Dedicated to the examination of the remnants. Phil Levy's words in reference to history, archaeology, Judaism, academe, music, outdoorsing…

Monthly Archives: April 2016

A Maddening Experience to Which all Historians Can Relate,

Here Told in Narrative Form and Entitled The Hunt, or, a Tale of Relentless Page Turning in Order to Find That Which Should Have Been Made Clearer at the Outset, or, To Every Quotation There is a Citation Which to Locate I Must Turn, Turn, Turn.

Dedicated to the irritating writers everywhere who feel a need to cleverly reinvent to their own purposes and in their own fashion the perfectly fine system of citations outlined in that Good Book from Chicago.

Zounds, says I, Indeed, a more helpful quotation on this topic I have not yet seen. Let me stray from my reading and peruse the origin of the handy tidbit so as to read more of it from its place of origin. I see it is listed here as endnote two. Two? I muse—that seems odd as it appears on page 50—surely mine good literary host has included citations before this one in 50 hearty pages of writing? Lo—he has! But he has chosen to begin the numbering of each chapter’s citations anew chapter by chapter! What purpose does this lunacy serve? No matter, all I needs do is look at the top of the page to see what chapter I am amidst and then turn as needed. But what is this? No indication at all on the page to show in which chapter we the poor readers are marooned! I must turn back to the start of the chapter to know its designation. But I know not where it began, for it is the index that is my native guide though this texta incognita—or was the author so arrogant as to think that we readers would actually slog though his prose to find what we want? Each page must be carefully turned back lest I miss the one place where the chapter name in listed. At last, here it is, and written in Roman Numerals—what a kindness Tullius Maximus Iackuss has offered to those of his readers who, by some miracle, hail from antient Rome. There it is, Chapter XIV. Now all I needs do is turn turn turn to locate the vicinity of the book where the notes are hidden—what a lucky hap for me that I have nine fingers on one hand so that I can keep my increasing number of places. At last, I arrive at the citation—and what do I see? GHY: 20: 7. What on earth is that supposed to be? Ah! It is an abbreviated indication of some larger collection, and in goes another place marking finger and begins again the turning turning turning, this time back to locate the start of the series of citations to find my goal. But what is this? Our author has chosen to divide his list of abbreviations into three separate subgroups aligned along category lines that he, and only he, could find meaningful. To your beleaguered correspondent’s chagrin, each of three different alphabetical lists must be consulted before the arcane reference is finally spied in the third of the three lists. At last I have the citation—it of course, is for something singular and housed only in an archive across the sea in England!

With a heavy heart, I move to write down the reference, but find that my fingers are twisted in knots and bound up within the execrable monograph to such an extent that it takes the aid of a comrade to extricate the poor curious digits.

The lesson is clear dear friends, and please let my sad experience be a warning to all who venture into the game of citation production. For the love of all that is holy and good in this weary world, create citations that will help and not hinder

Barbados, Day Four.

Today was more local and less busy than the other days. I spent much of it in Bridgetown looking (and largely not finding) certain older buildings. Washington’s Barbados diary does not offer much to show where he was, and even though the town’s street plan is more or less the same, there has been considerable replacement of older buildings. One nice exception what is locally known as the Gedney Clarke house on his Belle Plantation just outside of town. With some help I was able to locate the home and even wander around inside of it. IMG_2988.JPGClarke was a member of the Governor’s Council and a prominent merchant planter on the island. He also was the brother of Deborah Clarke, William Fairfax’s second wife and mistress of Belvoir during Washington’s visits there. This connection made Clarke the Washington brothers’ main contacts on the island. On arriving they were welcomed by Major Clarke–Toner’s transcription of the GW Diary identifies him as Somers Clarke, but there is good reason to think that it was actually Gedney Clarke. As a side note here, we can all be thankful that the Washington Papers at UVa are right now in the process of re-transcribing and annotating a new edition of the Barbados Diary. It will prove invaluable and correct many of Toner’s foibles.

The Washington brothers dined at Clarke’s home several times despite the fact that someone in the family had small pox. On one of these visits GW caught the illness and by Nov 17th 1751 he recorded in his diary that he “was strongly attacked with the small pox.” He lay in bed for close to a month attended by local physicians and visited by local friends. It is not clear just which of the Clarke homes the Washingtons visited, but this Clarke home is a contender.

A quick look about showed it be what may be an 18c core with extensive later additions off the back. The stairway was clearly 19c but could easily have replaced an earlier one. Whatever the date, it’s clear that the home had undergone extensive renovation and had things like door hinges and fittings replaced. Nevertheless, it was an impressive place and though derelict, in pretty good condition in most important respects.

After poking around I wanted get a good look at the GW House cellar. So headed back and Martin escorted me below stairs. One thing I had not thought about was that these cellars had to be carved out of the island stone. The GW House has carved wall and bricks-in-course to fill the gap up to the framing members.


Carved stone in the GW House cellar with whitewashed bricks visible on the left above the stone.

I spent part of the afternoon back in Bridgetown and eventually wended my way back to the synagogue to get a few more gravestone pictures. The less maintained yard has a large number of stone fragments just scattered around. A few have a word or two—most do not. It is clear that the whole are though is filled with graves, mostly unmarked now. I gathered up a bunch of the little stone orphans and arranged the to form the word “Chai” (life) in Hebrew. Now there is something more intentional than a scatter sitting atop the graves.


…ve kayam!

After that and with only a little daylight left, I went back to where I am staying and went—for the first time—to the nearby beach. I am not a big beach fan, but it was nice.

Barbados, Day Three. Slavery’s Shadow

I began today by catching up. Wireless is ok, but not great, so I was pretty glad to find that the café at the GW House has a strong connection. The house has become a sort of base of operations so finding out that the café’s digital dynamism made things even better. I talked more with Martin Miller and met Mikala Hope-Franklyn who also is part of the GW House team.


A somewhat different view of the George Washington House

These folks are such great and enthusiastic young museum professionals—wonderful to talk with them. Likewise, meeting with GW Papers team as we sort of half planned and then chatting with Karl Watson the local dean of things Bajan and Historical was great.

I spent the rest of the day heading north. Nominally, St. Nicholas Abbey was my destination, but as is often the case the trip and getting lost a few times was built into the plan. There is a highway that heads north though to Americans it is really just a four lane road punctuated by roundabouts. I switched on local new radio and charged north. In several places the sea view just opens up and again you get that feeling of being on an island. I keep trying to remind myself that this place is small and remote even, but it seems pretty all encompassing when here. Only the sea—flat and empty in all directions highlights isolation, and the place is so packed and bustling that without the sea in sight, you forget.


A pano view of the back of St Nicholas Abbey

I got to the home to too late for a tour so I just took some pictures and sheltered from a short rain storm. This is the oldest of the seventeenth-century homes and is managed as a museum and events all. Lots of latter additions behind it and I could hear meetings going on. There also is active sugar cultivation on site and the barns were busy.

Once I was done, I knew I wanted to head down the eastern side of the island having come up the west. What I did not know was that the road was going to slam me into what is honestly one of the best views in the western hemisphere. It comes up on suddenly. You drive along going up a hill, minding your own business, listening to the BBC talking about Syrian peace talks, then in an instant,


The view from Cherry Tree Hill. I find cherry trees everywhere I go!

you crest a hill and the whole eastern shore of the island is hey presto spread out before you from atop a high hill. There is a little pull over and I jumped out of the car. Clearly people picnic here judging from the hundreds of chopped coconuts and the stacked push carts of the now off duty vendors. Either the rain or the lateness of the day though left me with the place to myself, so I climbed up a very steep trail to see if the view was better a bit higher and off the road. It actually wasn’t, but something about getting off the road and into the fields made me think about all the Africans, Irishmen, Indians, and others for whom this place was a living hell, a purgatory, a prison with no hope of escape. Seeing the hills, the shore, and sea in that light brings home the loneliness, sorrow, and misery that is so much a part of the history of this place and others like it. Earlier on my drive, I had seen the statue at Emancipation Circle—a bronze of a man standing up in a pose much like the old Massachusetts’s seal, but with broken chains hanging from his wrist manacles.


Emancipation Circle

It is a good memorial—and seeing from this perch just how small and inescapable was this Barbados drove home what had been at stake. The emancipation statue is a remarkable thing—even though drivers whiz around it all day long presumably without remarking. We in the US are now in the midst of our own debates about statues and for the life of me I could not think of a single monument like this one. I assume that is a failing of mine, but nevertheless, I think American monument makers have made it easy for me to not recall one. We have though used considerable bronze to commemorate some aspects of, and characters from slavery’s story in almost all southern cities—but none, or at least very few, have hands with the chains broken. Curious that. I am not for the removal of Confederate monuments outright, but then again, I am a preserver and not a remover by nature and by professional inclination, so my impulse to leave them in place needs to be seen (and appropriately devalued) in light of that fact. But recontextualizing would certainly be a very good thing. What does a metal Robert E. Lee mounted a-top a metal Traveler look like if they was surrounded by castings of the emancipated? What if the base of the statue was fitted with a giant manacle or one of those pronged collars designed to make it impossible for the poor wearer to move about or lie down? It is a discussion long overdue.

The sun was setting as I drove home. The cyclist are out at the starts and ends of the days and I was so full of jealousy when I had to pass a few pace lines and group rides. These are the serious miles riders with good bikes, helmets, lycra, and lights—my people! The roads are very rough and the guy at the cycle shop said that it was an increasing problem for riders. The government here is suffering financial problems. Barbados’s economy is almost entirely tourism-based, and as the word economy slowed down, people stopped coming here. One manifestation of the problem is that there is not money to repair and maintain roads–and you can really see it everywhere you go.

oistins-fish-fry-0058.jpg had a better photo of the Oistins market stalls than I could take, so here it is. This is a big scene in the evenings. Lots of people chatting and eating.

At the end of the day I stopped in Oistins to sit in the market and let the night come over. I reread GW’s Barbados diary again to see what parts I might see anew in light of today’s visits. He saw the form of plantation slavery here and he had to have known that was different in some respects from what he knew at home in Virginia. He never commented on it though. I saw reminders and memories of that plantation slavery, and they were quite different than what we have back at home. When it comes to commemorating the memory, we have a lot to learn.



Chattel Houses of Barbados

One of the more notable architectural features in Barbados are the so-called Chattel Houses. These are—depending on whom you ask—a legacy of slavery or of freedom. Essentially, these are very small rectangular wooden homes designed to be light and mobile. The “Chattel” refers to, again, depending on whom you ask, the houses themselves or the people who lived in them. The real story is that they address the needs of poor landless people–tenants or sharecroppers–who often had to move from land plot to land plot. Having a small and easy take down. move, and set up again home as their own “chattel” made good sense and made this distinctive house form an early form of mobile home. They are all over the place and are the defining Bajan architectural statement.


Two variations on the theme just outside Bridgetown. Note how the one on the right is really a pile of houses.

The basic design is simple and easy to move from one place to another. Many houses sit on stone foundations, some sit on pillars, others only on rocks at each corner. Eighteenth-century Virginia documents talk about dragging cabins from place to place as the planting rotation changed and workers or overseers were needed in other parts of the acreage. Rather than having multiple homes with some in use and some out, moving a home once in a while was more preferable.

The chattel houses though have stuck and taken on a vernacular life of their own. They are everywhere—often two set side by side to make a single M roofed building, or equally often with a shed on the back or some amazing sprawl of boxes and sheds all piled up together. You can see them in bright colors or not even painted and all weather-work.


Some country examples near Drax Hall. Note the cinderblock columns supporting the homes.

I have seen them with new Pella windows installed and others with no glass windows at all—just a slatted closure held open at the bottom with a propped stick. Most are about 15 feet by 6 feet and and I have seen center ridge roofs set high and some with very low pitches. I have seen them with  hipped roofs and some with shed roofs. Most have  center entrances but I have seen some around Bridgetown’s outskirts that have gable entrances like shotgun shacks.

Out on the north eastern coast near the town of Coach Hill, I came across a lone chattel house in a clearing next to the road. The ground had been burned and there was some trash nearby—but the door was gone and it was clearly unoccupied. IMG_2968.JPGI pulled over and hopped out. The house was made of very small light wood—no heavy framing and all wooden strips inside (no sheetrock for example). This one had a small shed addition which contained a toilet and a sink, but no evidence of plumbing. Here was the Tiny House par-excellence and I tried to imagine what it would be like to live in one—alone or with a family, this is a very small space. Obviously, much of one’s life would be lived outdoors or elsewhere. But having loved many an AT shelter, it was easy to imagine being quite happy in one—especially with the Atlantic stretching blue to the east within sight. Of course a good wind storm would knock my little domicile around like a cardboard box. But Barbados is spared most storms as a result of being outside the actual Caribbean basin, perhaps accounting for why these houses abound.


Inside my chattel house. Notice how light and far apart are the framing members. Being inside felt like being inside a cigar box.


My chattel house’s rear view showing shed addition and shed roof. Notice the stuccoed cinderblock foundation. Someone cared.

Barbados, Day Two

Today began very gray but cleared up. I got up early and rushed back to town to try to recover my glasses which I had left on a wall in the cemetery. The Shul was open when I got there, so I had the pleasure of saying shacharit (albeit alone) in the beautiful old Nidhai Israel shul. It is very much like a British shul with the same type of stying and pillars holding up the women’s gallery. One difference was that the Bimah (raised reader’s table) was in the back and not in the center. I am a big fan of facing bench seating in shuls–in my mind it plays down hierarchy in favor of communalism.


The Bimah in Nidhi Israel

This building dates to about 1831 when the great hurricane demolished much of older Barbados. This new shul sits on the foundations of the original which dated to the mid seventeenth century.

Some visitors came through and they must have thought that I was some sort of museum display set up for effect and authenticity. When I was done, Emerson, the tender, directed me to meet Benny Gilbert, a retired local property developer and one of the community’s elders. His wife is an Altman—one of the oldest Ashkenazi families on the island. Mr. Gilbert invited me back to his office for coffee and a chat and so we walked though the crowded Bridgetown streets having the kind of conversation one would have any where in the world after saying “shalom alechem – alechem shalom.” Mr. Gilbert had much to share about the island, its Jews, and his life as one of them. He explained that the original Spanish community was all but gone by the end of the 18c and that the Ashkenazim came in waves, many spending a few generations here and then fading away only to be replaced by new families. This was much the same as I had seen in some places in England—wandering, to paraphrase perhaps the most famous (sort of I guess) English Jew, Shylock, is the badge of all of our tribe.


The shul is on the left, and the mikveh newly built is on the right.

I returned to the Shul after my visit and got there in time to see that the guide had brought visitors in to see the mikveh. This 1650s bath was discovered archeologically a few years ago and once the stone rubble had been removed, the water returned. It requires no filtering—it is fresh, clear, and tapped into the water table.


Newly rediscovered mikveh

They have built a very lovely building over it from the removed stone rubble and it is quite a gem. I waited and listened to the talk about how the 17c Jews here used the mikveh—a description based largely on 17c travel narratives. The mikveh is not formally open to the public (vistors can look in with the guide), but religious exceptions are made from time to time. A few weeks ago a pair visiting Chabniks went in and today it was my turn. The water was clear and cool and the stones 17c. It was a remarkable experience.

When I was done I went back to looking over the grave stones to find specific people I was curious about. In looking around, there seems to have been some surface level change though. Some nearby construction has left some holes and poked around a bit just outside the footers of the old cemetery wall.


Construction and stones.

I saw at least four layers including two that appeared to be mostly pavers. The most interesting thing was that this new construction had uncovered a section of the cemetery that had been buried and had had 19c shops atop it. Those shops have been gutted and their floors removed. The result are the most amazingly well-preserved stones in the yard.


Newly exposed stones. The doorways on the right are at current surface level and lead out to the street.

These are mostly of English Jews, some of whom had adopted the stone styles of their Sephardic predecessors. I am told that the development plan calls for all the graves to be reincorporated into the cemetery which will retake its original size. More on the stones later.

Much of the rest of the day was spent at the George Washington house again, this time looking over the artifacts from the 1999 and 2001 excavations. I have the reports and the artifact lists in them, but the only way serendipity can happen is when you let it. The excavations were primarily in the ravine west of the home. The collections span a large period and of course trying to find 1751 in an assemblage is not an easy task.

Once I was done, I thought it would be nice to get out into the countryside.


Looking south from the first major rise of land.

I was right. I drove north mostly by zigzagging the road system. The south has a large sloping plain, so that heading north means heading up as well. As Washington observed, the landscape is made so that views of the sea are to be found throughout.


Drax Hall. In private hands and not open to the public, but still owned by the Drax Family in England as it was in the 17c and still producing sugar.




I wended my way up to Drax Hall—a well known 17c plantation and home just about one third up the island from the south coast. Sugar is still grown here in the hundreds of tons for shipment to European markets. Interestingly though, none of the Bajan plantations produce any molasses. That means that all the Barbados rum is made from imported molasses—not local. There is a metaphor for something in there.





Barbados, Day One.

Mid-day arrival. Airport, car, blah blah. Thank heaven I had already driven in the UK and all those trips have made looking right when crossing or turning not an unfamiliar thing. The road to Oistins where I dwell in Bajan fashion (no hotel in other words) skirts the southern coast and that tiny island feeling is pronounced. People are everywhere on the south side and the cars are all small. I got quickly settled and jumped back in the car to make the most of the day.


Automotive conveyance in the British fashion–on the left.

The drive to Bridgeton was slow but I was glad of that since it I needed the adjustment time. One or two wrong turns and a few pull overs to reconcile to the map that has no street names. I overshot the Washington House on my way in so I chose to forge on to the center of town and find the synagogue first. I circled around and around a few times before I gave up searching by car and just found a parking area and walked. A woman asked me if I was “going to the cemetery?” “Eventually” I replied and she said “well it is straight ahead” ignoring my travel frazzled wit. I did not know just what she meant,


Downtown Bridgetown

but in a block I saw the pink walls of the Synagogue and realized that the big cemetery is the main feature of the site. My guess is that the only tourists on that side of town are looking for the place.

This was one of those days when the doorway is always on the fourth wall after I walk the other three. In this case, it was an alley that led to the Shul, the museum, the Mikveh, and the cemetery.

On this side of the shul, most of the graves are seventeenth century and early eighteenth with a few more modern ones interspersed. The older ones are in Spanish and Portuguese as well as Hebrew. Some have remarkable art—deaths heads for example, both ornate and simple—that I don’t usually associate with Jewish graves. The whole cemetery has been the subject of a restoration project with great detail on this blog.


The northern side of the cemetery where most of the graves are Spanish and 17c. The foregrounded ones though are contemporary and are those of the Ashekenazim who eventually replaced the original community. The shul is in the background.

I will be back at the Shul in the morning though and will have more to say after that visit. For today I was driven by the desire to sing Tehillim in the cemetery and visit. There is something very special singing “od avinu chai” (“our fathers still live”—not a psalm) in such a place. IMG_2672.JPGThe seventeenth-century Jews of Barbados lived in a world so different from ours and from the reality of Barbados today just outside the wall. But at the same time, the names and fact of a shul again close the time and make the alien familiar. Visitors’ stones are on many of the graves: a pleasant bond over time and space.


Some of the stones have very little on them identifying them as Jewish.

And speaking of familiar names, George Washington, the reason for the season. Objective One on this trip is to flesh out what I need to create a full chapter on his Barbados trip for the new book. I already have about three ideas to play out in the chapter, but being here links things together. I made it to the Washington House just before dark and fortunately Martin Miller was still there. We had a great chat and I saw a few of the main sites, including the ravine where the middens were. Tomorrow (ideally) I will get to look at artifacts but I saw one today. It was a classic White Saltglazed Stoneware plate—making it the fourth place I can say that GW was eating off of that sort of plate.


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