It was a celebration of Barbados’ culture and heritage last night, when the Barbados Tourism Product Authority (BTPA) launched the 2018 Sugar and Rum season at Portvale sugar factory.
Guests got a glimpse into the life of a plantation owner and a slave working the cane fields of 1812, as the evening’s activities opened at the island’s lone operational sugar factory in St James.
Local historian, Professor Karl Watson, who played the role of plantation owner, recalled that the production of both sugar and rum started in Barbados.
“The sugar economy, as we know it in the Caribbean, started on this island. And like a shifting frontier, it went further and further north: Jamaica, St Domingue . . . so this island, and this is something that I am proud of, what my ancestors did, they created a worldwide industry,” the ‘plantation owner’ said.
He also acknowledged the dark side of sugar and rum production – slavery. African slave labour was used for the cultivation of sugar cane when the early settlers realized that labourers from England and Ireland could not survive the tropical climate.
“They couldn’t stand the hard work, they couldn’t stand the bad food, they couldn’t stand the ill-treatment. And then the price of indentured servants went up in England, and so they said where is a marketplace for human labour. And so they shifted their attention to West Africa. And that’s when thousands and thousands of Africans were brought to this island to labour in the sugar cane fields.”
Melvin Terence, who played a slave on the plantation, recalled the hard life of the workers during the period of colonialism.
“My grandfather, he used to tell me when he was young, a lot of people came here from the other islands, [to] learn to grow cane, mek sugar and rum. But one ting he never tell we, man dah wuk real hard yuh know. I used to work in that hot, boiling sun from morning till evening. Rain fall, sun shine and still got to go.”
The January 15 to April 15, 2018 season will be the second edition of the event, and will highlight various aspects of the production of both commodities.
Chief executive officer of the Barbados Tourism Product Authority, Dr Kerry Hall, told the audience it was important that the story of sugar and rum be told to locals and visitors.
“We insist that we must tell the story of Barbados to the world. It is a fascinating, rich and compelling story that we believe the world will be interested in hearing. And a large part of this story is the rich history of sugar and rum.
“As you know, for over 300 years in Barbados, sugar was king, and rum was queen. And Barbados was known to be one of the richest countries, richest colonies in the Caribbean region, and the brightest jewel in the British crow, due to the great wealth that was accumulated by the sugar and rum industry.
This wealth was made possible through the hard work, the blood sweat and tears and on the backs of the enslaved people, and we owe it to them to tell the story. And we will tell the story,” Hall said.
Tourism succeeded sugar as Barbados’ main income earner in in the 1990s, however, the sugar crop continues to contribute to the economy, though minimally.
According to figures released by the Central Bank of Barbados in August, only 10 000 tonnes of sugar were produced in the first six months of this year. Rum exports, meanwhile, stood at $76.9 million in 2016.
Meanwhile, Minister of Tourism Richard Sealy praised the private sector’s investments in preserving the sugar and rum components of the island’s heritage and economy.
“The St Nicholas Abbey experiment is one that comes to mind right away. I think the Warren family should be saluted for what they’ve done there, and apart from taking one of the few Jacobean mansions in the western hemisphere and making it something truly attractive, they’ve actually created a brand of rum around that whole plantation.
“Only recently I had a courtesy call from Richard Drax, the great-great-grandson of the original Drax who started Drax Hall in St George. [That plantation is] still in active production and they want to do something quite similar to what is happening at St Nicholas Abbey,” Sealy disclosed.
Activities marking the Sugar and Rum season include rum distillery tours, historic lectures, slave route tours, mixology roadshows and sugar and rum spa treatments.