by Shawn Cumberbatch
Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan once said Barbados was “punching above its weight”.
It is a phrase many Barbadians have retained and repeated proudly ever since.
As far as Anthropologist and Archaeological expert Professor Frederick H. Smith is concerned however, the well known international diplomat was centuries late with that statement.
For almost 20 years this curious American, accompanied in recent times by other faculty and students from William & Mary college and research university, has literally been digging up proof that from the days of slavery little Barbados could go toe to toe with the world’s best.
Of course Annan was speaking about an independent Barbados free from its colonial shackles, but Smith said it took him a trip across the seas many moons ago to discover “the political and economic influence of the Caribbean, especially Barbados, on the development of the Atlantic World”.
The discoveries unearthed since then have been countless and are now continuing, the educator based in Virginia, United States told Barbados TODAY.
Smith, whose work here has taken him from Bridgetown to Holetown and is currently centred at the historic St. Nicholas Abbey in St. Peter, said the diversity of archaeological findings in Barbados surpassed many in North America.
“One of the most interesting things for me as a historical archaeologist is the sheer quantity and quality of materials found in Barbados. Bridgetown was really at the centre of the early Atlantic economy,” he said.
“We find Spanish olive jars, Portuguese majolica plates, French tin glazed earthenware bowls, English punch bowls, Chinese porcelains and other ceramics from nearly every corner of the Atlantic world. Bridgetown was an incredibly wealthy place in the 17th and 18th centuries. Archaeologists working in North America rarely find archaeological sites with such diversity and quality in ceramic materials.”
Not surprisingly, this student of human habits has also realised the important role rum and education played in fashioning Barbadian society from slave days.
“My research has focussed largely on the role of rum in Barbadian history. Barbados was the birthplace of rum and rum is central to the social and economic fabric of Barbadian society. I examine the European and African traditions that shaped the nature of rum making and rum drinking in early Barbados,” he explained.
“Nearly everyone in Barbados drank rum to celebrate social bonds, as well as to cope with the many challenges of early life in the Caribbean. Disease, hard work, and the threat of conflict made rum an important vehicle for escape, at least a temporarily.
“Rum drinking is obviously still important in Barbados today. A quick look at the lyrics of recent Crop-Over songs highlights the importance of rum in Barbadian sociability today. The drinking traditions evident today reflect European and African traditions, and those traditions have deep roots in Barbados.”
Then there is the issue of education, which always dominates discussion in Barbados and probably did on the sugar plantation.
Among the interesting discoveries he and his team have made recently in the St. Nicholas Abbey environs is the focus on learning by not just slave masters, but slaves themselves.
“We have found slate, which was used as writing tablets. These were the iPads of the day and they show that everyone from planters to enslaved workers were engaged in educational pursuits. We also find ink wells that seem to confirm this emphasis on learning,” a fascinated Smith said.
“We have also recovered a number of patent medicine bottles, which give insight into early health care in the island. And of course we find many glass bottles that tell us about the drinking habits of Barbadians who lived and worked at St. Nicholas Abbey.”
Where he is today is a long way from the early 1990s when the initial focus of his work in Barbados was “the colonial experience in early Bridgetown”.
It took a trip to an island he knew little about to expand the knowledge of this then already well schooled American.
Smith was taken aback that as someone educated in the United States and knowing of his country’s role in shaping the political and economic development of the New World, he did not know of the Caribbean’s, and especially Barbados’ influence on the world hundreds of years before.
“After further studies and research, I discovered that Barbados was really at the heart of the Atlantic economy and that sugar making in Barbados was the catalyst for change in the Atlantic economy. My early archaeological work in Bridgetown at Jubilee Gardens and Suttle Street sought to highlight the economic strength and wealth of early Barbadians, as well as explore the lives of enslaved peoples in the urban context of Bridgetown,” he recounted.
“Excavations at the Pierhead, for example, revealed an unmarked slave cemetery that had been lost and forgotten over time. Those buried in the cemetery were buried with grave goods reflecting the transfer of West African burials practices to Barbados.
“We also did analysis of the skeletal material to learn about the health of the urban enslaved population. The results of these many studies are published in the journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society,” he noted.
Inspired and highly motivated by what he found in the island’s capital, Smith then shifted his archaeological investigations in Holetown, working along with the help of people like local historian Dr. Karl Watson.
“While the archaeological record suggests that the early years in Holetown were tough, Holetown eventually had a standard of living similar to that of Bridgetown. And Bridgetown and Holetown were both wealthier than any North American urban centers at the time,” he said.
Having practically told those two famous towns goodbye – at least for now – Smith is now focussing all of his attention on St. Nicholas Abbey as he seeks “a better understanding of the difference between urban and rural life in early Barbados”.
So far that work, which started in 2006 at the St. Peter plantation, has been fruitful and focusses on “the lives of the planters who lived in the Great House, the skilled artisans who worked in the various outbuildings, and the enslaved workers who lived in the villages near the factory”.
“We are interested in the materials that people used on a daily basis in their homes and in their shops. We are trying to piece together and get a fuller picture of the day to day lives of early Barbadians. These details are often left out of history books and archaeology is the only way sometimes to view the day to day experiences of early Barbadians,” he explained.
“The pottery we find tells us about the food ways of the enslaved workers, who apparently ate a lot of stewed food prepared… and eaten in bowls. The plantation managers appear to have embraced similar food ways. However, the planters used fine china and the latest and most fashionable ceramics of the time.”
While Smith is delighted that he, other colleagues and students have made and are likely to make other discoveries that are of great historic value to Barbados, he thinks Barbadians need to focus on protecting and preserving their own heritage.
Praising Watson, the Barbados National Trust and the Barbados Museum & Historical Society and its team including Director Alissandra Cummins and her Deputy Kevin Farmer, he said it was important for future generations to “see the places and architecture that shaped and defined Barbadian identity”.
“The economic potential of heritage tourism is one of the keys to Barbados’ future economic success. Foreign visitors enjoy the sea, sun, and sand, but many of the more sophisticated and educated visitors, which tend to visit Barbados more frequently, also want to experience the culture and learn about the history of Barbados. St. Nicholas Abbey, the Garrison, the Bridgetown Synagogue, and many other heritage sites draw thousands of foreign visitors each year and help raise the international profile of Barbados as a shining star in the Caribbean,” he said.
“These visitors spend a considerable amount of money visiting these sites, which certainly helps pump foreign currency into the island. These visitors return home and tell their friends and families about the unique heritage and character of Barbados.
“There are beautiful beaches all over the world, but Barbados offers not only beautiful beaches, but a rich history that provides insights into the key industry (sugar), as well as the key institutions of slavery and colonialism, that shaped the modern Atlantic world.
“There are so many aspects of Barbadian heritage that need to be explored and protected. Religion, theatre, burial practices, fishing, blacksmithing are just a few examples of life that archaeological investigations can explore.”
Smith believes if an effort is made to “raise the consciousness of Barbadians and foreign visitors about the wonderful heritage resources in Barbados”, people “will begin to devote more energies to protecting and preserving these landmarks of Barbadian heritage”.
He certainly hopes he can play some role in this for years to come.
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