August 2, 2021

Things that matter: Our history, culture and the museum journal

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barbados-museum-journalBy Sir Henry Fraser From Barbados Advocate

“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” (C.L.R.James, famous Trinidadian intellectual and writer)

In Beyond a boundary, that great book by C.L.R. James, which every West Indian should read, his pithy, much quoted comment challenges us all to understand the sociology of West Indian cricket. I want to adopt and adapt his quote to ask: “What do Barbadians know of Barbados who only know the present times?” And this is where the magnificent Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society comes to the rescue.

The Museum journal is perhaps the oldest, “almost” continuously published journal in the English speaking Caribbean. In the early days it was published every quarter, with a series of editors, sometimes anonymous. The first issue, Volume 1, Number 1, appeared in November 1933, a few months after the establishment of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, which began with the acquisition of the extraordinary collection of the Reverend Norton Beresford Watson, parish priest of St. Lucy. The first editorial made the point that “In Barbados we have waited over 300 years to found a historical society, but there has been no delay in issuing a journal”.

The most outstanding past editor was the adopted Barbadian historian the late Peter Campbell. He edited the journal from 1972 to 1990, after it had become an annual journal in the early 60s. The present editor, Dr. Karl Watson, has edited it since 1996, and the present splendid issue is, I believe, the 18th under his distinguished mantle. And the prodigious breadth and depth of journal articles over more than 80 years justifies Dr. Watson’s editorial statement “No article, dissertation or monograph on Barbados can be considered to be complete unless it has drawn on the wealth of material contained in the many issues of the journal” (Volume 49, 2003).

This issue has been limited by the Museum’s financial situation, but its 204 pages include a fascinating range of articles. The extraordinary story of the creation of the Panama Canal, completed 100 years ago this year, has stimulated many researchers, authors and film makers, and the Museum highlighted the huge role of Barbadian and other West Indian workers in its exhibition and guest lecture by author Matthew Parker. His book, Hell’s Gorge, followed Professor Velma Newton’s The Silver Men, and has in turn been followed by Olive Senior’s Dying to Better Themselves – each bringing a different perspective on the construction (and the sacrificial workers) of this amazing wonder of the modern world. The Museum in turn organised a guided tour of Panama in August, and this year’s journal opens with a vivid account of this tour by Dr. Watson.

Dr. Henderson Carter, who produced the comprehensive history of the Barbados Light and Power Company – Powering Our Nation’s Progress: The Story of Electricity Service in Barbados, 1911 – 2011, has written a compelling account for the journal – Electrification in Colonial Barbados: Challenges and Responses. Our present situation is best understood when we know the history!

There is a fascinating account of the 1665 attack on Barbados by the Dutch under Admiral De Ruyter by Wim Klooster of Clark University, on the Dutch Perspective. An analysis or editorial comment on this perspective would have been both interesting and useful to the non-historian.

An especially interesting article to me was Leonard Smith’s account of the development of institutions for the insane in the nineteenth century. When one considers the negative attitudes even today towards those with mental health problems, the neglect and maltreatment of the past is not at all surprising. Conditions in Britain were not much better – while splendid Victorian institutions were built there a decade or two before our own present Psychiatric hospital, purely custodial care, restraint and neglect were universal. Neither the poor nor the rich had much hope of cure. In fact the “Poor relation’s rooms” of some plantation houses and rectories in Barbados were almost certainly used for restraint of a mentally ill relative. The “Poor relation’s room” was a single room added at the back of a large house, over the kitchen wing, to provide in-house accommodation but not as a full part of the family. One such room in an old plantation house is, in fact, fitted out like a prison. (Anyone knowing of other such “poor relation’s rooms” rooms is invited to contact me.)

Other articles include the history of an 18th century School of Female Industry for poor white girls in St. John; the important role of Barbados in the 18th century search for longitude in 1764; an analysis of red earthenware in Barbados; the history of our Barbados Blackbelly sheep (now exported all over the world and one wonders if the name has gone with it); and a biography of that extraordinary Renaissance man, the Reverend N.B. Watson, whose collection started the Museum in 1833.

A completely different kind of historical perspective is provided in the fascinating, provocative, humorous (sometimes hysterically funny), on-the-border-of-being-scandalous new book by hotelier and restaurateur John Chandler. Hotel Barbados – my Life of Discretion at the Ocean View is the autobiographical account of an icon, the Ocean View Hotel, by another icon, John Chandler. Famous people, extraordinary stories and hilarious pranks fill the pages, in John’s easy, raconteur style, describing the guests, the staff and the encounters of almost 30 years in the existence of the legendary Ocean View. Sadly, the Ocean View is no more, but its demise led to the phenomenon of Fisherpond House, global restaurant awardee, which has now migrated to Lancaster Great House. Congratulations, John!

Professor Fraser is past Dean of Medical Sciences, UWI and Professor Emeritus of Medicine. Website:

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