Wednesday, 12 June 2013

What were the Scots doing in Barbados and how did they get there?

Before we set out on our recent trip, we thought we knew the key facts about Barbados. These 'facts' were that the island is inhabited by the descendants of former slaves from West Africa, has beautiful sandy beaches and a tropical climate and is generally more stable and prosperous than its Caribbean neighbours. And, of course, it produces rum.

All this is true. The population is 95% black, from African slave stock. The climate is glorious, reminding me of the warmth and sunshine I have been missing ever since we left Uganda. The clear water and golden sands seduce the senses. Barbados has little overt poverty. Indeed, the luxury hotels and gracious yachts are signs of unashamed prosperity, at least among many of the visitors. The rum punches, served everywhere you go, are excellent. We visited the wonderful Sandy Lane Golf Course and Country Club. Here Stuart salivated at the pristine fairways and perfect greens on a course which he couldn't afford - or wasn't prepared to afford - to play.

Yet there is far more to Barbados than all this. We received our first hint of its complex history before we left Scotland. The good friend in whose Bajan house we were staying during our break, sent us a link to an excellent BBC TV programme, Barbado'ed: Scotland's Sugar Slaves, about the descendants of the Scots who were shipped to Barbados in the early seventeenth century. Yes, 'slaves' was the word used, Scottish slaves. Those two words do not sit easily together.

Here in the UK we are used to the idea that our ancestors might have been slave owners (though we take care not to think about it very much or very often). After all, Glasgow's splendid Merchant City and the great ports of Bristol and Liverpool were built on the proceeds of slavery. Just look at street names like Jamaica Street in Glasgow or Antigua Street in Edinburgh. Think of where the money came from to build Britain's stately homes. Slavery and exploitation are woven into the fabric of our culture and into our greatest literature. Consider poor Mrs Rochester, deemed to be lascivious as well as mad because of her 'degenerate' West Indian mulatto parentage. It is sad, but hardly surprising, that Charlotte Bronte shared the prejudices of her time.

As a nation, we have tended to put by the faint sense of shame which comes with that knowledge of our ancestors' complicity in slavery, preferring to focus instead on our pride in Britain's role in combating the trade. However, it never occurs to us that some of our ancestors could also have been victims of the slave trade.

Less well known than the shameful history of Black African slavery is the transportation and trade in forced and indentured workers from the British Isles themselves during the seventeenth century, long before the first African slaves arrived. The first white workers were transported shortly after Barbados was settled in 1609. This monument in Holetown on the west coast commemorates the first landing by Britons in 1605.

Between 1652 and 1659, around 50,000 workers were forcibly transported to the island in this way. It is said that by 1701, 21,700 forced workers out of 25,000 were of a white ethnic background. Thousands of them were Irish, many of them children between the ages of 10 and 14, kidnapped as part of the ethnic cleansing carried out by Cromwell's forces after their conquest of  Ireland. Many forced labourers were English, sentenced to transportation by Judge Jeffreys after the Monmouth rebellion.

And a large number of these forced workers - eventually about 100,000 in all - were Scots. Covenanters were barbado'ed after the Restoration of the monarchy and their army's defeat at the Battle of Bothwell Brig. Indeed, some were survivors of the notorious outdoor prison at Edinburgh's Greyfriars Kirk: only forty as the rest of the 1,500 transported were drowned off Orkney.  Beggars were forcibly taken from the streets and sent to Barbados as part of street cleaning operations. Recalcitrant workers and political activists were sentenced for sedition. And, tragically, indentured workers from poor Highland crofts chose to go to Barbados in order to better their conditions, or so they thought. These rural Scots signed their lives away when they entered the ships at Leith or Port Glasgow, and spent the rest of their years working without wages or freedom of movement, their children born into servitude. In their mouths they tasted the bitterness of unfulfilled promises, their hopes of land tenure and self reliance dashed. (Chris Dolan's novel Redlegs describes their plight.)

The Careenage, Carlisle Bay Bridgetown, is where most black and white slaves landed. Nowadays it is a haven for expensive yachts.

Death rates among white 'sugar slaves', as they were called, were terrible, ill suited as they were to the rigours of the climate and suffering the same, and sometimes worse, ill treatment as their African co-slaves, who were considered more valuable. The Barbados sun, wonderful for holiday makers, is punishing to work under, especially when that work involved clearing the island of its original tropical forest. White slaves, like black slaves, suffered sexual bondage and were bred to increase the workforce, at first separately, then with Africans to produce mulatto slaves.

The plantation owners soon learnt that West African slaves were stronger, more highly skilled and better workers than the sickness-prone Scots. They fetched a far higher price too. They were also seen as 'untainted' by the Catholicism of the Irish.

The Scots and Irish became known as 'Redlegs', for obvious reasons. They eventually gained their freedom and settled in the east of the island in an area called Scotland. Most lived in the parish of St Johns which is characterised by steep hills and valleys which reminded them of their homeland. Quite by chance, the stormy weather we encountered when we visited the east coast also reminded us of the Scotland we had left behind.

There the community remains to this day, more-or-less intact - about 400 of them, of mixed Scottish and Irish ancestry - having rarely intermarried with the rest of the population. Sadly and short-sightedly, most members of the community chose not to engage with the majority (95%) black African community following emancipation. In so doing, they excluded themselves from the improving prosperity and social conditions of the majority of the island's inhabitants. As a result, they have continued to live on the breadline, eking out their existence through subsistence farming, fishing and barter.

Here you can see a fairly typical 'chattel' house, as they are called - the original dwellings of slaves and, later on, of free plantation workers.

Such wooden houses were called 'chattel' because they were designed to be dismantled and re-erected in a very short space of time as labourers moved between plantations seeking for work. The planks are of a standard size and the whole structure traditionally rests on a bed of rubble. Most chattel houses these days have ornate fretwork round the roofs and are painted in bright colours, looking like illustrations of Grimms' fairy tales. Sadly, in Port St Charles, just round the corner from where we were staying, rows of these chattel houses and their lovingly refurbished, renovated and extended equivalents, are being knocked down to make way for a huge hotel and marina complex built for rich Americans. That is the new colonialism.

Back to the past, however. This early photograph of fishermen in St Martin's Bay reflects the dire poverty of the descendants of the Scots, some of the men wearing little more than old sugar sacks. The version of the photo which hangs on hotel walls in Barbados gives the family name of each of the men, most of whom are related to each other. Their descendants, bearing traditional Scottish names like McCluskie, still live in the area.

The trans-Atlantic slave trade was started later on in the seventeenth century by Portuguese Sephardic Jews fleeing the inquisition in Brazil. Exiles themselves, they helped to force others into exile. The Jews rapidly cornered the local market in African slaves, banned as they were from owning plantations and large numbers of slaves themselves. They built one of the oldest synagogues in the Americas, though, as with all buildings in Barbados, it has had to be rebuilt because of destruction by hurricane and other disasters. Here it is, surrounded by old graves with Portuguese inscriptions, as well as more recent tombstones marking the burial places of Ashkenazi Jews who fled to Barbados from Europe before the Second World War.

The Nidhe Israel Synagogue has a wonderful museum which outlines the role of Jews in Barbados, the wider Caribbean  and the linked colonies of Virginia and South Carolina.

The first settlers built churches just like the ones they had left at home, all still there after three hundred and fifty years, despite periodic rebuilding following hurricanes and fires, like St Andrews in the Scotland area (left) and St Peter's (right) in Speightstown where we stayed.

The most wonderful church of all, however, is St James Holetown with its original stone building built in 1680 which had replaced the earlier wooden one built in 1628. (No photos, alas, as I deleted them by mistake.) Most churches are Anglican. Barbados even has one of the oldest training institutions for Anglican priests in the western world - Codrington College, with a chapel built in 1743. The Codrington family was one of the principal slave-owning families on the island, and benefactors of All Souls College Oxford.

And so was established the complex ethnic mix and rigid social structure of modern Barbados: the few rich white plantation owners at the top, the majority of freed African slaves in the middle and the small community of poor whites at the bottom.

When you visit, it is tempting just to lie on the western beaches, sip a rum punch and soak up the sun, but it is well worth exploring the central, northern and eastern parts of the island, if only to explore the history. The scenery, particularly the cliffs and caves to the north and east, is spectacular.

Here is Animal Flower Cave. Many of the caves in Barbados were used as refuges by runaway slaves, both black and white.

And here is Welchman Hall Gully, a collapsed system of caves with stalagmites and stalactites, home to many tropical trees. The place is named after a Welsh general who was barbado'ed for being a Royalist in the English Civil War of 1651.

All these caves, including the extensive network of Harrison's Cave (below), are hollowed out of the coral of which Barbados is made.

One of the intriguing aspects of Barbados is how little is made of the island's past history of slavery, particularly for tourists, though I understand it is part of the school curriculum. There can be a sense of such issues being 'brushed under the carpet', as a local said to us. Others we asked, however, countered this by saying they did not feel it was appropriate to force their history into other people's faces. Certainly, visitors have to work quite hard to find out anything about the island's oppressive past. Speightstown's new Arlington House Museum, set up in an early eighteenth century merchant's house, has taken some steps to redress this lack of easily-available information. It devotes one floor to the personal experiences of slaves on the plantations and the historical data.

On one of the roundabouts outside Bridgetown, the capital, is a statue commemorating Bussa, who led a slave rebellion in 1816. My guidebook (Berlitz) euphemistically states that the revolt took place after 'a law to register all slaves was misinterpreted by the workforce'. The slaves thought they were to be emancipated but the planters quickly disillusioned them. Nevertheless, some reforms took place subsequently. Previous revolts between 1675 and 1702, had been so cruelly suppressed that a hundred years passed until Bussa's uprising.

When emancipation eventually came in 1834, the planters took it upon themselves to apply their own interpretation of the law, insisting that all ex-slaves served a four year 'apprenticeship' without pay before they could leave. As many of the planters' families still live, or have property in Barbados, it is hardly surprising that so much of the history has been suppressed for the casual visitor.

The guided tours round two of the foremost tourist attractions, St Nicholas Abbey and Sunbury Plantation, both seventeenth century plantation houses, do not even mention the topic of slavery. Given that every stone of each of the houses would have been quarried and erected by slaves, and their comfortable furnishings paid for through their backbreaking labour, this is very strange. Here is St Nicholas Abbey, an attractive building though on a more modest scale than contemporary country houses in England and Scotland.

Footpaths are made out of bricks made in Bonnybridge in Scotland and used as ballast on Atlantic voyages.

One of the highlights of St Nicholas is a fascinating early twentieth century film of life on the plantation and in local settlements, made by the previous owners of the house. Visitors need to try hard to remember that the workers featured in the film were paid notoriously low wages. The rate - a shilling (5p) a day - didn't change for a hundred years up to 1937 when there was a violent riot. The plantocracy of Barbados was immensely powerful and had resisted all attempts at improving workers' conditions over the centuries. Out of that struggle was born the Barbados Labour Party, led by Grantly Adams, which fought for social justice and universal suffrage. Adams paved the way for the island's eventual independence in 1966. You can visit his house at Tyrel Cot in Bridgetown.

As at St Nicholas Abbey, visitors to Sunbury Plantation House can scarcely be blamed if they leave at the end of their tour almost entirely ignorant of the the role the house and its original owners played in the enslavement and oppression of the island's workforce. The only reference to slavery is a sentence in the guide about the cost of the damages sustained during the slave revolt of 1816 ($4000).

All this is worth remembering  as we sip our Mount Gay Rum in the glorious Barbados sunshine.

In due course, other Scotsmen came to live in Barbados, temporary residents rather than indentured workers. Scotland sent soldiers, like the Royal Scots Fusiliers, to defend the British Empire. They too left their marks on the island, their forts and signal stations, like Gun Hill Signal Station, established in 1818.

The role of Scots in Barbados, and indeed in the British Empire as a whole, is thus a complex one. It is hardly surprising that some Scots were among the establishment figures. They were the judges who sentenced Scots of a different political or religious persuasion to transportation. They were the members of the armed forces who contained the local population and ensured that the status quo continued. Other Scots, however, were among the downtrodden and exploited who were forcibly deprived of their homes and families - as deracinated as the African slaves who followed them.

Even this picture is over-simplified. Some of the Scottish soldiers - like their English equivalents - could themselves have been forcibly removed from their communities, press-ganged like sailors.  (Think of Tormad in Neil Gunn's The Silver Darlings) Some could also have joined up voluntarily, serving the Empire out of a desperation based on poverty and fear for the hungry families they couldn't feed. Some of the Scottish 'sugar slaves' did make good, earning their freedom, buying their land and educating their children so that they became part of the influential majority in the island. In so doing, they lost their identity as white Scots while gaining a new identity as mixed-race Bajans, proud of their beautiful country with its mixed-race citizenry.

At the end of the day, we may start thinking of slavery less as an issue of colour and more as one of power derived from inequality and poverty. The Romans enslaved the Angles two thousand years ago. The Kabaka of Uganda sold the tribesmen he conquered to Arab and Portuguese traders. The northern Sudanese have been enslaving the Dinka for centuries. And when we walk down the streets of Edinburgh, how do we know which of the women who urge us to put a coin in their begging bowls have been trafficked from eastern Europe? What strikes us, of course, in Barbados, is that kidnapping and enslavement were done to people like us.

Let us raise a glass of rum, however, to Barbados, that island jewel which has taken the tears and lamentations of past generations and given the current generation the pride and confidence to accept but not dwell on the past.

Postscript 16 April 2018

This post has always been among the most popular and frequently read on this, my 'Edinburgh' blog. Almost all comments have been positive, as readers appear to have appreciated learning a bit more about an aspect of Caribbean and Scottish history which is not widely known.

An exception to this positive response was contained in a comment posted last week. Critical responses to my posts are rare and do not overly concern me, though I try to respond appropriately to the issues raised. This time, however, the negative comment was unashamedly racist. It came from a white Bajan who castigated the island's black majority population and bewailed the 'unfairness' and 'prejudice', as he saw it, with which a small section of the poorer white islanders were treated. I am not knowledgeable enough to reflect on the justice or otherwise of his claims, but the tone and language of his comment meant that I had to delete it. It led me to add a further commentary of my own.

Since I wrote the Barbados post, I have gradually become aware of the contentiousness of the use of the term 'Scottish sugar slaves'. Scottish academics would regard them instead as indentured workers, whose lives were certainly unpleasant, poverty stricken and controlled by their 'masters', but who experienced nothing like as appalling conditions as those under which West African slaves laboured in Barbados. Indentured workers and their children could eventually receive their freedom. That possibility was just not available to black slaves. Over recent months, I have adjusted the wording of this post to reflect my deeper understanding.

Eventually, a couple of months ago, I spent time investigating the role and history of slavery in Scotland itself, which in recent years has been written about in detail by Scottish historians and researchers from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen universities. Among these writers is the highly respected Professor Tom Devine. From my reading, I wrote the post Slavery in Scotland: then and now. What was quite shocking was to find out that in Scotland there is a tiny but noisy band of extreme white supremacists who use the history of the 'sugar slaves' to challenge the research which Devine, Steven Mullen and other historians have carried out into the role of Scots in establishing and supporting the British Empire within its colonies. Their arguments seem to be that one should not reflect critically on the role of Scots as colonists and militarists because the existence of the 'sugar slaves' is a far greater ill. (See The myth of Scottish slavesSteven Mullen, Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past (The Caribbean Connection) by Tom Devine) Scots should principally be viewed as victims of the English rather than colonisers and slavers alongside their English fellows.

The racism of last week's comment from Barbados, together with my shock at finding out how the story of the 'sugar slaves' is being exploited to justify similar racism and bigotry here in Scotland, has led me to revise the text of this post once more and to write this Postscript.

If you wish to know more about the events recounted in this post, you may find the following links interesting:

Barbado'ed: Scotland's Sugar Slaves - BBC documentary

Redlegs by Chris Dolan - novel

Other references I have found during research:

To Hell or Barbados: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ireland by Sean O'Callaghan,

White cargo, the forgotten history of Britain's white slaves in America by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh (mostly about Virginia and Barbados)

Here are links to posts about Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh, which is associated with the Covenanters, their trials, sentencing and final fate. 

Greyfriars Kirkyard, the burial place of the great, the good and the completely unknown.

Greyfriars Kirk: asserting Scotland's religious and political independence


  1. What a fascinating bit of history, I had no idea! And I've holidayed in Barbados - even visited the island's Scotland.... thanks for sharing Elisabeth.

  2. An educator through and through. While Charlotte has been I am yet to get there - but, come August I shall have made it - niece's wedding.

    I believe I shall print off your blog post so that I can get the most out of my time there.

    All best wishes.

  3. Never underestimate the exploitation of the few with power over the those without choices. It's economics which shows little colour Bar but the opportunity to grow rich.

  4. Great post , but , most of the first slaves the white slaves and their history is suppressed by racist black Bajans and from other islands as well as they are young and clueless and just have that Black lives matter mind set from black America what a shame they cannot see the truth !I am a Barbados tour guide and Skipper 16th generation and on my mother's side Irish and Welsh and my Father's side English and Scottish .'I have taken and led many tours about 'The Forgotten Irish'That is what all white indentured and slaves were called by Blacks , when they were freed they were put in charge of the Africans and is why there is so much prejudices and all whites are seen as slave drivers and owners and the white slavery history is suppressed!

  5. Having recently done my ancestry, I found out that I have a small percentage of Sephardic Jewish as well as 45% Scottish Irish Welsh and virtually all my ancestry on my paternal Grandmothers side are all from Barbados going back to 1750. This article was extremely helpful in connecting some dots for me. Thank you!