Plantation Life in Barbados in the 1950s

I grew up in St. John and St. George in the middle of some of the best agricultural land in Barbados, among numerous sugar plantations, at a time when sugar was still king and was the lifeblood of the island’s economy. During the 17th century, Barbados was celebrated as the richest colony in British America. Many of my and my wife’s family and ancestors were planters, however it is a sudden realization that they have all passed away and so too have their stories and the memories of the way of life they led.

I note that there are numerous accounts of plantation life about the very early days of Barbados’ settlement and of the terrible experiences of the slaves on plantations, but I have not been able to find any accounts of the life of the planter class. I am starting this account in the hope that I can circulate it and obtain more input and history from readers. So, if you are reading this and can provide me with more information on the way of life on plantations in the 1950s, please do so.

My wife and I both had grandfathers and great grandfathers and numerous uncles who were planters. As a result, although our parents were not planters, we often visited our families and our friends on plantations and experienced their way of life. My wife often stayed with those families, and I lived at Ashbury Plantation for four years in the 1950s.

Barbados in the 1950s

During the 1950s, a number of important things took place in Barbados, namely: in 1950, adult suffrage legislation was passed; London Transport started recruiting workers from Barbados; the 1951 Commonwealth Sugar Agreement came into force which guaranteed a price for Barbados’ sugar; in 1954, the Barbados Labour Party leader (Sir Grantley Adams) became the first Premier of Barbados; in 1955, the Democratic Labour Party was founded and Hurricane Janet hit the island causing 35 deaths and much structural damage; the construction of the deep water harbour began in 1956, and in 1958 Barbados joined the short-lived West Indies Federation.

Country Life in the 1950s

Life was not easy in the 1950s, especially for the labouring class. Following emancipation, they lived in tenantries, which were on land that was not suitable for growing crops. In most cases their economic circumstances, lifestyle and job opportunities had not improved much since the days of slavery. They lived in small movable wooden houses (called chattel houses and described in detail in “Barbados Chattel Houses” by Henry Fraser and Bob Kiss), and they had little job security although they spent most of their lives working for the same plantation (as changing jobs was very difficult).

The more qualified workers on plantations, e.g., truck drivers and field supervisors, wore shoes and had bicycles, whereas the poorest field labourers wore no shoes and seldom could afford to own a bicycle. None had cars or even motorcycles. There was no running water in most village homes and villagers had to go to a nearby standpipe to get water and to bathe. There were some 400 standpipes around the island which started to be installed from 1861. The wages were kept very low as it was a captive labour pool and the treatment by all levels of management was often deplorable.

Barbados was both very racist and class conscious. The richer whites looked down on everyone. The middle-class whites looked down on all they considered below them. The lighter skinned black people looked down on the darker skinned black people. And everyone looked down on the poor whites from the Eastern rocky areas of Barbados.

It was not an easy life for most. It should be noted also that some of the ‘poor whites’ of Barbados also worked in the fields alongside the black people, as I remember seeing them doing so at Colleton Plantation in St. John when I was a boy. They were often referred to as ‘redlegs’ because their legs became red from sunburn when working in the cane fields.

Barbados Plantations

The Barbados sugar industry was recognized internationally as one of the most efficient and competitive in the world all through the 1950s and 1960s. This is supported by: documented yields of sugar cane averaging over 30 tons per acre; factory conversion rates of less than 9 tons of cane per ton of sugar, which translated to more than 4 tons of sugar per acre; and milling costs of less than 1/3 of the total production costs. This productivity was attributable to highly skilled labour and management that were able to keep old processing equipment functioning efficiently at capital costs that were the lowest in the World. The chart below shows the quantity of sugar produced over much of the history of Barbados.

Barbados sugar production 1698 - 1998
Barbados Sugar Production 1698 -2003
Source: Barbados Sugar Industry Limited (BSIL)

It should be noted that the world sugar export market was over supplied and highly competitive, but sugar production shortfalls in other parts of the world would occasionally (every eight years on average) drive sugar prices up, resulting in windfall profits for our sugar producers. These profits allowed producers to rehabilitate, renew and recapitalize their industry which would have failed financially without those windfall profits.

In the 1950s, Barbados had about 60,000 acres of arable land, of which about 48,000 were planted in sugar cane. There were approximately 200 sugar plantations.

Plantations were usually around 150 to 300 acres, although some wealthy Barbadians such as the Haynes and Piles families each owned over a dozen plantations totalling approximately 3,000 acres. There is an old Barbadian saying: “The Haynes only spoke to the Sealys, the Sealys only spoke to the Piles and the Piles only spoke to God.” Up until the early 20th century most had their own windmills to grind their canes. Note that Barbados once had the second highest number of windmills per square mile in the world, second only to the Netherlands. However, as factories were built, plantations could send their canes to the factories, initially in carts drawn by oxen or mules and later in trucks. In the early twentieth century there were about 200 factories, but by the 1950s there were about 35, by the 1960s there were 14, and by 1976 there were just 9.

Approximately 5% of the plantations were owned by Englishmen, with the majority owned by wealthy locals. Where an owner lived abroad or had several plantations, they would have an agricultural attorney in charge of overseeing the plantations. He, in turn, hired the plantation managers who would then report to him. Some owners, however, managed their own plantations. Each plantation had an Overseer or Under Manager, also known as the Bookkeeper, who supervised the workers in the field, while the Manager made field tours to determine what work needed to be done.

Occasionally, when the Manager was old, the Overseer would be promoted to Under Manager and do much of the work normally done by the Manager. Until education became free and compulsory, plantations had what were called ‘third class gangs, consisting of very young children under the strict supervision of an older woman. Third class gangs would work doing things such as cleaning up and weeding and this was viewed by management as helping to provide income to the labouring class.

The price of sugar was quite volatile and could rise or fall unexpectedly. While Barbados had a guaranteed sugar price from England much of the time, this was subject to periodic negotiations. For example, in 1960 Barbados was paid BDS $191.99 per ton compared to the world price of BDS$ 140.68 per ton. Certainly, in the late 19th century, when sugar from beets started to be produced in Europe, this caused the price of sugar to collapse and the collapse of our sugar industry, and bankruptcy for many owners. As a result, many owners and plantations went bankrupt from time to time and lost their plantations that were then sold in chancery.

Barbados sugar price volatility chart
Barbados sugar price volatility through most of the twentieth century.
Source: Macrotrends.

Between 1954 and 1965, primarily because of rising labour costs, the cost of producing a ton of sugar from cane rose by over 50 per cent. Note also that the price of sugar was very volatile as shown by the price of sugar in 1935 being half of what it had been in 1928.

Many plantations had boiling houses in the era of windmills, but these were replaced by steam driven small factories powered by the burning of bagasse to produce sugar, molasses, sling and/or syrup. Bagasse is the dry residue left after extracting the juice from the sugar cane which was used as a fuel. The recent photo below shows a plantation that has a derelict windmill and a chimney from the old days.

Barbados plantation windmill
Photo courtesy of Tom Mayers.

Housing

Each plantation had a Manager’s house where the Manager lived rent free as part of his remuneration. There was also an Overseer’s house, much smaller and usually quite spartan, often just a bed, table and chair and was provided free by the plantation. Overseers were also given an allowance of some of the produce from the plantation. In some cases, two single overseers might share the same house. Many plantations, where they had an owner living on-site, had a ‘great house’, usually quite palatial compared to the Manager’s residence. The great house, or the Manager’s house, when there was no great house, was often very nice, well-built against hurricanes and very comfortable. It usually also had a nice orchard of a couple of acres with many varieties of fruit trees. Some plantation managers’ houses in the 50s did not have electricity and depended on generators for lighting. One manager’s house had no running water. Water was brought in a barrel by a donkey cart.

Some plantations had a tennis court or croquet lawn. Managers’ houses also had cellars for storing ground provisions such as yams, eddoes and potatoes. Many of the great houses are today considered architectural gems. Some of the great houses or Manager’s houses had pianos and the young people who lived on plantations went to many dance parties at the plantation homes of their friends.

Ashbury Plantation - plantation manager house
The view from a Plantation Manager’s house with the tennis lawn in the foreground and the Overseer’s house beyond.

The Manager was allowed to keep livestock for his (I am not aware of any female managers in those days) use as part of his job package. As a result, they kept such livestock as cows, pigs, poultry and rabbits. Naturally, they also kept several dogs and cats. The cost of the labour for caring for these animals would be part of the labour cost of the plantation.

Plantation Work Animals

Every plantation had one or more horses for the Overseer and Manager to ride out into the fields to oversee the workers. In addition, some had mules to draw carts. One of the last major sets of mules was at Colleton Plantation in St. John. I remember seeing them pulling cane carts in the 50s with four or six at a time. I assume that mules were hardier and cheaper than horses for this sort of work. As a young boy, I remember seeing my sisters going to school some days in a horse-drawn buggy owned by the Branches of Claybury Plantation.

Ashbury Plantation horse Bensam
Bensam, one of the work horses at Ashbury Plantation. He had been a champion racehorse in his prime.

The Crop Season

Sugar cane (technically, it is a grass!) was grown from ‘cuttings’, i.e., short pieces planted usually in October. The land was prepared by digging cane holes so that the water could flow to the cane roots and also to prevent soil erosion. The cane was usually harvested during February to June each year. The canes were cut by the workers using cane bills (cutlasses), where they would cut the stalks at the bottom and then lop off the blades at the top and toss the stalks unto piles. The canes were then collected by female workers who would carry them to the carts or trucks (lorries) to be loaded. The popular trucks at that time were Bedfords, with each carrying loads of about five tons of cane at a time to the sugar factories.

Sugar Cane Harvesters - Barbados
Sugar cane harvesters – Barbados. The basic technique of cutting canes did not change much from the early days until the mechanization of harvesting which started in the 1970s.

The canes were left to regenerate each year for about three or four years; these plants were called ratoons (see photo below showing the newly sprouting ratoons after the canes had been cut). Following that, the fields were planted with alternate crops so that the fields could recover. The Local Food Production (Defence) Control Order of 1942 required plantations to plant not less than 12 percent of their arable acreage each year in food crops; with yams, sweet potatoes, and corn etc. being the most popular. Often, the individual fields had their own names, such as: Yard Field, Cotton Field, and Long Ground. During the crop season, trash was piled in large ‘hay’ stacks in the fields to be later spread around as ground cover.

Fallow cane field Barbados
Newly sprouting ratoons. Photo courtesy of Tom Mayers.

It was a matter of pride for plantations to have neatly weeded and maintained gutters bordered by khus khus grass next to the highway. The khus khus grass provided an excellent way to prevent soil erosion due to its density and strong root system. It also smelled nice when dried and was placed in clothes drawers to keep clothes smelling fresh. Any manager who let this maintenance slip would be needled by his peers at social functions. Some plantations also planted pea trees along the hedgerows as an additional source of food and income.

Cane bill
Pictured is a cane bill that was used to cut the canes. It was very heavy and made in England of forged steel. Probably three times heavier than the modern ones which have a wooden handle and are much thinner. The hook took the trash off the cane. The blade was on the opposite side. Photo courtesy of Richard Bourne.

Labour conditions

Working in the fields as a labourer was very tough. The hot sun, the hard labour, little protection from the sharp cane blades (some workers wore long sleeves to protect their skin), the risk of cow itch, long hours, and the risk of injury were some of the hardships. Cow itch is a vine that grows in cane fields and can cause sever itching and pain. The job of the Overseer or Under Manager was probably the toughest job for a white man in Barbados at that time, many of whom started work in their mid to late teens. An Overseer spent most of his time in the fields overseeing the workers. Many developed skin cancer as a result of the constant exposure to the hot sun.

At nights the Overseer wrote up the books to calculate how much each worker should be paid at the end of the week. By 5 a.m. each workday the Overseer would have to show the books to the Manager, indicating the records for the workers and their particulars of work. Every morning by daybreak the Manager would give the day’s work instructions to the Overseer, often based on what he had observed from his tours of the plantation the day before. When he was giving orders, the ‘drivers’ (superintendents) would come for their orders.

The Attorneys and Managers could be very autocratic and could make the life of their underlings a living hell. Overseers or Under Managers often had very little time off, as little as one night or half day a week and one weekend a month. This could vary depending on the attitude of the Manager. One Under Manager was not allowed to take any time off for a whole year as the Manager wanted to go on his own personal affairs every weekend.

With exceptions, such as those who enjoyed the work, Overseers were often either the children of planters, or from a family who owned a plantation. This was their education for eventual management, or they were of a class of whites who were struggling to get ahead as they were not considered upper crust and had no influential connections. Some of the latter did very well with the opportunity and a few not only became managers but also owners of some great wealth, as did some enterprising black Barbadians.

Here are some quotes from family letters about the life of an Overseer (my uncle):

“Harwood has been transferred from Mount Wilton Plantation to Todds, it is a raise. He has a retired racehorse to ride so he says that it leads him a dance. The other evening it took him thirty minutes to get in the yard when on other evenings it takes him ten.

Before he got engaged, he went to his Manager and asked him if it was true that the manager at Airy Hill, where he was, wasn’t allowed to get married. The Manager told him he preferred a single man there, but if he wished to get married, he wouldn’t prevent him. When he fixed the wedding, he told the Manager they’d be only going for four days honeymoon. The Manager said that would be alright. Would you believe two weeks before the wedding and after the invitations were all out, he made out that Harwood had never told him a word about his getting married and refused to allow him to bring a bride to Airy Hill? Of course, the wedding had to be put off.”

The Life of a Planter

The position of a Plantation Manager was considered a good job, certainly after the challenges of being an Overseer, but there was a lot of stress. While the salaries were not exorbitant, the job came with many perks that made it a rewarding career. The perks included a free house, the work of maids and a part-time chauffeur, the ability to raise livestock and access to vegetables. Food was also very basic, everything eaten was produced on the plantation. While the Planter and his family usually ate well, sometimes meals included: sop biscuits with hard boiled eggs, belly soup and cow tripe in a white sauce. Lunch might be Harslet in a brown gravy with corn meal cou cou. The Bajan term Harslet is derived from the English name Haslet, which in turn was derived from the French term hastilles meaning entrails, and is used to describe the liver of the pig, which used to be a poor person’s meal but is now served in the best restaurants. When a pig was butchered on a Saturday, then there could be pudding and souse and roast pork.

Stress in the Planter’s work life could come from the Attorney or owner’s management style, from the vagaries of the weather, from the changing price of sugar, from potential labour unrest and certainly from the ongoing threat of cane fires.

Whereas canes were burnt in Trinidad to remove snakes and scorpions before harvesting, there was no such need in Barbados as the introduction of the mongoose had eradicated all of the snakes many years before. The canes could catch fire accidentally, but in most cases, fires were set by discontented workers, by cane cutters who preferred cutting canes without trash, or by people ‘having fun’.

Sugar cane fire - Barbados
A small cane fire in Barbados. With the water cart waiting for action. Photo by Sidney Webster.

The increase in the amount of burnt canes in the 1960s was: 11% in 1966, 23% in 1967, and 39% in 1968 (Sturrock, 1969). As a result, Managers and Overseers, with the help of neighbouring plantation management, would have to rush out, usually at night, risking life and limb, to fight the fires. Burning cane has several serious effects including: the loss of the trash, thereby hampering the growth of future years’ crops because of more weeds, the need for more herbicides, weakened root systems, and the loss of microorganisms leading to more frequent ploughing. There was also the risk of physical injury in fighting fires and harmful effects of the air pollution.

In addition, burnt cane was paid less if it was reaped several days after it was burnt. As days passed, the sugars in the burnt cane were converted to acetic acid and so there was less sugar to be extracted. There was a reducing sliding scale for this payment and eventually if the quality of the burnt canes was too poor it was rejected at the factory and then became a total loss for the plantation, hence all efforts were made to reap the burnt canes as soon as possible, even with the help of workers from adjacent plantations.

Managers and Overseers wore ‘cork hats’ (pith helmets) and often had a walking stick that converted into a stand against which they could prop and sit. It had two pieces that folded out to support their buttocks. Every Friday, the Managers went into Bridgetown to get cheques from the Attorneys for the payrolls, then had them converted into cash at the banks to give to the Overseers to pay the workers. There was always the risk of being held up by robbers on the way home, and during the 1950s several managers were held up and robbed. When the Manager got home late on a Friday, the Overseer, the Superintendents, the herdsmen, grooms, and stock keepers, all had to come and report to him.


Acknowledgements

I have received invaluable information from several friends who had much experience in the sugar cane industry, and I would like to thank them for their help. They know who they are. Any errors in the article are mine alone.

Bibliography
Badley, Geoffrey. 2006. Barbados: The Sugar Story. Herbert Publishing.
Goddard, Robert. 2001. The Fall of the Barbados Planter Class. Agricultural History Society.
Hudson, J.C. 1969. The Future of the Sugar Industry in Barbados. Barbados Sugar Producers’ Association (Inc.)
Macrotrends – Sugar Prices – 37 Year Historical Chart
Philips, Edsil. 1977. Financial Aspects of the Barbados Sugar Industry. Central Bank of Barbados.
Pilgrim, E.C. 1969. The Role and Structure of Agriculture in Barbados and the Agricultural Development Programme.
Sturrock, F. G. 1969. Sugar Beet or Sugar Cane?, Journal of Agricultural Economics.
Webster, Peter. 2015. History, His Story and Twistory. The Nation newspaper, Barbados.

Ashbury Plantation
Ashbury Plantation.

14 thoughts on “Plantation Life in Barbados in the 1950s”

  1. Previous to this boom period and in the days of sail the crop, Sugar Cane, was king. Sugar Cane is a fantastic cover crop. It provides two essential benefits. Firstly, it keeps down weeds and secondly the trash cover after the first crop reduces evaporation of water from the soil. We don’t get much rain some years. It can be intercropped with all sorts of other crops.

    So why would other crops be so vital?

    In the days of sail Barbados possessed three vital attributes, location, location and location. The Atlantic gyre (circulation) and trade winds assured Barbados and other islands of the Eastern Caribbean of their vital position in the trade routes to and from America. Sailing ships re-provisioned in the islands of the Eastern Caribbean and took on fresh water.

    Sugar was a bonus but trade was what built Barbados prior to the period when sugar was king during and after WWII. Trade was based on the ability to resupply ships and that was based on the ability to make the land produce.

    So, if you look in Schomburgk, the tonnage of sugar in 1845 was one eighth the other tonnage passing through Carlisle Bay.

  2. The below link about sugar production during and after WWII explains why output rose so sharply in this period. This is the only period I believe when Sugar was king in Barbados. It gave us the bulk handling capability of the Deep Water Harbour and the Deep Water Harbour as well as the QEH.

    The economy boomed and poverty and public health issues could be addressed in the 1950’s and 60’s.

    World demand at the start of WWII was 30 million tons per year. Supply met demand.

    After WWII, supply was 15 million tons per year and demand could not be met until the production capacity around the world could be rebuilt.

    Barbados was fortunate, its capacity to produce sugar had not been affected by hostilities. Technology existed to expand capacity and it did. Years ago Colin Hudson told me that the power output of a windmill was of the order of 4 horsepower, a small lawn mower. Wind power capped the milling capacity and the milling capacity capped the sugar output at around 10,000 tons per year in the 17th, 18th and most of the 19th centuries. That’s why the graph of sugar output prior to the advent of steam shows such a low output.

  3. Dear John,

    I truly enjoyed reading this article. I was at school from 1952 to 56 (coming from Venzuela) with your sisters Mary and Rosalind, the latter having passed this article on to me. These years were so important for me and my love for Barbados is undiminished. I have been living in Austria since 1961 but have many fond memories of my years on the island and later visits together with my husband Freddy. I have remained in contact with quite a number of school friends from those days and enjoy reading anything about Barbados.

    You may not know that in the year 2000 I gave a little help to Edward Hutson in editing The True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados of 1657 by Richard Ligon and am now very much enjoying reading The Sugar Barons by Matthew Parker, a fascinating and very detailed history of the Island.

  4. Hello John

    Glad you wrote the article – I was born in 55 and as a young boy lived in the middle of the cane fields of Wildey Plantation (Colin Webster) and Hanson(?) which was the Deane family – we had (ancient) tractors then and carts and as a youngster was ‘driving’ the tractor sitting on the lap of the real driver who taught me pretty much all the cuss words I know today!!!

    It was a simpler time and one that has fond memories – the fires at night were terrifying we would be outside with the garden hose trying to keep the canes wet to stop the fires

  5. Thanks…I worked on my cousins plantation Frizers for 3 months in late 70’s…as a Yankee Bajan from NYC it was quite an experience that influenced my whole life…I’m very proud of my Edghill family heritage…

  6. Excellent history ! We are winter visitors, (over 20 years)-and very interested in the Island ‘s stories and peoples’ cultural heritage. Hopefully, the school generation of today will be afforded this information, in order to appreciate their own families’ connections to the past. Jo Harmon, USA

  7. Anthony Christopher Edwin Davis

    Thanks John very well done,I worked at Colleton Pltn, 1963-1964 one crop 8 hour shifts with 100% Mr. Louis Farmer & then moved to Brighton & Buttals-Windsor Pltn, in 1964-1967, three of my Happiest years in Planting. My manager was Mr. Neville Tippy Howell.& Mr.Tony Pile lived in the Great House & Mr.Lyall Sealy was the Attorney & … I hate typing.

  8. Thanks for this dissertation. Most interesting. The photo of the cane bill/knife sent me running to Wikipedia. This is interesting Cane knife – Wikipedia. I was trying to find out who designed it, and when. But this is all I could come up with. Perhaps a further dissertation on the implements and tools used in the industry would be interesting as well.

  9. John, thanks for this wonderful slice of Bajan history. Although it’s now mostly a thing of the past for those who can still recall it you have vividly brought it back to life.

Leave a Reply

Scroll to Top