Last Sunday I ventured into the hills of St Andrew with my immediate family, mother, aunt, brothers and their families and my cousin in search of my roots. Specifically, we went into the hills overlooking Shorey Village and more specifically an area called Overhill.
I have written in the past that many would not expect I have roots in St. Andrew and several of my acquaintances are surprised when they learn of my connection to that parish and my mixed Barbadian heritage. My name immediately suggests someone not Barbadian although in recent years I am linked to the Barbadian and West Indies cricketer Sulieman Benn by virtue of us having the same first name. And certainly my appearance will undoubtedly link me to the East Indian community.
My father migrated to Barbados from Gujarat on the western shores of India in the 1950s. He was following in the footsteps of his father who had arrived here years earlier but sadly passed away at a very young age while my father was still at school in India. It was a journey that lasted months by ship. East Indian migration to Barbados had started in the early 1900s and Sabir Nakhuda’s book, Bengal to Barbados, documents the East Indians in Barbados.
It is, however, from my mother that I have a connection to St Andrew. Her father was also from India and came to Barbados in the 1930s. He, like many of the early East Indian migrants, came seeking better economic opportunities as life was difficult for them in the farming villages of Gujarat, India. And he, like most of these migrants, set about establishing themselves in the itinerant trade, selling house to house across the island (mostly in the countryside) on credit. The life and experiences of these early migrants are stories in themselves and worth recording. I am told my grandfather started off on foot walking for miles with a suitcase to build up his business. He became well known in the St. Andrew countryside where his grandchildren still maintain the itinerant trade.
My maternal grandmother came from St Andrew, in particular that area called Overhill, to where I journeyed last Sunday. Her father was of Irish background and her mother Afro-Barbadian, Joseph and Alma Greaves. They had a house in Overhill, one of only two simple wooden houses that were found there, overlooking Shorey Village. No water or electricity. My great-grandfather worked on one of the plantations in the area and raised his family in Overhill in humble circumstances and surroundings.
Over the years, I have listened to various accounts of life back then from my grandmother before she passed in 2002. I regret not doing what I did last Sunday while my grandmother was still alive as she probably would have added so much more to the experiences. Nevertheless, my mother and aunt provided as much as they could from their recollections as young girls visiting their grandparents in Overhill.
In recent years, my interest grew in learning more about this part of my lineage as I believe it is an important part of who I am. I also believe it is an important part of history worth researching and documenting so that my future generations would know their background and how deep their roots go in Barbados.
I started researching and asking more about my history. I didn’t find the name Overhill on present-day maps but it was recorded on the birth certificates of my mother and aunt. Doing a search online, I found Overhill, interestingly, on an old map of Barbados dated 1825 at a University College of London website. The site listed 109 estates in Barbados at that time and counted Overhill as one of them.
My interest peaked further when I learned that hurricane Janet impacted my great-grandparents significantly. My great-grandparent’s house was one of only two houses located in Overhill and to reach it, one had to walk up the tracks that led to it. It wasn’t accessible to vehicles. As a young girl, my mother would visit and spend time with her grandparents. To get to the house, one would have to park at the bottom of the hill and walk up the tracks for a bit. Having no water or electricity there meant regular treks down to the hill to get water.
On September 22, 1955, hurricane Janet smashed into Barbados with winds of 120 miles per hour. It left 38 persons dead and over 2,000 homeless. Among those left homeless were my great-grandparents and the occupants of the other house in Overhill, the Morgans. The house was destroyed around them during the hurricane. After the hurricane, villagers made their way up to Overhill to find them sheltering among the debris. That would have been the last time persons from the family went to that spot in Overhill, until 63 years later when last Sunday, September 23, 2018 we ventured in search of the spot.
We went in search of the location of the house where all that is left are memories. We couldn’t find the exact spot amongst the trees and bushes that pervade the area, but being in that space brought back several recollections and stories. My mother spoke of the treks down the tracks to fetch water at the standpipe (which is still in use) in Shorey Village and back up with a bucket of water on her head and one in each hand. She and my aunt recalled a pond or spring close to the house where they played with their dolls. We couldn’t find it but was told later by a resident in Shorey Village that it was there.
My great-grandparents were given a house by the Government in Shorey Village after the hurricane. As we drove through the village and spoke to residents, we were directed to Mrs Hall at the iconic Shorey Village ‘Nigel Benn Aunty Bar’. This 78-year-old welcoming lady immediately remembered my great-grandfather and went on to describe him with perfection – a very tall man with straight hair. She recounted him coming down the hill into the village for water or to go to the shop.
It was a wonderful experience discovering my roots buried in the clay soils of St. Andrew and in the shadows of Morgan Lewis Windmill, a Windmill that would have been witness to my great-grandparents moving along the several tracks that crisscross Overhill.
(Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace. Secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association and Muslim Chaplain at the Cave Hill Campus, UWI. Email: [email protected])