and bring it out of the 19th Century since many of their original benefactors had died or migrated and so they turned to the Government for help.
The then Minister of Culture and Information, Nigel Barrow, was asked to help. Before agreeing to any help, he established a committee under the chairmanship of the outstanding UWI historian Professor Sir Woodville Marshall to study the museum and make recommendations to him.
It is this report that Government used to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into the museum as well as to provide for its continuity by providing a yearly subvention and committing to hire professionals to manage it. It was also required to be a museum for all of the Bajan people rather than its existing biased practices.
Even though the Government became de facto owners of this bankrupt entity, the Government exercised tremendous restraint and permitted the majority of the board to be non-Government appointees.
However, there was a great deal of residual discontent by the white membership of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society (to give its full title). But the Chairman, Attorney-at-Law Jack Dear skillfully guided the restructuring of the museum, trying to bridge the gap with the past and create a future for the museum funded as an integral part of Government’s cultural policy.
There were board members who regaled the board with details of the homosexual activities of interim professional curators in spite of the fact that previous Bajan directors exhibited the same proclivities. They were board members who vigorously objected to the appointment of women on the staff of the museum namely Alissandra Cummins, the first Bajan graduate in museology and grand-daughter of former Premier of Barbados, Dr Hugh Gordon Cummins, and Leslie Barrow, a graduate in film studies and daughter of the late Prime Minister Errol Walton Barrow.
In spite of Jack Dear’s efforts, there was a serious migration by most of the white membership away from the museum to the BNT. It was soon recognised that a national museum must reflect the heritage of Barbados, good, bad or indifferent. This seemed unacceptable to some.
I decided to join the BNT to see what was attracting them. I did not like what I saw and argued that the trust should also be willing to protect the chattel house as well as the plantation and merchant houses. I also argued that bush medicine and several aspects of our ephemeral African heritage should also be preserved.
For example I was so distrustful of the direction of the BNT that I approached Senator Ward, owner of Newton Plantation, and asked him to cede the Slave Graveyard to the museum and not the BNT. He did cede it to the museum which has never acknowledged my role in this.
The BNT started out by identifying the plantation great house and ignoring the humble chattel house of the African peoples who laboured in slavery to provide the wealth to build these distinctive houses. They also ignored their roles as carpenters, masons, blacksmiths and labourers in the construction of these houses. Most of the furniture identified as Bajan furniture and used in these houses were designed and built by Bajan joiners. That too is still being ignored.
When I was a boy visiting the Barbados Museum, it was commonplace to see the names of those who own this piece and that piece of furniture rather than those who made it. The significance of this was that the contributions of black Bajans were perpetually being marginalised and it has not stopped.
It is clear that lip service is still an inherent part of the control of our cultural development, and the populace in general remains ignorant of its own contribution to our development. In the meantime, others are copying and selling reproductions of Barbadian furniture worldwide while many of us are sucking salt.
The responsibility for this perpetration lies in the hands of our Governments who over the years failed to grasp the potential that lies dormant and underdeveloped.
As a nation we cannot have national heroes and make little or no effort to teach our children who they are and what they did to earn this designation. Even a simple comic book should be mandatory for pre-school and primary school children. There can be no justification that our leaders do not inform the rest of the population as well as themselves about our heritage inheritance on a regular basis but prefer to promote American, Canadian, British, French, German, Indian and Chinese culture.
I return now to the BNT mandate. These are the properties that the BNT owns and controls.
* Tyrol Cot Heritage Village – leased to Foster & Ince Tour Operation
* Wildey Great House — BNT headquarters
* Welchman Hall Gully — leased
* Andromeda Botanic Gardens – leased
* The Arbib Nature & Heritage Trail — leased
* Gun Hill Signal Station — BNT operated
* Morgan Lewis Sugar Mill — BNT operated (not functioning)
* The Sir Frank Hutson Sugar Museum and Factory — BNT operated (not functioning, dilapidated)
* The Bridgetown Synagogue — vested in BNT but operated by Jewish Community
* Arlington House — BNT operated
I want to focus on two of these entities owned by the BNT — Tyrol Cot and Wildey Great House and the Barbados Museum, three facilities that hold a significant importance for Barbados and Bajans. I ent want to put goat mout pun the BNT, but from my investigations I have no doubt that the BNT, like the museum before it, will be calling on the Government of Barbados for some sort of financial support in the near future.
I want to acknowledge the work of Professor Henry Fraser for his extensive research on the architectural heritage of Barbados – churches, plantation and merchant houses and his most recent work on the chattel house. The majority of Bajans lack the knowledge and hence the self-confidence to understand the importance of this heritage.
In many ways it is a part of what defines us. Yet we market these heritage elements to foreigners and then expect our own citizens to have respect for them when they remain ignorant and enjoy little of the benefits that accrue to the owners and operators.
As I indicated above, the Barbados government funds the museum but yet the museum depends on tourists and other foreign visitors and benefactors to provide the additional support that is needed. The BNT leases out most of its properties in order to get enough income to pay its staff but not enough to maintain the properties. Nor does it promote its facilities or offer access to Bajan students and the general public at concessionary rates.
Government needs to play a more pro-active role in the development of its citizens. It is not enough to say we have a museum, a national hero’s home, a chattel house village, and a plantation house. Our citizens need to be educated about their heritage so as to strengthen their respect for the uniqueness of our experience. This knowledge is not available in our formal educational structure and must be provided through informal means and this is where government must play a much larger role.
As I have pointed out before, Government needs to use its mandatory access to 10 per cent of the time that it owns on the broadcast media in Barbados. There is absolutely no reason that the Government should not allow the BNT and the museum to use this access to promote their own existence and familiarise the citizens of the country about our heritage.
It is important that the narratives give emphasis to the shared heritage in such a way as to enhance our respect and support for them. It is ours and we need to lay claim to it for present and future generations. So who you tink de house belong to?
PS Note that in the Wikipedia quotation above, the Barbados National Trust has no corresponding relationship with any African or other Caribbean state. Interesting!