After Breaking Ties With Britain, Barbados Announces Heritage District Tracing Slavery’s Toll

Newton Plantation Memorial rendering seen from above
Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye will lead design of the new Heritage District, a center dedicated to teaching about the history and impact of the transatlantic slave trade. Courtesy of Adjaye Associates

Days after formally removing Elizabeth II as its head of state and establishing itself as a republic, Barbados announced plans for a new cultural center featuring a national archive, a museum and a memorial dedicated to the history of the transatlantic slave trade. 

Officially dubbed the Barbados Heritage District, the planned space is “one of the most significant projects ever undertaken since the country [declared its] independence” from the United Kingdom in 1966, says Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley in a statement.

“[It is] a moral imperative and an economic necessity,” she adds.

David Adjaye, the famed Ghanaian-British architect behind the design of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, is set to lead the four-phase project. The district will stand just outside of Barbados’ capital, Bridgeton, on the grounds of Newton Plantation, reports Matt Hickman for the Architect’s Newspaper. The former sugar plantation is the site of the island’s largest and oldest known enslaved burial ground; in the 1970s, archaeologists excavating the site discovered the remains of 570 enslaved West Africans buried in unmarked graves.

Phase one will begin on November 30, 2022—the first anniversary of Barbados becoming a republic—with construction of the Newton Enslaved Burial Ground Memorial. A domed pavilion made of red soil native to the region will welcome visitors to the memorial, introducing them to the site’s history through informational displays about the burial ground and slavery’s role in Barbados’ sugar industry. After traveling through a sugarcane field, guests will arrive at a mound encircling 570 timber poles that commemorate the enslaved people buried below.

As Tom Seymour reports for the Art Newspaper, the district will also feature a museum and global research center. Visitors will be able to access the Barbados National Archives, a collection of tens of millions pages related to the slave trade, including ship registers, marriage licenses and manumission papers.

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“The district’s research institute will document Barbados’ pivotal role as the harrowing portal through which millions of enslaved Africans were forced to the Americas,” says Mottley, as quoted by the Art Newspaper. “It will unearth the as-yet untold heritage embedded in centuries-old artifacts, revealing both Barbados’ history and trajectory into the future.”

The museum and archive will facilitate research partnerships between the Caribbean’s University of the West Indies and academic institutions in the United States, reports Nadine White for the Independent. Currently held by the Barbados Archives Department, the documents date to as far back as 1635, covering almost 400 years of history. Researchers plan to digitize the collection in the near future.

When English settlers first arrived on Barbados in the 1620s, the island was nearly unpopulated. Its Indigenous inhabitants had either fled or been captured by European slave traders. As the colonists adopted sugar production as the island’s central industry, they passed laws legitimizing slavery and established large plantations reliant on enslaved African laborers. 

Earlier studies of the remains buried at Newton Plantation between 1660 and 1820 reveal the horrors of Barbadian slavery. In a 2011 paper, Kristrina Shuler, an anthropologist at Auburn University, wrote that “stress and abuse, coupled with disease and malnutrition, culminated in high mortality” among enslaved laborers. Her research, she added, “demonstrates the importance of systemic, multidisciplinary and comparative approaches to reconstructing the complex life stresses of slavery.”

After Breaking Ties With Britain, Barbados Announces Heritage District Tracing Slavery's Toll
The 570 timber poles memorialize the enslaved West Africans buried in unmarked graves at Newton Plantation. Courtesy of Adjaye Associates

According to Simon P. Newman’s A New World of Labor, Edward Littleton, a 17th-century Barbados plantation owner who enslaved approximately 160 people, reported that a fifth to a quarter of his workforce died every year. Between 1708 and 1735, the island’s slaveholders purchased 85,000 Africans; due to the high death rate, Barbados’ total enslaved population during that time period only rose by about 4,000.

The U.K.’s Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 formally ended the practice in Barbados and other British colonies. But white planters continued to operate sugar plantations, abusing laborers and paying low wages. It was only in the 1930s that the island’s Black majority began to secure more economic and political rights. Barbados achieved universal adult suffrage in 1950 and independence from Britain in 1966. 

Until November 30, Barbados was a parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy presided over by Elizabeth II. Now the world’s newest republic, the island remains part of the Commonwealth of Nations, a loose association of 54 countries, most of which are former British colonies and current dependencies, reports BBC News.

Construction of the new heritage site is expected to conclude by 2024 or 2025.

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