Barbados Today

Changing of the Sentry

Historic Bridgetown & its Garrison:

It’s a bit like the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace but a lot less stiff, and a lot more colourful. 

Back when Barbados was the “gem” of the British colony, the Changing of the Sentry at the Main Guard- the internal security headquarters of Historic Bridgetown’s Garrison military complex-was an everyday routine. In the late 1700s the area served as a British military site for British troops in Barbados.

Today, it is the Barbados Legion’s salute to the free and enslaved African peoples whose blood was shed alongside British soldiers, in the defence of the British Colonial Empire.

For 15 minutes, visitors watch these retired members of military units exude the swagger of the West India Regiment. This battalion was the first British regiment of black soldiers, who provided 132 years of service under the British crown.

Throughout the display, the expertise of the veterans is resplendent; shoulders erect, hands and feet in sync, arms handled steady, proud. Shiny black boots march behind the Commander to three drum solos beneath brilliant white smacks. Black pants with one gold stripe lead to a crisp white jacket and bright orange waistcoat. Twirling, yellow battle stripes run along the edge of its front clasps. A stiff red hat with white and a yellow tuft adorns each sentry’s head. This is the Zouave uniform Queen Victoria fell in love with.

The drum corps re-enters; not a wink at the clapping and cheers of locals and visitors is allowed.

Led by the drum major, hands perform an intricate stick display of acrobatics beating rhythmic patterns. Similar to the sounds of the busking Banja Man and the Tuk Band of the Barbados Landship, the display resurrects the unique folklore of Bajan popular culture.

For knowing eyes, the stick display is also a stark reminder of the “deep, complicated, hurtful and profound history” the Garrison holds for all Barbadians.  As Dr. Marcia Burrows reminds us, enslaved/freed men and women created spaces within slave and colonial societies for the “nourishment and survival” of their art forms.

These art forms challenged the discriminatory policies practised by colonial authorities- even within the colonial Garrison military community. Though the Changing of the Sentry is a traditional British military practice, this short re-enactment captures the bittersweet tune of enforced cultural blending.

When two new sentries replace the previous guards of the Main Guard, the stick display is memory. A declaration of the change of the sentry and his orders on guard closes the mini-parade.

Everyone is now welcome to take photos with the armed sentries, keepsakes to share the experience of a brief throwback to Barbados’ colonial barracks. By now, local and foreign spectators are all curious, questioning the sentries and expert hosts from the Barbados Garrison Historical Consortium Inc.: Mr. James Blades and Mr. Peter Stevens.

And there’s a lot of laughing too- after the sentries become civilians again, the fun loving vibe of the Barbados Legion of retired soldiers creates a lively, relaxed atmosphere. With the steel-pan, DJ Mexican and Bajan foods and drinks, the clock-tower becomes home to a family friendly afternoon lime…

The Changing of the Guards at the Garrison is a fun tribute to Bridgetown’s military community- and a powerful symbol of Europe’s game of thrones.

Did You Know?

“A Zouave is a member of a French infantry unit, originally composed of Algerian recruits, characterized by colourful uniforms and precision drilling. The uniforms date to 1858 and are renowned for their distinct North African style. This military style is still worn by the Barbados Defence Force Band.”

“The Barbados Garrison Historical Consortium Inc. launched the Changing of the Sentry in celebration of Tourism week 2011.”

This story was originally published in the 2014 edition of Bridgetown & its Garrison (Map + City Guide)

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