Plantation great house, Barbados

The historical plantation great houses of Barbados are peepholes into the lifestyles of wealthy sugar cane planters who dominated the island’s commerce, culture, and politics for nearly 300 years.

Plantation great house, Barbados

Country lanes may cut through fields of sugar cane rather than English hedgerows, but formal gardens and Georgian architecture indelibly mark the tropical countryside as indisputably British.

 

Great house formal garden, Barbados

Marble tub in a great house formal garden

The British settled Barbados not long after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock and the introduction of sugar cultivation soon after transformed Barbados into the British Empire’s primary sugar exporter and the jewel in its colonial crown.   Cane juice extracted by grinding mills was shipped to Britain for refining and British capitalists arrived to assemble large sugar plantations from landholdings of smaller farmers, many of whom were relocated to the fledgling American colonies.

The prosperity fueled by this “white gold” continued into the early part of the twentieth century until the widespread adoption of less expensive beet sugar finally upended the plantation economy.

Sunbury plantation great house, Barbados

Among the most notable of the plantation great houses is Sunbury, which was built in St. Philip’s Parish around 1660 by one of the island’s first settlers.

Sunbury plantation great house, Barbados

Its ownership has passed through seven families, and the house has survived not only a hurricane in 1780 that likely removed much of its roof, but also damage sustained during the slave rebellion of 1816 and a fire in 1995.

 

Sunbury plantation great house, Barbados

Furniture destroyed by the fire was replaced from other collections and items made available for purchase by numerous Barbadian families, and Sunbury House now houses one of the country’s best collections of antiques.

Sunbury plantation great house, Barbados

The casual elegance within its rooms exudes the tastefulness of old money that ably evokes the feeling of a homeland half a world and centuries distant. The house is spacious and rambling.

Sunbury plantation great house, Barbados

Bright tropical sun floods through windows open to trade winds that keep it remarkably comfortable.  Furnishings in many of the rooms seem to freeze them in the moment that the plantation finally ceased operations.

Sunbury plantation great house, Barbados

In other rooms the furnishings reach back into the days before running water.

 

 

Sunbury plantation great house, Barbados

The antiques here include not only furnishings, but items used in daily domestic life and machinery used in the last century to cultivate the land.

Sunbury plantation great house, Barbados

Such authenticity leaves a sense that the owners have stepped out for a short while, to return at any moment.

Sunbury plantation great house

I found it hard to wander through these rooms without an acute awareness that the wealth they reflect was built on the backs of slaves who early on replaced English indentured servants in performing the labor-intensive process of sugar cultivation and harvesting.

By the time Parliament abolished slavery in 1833, more than 200 slaves worked the Sunbury plantation.

Unlike in the U.S., their full emancipation was preceded by 6 years of apprenticeship and their owners were compensated by the government.  As in the U.S., many of these freedmen and their descendants continued to work the land until mechanization displaced most of them.

Sunbury plantation great house, Barbados

At its peak, the sugar industry cultivated 80% of Barbados’ arable land and accounted for 90% of its export revenue.  Today tourism accounts for nearly half of the nation’s foreign exchange, and my trip so far still leaves lots yet to see.

Watch next for an account of my visit to the Mount Gay Barbados rum distillery!

Until then, check out my related post, Basking In Barbados, for a look at more of this engaging island.

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