The discovery of a magnificent aqueduct at Fort George by the Barbados Water Authority is, ultimately, not so much triumph but tragedy exposed.
Successive governments of Barbados, both colonial or post-independence versions, have paid scant respect to the preservation of history even when said governments have made history.
Precious artefacts that could tell a complete story of 350 years of British colonial rule were erased at independence in 1966, so anxious were we to rid ourselves of outward vestiges of imperial control.
But this story is our story, warts and all. Records were indeed kept, but many more should have been preserved. Knowledge should have been passed on.
It is quite possible that a great many other things built by Barbadian hands under previous management burned to cinders with the death of the hands that wrought our heritage.
We must be honest and acknowledge that there has been no greater force of destruction of the built heritage of Barbados than the Government of Barbados itself. What remains of the Barbados Government Railway which shunted into history in 1937?
All that is left are a few rusted rail ties slowly melting into the East Coast of Barbados where once the track from Bath to Consett Bay hugged the shore. Lines of tracks were chopped up and used to prop up electricity poles.
We read in other countries of how historic trails are a boon to heritage tourism. Here, more than bush covers the tracks of the railway. A few fragments of memory reside in those of who sat at grandparents’ feet and heard tales of a narrow-gauge steam train on which many took excursions into the countryside. So slow it was as it chugged up a steep gradient at the Consett Bay Cutting that it was said by the old people that the Barbados Government Railway was mentioned in The Book of Genesis as one of the creeping things of the Earth. “First Class passengers, stay on board. Second Class passengers, get off. Third Class passengers, get off. And push.”
Whether railways or water or transport, there is an extraordinary story of communications and works worth preserving.
Take, for example, the two rival privately owned water companies which, like Cain and Abel, battled for the natural resource in the aquifer beneath Bowmanston plantation in St John.
Two decades after pipe-borne water came to Bridgetown, the Barbados Government took over these rival firms and established the Waterworks Department in 1883.
And there are similar tales of an advancing colonial island with police, posts, telegraphy and later, telecommunications that played an integral part not only in local lore and legend but also in a global history of a little island that could.
The sinking by Allied naval forces of the infamous battleship, the Graf Spee, of Nazi Germany through the combined radiotelegraphic communications of the Cable and Wireless system in the Second World War in the 1940s is one tale but many.
In peacetime, there is the role that Bath in St John played in transatlantic telephony, and later satellite television, in bringing Barbadians face to face with Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in the famous Rumble in the Jungle boxing match in 1974 Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Our bus system is a story of entrepreneurship on one of the world’s densest road network. Before 1955, bus companies bore elegant names by private concessionaires -Progressive, General, Elite, Rocklyn, Diamond, Boston, Yonkers, St George, and more.
A great history of how Barbadians connected over land, air and water has long been melting into the dust of time. So today’s ‘archaeological’ moment should be a cause for shame as much for rejoicing.
The role of the historian has for too long been shunted aside, like rusting railway cars and buses, by government agencies and indeed by some long-standing firms.
Getting and spending were more important. But having spent on what we have you got, we then forgot what we had.
So now bulldozers not bright minds must perform the irreverent and clumsy task of archaeology, uncovering the history of Barbados in the 21st century.
This simply has to stop. Regulations for the preservation, enhancement and protection of our built heritage have existed in theory and promise but never in statute law for nigh on 40 years, when first promoted by Henry Forde. Schemes to provide incentives for the preservation of homes and buildings were created, drafted and then neglected. Antiquities legislation lies in suspended animation.
Perhaps now, very now, before it is too late, we can turn our attention to uncovering and polishing hidden gems of our history if for no other reason then to create a lasting gift of patrimony to our children and their children. And if not for that reason, then for the immediate need of building heritage tourism to help rebuild a ravaged economy.
Who would not want to ride or walk along a scenic railway heritage trail? Who, indeed, would not want to recover the past glories of a Barbados on the move and on the make?
Who will bell the cat? For a lack of curiosity very nearly killed it.
LINK ORIGINAL: Barbados Today