Tour Of The Caribbean – The Planters and the Poor Whites

IT is in Barbados that will be found the most substantial relics of the old West Indian aristocracy, of the planter prince who, in the days of slavery and dear sugar, held court in the island with all the pomp and circumstance of a feudal lord. Here, still clinging to the same broad acres, are those whose ancestors were among the early landowners in the colony. Such are Alleyne of Porters, Drax of Drax Hall, Carrington of Carrington. The son is educated at Eton and Oxford, as were his father and grand-father before him, and in the fulness of time takes up his abode in the old house—with a less princely income, perhaps, and with longer absences in the old country–but still as the hereditary head of an estate which has been associated with the name of his family for generations.

Most of these possessions date back to the time of the great Civil War, when squires who were loyal to the Stuart cause left England to seek peace, or to found a new home in place of the shattered hall and the wasted meads confiscated to the Commonwealth.

Those were spacious times when the lord of the great house would go to church in a coach and four attended by an escort of slaves in stiff-necked liveries, and when the lady would walk abroad through the estate with one black lacquey to carry her lap-dog and another her fan, while a third bore respectfully her case of simples if it was her pleasure to visit an ancient Uncle Tom or a sick Aunt Chloe.

A French missionary, one Pere Labat, when he visited Barbados at the beginning of the eighteenth century, found the island overflowing with wealth, the harbour full of ships, and the warehouses crammed with goods from all parts of the world. To his thinking the jewellers’ and the silversmiths’ shops in Bridgetown were as brilliant as those of the Paris boulevards. He noted at the same time, as a hint apparently to his ever-watchful nation, that the island was imperfectly fortified.

There are traces left of the ancient days in certain fine old mansions which, with no little architectural pretence, show as strong a leaning to the type of the English country house as the tropics will allow. One has gone to such servility in imitation as to possess fireplaces in its sitting-rooms. Some even are built of stone from England brought over as the ballast of brigs and barques that sailed from Plymouth. A few contain pieces of the heavily carved furniture of bygone days, huge presses, sombre four-post bedsteads, ample wine-coolers, semi-regal plate, with possibly old family portraits of staid men whose faces are wrinkled by many seasons of heat or seamed by the maws of irreverent worms.

The present-day planter’s house is a solid building of plaster and stone hidden among trees and approached by an avenue of cabbage palms, of which the owner is proud. Around the house is an ample stone colonnade, or modern verandah, where on a table lies the favourite pipe. There is nowhere a stinting of space. The staircase is wide and easy of ascent ; the inner walls are not all carried up to the ceiling, but the space is filled in with lattice-work to allow a free passage for the breeze. Every window is jealously sheltered by wooden blinds. The rooms are consequently dark, for the sun is an abhorred thing. Carpets are rare because creeping things are common. The sideboards are liberally wide because the West Indian planter is the most hospitable of men. The floors are polished like glass and as slippery.

Everywhere are there reminiscences of home. Here on the table are ancient magazines with curled-up leaves and torn covers. They have been read and re-read, but no one has the heart to throw them away or hand them over to be pawed by aliens, for they are sacred things. On a wall, stained by the last hurricane of rain, is an insect-mottled drawing of the old house in England, a place with gables, a walled garden and a yew hedge. Below hangs a photograph of a college “eight,’ with the planter himself among them as he was in the days of his youth, but the group is so faded that the lusty under-graduates have become mere spectral smudges, while the only thing that lives is the college shield, in still defiant colours. Of the portraits of the father and mother very little is left but the dots for the sitter’s eyes put in in paint by a photographer who was given to realistic ” touching up.”

The dim room is, indeed, a room of ghosts. The cushions, the curtains, the coverings of the chairs are so wan and colour-less, while the human occupants are so unsubstantial in the dull light that if the full flood of the sun were to pour into the room one can believe that its contents would vanish, leaving only the black butler in his white tunic grinning at the door.

The house and the piazza are covered with creepers ; the grounds about them are rich with flowers of every tint. The kitchen garden is a jungle compared with the prim, brick-walled enclosure in England. In it flourish bananas and pumpkins, eddoes and peppers, pigeon peas, yams, ginger, chalots and sweet potatoes. There will be in a corner a few English herbs, despised by the natives, and possibly, if the owner be luxuriant, a patch of cabbages. The orchard boasts of mangoes and guavas, of avocado pears and golden apples, of shaddocks, sour-sop, and bread-fruit, of sapodillas, oranges and limes.

If there be a lady in the planter’s house there is sure to be an English garden within sight of the windows of her room, where, tended with affectionate ”care, will be roses, nasturtiums and violets, or such other simple flowers as can survive the languor of the tropics. For this corner of the garden the negro has neither sympathy nor understanding, since he fails to conceive the object of growing anything that cannot be eaten or made into building stuff. I remember one such pleasance beloved above all by the lady of the place. The gardener was an ancient white man who, having been born on the island, had no opinion of the nonsense talked about England, nor of the puny plants that came from that dim Mecca. Although he had lived with the family all his days he persisted in classing the cherished spot and all that grew within it as ” bush.” He declined to look after it. The violets and roses were affected weeds unworthy of an honest man’s notice. His faith was in yams and in fruits as big as his head. To his mistress the meek little plot was a garden of memories, of ” things from home”; to him it was mere scrub, a patch of wasted ground. It was not for the man of yams to know that the parent of the rose was still climbing over a familiar porch in Sussex, or that the violets had grown in a wood visited by a sorrowing couple the day before their ship set sail from England.

One addition to the planter’s house remains to be noticed, and that is the hurricane wing. In the older buildings it takes the form of a strong round tower of two floors communicating with the dwelling-house. It has the massive walls and beams of a fort, the narrow windows and stout doors of a dungeon and the roof of a gun casemate.

Here, when the terror; comes, crouch the women and children, while the wind hisses by like an arrow flight of invisible steel, slashing away the palms and trees as with a cutlass, tearing off the house roof and hurling it, with furniture, fencing, huts and plantation litter into the void. The women press their hands over their ears as the thunder bursts with a crash ” as if the whole vault of heaven had been made of glass and had been shivered at a blow.” The screaming children, who have dragged their toys with them, are blinded and silenced by the lightning which flashes through the window slits, and are then fascinated by the rain, which, pouring down as a weir, makes of the road a river and of the garden a whirlpool of mud.

Possibly the most interesting and remarkable of the islanders are certain dismal folk known as the ” poor whites.” It may be surmised that the ” poor whites” are colonists who have fallen upon evil days through the common channels of disaster, drunkenness and sloth. There are such, no doubt, on the island, but they are not the ” poor whites ” of Barbados. These peculiar people are descendants of some of the earlier settlers, of men who were colonists by compulsion, and who for centuries have enjoyed nothing but a heritage of woe.

They came to the island in the holds of unsavoury ships, a company of condemned men and women upon whom had been passed the sentence of exile for life. For some the period of banishment had been short, for they had died in the dark under the festering planks of the convict-brig, and were handed up from out of the stench by their friends to be dropped into the wholesome sea. Some were prisoners who were taken by Cromwell from the wilds of Ireland when he suppressed the rebellion in that gallant country. Others were the victims of the Civil War, who had been dragged from their villages by plumed and belaced cavaliers to fight, as they were told, for the King. The larger number, it would seem, were yokels who had taken part in Monmouth’s rebellion, who had shouted for him on his landing at Lyme Regis, or had fought for him at Sedgemoor. They had passed through the Bloody Assize alive, had faced Judge Jeffreys from the dock, had heard his curses and had shuddered under the malignant venom of his eyes.

In the West Indian island the banished men had fared ill. Unfitted for work in the fields under a tropical sun, they had become dependents, loafers, doers of odd jobs and in the end mere squatters of the most dejected type. Pitied by the planter, held in contempt by the negro, without aim or object in the world, they had yet kept alive, with some rustic pride, the memory that they were white men. They married only among themselves, held aloof from the blackamoor and went their own way, such as it was.

Their number now is few, but they are a most distinctive people. Long intermarriage, long’ living in the tropics, long centuries of purposeless existence have left them utterly degenerate, anemic in mind and body, sapless and nerveless, mere shadows of once sturdy men. The Briton in the West Indies clamours that he must go home from time to time or languish in health. These have never been home since the day when they were thrown out upon the scorching beach to fare as they liked. They have withered and faded and, like a painted missal which has been bleached of all colour by years of sun, the writing that told who they were has become well-nigh illegible.

The poor whites are to be found mostly about Bathsheba, a joyless company of pariahs, housed in wretched huts and making a flabby pretence at living as fishermen. They own to names which are still familiar in Ireland and in the west of England. Some have marked Irish faces, and the doctor in whose district they live tells me that among not a few of the poor whites there still survives the pleasant brogue of Ireland.

Those who are descended from Monmouth’s men are the off-spring of ruddy-faced peasants who tended sheep upon the Dorset downs, or turned up with their ploughs the good brown earth of Devon. One can imagine how for years their talk would be of the hamlets they had left, of the cool trout streams, the shady spinnies and the old grey church whose bells they could hear in their dreams. It is certain that when each December came round they would babble—in spite of the never-flagging heat—of Christmas time, of the holly, of the snow on the uplands, of the carol singers and the squire’s baron of beef.

The stories would come down to the sickly grandchild, to the still more listless great-grandson until at last the telling of such things as the keen English wind, the bare trees, the sheep fair and carrier’s cart would become unintelligible and meaningless, while the names of Lyme, of Taunton, of Bridgewater, where the battle was fought, of Dorchester, where the assize was held, would be as the names of places that were not.

What was once seen grows what is now described, Then talked of, told about, a tinge the less In every fresh transmission; till it melts, Trickles in silent orange or wan grey Across the memory, dies and leaves all dark.