Plantation, sugar cane fields, chattel house. These words evoke powerful images of slavery and antebellum America, and even now they are laced with unpleasant racial sensitivities.
However, in a recent trip to Barbados, these loaded words were part of my daily itinerary. On the small island are plantation houses surrounded by acre upon acre of sugar cane, Barbados’ most lucrative crop during the 18th and 19th centuries. There are chattel houses, some 1,200 rum shops, brightly painted and vibrant, spilling over with Mount Gay Rum. (For every rum shop, there’s a church down the block!)
Before I touched down on the island, I knew that this trip would be quite different from my first island vacation in 2005. That was a family reunion cruise to the Bahamas, full of touristy adventures and family-centered fun. It was so structured around family that I didn’t go to the local hangouts or mingle with the locals. This time around, instead of typical fun in the sun, lying out on the beach, I got the chance to cruise outside my comfort zone.
While growing up in Dallas in the ‘90s, my comfort zone was in the winding streets and paved sidewalks of the integrated suburbs. A country girl I was not. But my family took many road trips across the Deep South, and I got to see my fair share of the countryside. Whether it was to Hooks, Texas, or Jackson, Miss., I always had at least an inkling of fear when we stopped for gas. My multi-culti upbringing often clouded the reality of racism, but in those places, I could still feel its undertones. I questioned every side-eye, every murmur, every Confederate battle flag sticker in the back of a Ford F-150 on Interstate 20.
Traveling through Barbados, I felt like a kid again, in the back seat of a van, touring the unknown. But this time, I didn’t feel that same racial angst when faced with the unknown. I was less skeptical, much more open to a new environment. This trip to the Caribbean was about more than rum and relaxation; it was a chance to explore the unknown, and in the process, connect to an African heritage that seems so distant from America. It’s not something I can quite articulate, but while passing tall stalks of sugar cane, with a Big House far off in the distance, I got a glimpse of Barbados’ rich history and felt like I was right at home.
Between 1640 to 1807, there were 470,000 enslaved Africans brought to Barbados, the easternmost Caribbean island and a stopping point during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The island, which has a population of more than 280,000 scattered over its 166 square miles, is still very rooted in its connection to England. (Queen Elizabeth II is still recognized as head of state, even though the island gained its independence in 1966.) Despite its relatively newfound freedom, Barbados’ emancipation celebration puts America’s Juneteenth, Emancipation Day, etc., to shame. Forget celebrating for a day or two a year, Barbadians—or Bajans—celebrate their emancipation for a full season. Things get started on April 14 with a commemoration of Bussa, the leader of a slave uprising in 1816, Barbados’ version of Nat Turner. And it ends with Crop Over, the five-week celebration marking the end of the sugar cane season, on the first Monday in August. (Think Trinidad’s Carnival.)
There are a few must-do activities while in Barbados. Comb through Newton Slave Burial Ground, the only known excavated slave burial site in the Western Hemisphere. Eat flying fish and cou-cou, the national dish, at Fisherpond Great House, a 350-year-old plantation house. Enjoy a dance and dinner show at Bajan Roots & Rhythms. Hang out with the locals at Oistin’s, a Friday night fish fry. And to satisfy your quest for rum and relaxation, sail on a catamaran cruise and swim with sea turtles.
But of all the food, fun and history lessons during the trip, the most telling part was a visit to Arlington House, an 18th-century coral stone house and museum. On the second floor, in a section called “Plantation Memories,” is a floor map of Barbados, divided by the last names of land owners. Near the eastern shore, Evans, in a delicate script, jumped out at me. Maybe Barbados is more familiar than I ever could have known.
Erin Evans is a copy editor and writer for The Root.