The Colour of Commemoration: A History of Slavery & Emancipation in Five Monuments

A #BlackHistoryMonth Inspired Blog

When I started my research in churchyards and burial grounds in Barbados, I was told I would only ever be able to reconstruct ‘white histories’ of these places. These were, after all, spaces that were built by the well-to-do English merchant and planter families of the island, who systematically barred African and African-descendant communities, free or enslaved, from accessing places of worship, education and memory. It was easy to conclude that British religious landscapes meant white monuments, white histories.

It is undeniable that the long-standing restrictions placed on the baptism or education of slaves had a very real impact not only on the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, but also on visibility of black communities through research on early Christian burial grounds in Barbados. Nevertheless, it wasn’t long before this elusive history began to emerge. Connecting the dots of monuments scattered across the island, it is in fact possible to trace the sea of changes that redefined 19th-century Barbados, including the long and winding path that lead to emancipation of slaves in the 1830s.

The following selection of five monuments tells a story that does indeed start with slavery, tragedy and inequality, but it is also a story of resistance, struggle and resiliency.


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Quaker Burial Ground, St. Philips

Although Anglicanism was the primary religious sect in Barbados, Quakers, or the Society of Friends, came to the island in the 1650s seeking freedom from religious persecution in Britain. They quickly came to represent the largest non-conformist religious community. Heavily sanctioned and persecuted, Quakers remained active on the island until the 19th century. Anglicans rejected the Quaker perspective on equality, including welcoming African-Barbadians to their religion, and providing opportunities for education and religious practice. However, their burial grounds also tell an interesting story about the complexities of Quaker values, and the prevalence of inequality and segregation throughout the island.

The Quaker Burial Ground in St. Philips, established around 1670 and used well into the 18th century, is still accessible today down a narrow residential lane way a stone’s throw from St. Philips Anglican Church. It includes six large vaults for wealthy planter families, including the Weekes, Gilkes and Pilgrim families. It is truly monumental, and encapsulates a very important history of religious persecution for British Quakers who staked their claim in Barbados.

But invisibility also tells a story. There was, in fact, a secondary area to the southwest of this monument for non-planter members of the Quaker community — that is, non-wealthy white families. Enslaved Quakers, however, were often still buried in the slave burial grounds on plantations. Despite a philosophy of integrating slaves into Quaker communities, racial segregation is clearly evident and limited the level of inclusivity shown to enslaved converts.

This monument, then, freezes a moment in Bajan history defined by complex, multi-layered discrimination and inequalities. But the island was on the cusp of change.


Jane Ann Thompson

In 1816, a small stone was erected in St. Andrew’s Parish Churchyard, highlighting the transformation that the Anglican congregation of Barbados was undergoing:

A Friend
causes this Stone
to be erected to the memory of
Jane Ann Thompson
Free Coloured Woman
And her three Infant Children
As a mark of Esteem

Who departed this Life
January the 27th 1816
Aged 35 Years.

At this time, the Anglican churchyard burial was still primarily reserved for the British population; this monument is one of the earliest and clearest examples we have of an individual who contributed to religious and social integration. Very little is known about Jane Ann Thompson, but her status as a free coloured woman in the early 19th century put her in a difficult place in society, neither black nor white, and free only relative to slavery, but without the rights and freedoms of white citizens.

Records suggest that she owned property on James Street, in Bridgetown in 1808. Her friend’s identity is unknown, but their choice to commemorate her status and racial background was a rare one. She also joined the Anglican Church prior to her death, at a time where she would have been exceptional, and very likely unwelcome. Her baptism and monument reflect a form of resistance that helped to move the colony forward.


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George Francis Bannister

In the same year, Agnes Ann Bannister, a free woman of colour, commemorated her 10-year-old son, George Francis, with a small flat vault in St. John’s Parish Church. In 1816, she also acquired slaves from Joseph William Jordan in St. Michael, highlighting the achievement of wealth, status and independence that was rare for women of any ethnic background at the time. She further draws attention to her independence and power by negotiating her place in the St. John’s congregation through commemorating her son (and by extension, materializing her own position).

Commemorative monuments that clearly represent the identities and voices of freed persons of colour from this period are sporadic, however they do speak to historically underrepresented experiences and therefore are invaluable for historians and archaeologists.

Their visibility in traditionally rigid British contexts would have created quite a stir, and contributed to building momentum for further social integration following emancipation. And while the monuments may appear British in style and decoration, they embody a powerful resistance to the discrimination, inequality and segregation upon which the Barbadian sugar empire was founded.


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Samuel Jackman Prescod

Just over fifty years later, a monument erected in St. Mary’s churchyard in Bridgetown stands in stark contrast to the previous two monuments. Samuel Jackman Prescod’s (d. 1871) elegant monument, with a detailed iron rail enclosure and lengthy inscription, is among the most elaborate in the churchyard, but it also commemorates the first person of African descent to be elected to Parliament in Barbados, in 1843.

The son of Lidia Smith, a free coloured woman, and William Prescod, a white planter, Samuel was the founder of the Liberal Party, a newspaper editor and judge. According to his monument, “he administered even-handed justice without reference to class or condition”, “never swerving from [his] principles” as a “courageous and uncompromising advocate… of the anti-slavery cause.” The commemorative inscription details his extensive achievements, attests to the status and wealth that he accrued during life, as well as the position that he managed to achieve in his community, despite facing racism and discrimination throughout his career.

The inscriptions alone attest to dramatic shifts that had occurred in Barbados, making the lives and experiences of Jane Ann and Samuel Jackman seem quite distant from one another. And yet, subtle references to ongoing discrimination and inequalities demonstrate that there were many social and structural legacies from the age of slavery. Following emancipation, monuments continued to be utilized as one of many strategies for establishing and redefining positions in society and relationships between formerly segregated communities.


waterman3

Adam Straw Waterman

Given the extreme poverty that many emancipated African-Barbadian families faced in the late 1800s and early 1900s, temporary markers for graves in Anglican churchyards were far more common than elaborately carved stone monuments, like that of Prescod. Coral stone and concrete monuments were also used to achieved the look of much more expensive materials — there were many creative solutions to achieving fashionable and appropriate burial and commemoration in post-emancipation Barbados, regardless of your background or colour of your skin.

The monument of Adam Straw Waterman, for instance, highlights the use of a poured concrete monument that parallels the style of Euro-funerary slabs, typically of marble and other carved stone. Dating after 1887, the simple monument was later updated with a small block of coral stone and long inscription on a  metal plaque highlighting Waterman’s achievement as a talented and prolific stone mason, and his ‘reputation for is sensitive work with sawn coral stone.’

This pairing of monuments also highlights a more recent development in Barbadian heritage practice; for many years, the history of plantations and wealthy British families dominated Barbadian mainstream history, particularly for the tourism industry. More recently, heritage endeavours have begun to celebrate histories like these, with projects to increase visibility and engagement.

The symbolism of the coral stone monument, then, can be seen as a reference not only to Waterman’s talents, but also the a long and complicated history of commemoration in Barbados, and the role that memorials to the dead played in the fight for equality and inclusivity for the living.


#BlackHistoryMonth

These five narratives are just a tiny sample of a wealth of monuments that represent the voices of many African-Barbadians, freed and/or descendants of enslaved individuals, who fought for inclusion, equality and recognition, transforming the island one stone at a time.

Inspired by the wealth of digital sources celebrating Black History Month, it was the perfect time to share some of these stories. Traditional historical sources in Barbados do not represent the diversity of experiences and voices that defined this dynamic island, but connecting together alternative sources and recognizing the role that objects played in resistance and decolonization can help us to celebrate a much more dynamic and powerful heritage.

So this month, think outside the box and hit the cemetery records to discover stories that redefine our understanding of monuments and the people who erected them.

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