6 MAY 1949, Page 6

Colonial Prospect



ONE of the best of Hans Andersen's stories tells of two children who played in the garden of dreams. They grew up and could no longer visit it freely, so the queen of the garden gave them a small handkerchief as a parting gift: whenever they opened it a land appeared, complete with hills and valleys, tillage, woods, small towns : they had but to step in and it was theirs. The island of Barbados constantly reminds me of this story, it is so complete, so varied and so small. Pear-shaped and crumpled at the northern end, the fairy handkerchief has been flung out into the Atlantic farther than any of the other islands of the Antilles. The Gulf Stream and marauding sharks here touch it, and an eroded landscape pours in short steep ranges to dangerous breakers and teeth of coral ; there is quicksand, and here and there a trick of waters that seep invisibly and gather themselves suddenly together behind the unwary wader and carry him out to sea.

All this looks impressive and large to the island-dwellers, accustomed to the scale of a land fourteen miles by twenty in extent ; and however small it may be, the Atlantic Ocean surrounds it with a breath of immensity, piles its high Coreggio sunsets on the horizon, and drowns every year a dozen fishing boats or so that, with their dipping bowsprits and nets for flying fish, have ventured out too far. When the catch comes home in the short and glowing dusk, women with baskets on their heads cry the flying-fish, the king-fish and dolphins through Bridgetown streets and suburbs. Three-masted schooners cluster in the Careenage, against quays where the traffic of the town can reach them, where a bronze Nelson looks down with his empty sleeve, and the Govern- ment buildings stand in pleasing Hanoverian Gothic solidity. The dark crowds that pass to and fro in painted buses can watch the produce of the other islands unloading, and barrels of Barbados rum replacing it in the " fair round bellies " built of wood. I suppose that the Careenage in Barbados is one of the very few remaining harbours in the world where sailing craft alone are visible: all ships that move with oil or steam anchor outside. The official, as he moves along the coast road to his office, can tell with a glance to sea whether the mail on his desk will be stamped from New York or England.

In spite of all this coming and going, the atmosphere of Barbados is singularly unaffected by the sea. Gentle slopes broken by shallow cliffs and gullies open from the northern steepness to a fan-shaped plain ; and, except for the thin patches where only " sourgrass " will grow, for a few stray temporary crops of yams, sweet-potato, cotton—the whole of the available earth is planted with sugar-cane in all its stages, from the ratoon that grows out of last year's plant, or the slim blades of the new slips, almost invisible in the brown ground, to high rustling brakes with spearheads of feathery mauve blossom, that hide a cart and horses in their season. Everything that matters on the island is sugar, molasses or rum ; the factories that crush the cane into these various products are scattered in all the pleasant places ; the managers' houses stand under clumps of mahogany trees beside them ; and a derelict windmill overgrown with flowers usually shows the recent change from wind to steam. Lorries, mule-teams, donkey-carts, carry the heaped bundles which are seized by eight strong teeth of the crane and hoisted high in the air, like Judas in Lucifer's maw, and deposited on the moving belt that carries them towards destruction. The factories work day and night shifts, and light the island in its Atlantic darkness ; until the middle of summer comes and the crop is finished, and the machinery lies idle, undergoing oiling and repairs, and the problem arises of what work to find for the men with their cutlasses, who have done with the cutting of the cane.

Very few country districts in the world are more thickly populated than Barbados, which now has over 200,000 inhabitants on one hundred and sixty-six square miles. Five hundred miles of roads cover this area, as well as a network of grassy tracks called

" intervals," pleasant for riding, where the lorries and mule-teams dragging their hairy carts can barely penetrate to load the harvest of the cane. Here, in the solitary sunlight, the mongoose trips along, hunting for rats, and lizards scurry about, green and brown. There are no other wild animals, except for a dwindling colony of monkeys— no snakes and few birds—and these are so tame and petted that they prefer the neighbourhood of the town and forage in people's houses. The sparrows of Government House came and drank out of my milk- jug as I held it in my hand. All over the countryside small wooden cottages are scattered, simple as toys and strangely graceful, with shingle .roofs like the lids of Noah's Ark, and venetian shuttered windows, one on either side of the door. Paint, and a band of fret- work round the edge of the roof, or a decorated porch, or steps built up through a tiny front of garden, show prosperity in various degrees —and, in spite of the overcrowding, there are no slums to compare in squalor with Trinidad or Jamaica. The good old houses are built of coral stone with a parapet roof that prevents a hurricane from lifting up the eaves, and open vaults to allow it to blow through.

The island has kept its old original division into eleven parishes, and when I came to Barbados I was told that I would find it "fiercely parochial." As a matter of fact, I have found nothing fierce here except the colour bar, which boils over forgotten wrongs and sorrows as the surf boils over a reef, submerged and dangerous. Nine-tenths of the population are coloured, and no future except one of amity can promise any good to the whites of these islands. Self- interest now urges what Christianity has urged so many centuries in vain. The dark people have kept their strange and gentle simplicity ; they like to work little, to laugh, and to pray, and many chapel varieties blossom among the churches. " Pilgrim Holiness " I often notice as pass, for its charming name, one among the many pleasant names of the island. Fontabelle, Frere Pilgrim, Belle-Plaine, Farley Hill, etc.—they tell the varied story of continuous settlement over three hundred years ; and the people themselves have kept old words in their everyday speech, and use Mistress, and Master, and yonder, and talk of a servant who is staunch, or the worthlessness of small boys, or the gardener who is idle in the head.

On Sundays they dress neatly with a gaiety that peeps out in the colours of their muslin and jauntiness of hats ; and they lavish care on their children—clean socks and stiff frocks, and shirts and shorts and peaked schoolcaps for the boys : inside this paraphernalia, the little creatures move with a grace and freedom that all the centuries of constriction have not taken away. During Lent of this year we saw a Passion play. It was done with a natural reverence and a feeling for drama which appears to be innate in the race ; and one could not but notice how easily the long garments of the East fitted movements which our harsh clothes make angular and abrupt, and how the wayside gossip of the Gospels sounded spon- taneous, so that one might imagine it without incongruity in the crowds that climbed from Galilee. I have met Africans in Arabian villages, and seen them treated with a tolerance so genuine that it need not bother about the name when it has the substance of equality. This basic feeling has been lost in Barbados, not so much, I imagine, through slavery as through the industrial exploitation of the past.

The coloured future is attached to education, representation and all the democratic furniture of our time. The schools are places where all mix together ; and the island reads more books than any other in the West Indies. For better or worse the coloured Barbadian is now absorbed into the West, and into that passionately Parliamen- tarian form of Western civilisation which Barbados imported from England in the seventeenth century and has clung to ever since. There is a sturdy and jealous independence in its legislative assembly, where the King's Governor himself is not allowed to attend debates. Island Hampdens abound and their breasts are as dauntless as ever ; they are often educated in England, and they join up and fight her battles when she is at war ; their buildings, their gay little racecourse, their social life, are mid- to early-Victorian ; but their principles and deeper convictions belong to an earlier time, distrustful of foreigners and innovation, serious and generous for sport, rigid and narrow fcr gain, individualistic, intolerant and hospitably kind.