The Ancestral Call for Return: Start here. End (t)here
Submitted by Tara Inniss, Department of History and Philosophy, The University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus
Some of us in Barbados and the Diaspora saw some posts and short videos on social media this past weekend showing a ceremony taking place in Ghana of Barbadian officials burying the “remains” of an “unknown” enslaved African burial/space from Barbados to Africa. Those present described it as a very emotional experience. I have no doubt that it was. Confronting the theft of our culture and the erasure of lives lived during enslavement in Barbados is an extremely visceral experience that would touch any one of us if we had the opportunities to do so.
When we take our students to the spaces that exist here in Barbados, it is also an emotional experience. If I were to describe it, I would say the emotion is more of revelation and connection than it is of reflection and communion. It is a revelation simply because they did not know that these spaces existed. There are no signposts. There are no pathways or guided markers. If there is a sign upon arrival, it is likely a plaque describing something that was – not is. They are forced to reflect on the fact that these spaces are not a valued part of their heritage. They never even learned about them in school. In fact, they never really learned their own history. We reflect on that. Together.
There must be many places on this island that hold the remains of our enslaved ancestors. Unfortunately, we are only aware of three that have been documented archaeologically – all of which faced threats to their protection and at least one, which was completely destroyed. These are the burial spaces at Newton Slave Burial Ground which is now the property of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society (BMHS); Fontabelle Slave and Free Coloured Burial Ground which was destroyed by Government to make way for the Barbados Investment and Development Corporation (BIDC) Small Business Development Building; and at least one burial that was excavated during development at the Pier Head likely in the vicinity of the Royal African Company’s Barracoons where newly arrived African captives were landed before being sold off to enslavers in Barbados and the rest of the Caribbean. The area is better known today as the Barbados Tourism and Investment (BTI) Inc. car park in Bridgetown.
The Barbadian landscape — past and present — is such that we have little documentation on the burials of hundreds of thousands of Africans and their enslaved descendants after living, working and dying here. We know they exist, but we do not know where they are. Plantation records, if they exist and accessible, had been silent and certainly the changing nature of sugar production, estate ownership and residential patterns of a landless emancipation in this island have rendered people’s memories of these spaces either fragile or absent. The majority of enslaved Africans in Barbados were not allowed to be buried in the well-known parish cemeteries on this island as they were not ‘Christian’ and there was complete denial of their religion and spirituality. But they had to bury their dead somewhere – and the places that were selected for them to confer their own rites for their departed were often on the most marginal land of the plantation – usually not suitable for sugar or other agricultural production.
In the case of the burial space at Fontabelle, this was land that was given for this expressed purpose by Joseph Rachell (1716-66) who was widely regarded as the first free black businessman in Barbados.1 He recognised that the slave and free coloured communities of Bridgetown did not have anywhere to bury their dead so he gave them land to do so. Unfortunately, these spaces have been largely lost to time. Having little access to the somewhat permanent materials that we traditionally associate with grave sites, such as tombstones or other memorials, all that may remain is some of the plantings of tress and shrubs that we know helped the enslaved and free find their dead.
1 The irony here, of course, is that there is no memorial to Joseph Rachell, an early example of an enterprising black Barbadian, whose own grave was moved in street communities of Bridgetown did not have anywhere to bury their dead so he gave them land to do so. Unfortunately, these spaces have been largely lost to time. Having little access to the somewhat permanent materials that we traditionally associate with grave sites, such as tombstones or other memorials, all that may remain is some of the plantings of tress and shrubs that we know helped the enslaved and free find their dead.
That is why when we have found them here or in other parts of the Caribbean or the rest of the Americas they are quite special on a number of levels. Although an estimated 12.5 million enslaved Africans came to the Americas, there are only a handful of burial spaces that have been located – largely by accident – during archaeological surveys prior to modern construction. Among these are the African Burial Ground National Monument in New York City, USA and Valongo Wharf Arcaheological, a UNESCO World Heritage Property in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. There have been other excavations in the region including the house-yard slave burials at Seville Estate in Jamaica as well as others in the French-speaking Caribbean. It is important to note that controversies have existed over the movement of ancestral remains of enslaved peoples as well as other artifacts within and outside of state borders for a number of reasons.
Newton Slave Burial Ground is special because it is the only extant communal slave burial ground that has been found in the region, quite possibly in the Americas. That means that we know that the burials at Newton were those of persons enslaved at Newton. When Jerome Handler uncovered the location of the burials at Newton in the 1970s, it spurred an entire new field of archaeological and historical investigation into the cultural and biological history of Africans in the Americas. It is still used today as a benchmark field study for archaeologists and historians globally. And, unlike the rest of the island’s plantation history, Newton Plantation is one of the best-documented estates in the island. That means that we know a lot about the slave community at Newton – stories of maronnage, landmark court cases for freedom; gender dynamics; resistance; even names and family groups for certain time periods. The enslaved community at Newton is not anonymous.
But are these burial spaces quite special to us as a country? That is a categorical No. I know about them because I learned about them while doing history and archaeology at The UWI, Cave Hill. My knowledge of them largely derives from the work we did with Dr. Karl Watson as undergraduate and postgraduate students. In fact, I was there with him and other students when we tried to do rescue archaeology of only a handful of what was hundreds, maybe thousands of burials at Fontabelle in the early 2000s under severe pressure from the contractor with heavy equipment that had destroyed most of the site and with it one of the largest known slave and free coloured urban burial grounds in the Caribbean. Approximately 1000 burials were destroyed! That was an emotional, visceral experience too as we bulldozed a sacred space belonging to our ancestors as a consequence of “development”.
Most people today are not aware of burials at Newton, Fontabelle or Pier Head. Most people do not even know where the Newton Slave Burial Ground is; and if you went you would have to drive up to the back of an industrial park, walk a short hike through a cart road in a cane ground and stare at a rolling field which is usually overgrown so you cannot see the burial mounds. You will be greeted by a molded over Barbados Slave Route sign which is part of a now defunct Ministry of Tourism project. At Fontabelle, all there is to mark what was is a small plaque at the entrance of the BIDC complex. And at Pier Head — well we all park our cars there to go on to do our shopping in town and rarely contemplate the suffering and bewilderment of arrival that took place under our feet.
These are places of return too! These are sites of memory for the slave trade and slavery right here in Barbados! Look what we have done with them. Nothing. Destroyed them. Neglect them. They are not places of revelation or connection and certainly not places for reflection or communion. Most of us will never be able to visit a symbolic burial of ancestral “remains” in Ghana, or any other place on the West African coast although many of us may wish to. Why have we not done our work in Barbados to confront our own African past and to understand the identities that evolved because Africans were here? We have not done our work spiritually or otherwise to even ready ourselves for return. And it is my greatest regret as a daughter of the Diaspora that we have no place here in Barbados to honour our ancestors, even though they exist!
I say this in the light of what other communities in Barbados have done to reflect and commune with their own past and the value they have placed on sharing it with others. The recent redevelopment of the Nidhe Israel Synagogue and its environs demonstrates an enduring commitment by the Jewish community to not only honor their presence here but also to share in that recognition with others, including memorializing the historic location of Codd’s House where our emancipation was read aloud for the first time on our soil (also destroyed by Government in the 1980s). I also look to a small group of dedicated persons who cleared and restored a Quaker Burial Ground – there is not even a Quaker presence on the island having been driven out by persecution in the 17th century! But this space was regarded as having significance and is maintained as such. We can say that since Independence, a majority African-descended Government of Barbados has invested little in the spaces that symbolize the survival and sacrifice of our African ancestors – in fact, we can say that there has been a legacy of neglect and destruction to remove our this past from our landscape.
I am calling on our Government to recognize these failings in our past decision-making of erasure and neglect and with a fervent plea: do not relegate our own heritage to the dust-pile of history. Please respect, protect and value our own archaeological and historical past. Please see archaeology as a friend, not foe to our country’s development and knowledge about ourselves. Please invest in our archives and repositories of memory. Please make this history known in our schools and museums. These are spaces for peace-building and community. These are places that can instill the pride we all feel slipping away.
If 2020 is the year of return for Barbadians, please let it to be spaces like Newton Slave Burial Ground that show the value we place on this history with sensitive interpretation where we can do more than reveal and connect but also to reflect and commune.
We do not have these spaces.
We cannot go on these emotional journeys.
We cannot truly free our ancestral call for return without them.
Start here. End (t)here