Authors: Andrea Stuart
Rain too had a new character: instead of the persistent cold drizzle of his birthplace, in Barbados it fell unheralded from the sky, often so copiously and forcefully that it etched deep grooves into the ground and stung the skin of those who were caught in it. “It was,” wrote one visitor, “
as if the whole Atlantic ocean was pouring down through a sieve.” Then the island’s modest rivers swelled to impassable torrents, roaring and foaming down the hills and steeps of the gullies with irresistible fury, hurrying rocks and trees before them. When the moisture and heat combined, they produced a humidity so fierce that, as one traveller noted, it rusted all things metal: knives, buckles and swords.
Most new arrivals were amazed by the tropical vegetation, which seemed to thrive in a state of glorious frenzy. They were instantly impressed by its confident abundance, a ceaseless explosion of energetic, throbbing plant life, in which all the component parts grew together, creating a solid, almost impenetrable knot of vegetation.
There was beauty too.
Richard Ligon was beguiled by the plants and noted one dubbed “the flower of the moon,” a purple blossom with black seeds “that opens when all else close, when the Sun goes down,” and the calabash, with its incomparably bright green leaves and circular fruit that the settlers made into bowls and plates. Most impressive of all was the Royal Palm. This elegant plant, which sometimes grew to over 200 feet tall, with a long, elegant trunk topped by wide green fronds and bunches of yellow and purple berries “about the bigness of French grapes,” was, he noted, “as graceful as a woman.” There was also a new world of birds to enjoy: ground doves, Antillean bullfinches and—“the last and strangest of them all”—the tiny, shimmering hummingbird, no bigger than a man’s thumb.
Fugitives from temperate climes also found themselves having to adjust to an entirely different diet. Instead of the “beef, bread and beer” that made up the traditional English menu, they had to develop a taste for new dishes, like turtle stew. The wild hogs that had so prodigiously populated the island had been nearly hunted out of existence, and there was little meat available. Fish was popular, but they had difficulty keeping it fresh. Staples were sweet potatoes, the “Staffe and Support” of the settlers, which were boiled, fried or used to make a drink called “mobby”; and cassava, another root vegetable, which was used to make beer and bread. The settlers enjoyed plantain, the starchy cousin of the banana, and ate it baked, fried or stewed. They quickly added a host of local fruits to their menu: custard apples, melons, papaya and guavas. The most popular was the pineapple, which Sir Henry Colt described as tasting like a “great white ripe strawberrye.” It was, concluded another, “
the Prince of all fruits!”
George Ashby’s land swarmed with creatures he had never seen before: lizards, snakes, scorpions and insects of vibrant colour and unexpected size. At first every rustle or sudden movement must have startled, even frightened him. Most were harmless; but not all. Because so many islanders went barefoot, everyone agreed on the mischief caused by chiggers. According to Ligon, these minuscule insects easily slipped unnoticed into the skin or under the nails, or both, and if this happened the victim experienced “a smarting pain” and was sometimes rendered lame.
At night the islanders were often tormented by gnats and mosquitoes. Just as the traveller starts to fall asleep their demonic whine begins, and on many nights George Ashby must have lain furious and miserable as they buzzed around him. Cockroaches posed another threat to slumber. If they “
find you sleeping,” noted one visitor, they will “bite your skin, till they fetch blood.” Yellow land crabs were so prolific that in some spots they covered the highways. Their pincers were strong enough to bite right through shoes. The early settler Thomas Verney told a story, no doubt exaggerated, about drunken men collapsing on the beaches and in their stupor being eaten by these crustaceans.
But the most difficult thing to cope with was the climate. While Barbados was not as hot as other Caribbean islands, it was still described as “
a scorching island,” where the “sun is so great, that it will melt a ship’s pitch and shrink her planks.” The heat worked on new arrivals gradually but inexorably, slowing them down, forcing them to become more languid and unhurried, or else perish.
It was an assault of newness. And so, even if my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather was the sort of man who longed for the strange and unfamiliar, this transition to a life in the tropics must have been profoundly challenging. His was the perennial plight of the migrant. He expected things to be different but had no idea how to cope with this world which was so unfamiliar and hard to comprehend. Then there was the discrepancy between the dream and the reality; for none of this was quite what he thought it would be. His sense of disorientation was compounded by the loss of everything that had been left behind: loved ones, favourite foods, habitual pastimes. This overwhelming sense of homesickness would grow day by day as he realized how far he was from all that he knew and how difficult it would be to return there. As George Ashby passed his days drenched with sweat, his hair plastered to his scalp, tormented by ceaseless thirst and feelings of despondency, he could not help but feel like a stranger in this world, an intruder.
Adapting to tropical conditions was not George Ashby’s only challenge; he also had a new profession to master. He dreamt of becoming a planter, and since most of those who came to Barbados were expecting to cultivate tobacco, he had to learn how to handle this new crop.
Tobacco was introduced to England by dashing New World adventurers like Walter Raleigh in the late 1500s; by the end of that century one contemporary noted that “tobacco shops are now
as ordinary as taverns and tippling houses.” Paul Hentzner, a German visitor there in 1597, declared while attending a bear baiting that at “
all these spectacles, and everywhere else the English are constantly smoking the Nicotian weed.” Considered simultaneously to be an exotic extravagance, a medication (particularly useful in treating the pox) and a stimulant, smoking became known as “dry drinking” and its fearless practitioners as “tobacconists.” Though many found smoking offensive, only the far-sighted philosopher Francis Bacon seemed to anticipate the issues of addiction that would preoccupy our modern age: “
In our time the use of tobacco is growing greatly and conquers men with a certain secret pleasure, so that those who have once become accustomed thereto can later hardly be restrained therefrom.”
Planters in Virginia made vast profits from supplying this new drug in the 1620s and 1630s, and their success was inspirational for neophyte planters in Barbados. Tobacco was a perfect crop for “men of modest means”: it required very little initial investment—just the cost of the plants, a few hoes and some Indian digging sticks to make holes in the ground. Its plants came to maturity quickly, offering a crop to sell within the first year. And there were no economies of scale associated with production, so even those with little acreage could compete with larger planters.
This early commercial success sowed the seeds of its own destruction, however. The tobacco market proved so attractive that there was soon a glut of providers. As other colonies—including Virginia, Bermuda and St. Christopher—joined the party, prices began to plummet. Barbados struggled to hold its own, particularly since the quality of its tobacco was often inferior: John Winthrop, who was trying to sell his son’s tobacco crop in London, described it as “
very ill-conditioned, foul and full of stalks and evil-coloured.” This was partly due to the planters’ lack of experience, since they did not appreciate the meticulous daily care demanded by the crop. It was also because tobacco has a devastating impact on soil quality, which could only be mitigated by regular rotation. Barbados, a small island, lacked the vast tracts of land available to planters in places like Virginia, and so could not develop a
proper land rotation system. By the early 1640s, the richest Barbados planters were already beginning to look for a new crop with which to make their fortune, while small planters, such as George Ashby, struggled to eke a living out of their unbiddable portions of land.
The daily life of small planters like George Ashby was a study in monotony and discomfort. Rising with the sun, he would most likely have begun the day with nothing more than a cup of sweetened water, and would have gone to the fields in the clothes in which he had slept—a linen shirt and pantaloons—and a wide-brimmed hat. There he would labour, probably barefoot, till around midday, when there would be a break for a starchy meal: loblolly, a cornmeal paste, or some sweet potatoes, eaten out of calabash gourds. He would return to the fields till sundown, when he would endure another dull and stodgy meal prepared in an iron pot over an open fire—he would be lucky if he tasted meat twice a week. The day would end as it had begun, alone, with only the flicker of the fire for company. One contemporary, defending these men from the charge that tobacco planting was easy money, confirmed this desolate picture: “
Anyone who has seen them bent double in the tobacco fields, expos’d the greatest part of the day to the scorching heat of the Sun, and spending one half of the night reducing it to that posture wherein it is transported to Europe,” could not help but change their minds about “the sweating and labours of so many miserable creatures.”
George Ashby may have long cherished the dream of being a landowner and an independent planter, but this first year must have been a cruel and demoralizing one. It was also a lonely existence. The only thing that most planters could see of their neighbours was the sight of their cook-smoke rising. George Ashby’s new parish of St. Philip, though eventually one of the more populous on the island, was then still sparsely settled. The new arrivals, who may have lived in overcrowded cities or in the community of a rural village, endured profoundly isolated lives. Until George’s tobacco crop was harvested, his only income was from the smithing work he did in his spare time. What he couldn’t afford to buy would have to be foraged, bartered or done without. As an inexperienced planter he had to learn each new task like
a child: the planting, weeding, pruning, harvesting, drying and packing were tough, repetitive tasks. All the while the heat beat on relentlessly, day after day after day, occasionally sluiced through by torrential rain. At night, besieged by biting insects, he would find scant comfort in a rough rope hammock. Many newcomers, adventurers by temperament, could not develop the patience that is the lifeblood of farming, and some simply abandoned their fields and sought their fortune in more adrenalin-fuelled occupations like soldiering and piracy.
Those who did stick it out soon gained a reputation for being scrawny and ill-looking.
When a shipload of Frenchmen arrived at the colony of Cayenne in 1664, to take over from those already there, the ghastly countenances of the Dutch settlers provoked some to return to their ships and refuse to land. (Dr. Hans Sloane remarked that “a yellowish sickly look was the badge of the rank and file of the inhabitants of the Lesser Antilles.”) The lack of food and the relentless physical labour of planting had made the colonists vulnerable to the host of new diseases that beset them in the tropics: malaria, yellow fever, dysentery, yaws and hookworm. The absence of medical care in the region, or any real understanding of how these new diseases were transmitted or could be treated, guaranteed that the settlers succumbed in droves. George Ashby would not have been human if he did not sometimes dream of what he had left behind. In order to make a new life rise out of the Caribbean wilderness, he was being forced to push himself to the limits of endurance, beyond the boundaries of anything he had experienced before.
The work of transforming each patch of anarchy into viable farmland did not fall to planters alone: they needed labourers. Although the region would later become synonymous with black slaves, at this point they made up only a small minority of the workforce. Instead the early Barbadian settlers mostly used white indentured servants, known as
in the French territories. George Ashby was typical of the island’s other planters in that he relied on white labour. He had one servant, and would probably have bought this poor man (only 1 per cent of the servants were female) right off the wharf. The process went something like this: as soon as a ship carrying servants arrived at
the port, eager planters would collect at the dockside. They watched as the men, mostly aged between fifteen and twenty-four, were shepherded down the plank onto the wharf. Confined below decks for most of the voyage, many had suffered terribly on the journey and emerged bruised, depleted and unnerved. The pale, scabby servants were lined up in ragged rows. The healthiest men—and those with useful trades, like masons, smiths and shoemakers—were creamed off by the rich planters, while smaller men like George scrabbled to get the best of the rest. Then for the sum of around six to ten pounds, the befuddled servants signed or put their mark on a document that sold their time—anywhere from four to seven years.
Agricultural workers were the most important element in a successful plantation. As early as 1638 one planter explained that “
a plantation in this place is worth nothing unless there be a good store of hands upon it.” At least 2,000 servants arrived on the island every year until 1666, but even this was not enough: the planters lobbied the authorities incessantly for more workers. Over time the planters of the British Americas established a system that loosely reflected the social order back home, the key difference being that indentured servants were compensated in advance, rather than receiving wages. The indenture system was first trialled in 1620, by a Virginia planter who began purchasing the labour of servants for a specified period in return for paying their passage to the colony. The system had spread rapidly across the Americas, only dying out when these same colonies embraced African slavery.
Of the servants who found themselves on Barbados, some were volunteers, some were felons or prisoners of war; some were English, others Scottish or Irish, a few were German, Dutch or even French. (Indeed, so many people were dispatched to the island that the term “to be Barbadosed” swiftly gained popular currency.) The Irish were particularly plentiful because of the frequent food shortages, high unemployment and English military disruption in their homeland. In the 1650s their numbers were swollen further by a huge number of Irish prisoners of war; indeed, nearly 7,000 Irishmen were transported to the island during the Cromwellian period. But in the context of the traditional hostilities between the English and Irish, the large numbers of indentured servants who were arriving from Ireland provoked particular alarm among the planters. According to one historian they were
regarded as “a principal internal enemy, at times more dangerous and feared than Africans.” As early as 1644 the settlers sought to create legislation to limit their numbers. It was unsuccessful and tensions continued to grow. Irish servants who misbehaved were treated horribly by the authorities; in 1656 Cornelius Bryan was sentenced to “
21 lashes on the bare back” for remarking, while refusing a tray of meat, that “if there was so much English blood in the tray as there was meat, he would eat it all.” After he had recovered from his punishment, Bryan was arrested and deported for his anti-English remarks.