The British have always had a love-hate relationship with the West Indies. They colonised the islands in the 17th century and as their taste for sugar became an addiction, developed them into its main source. The Caribbean became the cradle of the British slave trade, rich and cruel, defended against all-comers with determined ferocity.
But the sugar trade declined and the British lost interest. The novelist Anthony Trollope, who went to the West Indies for the Post Office in 1858, wrote that it would be better if Britain could forget about them altogether. And that was the world-weary attitude that presided over a long period of neglect and resentment until, as Britain dismantled the last remnants of her empire after the second world war, the islands were one by one given their independence.
And then the British fell in love all over again. Not with sugar this time but with the sun. The West Indies became places to which to escape, and soon everyday tourists followed more glamorous exiles from the worlds of business and entertainment – names such as Cunard and Heinz, then Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cliff Richard and the late Michael Winner – to flee the rigours of the climate back home.
Today the British have largely forgotten the history of the West Indies: they are simply places in the sun, full of glorious beaches, good cricketers, and rum punch. The island of Barbados fits the bill of tropical paradise with ease. But its extraordinary history – it was the colony with the longest period of uninterrupted rule in the British empire, 342 years, – means that it has other qualities to enjoy beyond the beach and the golf course.
The island’s capital, Bridgetown, and its historic garrison were recently named a Unesco World Heritage Site and now Barbados is developing a new line in tourism – holiday history. Recognising this, one resort, Cobbler’s Cove, the grande dame of the island’s hotels, has just begun to lay on special heritage tours.
Enter Doctor Henry Fraser, professor of medicine in the University of the West Indies, former president of the Barbados National Trust, historian, journalist, broadcaster, illustrator and senator, locally recognised as the most reliable source of knowledge of all things Barbadian. Fraser, a sixth generation Scottish Barbadian, knows and loves its every brick and stone. He can also open doors, particularly those of the gracious planters’ houses.
Many of them remain in private hands but it is within their walls that the extraordinary history of Barbados can be found. Fraser has made it his business to get to know these places and the owners who have restored them to their original glory. He advises on how they might have looked when first built in the 18th and 19th centuries. So a tour in Fraser’s company becomes a historical version of Through The Keyhole – a glimpse into the everyday lives of the men and women who for 200 years made Barbados the envy of the world.
The sugar barons ran their plantations like feudal lords and as Fraser drove me round the island’s potholed, winding roads, from the comparatively placid waters of its west coast to the glorious rollers of the eastern, Atlantic, side (“like Cornwall, only more reliable weather”) it wasn’t difficult to imagine what their lives must have been like.
Every now and then he would turn his car into the gateway of an imposing drive and we would trundle along an avenue of palms to the front door of a “great house” – as they are called. We visited several: Colleton House, Halton Great House, Sunbury Plantation House. Normally two storeys with deep cellars beneath a raised ground floor, they have vast, airy rooms with windows stretching from floor to ceiling opening on to a veranda that runs around the house.
In another, Clifton Hall Great House, I was shown the “poor relation’s room” – a small, square, sunken chamber at the back of the top floor where a demented person, whom the owners didn’t want others to see, might have been housed. The poor creature would have been fed though a trap in the door and the floor slanted to a drainage channel in one corner so it could be sluiced out with ease. Beauty and sadness all in one fine building: the ugliness of history remembered in paradise.
The second prong of Fraser’s Barbadian journey is less domestic. Stopping to take in a few of the island’s many parish churches where generations of planters and their families (and Fraser’s) were christened, married and buried, he led me to the capital, Bridgetown, the scene of one of his latest triumphs. Fraser played a prominent part in its bid for Unesco status.
At its height 3,000 men strong, Bridgetown’s garrison is set on a huge campus surrounding what is now a racecourse and still houses the country’s defence force. It’s a permanent reminder of how seriously the British took ownership of their precious possession. Beneath the old military prison – now the national museum – and other garrison buildings runs a network of tunnels, discovered recently by chance. Some are taller than a man as they criss-cross their way down to the shoreline below the encampment. The plan is to make them safe enough for visitors to explore later this year: meanwhile a live video link allows one of the guides to stand inside them as he explains why and how they were built – to allow secret passage or an escape route to the coast.
In the midst of all this military masonry stands the house in which George Washington stayed when he visited Barbados briefly in 1751, as a boy of 19. It was the only time he ever left mainland America. He came in the hope that the sea air would help cure his half-brother, Lawrence, of tuberculosis but it was he himself who fell ill with smallpox. History might have been different had the Barbadian doctor not been so competent – he saved the life of the man who, exactly 30 years later, would receive the surrender of the British army at the end of the American war of independence.
Cobblers Cove made the perfect base for my exploration of Barbados. Built in the 1930s by the descendants of a planting family, it maintains the atmosphere of an English country house by the sea. Set in bird-filled gardens with a restaurant that serves some of the best food I’ve ever eaten in the Caribbean, it exudes an air of faded gentility. The service is personal and charmingly haphazard on occasions, and some of the rooms are a little tired. But its clientele returns year after year – many for seven or eight years on the trot and one or two for 25 – complaining gently about the fact that it never changes, but at the same time recognising that’s what they like about it. Sophisticated without being too smart, comfortable without being too ritzy, it fits snugly into Barbadian history. It’s like a magnificent dowager – Maggie Smith in bricks and mortar – admirable and unchanging.
No one could be expected to visit Barbados for its history alone. To lie on the white sand of a perfect beach, swim in the always warm waters of the Caribbean or to play a round of golf on a course as inviting as the island’s Royal Westmoreland are the essential ingredients of a holiday there. But history gives a new dimension to these things. Henry Fraser and others like him are passionate about revealing its busy and intricate past – and there are some who like to believe that it could once again rise in importance, becoming for the Caribbean what Singapore has been for the Pacific. That, I fear, may be a leap too far. The sign that greets you at the airport when you arrive proclaims: “Relax! You’re in Barbados” – and that says it all.
One evening I sat on the terrace at Cobblers Cove gazing out to sea. As a cruise liner crossed the orange semi-circle of the setting sun, I imagined not a boatload of holidaymakers but a prowling ship of the line, watching, waiting, ready to defend this little jewel in the British imperial crown. And then I took another sip of my rum and lime, sweet and sour, just like the history of Barbados.
Sue Lawley was a guest of Elegant Resorts, which offers a week at Cobblers Cove from £1,675 including flights from London. Suites at the hotel cost from £342; heritage tours with Professor Henry Fraser cost from £95 per person for a half day, including private car and driver, bookable via the hotel