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The Industrial Heritage of Barbados: The Story of Sugar and Rum

Date of Submission: 02/12/2014
Criteria: (ii)(iii)(vi)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Barbados National Commission for UNESCO
Ref.: 5942

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Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party


St. Nicholas Abbey: 13º16' N - 59º35' W
Morgan Lewis: 13º15' N - 59º34' W
Codrington College: 13º10‘15” N - 59º28‘30“E
Newton Burial Gr. : 13º04‘15'' N - 59º32’10“E:  
Mount Gay Distilleries, St.Lucy;  13º17‘28” N - 59º36‘44“W

Favoured with a flat terrain, a geographical position to windward of all other islands which was easily defended, good soils and rainfall, and a diverse population with access to sufficient capital, Barbados developed the earliest successful sugar industry and slave society in the English Caribbean.  Barbados’ prosperous sugar cultural landscape, located within the rich soils of the island’s agricultural landscape, demonstrates its 17th to 20th century evolution through its intact agricultural landscapes with industrial and residential built heritage. The site represents complex interrelationships of land, labour and capital, as well as the continuation and adaptation of longstanding cultural traditions, specific to sugar plantation development. It also illustrates the story of patronage, control and protection of this highly valued sugar growing area, which contributed substantially to the economic development of Barbados and the British Empire, playing a significant role in the history of the geo-cultural region of the Caribbean.

The nominated areas include representative elements of sugar cultivation and processing; sea and land routes; and residential arrangements for the working and landholding populations, in the traditional sugar growing area since the 17th century; clay outcrops, water resources; and geological formations within the Category V IUCN Protected Natural Seascape/ Landscape. The selected areas have evolved over several centuries and are examples of intact relict and continuing sugar landscapes. The selected areas were all, until the 20th century, entangled in a complex web of ownership, family relationships and industrial management by the Barbadian planter elite who leveraged their property ownership, profits and social and political networks to rise to the top of both Barbadian and British society.

Historical Overview: From the 1640s, increased European demand for sugar created a socioeconomic revolution. The insatiable appetite for sugar, which could now be more readily available to the European populace, combined with the sugarcane’s intensely demanding and unforgiving agro-industrial process, condemned the enslaved Africans who were responsible for raising the crop to lifelong physical and psychological abuse. Slavery defined the Atlantic World with its total reliance on African forced labour producing the primary materials that drove European mercantile economies. The plantation complex lay at the core of colonial societies from Brazil and the West Indies to the American mainland and West Africa. Enslaved Africans’ blood, sweat and tears forged complex international trade, social, and political networks in the Atlantic World. Enslaved Africans, in spite of their bondage, resisted their enslavement in every possible way from day to day acts of resistance to slow productivity on estates to marronage and open rebellion.

From 1643 until very recent times, sugar and rum production has been the mainstay of the Barbadian economy.  The requirements for the production and sale of sugar, and its by-products molasses and rum, dictated the social and political development of the island, the region and Great Britain. The period from the mid-seventeenth through the mid-nineteenth century is the most important for understanding the social, political, and economic impacts of sugar in the British Atlantic. During this period, sugar became the most important commodity in the world. As a result, the tropical islands of the Caribbean became the strategic centre of the Atlantic World and was vehemently defended and fought over in European conflicts throughout the 17th and 19th centuries.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Sugarcane landscapes are an outstanding example of a cultural landscape shaped by Europeans and Africans in the Atlantic World. With its sugarcane fields, plantation complexes, mill infrastructure and factories, nestling on the slopes and in the valleys/ gullies of the island, The Industrial Heritage of Barbados: The Story of Sugar and Rum illustrate the impact of human settlement, slave labour and agricultural activities, and more specifically the production of Caribbean sugar and rum, from the mid-17th century on the natural landscape.

The social and economic patterns that evolved in Barbados in response to the “Sugar Revolution” were then exported to the rest of the Caribbean, thus fundamentally influencing the patterns of culture found across the region, extending to the southeastern colonies of British North America where settlers from Barbados founded the Charles Towne (later Charleston, South Carolina) colony to the South American colony of Suriname where English settlements were established from Barbados, importing with them already developed institutions of enslavement and plantation production of staple goods that ultimately permeated the British Atlantic World.

B.W. Higman has described the Sugar Revolution as "a concatenation of events located in the seventeenth-century Caribbean with far-reaching ramifications for the Atlantic world" and summarized this in terms of six central elements: "a shift from diversified agriculture to sugar monoculture, from production on small farms to large plantations, from free to slave labour, from sparse to dense settlement, from white to black populations, and from low to high value per capita output." The intensive use of advanced and efficient windmill technologies for sugarcane increased the output of muscovado, while the use of local clays in the refinement process increased the quality of muscovado produced in Barbados. Used as an alternative to water, the locally consumed ‘killdevil’ or ‘rumbuillion’ which is today known as rum, was first produced in Barbados on all plantations for local consumption and export, becoming a staple in British naval victuals in the 18th and 19th centuries. As demand increased, rum distillation quickly became a feature of most sugar plantations across the region. Barbados provides a prime exemplar of all of these elements.

Each of the plantation properties is linked through their use of geographic features of the terrestrial and maritime landscapes; intergenerational ownership patterns; and management techniques. All of the plantations can be traced to 17th century militia landowners who first developed plantation estates. Leveraging the proximity of plantations to a rudimentary road network and jetties, plantations were carved out of the landscape to take advantage of sea routes to Bridgetown, the island’s primary port.  Plantation owners set about a complex process of land consolidation through marriage and intricate bequests to keep land holdings together through the generations to maximize wealth accumulation and sustain the lavish lifestyles of overseas and resident family members, while also making provisions for some local developments in education and governance. Each shared management structures and utilised similar trade networks to bring their produce to market in Bridgetown and England. All plantations used enslaved labour, which was the primary input for the efficient and profitable production of sugar from the 17th to early 19th century. Enslaved Africans occupied the lowest stratum of plantation society, and therefore many of them remain anonymous with the only testimony to their lives in servitude being the unmarked graves in marginal fields that could not be used for sugar production, such as Newton enslaved Burial Ground.

These entrenched practices remain imprinted into the Barbadian Landscape today.

Criterion (ii):  The development of the industrial sugar landscape and its infrastructure has demonstrated the role African labour and European capital have played in the transformation of the rural Barbadian landscape, in the pursuit of industrial production of globally traded cash crop, sugarcane from the 17th to 19th centuries. Though the style of vernacular architecture is considered European, the building and engineering was carried out by local peoples who adapted a European aesthetic to fit a tropical landscape.  This is not only exemplified in the design of the industrial infrastructure that supported the intensive operations of the sugar plantation, but also in the residential buildings that housed labour, management and plantation owners.

Criterion (iii):  The relict and continuous sugar landscapes of the Industrial Heritage of Barbados: the Story of Sugar and Rum are testimony to enslaved Africans who lived, worked and died on the plantations in the British Atlantic. Archaeological and anthropological evidence suggests that despite their subordinate position in plantation society, enslaved Africans and their descendants created vibrant resistant cultures that were based on a Creolised blend of African and European traditions in religion, language, festivals, craft and design. They also participated in a local and international trade in goods and sustained livelihoods based on marketing provision surpluses and craft. 

Criterion (iv): The indelible relationship between capital, labour and the technological ensemble (wind-powered grinding facilities and state of the art boiling facilities) required for sugar production was an important factor in the global trade of enslaved Africans as bonded labourers and sugar and rum as commodities. The Barbadian ‘Sugar Revolution’ is reflected in the total transformation of the Barbadian landscape into the industrial production of sugar from 1640s to the early 19th century when several technological innovations, including ‘claying’, ensured that Barbadian sugar would remain a high-quality, but competitively priced commodity on the global market. Capital investment in sugar factories in the 17th century guaranteed sizeable returns, which were often re-invested in the Barbadian sugar plantation economy, but also used to finance imperial defense and expansion throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The majority of properties that has already been identified as significant to this nomination is privately owned, although several of them fall within the Barbados National Park which has a legislative framework that provides the primary policies required for the management and operations of the nominated area.

St. Nicholas Abbey, Morgan Lewis Mill, Codrington College, and Mount Gay have been identified as sites or buildings of national significance in a National Registry of heritage sites compiled by the Caribbean Conservation Association in June 1983 and approved and endorsed by the Government of Barbados. The list is utilized by the Town and Country Planning Department to monitor the preservation of national heritage sites whenever application is made for the development of any of the listed properties. Newton Enslaved Burial Ground is associated with Newton Plantation which also forms part of this national list. All sites reside in private ownership, and all site managers are committed to their preservation. All sites were endorsed as national heritage of major significance on the decision of Cabinet in 2002, accepting the recommendations of the Barbados World Heritage Task Force.

Comparison with other similar properties

The Industrial Heritage of Barbados: The Story of Sugar represents the importance of the Sugar Revolution's impact on the Atlantic World featuring relict and continuing sugar cultural landscapes associated with technological innovation and archaeological sites associated with the interaction of African labourers with their enslavers.[1] The nomination reflects the development of the Caribbean plantation model as a complex  that was established for the production of export tropical commodities such as sugar. Like other agricultural zones in the region, rural Barbados shared strong economic ties with the port economy of Historic Bridgetown and its Garrison contributing its rapid growth and expansion in the 17th century.[2]

Using local environmental resources, bonded labour and foreign capital investment, the sugar complex was perfected on Barbados and was then exported to other colonies as far as colonial America and South America. This transfer did not only comprise the model for a physical plantation and its works, but also its legal administration through its slave laws to regulate a society that was neither slave nor free. Hilary Beckles notes ‘that the Barbados Slave Code of 1661…served as the blueprint for colonists in Jamaica and the Leeward islands…1688 Code …was copied by settlers in the Windward Islands ( St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Tobago and Dominica)’. (Beckles 1997,p.201,UNESCO Volume III, General History of the Caribbean).

However, given its location in a region where plantation societies proliferated, especially by the 20th century, it is necessary to draw comparisons with sites that are both on and not on the UNESCO World Heritage and Tentative Lists in the Spanish-; Dutch-; French-; and English-speaking Caribbean.

As early as the 16th century, cultivation and processing technologies in Cuba (Trinidad and the Valley de los Ingenios on the World Heritage List), the Dominican Republic (The Ruta de Los Ingenios on the World Heritage List), Jamaica (under Spanish rule) were established, though on a much smaller scale than the industrial development of sugar processing driven by wind and water mill technology in the 17th century which transformed the sugar plantation economies of the region and were perfected in Barbados. [3]

By the 19th century, however, the development of the centralized, steam-powered mill in Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, once again transformed the sugar industry, maximizing sugar output in their large economies of scale. This development prompted a decline in the sugar industry in the older plantation economies in Barbados, St. Kitts, Antigua and Jamaica. Typically, in the 20th century, larger territories competed globally with larger economies in the production of sugar in Brazil and Mauritius.

In South America, Brazil’s participation in the development of the sugar plantation economy and slave trade is noteworthy, and is exemplified in some of its sites on the World Heritage List such as Historic Centre of the Town of Olinda and Recife in Brazil.  Suriname’s plantations exhibit similar developmental characteristics as the rest of the region to expand Dutch power over the landscape by the 1670s.[4] Suriname’s Tentative List nomination for The Settlement of Jodensavanne and Cassipora Cemetery reflects some aspects of Suriname’s plantation development.[5] Similarly, Georgetown’s Plantation Structure and Historic Buildings on Guyana’s Tentative List discusses the evolution of rural plantation development to accommodate an urban port on Guyana’s coast from the 18th to 19th centuries.

The plantation societies of the English-speaking Caribbean are well documented and several sites in Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis, Antigua, Barbados and Grenada retain significant authenticity and integrity – many as continuing and relict landscapes. Most of these plantation societies exhibit the expected pattern of rural development advancing port development. Some of these sites are represented on the World Heritage Tentative List.

Seville Heritage Park (Tentative List) in Jamaica experienced sugar plantation development as early as the early 16th century, which makes it one of the oldest sugar plantation sites in the English-speaking Caribbean, though at outset under a Spanish and not English regime.[6] Other plantation sites in the English and French-speaking Caribbean such as Betty’s Hope in Antigua and Barbuda; Romney Manor in St. Kitts and Nevis; Domaine de la Pagerie and Château Dubuc in Martinique ; and Habitation Vanibel, and Habitation Beausoleil in Guadeloupe share similar histories of sugar plantation development and are fairly well preserved and protected as archaeological sites with some intact built heritage.

Other commodities cultivated in similar cultural landscapes such as subsistence crops [Plantations in West Curaçao (Tentative List) in the Netherlands] ; coffee [Blue and John Crow Mountains (Tentative List) in Jamaica and Archaeological Landscape of the First Coffee Plantations in South-East of Cuba (World Heritage List)] ; cocoa [Hacienda Chuoa (Tentative List) in Venezuela]; tobacco  [Viñales Valley (World Heritage List) in Cuba] and alcoholic beverages, including wines  [Cape Winelands (Tentative List) in South Africa and tequila in Agave Landscape and Ancient Industrial Facilities of Tequila in Mexico (World Heritage List)] also require comparison on the basis of their importance in changing global consumption patterns of unique agricultural products though in non-sugar plantation settings. However, The Industrial Heritage of Barbados: The Story of Sugar and Rum stands out as an example of the first island to develop as a monoculture where its environment, economy and society were transformed to produce sugar, almost to the exclusion of all others. Barbados’ success at sugar cultivation made it the model for other territories in the 18h and 19th centuries.

[1] Government of Barbados, "The Industrial Heritage of Barbados: The Story of Sugar," UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List. UNESCO, https://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/1992/.

[2] Government of Barbados, "Nomination Dossier for Historic Bridgetown and its Garrison," (Government of Barbados, 2010).

[3] Government of the Dominican Republic, "The Ruta de los Ingenios," UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List. UNESCO, https://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/1703/.

[4] Government of Suriname, "Historic Inner City of Paramaribo," UNESCO World Heritage List. UNESCO, https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/940.

[5] Government of Suriname, "The Settlement of Jodensavanne and Cassipora Cemetery," UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List. UNESCO, https://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/1083/.

[6] Shepherd, Livestock, Sugar and Slavery: Contested Terrain in Colonial Jamaica.