By Kristy Tolley
The historic thread that binds Charleston and Barbados
The pastel-hued historic homes of Rainbow Row, cobbled streets and the crape myrtle trees that line them — they’re quintessential Charleston, South Carolina. Whether you’ve visited the Holy City once or a hundred times, you may not realize the Caribbean link to these charming characteristics.
Established in 1670, Charles Towne was settled by “lords proprietors.” These were loyalists who backed King Charles II in his fight to regain the throne. The king granted them charters to colonize South Carolina as a reward for their support. Several were estate owners from Barbados.
Perched on a marshy point off the Ashley River, the Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site marks the area where the settlers landed in 1670. Visitors can explore the 664-acre park, which includes 80 acres of gardens, a visitor center, a natural habitat zoo and the Adventure, a replica 17th-century sailing ship.
“Lord Ashley and Sir John Colleton spearheaded the efforts to cultivate the Carolinas plantations,” explains Morris Greenidge, historian and author from Cave Hill, Barbados. “At that time, the thriving sugar industry created a population boom here in Barbados, which resulted in a scarcity of resources and cultivatable land. Plantation owners set their sights on the North American mainland.”
While visiting Barbados, I spent a day with Greenidge exploring the remnants of those families and other Barbadians who made their way to Charleston. From churches and cemeteries at St. Joseph Parish Church and others to plantation homes and empty lands where homes once stood, there was much to see. We toured St. Nicholas Abbey, which was once owned by Sir John Yeamans, who made his way to Charleston in 1671. Today the estate includes a small-batch rum distillery. A tour of the great house and estate grounds reveals the rich family history and rum’s more over 350-year heritage. Other Barbados family remnants included Sir John Colleton (Colleton House), Thomas Drayton (Frere Pilgrim plantation), Arthur and Edward Middleton (Middleton’s Mount).
As we drove through Bonnet’s Village, I learned about the exploits of Stede Bonnet, the “gentleman pirate.” He was a retired major in the King’s Guards, second generation Barbadian and wealthy plantation owner. Though he had no maritime experience, Bonnet decided to become a pirate, making his way to the Carolinas in 1717 to do so. He briefly partnered with (and was later scammed by) Blackbeard. His pirate life was brief, though — he was captured and hanged in 1718.
When Barbadian-born Rhoda Green made Charleston her home in 1978, she couldn’t help but note comparisons between her new city and her home country. “There was such a strong feel of Barbados through the cobblestone streets, the church names and the single-house architecture,” she explains. “I was immediately drawn to those similarities.”
Sailing ships from England used cobblestone as ballast during their journeys to Barbados and Charleston. The stones were used to build roads instead of being discarded into the harbor when the ships no longer needed them.
Spend any time in Charleston and you’ll discover some of those influences. Middleton Plantation (Henry Middleton’s father), Gibbes Museum of Art (Robert Gibbes), Magnolia Plantation and Drayton Hall (Thomas Drayton) are just a few. There’s even a link in the spoken word. The local language of Gullah — derived from enslaved Africans who lived along coastal South Carolina — is similar to Bajan, the Afro-Barbadian dialect.
African slaves who labored on Barbados sugar plantations were brought over to cultivate the indigo, rice and Sea Island cotton in the Carolinas. Their contributions to the region’s agriculture, cuisine and culture are rich and diverse — and certainly too expansive to adequately describe within this article.
Green’s desire to explore the connection to Barbados led her to establish The Barbados and the Carolinas Legacy Foundation. The organization is designed to raise awareness of the historical and cultural links between Barbados and the Carolinas, and to create opportunities for collaboration.
“I connected with the historical places in Charleston — notably large plantations along the Ashley River. The families who owned them had sister plantations in Barbados. Making those linkages became very meaningful to me.”
She became Barbados’ honorary consul to South Carolina in 2008, giving her the accreditation to speak on behalf of Barbados. She often shares the strands of influence that link Barbados to Charleston — speaking with colleges, schools, historic organizations and Caribbean tourism representatives.
Dig a little deeper into the Barbados-Charleston connection yourself. Spend a few days exploring the historic landmarks of Charleston. For trip tips, see our “Weekend Guide to Charleston, S.C.” article.
Beginnings in Barbados
You should also include a visit to Barbados in your research. It’s easy enough to get there thanks to daily direct flights with American Airlines from Charlotte, which will run through the fall.
Historic landmarks are plentiful in Barbados. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2011, the capital city of Bridgetown and its Garrison include National Heroes Square, the Parliament Buildings and St. Mary’s Church. Also in Bridgetown is the Nidhe Israel Synagogue and Museum, part of the Synagogue Historic District. The synagogue is believed to be the oldest synagogue structure in the Western Hemisphere. You’ll also find the mikvah, or ritual bath, dating back to 1654. It was discovered during an archeological dig in 2008.
The museum chronicles Barbados’ Jewish history starting in 1628, the first year Jewish settlers were recorded on the island. They were headed to Charleston, S.C., to join a Jewish community that was already established. However, Lord Oliver Cromwell sent word granting them permission to settle in Barbados, believing their expertise in trade and commerce would boost the island’s sugar industry.
A comprehensive tour of the Mount Gay Rum distillery reveals the story of Barbados’ 382-year rum production. Managed by Sir John Gay Alleyne in 1703, Mount Gay was the island’s first commercial rum venture, making it the oldest rum brand in existence. You’ll learn how the plentiful sugar cane supply fueled the rum industry and enjoy samples along the way.
Visit the George Washington House, where he lived during his two-month stay in Barbados in 1751. Washington accompanied his brother Lawrence, who was hoping avoid becoming more ill from consumption during the winter. It was the only country George Washington ever visited outside of colonial America. While he was in Barbados, Washington contracted and recovered from smallpox, which likely saved his life later. It provided him immunity when a widespread smallpox epidemic plagued the Continental Army and Boston’s civilian population. Here you’ll learn about island life in the mid-18th century through displays and artifacts.
Natural diversions worth visiting include Animal Flower Cave and Harrison’s Cave. Located beneath the island’s northern cliffs, Animal Flower Cave earned its name from the flower-like sea anemones that make their home in the cave’s pools. It was discovered in 1750 by a Welsh explorer. A steep (but manageable) coral stone stairway leads you to different chambers that feature several pools through which you can wade. Visitors are also rewarded with remarkable views of the sea through the cave openings. Make time to enjoy lunch at the Animal Flower Cave restaurant with refreshing sea breezes and sweeping views of the ocean.
Harrison’s Cave was named for Thomas Harrison, who owned much of the land in the area where the cave is. Its discovery was first recorded by explorers in 1795. The cave was “re-discovered” by Danish cave adventurer Ole Sorensen with locals Tony Mason and Allison Thornhill in 1974, and was open for public tours in 1981. This crystallized limestone cave system is characterized by flowing streams and towering columns. A tour reveals actively growing stalagmites, clear pools and underground waterfalls. Its largest cavern, the Great Hall, measures just over 49 feet tall.
The Fairmont Royal Pavilion was home base during my Barbados visit. Located on the island’s west coast, it’s an ideal spot for those seeking privacy with unobstructed views of the ocean. It’s the only accommodation on the island located right on the beach. It was built before laws prohibiting beachfront construction were put in place. The resort underwent a $7 million facelift in 2017 resulting in spacious marble bathrooms, technological enhancements and other upgrades to the 72 rooms and suites. The lush greenery throughout the property — hibiscus, frangipani and bougainvillea — provides a blissfully intimate atmosphere.
Sandy Lane is situated on one of the island’s most distinguished beaches. Each of the 112 rooms, suites and the five-bedroom villa includes private verandahs, private bars, Italian marble floors and parabolic speakers on the verandah and in the bathroom. Guests can pamper themselves at Sandy Lane’s 47,000-square-foot upscale spa or play a round on one of the resort’s three golf courses.
For more than 70 years, Colony Club has been a favorite retreat for many Barbados visitors. Originally a sugarcane plantation home, this beachfront escape is nestled within seven acres of tropical gardens and features a lagoon-style pool that winds throughout them. Choose from 96 spacious guest rooms and suites that boast accents like mahogany furniture, espresso machines, a yoga mat and bathrooms with granite-top vanities and large soaking tubs.
Whether it’s a weekend road trip to Charleston or a week-long stay in Barbados, start your trip with AAA. Call 800-374-2865 today!
(Go Magazine July/August 2019)