Barbados Museum and Historical Society Bridgetown, Barbados
Barbados is widely regarded as the first British colony to undergo a “Sugar Revolution,” meaning that the entire island’s resources (land and labour) were committed to sugar production by the mid-1640s. A handful of enslaved Africans had accompanied the first settlers in the 1620s, but by the 1670s the transatlantic slave trade, particularly through its agent, The Royal African Company located in Bridgetown, became the primary supplier of labour on the island, with enslaved Africans outnumbering whites by a ratio of almost ten to one.
Additionally, sugar, rum, molasses, and cotton production provide significant artifactual, visual, and documentary evidence of the evolving landscape, business history, and social structures which transformed Barbados from the early modern period to the present, particularly in the century from emancipation to the 1937 Labour Rebellion, setting the context for Barbados’ transition to a modern, independent nation state.
Established in 1933 by act of Parliament, the Barbados Museum and Historical Society (BMHS) became and remains the premier nonprofit heritage institution in Barbados. With an active commitment to researching, interpreting, and disseminating new knowledge on all aspects of Barbadian history, the BMHS delivers professional museum and heritage services in Barbados and beyond.
The museum began life with a mandate “to study and put on permanent record the history of the Island, its leading families and public men, old buildings and other matters of interest to antiquarians in Barbados and overseas.” Much has changed since then. By June 1933, the Society’s first temporary exhibition had opened at Queen’s Park House, and from 1934 its first volume of the journal chronicling life in this island had been published. The society later secured a 99-year lease of the former military prison as its permanent home, located within the first World Heritage property in Barbados, Historic Bridgetown and its Garrison.
As part of its mandate, the BMHS has engaged since inception in a continuous process of acquisition, exhibition, research, and knowledge production through programming, exhibition, interpretation, and publication around the importance of the Sugar Revolution’s impact on Barbados and the Atlantic world. Fueled by the exploitation of both people and property for products forever associated with the interaction between African labourers and their captors, enduring social-cultural hierarchies of unfreedom, status, and power have influenced ideologies, visual culture, material culture, archives, architecture, and archaeology—all of which, as represented in the permanent collections of the BMHS, speak eloquently to this historical experience.
In 1993, the BMHS acquired Newton Slave Burial Ground containing almost six hundred burial sites and is committed to its protection, preservation, and interpretation as a site of memory for generations of enslaved people and as a legacy for their descendants.
The BMHS slavery- and slave trade-related collections span the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries and comprise a broad range of visual images and material culture that document not just Barbadian and Caribbean slavery but also related experiences in both North America and Europe.
The collections include: archaeology, social and military history (including objects relating to the West India Regiment), fine and decorative arts, including Wedgwood plaques, coins and medallions, tools and equipment, maps and estate plans, early photography and personalia, rare books including early histories, as well as colonial manuscripts, ephemera, and other records, as well as the monetary and in-kind transactions of plantations and merchant houses in Barbados from the 1600s to the 1800s.
In some instances, records exist of the names of enslaved people and their respective occupations on various plantations, identifying both the individuals and the institutions involved, and representing some of the earliest family records for Barbadians.
The Barbados Museum and Historical Society has been the host, location, or commissioner for a number of program-related activities that are either directly or peripherally related to slavery and or the slave trade, its legacy and memory. Some of these which are documented here have become significant research resources in their own right.
Annual Lecture Series
In partnership with the University of the West Indies at Cave Hill, the Barbados Museum produces a lecture series each year which focuses on the historical development of the island and the history of Africans in the Caribbean which is multifaceted, complex, and often interconnected. Not all Africans were slaves, and for those who were, conditions were diverse, depending on a number of factors, such as economics, politics, ecology, and demographics. Indeed, Europeans in the West Indies used African labour in every conceivable form in every place they decided to settle during the colonial period and beyond. The BMHS’ lecture series contributes to unlocking these hidden histories and bringing them to light.
The 2007 series commemorated the bicentennial of the British legal abolition of the slave trade. There were ten lectures covering a number of aspects of the slave trade, including why and how the trade developed; the sources from which the slaves were taken and their destinations; the organization of the trade, and those who participated in the trade and its abolition; and the effects of the trade and its abolition on the sources and the destinations. The series included the following presentations:
- “Why an Atlantic Slave Trade?” — Dr. Claudius Fergus
- “Sources and Supplies” — Dr. Richard Goodridge
- “The Organisation of the Trade” — Dr. Fitz Baptiste
- “The Middle Passage” — Dr. Karl Watson
- “American/Caribbean Destinations and Transit Points” — Dr. Pedro Welch
- “The Impact of the Trade on Western Africa” — Prof. Alvin Thompson
- “Changes in Metropolitan Opinion on the Slave Trade” — Prof. Alan Cobley
- “The Abolitionists: Profiles and Objectives” — Dr. Heather Cateau
- “Petticoat Rebellion: Women and the Abolition Campaign” — Prof. Verene Shepherd
- “Assembling the Case for Reparations” — Prof. Hilary Beckles
All lectures were recorded and televised and are captured on CD for further research and educational programming. A publication will be forthcoming in due course.
Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society
The first issue of the JBMHS was published in 1933. It is now in its 60th volume. We can safely say that the journal is the richest single source of information on Barbadian cultural, historical, environmental, and archaeological heritage. The journal is also a valuable resource for the family researcher. In addition to articles on myriad historical subjects, the journal includes some of the following, which relate to the subject of slavery and the slave trade:
- Complete family histories, e.g., Lees, Alleynes, Oxnards, and Collymores
- Extracts from newspapers which give notice of baptisms, marriages, deaths, wills, sale of property (including enslaved persons), obituaries, business advertisements, etc.
- The Barbadian, 1922–late 1940s
- The Barbados Mercury, 1783–early 1800s
- Barbados Globe, Official Gazette and Colonial Advocate, 1850
- Vestry minutes, St. Michael, St. John
- House of Assembly reports, compiled from the Minutes of the House and other sources
- Census data, 1715, St. Michael, Christ Church, St. George
- Lists such as “Servants to Foreign Plantations from Bristol, England to Barbados, 1651–1686.”
Two commemorative issues of the JBMHS which are related to the specified topic include: Vol. 49, 2003 — Commemorative Issue on the 375th Anniversary of the Founding of Bridgetown Vol. 53, 2007 — Commemorative Issue on the 200th Anniversary of the Abolition of the British Slave Trade.
Newton Plantation Digital Library
The Barbados Museum and Historical Society’s collection on the Lowcountry Digital Library details the inner workings of Newton Plantation in the 1800s and contains several account and transaction ledgers. Specifically, this collection includes several day books (including the Newton Day Book or the Newton Plantation Day Book) originating between 1854–1872. These books provide records of monetary transactions on the plantation, including accounts payable and accounts receivable. This collection also includes the Newton Slave List, 1828, which records the names of slaves and their respective occupations on the plantation during that year. Additionally, the collection includes the Newton Plantation Cash Books from 1869–1873, a Stock Keepers and Watchmen book from 1862, and an 1849 Sugar Book, which contains records of sugar, rum, and molasses production on the plantation.
Lascelles Slavery Archive—Research Collection, in association with the Harewood House Trust and The Borthwick Institute of Archives, University of York.
This collection made available in the BMHS’ Shilstone Memorial Library, covers “the Lascelles family’s involvement with slavery and the slave trade from the first half of the 18th to the middle of the 19th centuries.” The 4.33 gigabyte resource consists of over 2000 JPEG files that relate to the Lascelles family in Barbados, Grenada, Tobago, and Jamaica. In addition to the Lascelles family, this resource provides significant insight into the financial situation of many prominent planter families who conducted business with the Lascelles.
Memory of the World, International Register (2003)
The BMHS collection of Transatlantic Slavery Archives constitutes a unique corpus of documentary evidence, including antique legal documents, plantation ledgers, estate inventories, rare books and original prints and paintings, relating to the lives of enslaved people whose labour made Barbados “the first successful English Slave Plantation society in the New World” [G.A. Puckerin , 1984]. Forcibly transferred from Africa to the Caribbean under the aegis of the British Empire, in an iniquitous system which inextricably binds their descendants into an unending pattern of relationships, the influence of this atrocious system of human bondage has pervaded the very fabric of today’s society worldwide. Throughout the 17th to the 19th centuries issues of leadership, control, ownership and status amongst these global populations are all explicitly illuminated in this context. This heritage can assist in the articulation of an integrated sense of the political and social evolution of New World plantation communities and their impact on modern social patterns.
The museum’s collection comprises some 17 categories of material, which can facilitate research into that enslaved past and the society that it created, not only in Barbados. It can as well illuminate Barbados’ further influence on the development of the Trans Atlantic Economic complex. Historians like Beckles and others have noted that Barbados was the blueprint upon which the Trans Atlantic plantation complex was based and the documents housed within the museum’s collection allude to this.
Artist Intervention White Skin, Black Kin—“Speaking the Unspeakable”
An intervention into four of the art and historical galleries at the Barbados Museum, Barbados Museum and Historical Society, (Feb and May, 2004). In this exhibition, multimedia artist, Joscelyn Gardner used intervention strategies to engage the past allegorically from a post-colonial feminist perspective. In particular, she inserted moving images and sound into the existing gallery installations as a way of alluding to the multiple (female) subjectivities not recognized in the “official” (male) historical canon. In speaking to the lives of (black and white) Creole women who have perhaps been overlooked in the reconstruction of our history, her work seeks to draw out the relationships between these members of the plantation Great House.
Artist Installation Sonia Boyce: The Crop Over Carnival, Harewood House, Leeds and Barbados Museum and Historical Society (2007/2008)
In 2003 Sonia Boyce was in a group exhibition at Harewood House, where she was shown the slave documents in their archive from the Caribbean, specifically Barbados where her own family left to emigrate to Britain. Boyce approached Harewood House herself a few years later to make the film The Crop Over Carnival. She found she was actually not “perfectly placed” to speak about this history: “There could be no singular voice, and were in fact conflicting voices, including my own.” Boyce found she did not know the cultural history of the folk characters seen in parades.
The double-screen video installation development began with Boyce’s interest in the Crop Over festival in Barbados. The Crop Over carnival is a harvest festival that originates out of the conditions of plantation life and sugar production in the Caribbean. Crop Over also responds directly to the history of Harewood House in the UK, and its relationship to the transatlantic slave trade. The relationship between the Lascelles family—the owners of the Harewood stately home—and Barbados began in the seventeenth century when Edward Lascelles and his son Daniel were based in Bridgetown.
The film opens with stillness and the sound of running water as the camera pans across the formal garden and grounds of Harewood House. A stilt walker wanders through the majestic gardens, confidently negotiating the grounds of this beautiful English country house, his fantastic costume is both admiral-like and carnivalesque. We are then transported to the brooding skies that hang over the sugarcane fields in Barbados and to the splendor of a plantation house. The plantation house echoes the grandeur of Harewood but is surrounded by an avenue of exotic palm trees, a pool of water lilies, and lotus flowers. Here we are asked to consider the cultivated landscape of both Barbados and Britain, and we are reminded of who owned, worked on, and now enjoys these different landscapes. The Crop Over festival comes out of the convergence of these different histories and spaces. As the film unfolds, cultural historians comment on the folk characters of the Crop Over festival, giving us an insight into their history and contemporary meaning. Folk characters would never be seen inside the house, and Boyce’s photographs and film which illustrated this led to local people complaining that this in itself was a transgression.
The contemplative nature of the film then changes, as we are taken directly to the pinnacle of the Crop Over festival, Grand Kadooment Day. Surrounded by Mas bands, dancers and street revelers, we are submerged into the heady world of masquerade and the carnivalesque.
Theatrical Production—Turning the Tables (2007)
The Turning the Tables project was a theatrical production commissioned and executed in commemoration of the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade by four global partners—the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, Iziko Museums of Cape Town, The Museum in Docklands (London) and The Museum of London and was endorsed by the UNESCO’s Slave Route Committee and supported by the British Council.
The late John Matshikiza was commissioned by the partner institutions and was hosted by the Barbados Museum when he made his first trip ever to Barbados in September 2007, before finalizing plans for the play. The BMHS was the first of the three global partners to launch this play which was to be the final masterpiece of this renowned African playwright.
Performances of Turning the Tables were held on November 16 and 17, 2007, at the Frank Collymore Hall. The play featured renowned actors Alison Sealy-Smith and Tony Thompson, celebrated musician Arturo Tappin and dancers Michael Taitt and Geraldine Lynch, with choreography and percussion by Danny Hinds, and costumes by Wayne Smith.
The play was a major component in the BMHS’ slave trade educational project, which also included workshops, coordinated by the National Cultural Foundation, for adults in scriptwriting and for secondary school students in drama. Locally, the project was supported by the Cultural Action Fund and the Central Bank of Barbados.
- Information about the Barbados Museum and Historical Society on the Lowcountry Digital Library
- Newton plantation burial ground
- Memory of the World Register: Nomination Form
- White Skin, Black Kin: “Speaking the Unspeakable”
- Video of Sonia Boyce