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The Rebirth of Barbados

© Paul Costello The Rebirth of Barbados

Photo: Paul Costello

A short drive south of St. Nicholas Abbey leads to a series of pink and white revival tents used by traveling ministers, strange roadside signs (Satan is an Evil Charmer), and church graveyards with headstones draped in colored ribbon. Near the historic Morgan Lewis Sugar Mill is Love City, a Rastafarian compound with a circular open-air hut for worship. One wall is adorned with a portrait of Haile Selassie and a thundering exhortation: …Brimstone and FireA Tempest to All Oppressors. On one sun-drenched afternoon, a visiting Rasta, Isaiah Jones, shows off a brave little garden of papaya and cassava. “We are about self-sustaining development and alleviating poverty,” he says affably. “Barbados is a hard place for simple people.”

Further inland, amid the lush hills of the Scotland District, local women carry baskets of flowers and produce on their heads to their chattel houses, past standpipes (roadside faucets where entire families would bathe in the old days), convenience stores housed in wooden huts (No Hair-Braiding, No Smoking), and rum shops, gaily painted stands where Bajans meet to sip the local Mount Gay rum and other brands. The 1,600 or so establishments on the island are an indigenous art form, but liquor companies are covering them in corporate logos, creating one big billboard for booze.

Within St. Peter Parish is Farley Hill National Park, acres of Barbados mahogany trees surrounding an old estate that was used as a backdrop for 1957’s Island in the Sun. Nearby, in St. Thomas Parish, is the circa-1635 Fisher Pond Great House, a private estate that owners John and Rain Chandler open on Sundays for brunch, serving up a buffet of flying fish, curried green bananas, and other Bajan dishes to tourists and locals alike. In the space of a few minutes, John Chandler manages to cover photographer Norman Parkinson’s torrid affair on the island, the protocol disasters involved in the loan of his antique table to a Barbadian state affair attended by Queen Elizabeth, and a 17th-century Flemish screen in his dining room. “I bought it at an auction of Verna Hull’s things after she died,” he says. “She had given it to her neighbor, Claudette Colbert, who gave it back to her after they had a fight over something.” Hull, a Sears Roebuck heiress, was fascinated by Colbert, but they never spoke again after the quarrel, though they continued to occupy adjacent estates year after year.

Barbados is an island of ghosts, awash in the poetry of loss and longing. One night, with the sort of weird historical inevitability that happens all the time on the Platinum Coast, another emblem of Swinging London, Pattie Boyd, turns up at the bar at the Lone Star, an all-too-glam hotel and restaurant. Boyd, the onetime “it” girl of rock, began her career playing a schoolgirl in A Hard Day’s Night, ultimately co-authoring Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Me. As it happens, she honeymooned on Barbados with Harrison in 1966. Like many on the island, Boyd’s in search of the past, and she has returned to photograph old houses. “I’m really interested in ruins and decay, the old estates that are starting to vanish with all this development,” she says. “When the beauty of those ruins is gone, it will be gone forever.”

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