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

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