Portraits of colonial influence

Small, but self-confident, Barbados has a rich cultural heritage. James Ferguson looks at the literary giants of 'Little England'

As Britain faced the military might of Germany in 1940, King George VI might have been surprised to receive a cable from the distant colony of Barbados. The patriotic message, signed by Premier Grantley Adams, ended pluckily: "Go on England; Little England is behind you."

As Britain faced the military might of Germany in 1940, King George VI might have been surprised to receive a cable from the distant colony of Barbados. The patriotic message, signed by Premier Grantley Adams, ended pluckily: "Go on England; Little England is behind you."

Barbados has had to live with the "Little England" tag ever since, much to the approval of the tourist authorities and the chagrin of the island's intellectuals. The former have happily promoted the island as a bastion of British stability, where tea is taken at five o'clock and the sound of leather against willow echoes among the palm trees. The latter complain that this rosy image of colonial continuity overlooks the darker side of the relationship with the "Mother Country".

The idea of a special relationship predates Adams' telegram and is based on the indisputable fact that only Barbados, among all the Caribbean colonies, never fell into the hands of a rival imperial superpower. Uniquely, Barbados experienced 340 years of unbroken rule from London, and this sense of permanence was reflected in the colony's institutions and attitudes. Constitutional government, political moderation and a sense of fair play were, and still are, integral to many Barbadians' self-perception.

But visiting writers from the 20th century onwards took the idea of an umbilical link to Britain much further and began even to imagine that the landscape itself was a Caribbean version of a more familiar country. Many authors would liken the rolling sugar fields around Bridgetown to the undulating contours of Dorset or the Cotswolds. The wilder, rockier terrain of the north seemed to some like Yorkshire or Scotland. Even the capital, with its colonial-era public buildings, could be compared to a provincial English town. The Jamaican novelist John Hearne visited the island in the Fifties and described it as a "sunburnt piece of England, modified by the tropics, but still and stubbornly a corner of the English countryside".

The most appealing of these evocations appears in Patrick Leigh Fermor's classic 1940s Caribbean travelogue The Traveller's Tree, where the author remarked on the Anglican churches dotting the countryside, the place names such as Hastings and Worthing and a timeless English atmosphere where "old gentlemen in tussore suits and panama hats sniff the ozone, and pink Anglo-Saxon babies, safe under their muslin mosquito nets, slumber in prams".

But Leigh Fermor, like others, had also detected the whiff of another, less attractive, sort of Englishness. Barbados, he felt, "reflects most faithfully the social and intellectual values and prejudices of a Golf Club in Outer London". He had identified a certain snobbishness among the colonial elite which was certainly bolstered by the Little England idea.

But impressions such as these are, to a large degree, determined by whom you spend time with, and Leigh Fermor opted to inhabit the privileged world of plantation houses rather than everyday Barbadian homes and rum shops.

The period preceding independence, meanwhile, from the labour unrest of the Thirties to the cutting of formal colonial ties in 1966, saw the growth of an increasingly vibrant cultural life on the island, far removed from the starchy world of the retired colonels. A key player in the island's cultural rebirth was Frank Collymore, an impressive polymath who mixed writing with acting, broadcasting and painting while, at the same time, teaching English and French for half a century at the elite Combermere High School. In 1942 he founded a literary magazine called Bim ("Bim" was the traditionally affectionate nickname given to Barbadians, or inhabitants of Bimshire). This modest journal may not have had a massive circulation, but it was widely read throughout the Caribbean, influential and published many up-and-coming regional authors.

Collymore seems to have adopted a rather ironic attitude regarding his island's relationship to England. Certainly a product of the colonial system, his short stories nonetheless mocked the pretensions of the Barbadian upper classes. One of his students at Combermere, Austin Clarke, was even more damning in his assessment of Little England, summed up in the title of his 1980 childhood memoir Growing Up Stupid under the Union Jack. This exposé of imperial folly pours scorn on a society that drills Latin into submissive Barbadian schoolboys who then return home to poor cane-cutters' villages.

An anti-colonial consciousness encouraged the search for the "real" cultural roots of a people, most of whom are descended from African slaves brought to Barbados by the minority white "plantocracy". As Black Power ideas swept across the Caribbean in the Sixties, a poet such as Kamau Brathwaite began to speak to an increasingly receptive audience with his rhythmic, African-influenced imagery. Collections such as The Arrivants (1967) powerfully stress Barbados's belonging to the Black Atlantic world of slavery and resistance.

Perhaps the finest work of fiction to emerge from this period of cultural ferment is George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin (1953), an autobiographical account of growing up in the politically charged atmosphere of the Thirties. Lamming's masterpiece traces the intellectual awakening of a boy in colonial Barbados and his growing awareness that he and his community owe more to Africa than to England.

Since the "boom years" of the Fifties, when Caribbean writers like Lamming, VS Naipaul and Sam Selvon won international acclaim, Barbados has continued to produce and sustain its own literary community. Some authors have chosen to live overseas, but most return and almost all feature their island of birth in their writing. Kamau Brathwaite, mostly living and teaching in New York, remains a major figure in international poetry, while George Lamming, who often stays at the beautiful east coast village of Bathsheba, is a revered literary figure.

The trails blazed from the Thirties onwards by Barbadian writers and intellectuals has in the last two decades led to a radical reassessment of the island's cultural heritage. With the tenacious hold of the white elite all but finished and the island's African roots widely celebrated, music, the arts and festivals openly and enthusiastically draw on African-descended rhythms and rituals. Painting and sculpture seek to reconnect modern-day Barbados with the continent from where most of its people came, while Crop Over, the annual festival of calypso and costumes, looks explicitly to the bad old days of the plantation system as an excuse for a party.

The same is true of the literary scene, where Bajan identity has, in many ways, become intertwined with a rediscovery of a distant, but nonetheless keenly felt African past. Traditional African folk tales, with an emphasis on oral rather than written forms, are increasingly popular.

Barbadians, in general, like words. And few Barbadian writers have captured this love affair with language as successfully as the late Timothy Callender, whose short story collection It So Happen (1975) captures the inflections of Bajan dialogue and the talkative types who inhabit every rum shop on the island. In one of the stories a character named King impresses his fellow drinkers with the learning he has acquired during a brief visit to England. He is gratified by the resulting frenzy of self-education among his friends as they seek to match his erudition: "Plenty people here learning how to think progressive. Is always nice to find yuhself in an intellectual community, where yuh can always find a man or two to discuss some heavy philosophy with."

It is a classically Bajan moment, where self-aggrandisement and love of talk triumph over reality. In that sense, it matches the spirit of Adams' telegram to the king: the spirit of a small island with a large measure of self-confidence.

The National Cultural Foundation, set up in 1983, is behind much of Barbados' thriving literary scene, including conferences and parish readings. Look for listings on www.ncf.bb or call 001 246 424 0909 for details of events.

Trail Of The Unexpected: The Old Railroad

'The boulders resembled the vertebrae of a sea monster'

The hardest part is finding it. Sixty-seven years have passed since the narrow-gauge engine hooted and halted for the last time on the only public railway ever built in Barbados. Two-thirds of a century is time enough for nature to reclaim her possessions - especially on a tropical island, where sun, wind and sea are hyperactive.

But the traces are there if you know where to look. "It's way down below," said the white-haired grandfather from his rocking chair when I passed his verandah and asked him where the line used to run. "Down below" was Bath Beach, one of the most beautiful on the island, undeveloped for tourism, known by the younger locals to be safe for swimming; remembered by the older ones to have been a railway station.

Negotiating the steep path down to the shore, I found conclusive evidence. The line ran so close to the sea that a viaduct had to be built to raise it above the rocks. It would have made for the most thrilling of rides at the time, but it was probably a good thing the line closed down in 1938, because the coastal erosion has been so severe that the viaduct's rusting, blackened foundations now lie some way out to sea; rusting stumps poking through the mud at low tide.

It has long been believed that the air on the Atlantic coast of Barbados has remarkable curative properties, which was why the first Bajan hotels set themselves up as spas in late Victorian times. Scientists have since established that they were on to something. It seems that the prevailing air stream and sea currents are funnelled directly to Barbados from Cape Town and there is not a speck of land, not a smut of pollution, in the 5,500 miles in between.

The Barbados railroad opened in 1881 to move cargo, holidaymakers and invalids from one side of the island to the other. Bath was the place where many passengers saw the sea for the first time.

The course that follows the ghostly line differs from, say, Devon and Cornwall's South-west Coastal Path in many ways. It is overgrown, difficult to follow in parts, occasionally wanders on to the beach, and provides no signposts whatsoever. "Barbados is new to this kind of tourism," says Adrian Loveridge, who organises regular walks along the coast, "but to be fair, it's not easy to contain the undergrowth in a rainy year like this one."

Much of the vegetation is Triffid-like in its size and density. There are mahogany and casuarina trees, giant palms and ferns the size of elephants' ears. At Congor Bay, a coconut tree has taken root in an old railway cutting; nearby the trunks, bent double by the wind, form a natural canopy over the path.

Shade of this kind is welcome relief, even under overcast skies, but you can put the humidity to good use by wearing long sleeves and long trousers and working up a cooling sweat. A hat and a good supply of water are other essentials on a hike that exposes you to some pretty harsh elements for however long it takes you to walk seven miles. If you're struggling, a natural stopping point is the Atlantis Hotel, 120 years old and with a sign so weather-beaten you can barely make out the lettering.

All along the coast, the coral limestone has been splintered and sheared in so many places that the shallows are dotted with fantastic natural sculptures. I saw sea lions, arches, a near-perfect diamond, a man's profile. Best of all, at Bathsheba, a sequence of massive boulders tumbling into the bay, resembling the vertebrae of a sea monster taking a dip.

It is easy to imagine the excitement of families on their annual outing to this wild and breezy coast, gazing in amazement at its white horses and breakers, its other-worldly rock formations and cliffs. The calmer, palmier Caribbean side would have been tame in comparison. After the oppressive heat of the factory or fields, how energising the Atlantic air would have felt.

North of Bathsheba, the railway cut inland from the sand dunes to the terminus at Belleplaine. In Belleplaine itself, nobody knew where the station had stood. The only clue I could find was a crumbling bridge pillar, almost totally submerged by vegetation. Nature had prevailed. The old railway, anticipating the fate of us all, had turned up its toes and slipped beneath the soil.

PETER MACNEIL

Between November and April, the Peach and Quiet Hotel (001 246 428 5682; www.peachandquiet.com) organises regular walks along the east coast, following the track of the old railway

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Sport
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
premier league
Sport
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
News
people'I hated him during those times'
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
News
i100
News
Dame Vivienne Westwood has been raging pretty much all of her life
peopleMemoir extracts show iconic designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
fashionAlexander Fury's Spring/Summer 2015 London Fashion Week roundup
Arts and Entertainment
Lauryn Hill performing at the O2 Brixton Academy last night
musicSinger was more than 90 minutes late on stage in Brixton show
News
i100
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
News
people''Women's rights is too often synonymous with man-hating'
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam