The Gardens of St. Thomas – Friends’ equality even in death

The Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as the Society of Friends or Friends or Quakers early burial grounds, consisted of simple grassy areas, appearing to be little other than tended gardens or fields. Graves were generally unmarked and often there were few outward signs that any burials had actually taken place.

“1780 – N.B On the 10th day of October of this year we had a terrible hurricane, most of our buildings and works were blown down and many lives lost. The dead could not be brought to church to have the rites of scripture performed but were buried in gardens and private land. St. Thomas’ church and chapel were demolished by this dreadful storm.”

An extract from the Church of England Parochial Burial Register for St. Thomas Parish in Barbados which began in 1723, almost a century after settlement.

There are no parochial burial records prior to 1723. The author suggests that there were few Church of England congregants, but many members of the Society of Friends and their burial customs are their unequivocal testimony in equality1.

Quaker Burial Gardens - St. Thomas Barbados
Figure 1 – The Gardens of St. Thomas in the Island of Barbados.

Some Friends or Quakers, asked in their wills to be buried in their Gardens or Orchards. They appeared to consider specific areas of their plantations as Gardens or Orchards where they went for peaceful contemplation and nearness to God and wanted to be interred there. They preferred not to be interred in consecrated ground and preferred simple or no grave markers. Today there is often no outward sign that a piece of land was once used as a Burying Ground for Quakers or their slaves. Identify potential Quaker Burials and slave burials will follow.

Where were the Gardens and the Chapel of St. Thomas? Every field on plantations in Barbados has a name2 and Garden or some variation is one of them. There is even an entire plantation called Cane Garden. Dr. Colin Hudson (deceased) in unpublished work mapped as many of them that remained in cultivation in the 1970’s. His students’ hand drawn maps derive from the Sworn Surveys in the possession of the various owners.

The Gardens of St. Thomas are actual fields on plantations named by Friends in the 17th and 18th centuries. Those names stuck with the land they and their slaves worked and are still used today. The explanation for the name fits the field naming custom prevalent not only in St. Thomas but in all eleven parishes.

The large numbers of dead after the 1780 hurricane in the slave and free population in St. Thomas meant a standard burial practice of Garden burials was almost exclusively used for not only were the Parish Church and Chapel blown down, but paths would have been blocked by fallen trees and the transport of the dead to the main parish burial grounds would have been difficult if not impossible before decay set in.

Friends were routinely buried in their Gardens. Garden is a word which repeats in the title of Friends’ Burial places not only in Barbados but also in the UK (eg Covent Garden3 in London). Friends’ wills in 17th century Barbados routinely requested that testators be buried in their Gardens. It is the author’s contention that Friend’s and their slaves were buried side by side, a testimony of equality. The hurricane highlighted the reality that everyone, slave and free, was equal in death.

Where was the Chapel in St. Thomas that was destroyed in the dreadful 1780 hurricane? The maps of Barbados in the 18th and 19th century show the Parish Church and the Spring Meeting as the only places of worship in St. Thomas. The Chapel had to be the Spring Meeting of Friends’ which the Church of England came to administer as Friends in Barbados moved on whether to America, England, elsewhere or, to the Church of England or the grave.

Those Friends in St. Thomas who died before 1723 when the Church of England started the Parish Burial Register were either buried in the Burying Place at the Spring Meeting or privately, in their Gardens on their plantations. Minutes of the various Meetings in Barbados are no longer available. Some Friends who requested it in their wills would have been buried in the Parish Churchyard. The majority, if not all of the landowners in St. Thomas and by extension Barbados must have been Quaker.

As their population fell in Barbados, many came to embrace the Church of England. There is an 1805 Baptism of William Bartlett in Christ Church Parish where he was described as “Formerly a Quaker” aged 69. Friends simply moved on, but they left their indelible print on the island of Barbados.

Some of the ancestors of the author were Quakers in the 17th Century, slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries and some of the earliest members of the Jewish faith who came to Barbados in the late 17th century. Some of those Friends can be found in Besse4. Many Historians5 Of The Society Of Friends are now aware that the island of Barbados was the Quakers’ first American “Cradle of Truth”.

Maps of Friends’ Gardens in St. Thomas

Friends’ association with Barbados in life and the traces they left in death can be mapped. At Welshman Hall Plantation in St. Thomas the family vault of the Williams family built in 1660 contains the body of General William Asygell Williams. On some plantations in St. Thomas6 for example Ayshford, Cane Garden, Rugby, Selman’s Strong Hope, Sturges and Vaucluse can be found various tombstones, markers of the various Burying Grounds of Friends and their slaves in “private lands” and “gardens”. The language of the wills7 of the testators or their families identify those graves as those of Friends. (Figures 2, 3, 4 and 5)

Quaker Burial Gardens - St. Thomas Barbados
Figure 2 – Known Garden Fields by Plantation.
Quaker Burial Gardens - St. Thomas Barbados
Figure 3 – Known Burials of Friends in St. Thomas (Garden Fields Included).
Quaker Burial Gardens - St. Thomas Barbados
Figure 4 – Marked Friends’ Burials superimposed on Jeffrey’s 1775.
Quaker Burial Gardens - St. Thomas Barbados
Figure 5 – Google Earth – Locating the Spring Meeting destroyed in the 1780 Hurricane.

The Institution of Slavery

There are three remarkable occasions in human history when slaves were freed from bondage. These all have one common thread, the God in each of us. Moses led God’s Chosen people out of bondage in Egypt an act ordained by God. God was not finished: ‘For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. John 3:16’ All mankind was freed from the slavery of sin and death.

The Society arose through the God in George Fox and many Friends. The abolition of the institution of slavery which existed for millennia was in no small way due to generations of Friends all directed by the God within them. It took less than two centuries and spread throughout the world, with the Word of God, taken there by the naval power of Great Britain, just as Christianity and a message of Freedom spread through the known world in the beginning by way of the roads of the Roman Empire,

Conclusion

In 1807, Thomas Clarkson8, who was not a Friend but worked with many Quakers, for the abolition of slavery in the British Parliament wrote:

“From the year 1787, when I began to devote my labours to the abolition of the Slave Trade, I was thrown frequently into the company of the people called Quakers. These people had been then long unanimous upon this subject. Indeed, they had placed it among the articles of their religious discipline. Their houses were of course open to me in all parts of the kingdom. Hence I came to a knowledge of their living manners, which no other person who was not a Quaker, could have easily obtained. As soon as I became possessed of this knowledge, or at least of so much of it as to feel that it was considerable, I conceived a desire of writing their moral history.”

Thomas Clarkson -18078

The evidence of the living testimony many past Members of the Society of Friends left indelibly etched all over Barbados may be difficult to discern but it is there to wonder at and see.

One can only be in awe of God’s Hand in directing those Friends and others who passed through Barbados long before us and earned for it the appellation Cradle of Truth unbelievable as it may sound in this secular day and age.

Geophysics can reveal the existence of burials and should be employed in Barbados to demonstrate the existence of past Friends’ burials for in so doing the burials of their slaves will be found. One such method is subsurface Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) which is a geophysical survey method that uses pulses of electromagnetic radiation to image the subsurface. It provides a non-intrusive and non-destructive method of surveying the sub-surface. Combining GPR with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and traditional excavation and DNA and isotope analysis of skeletal remains will provide a clearer picture of the lost Quaker burial grounds of Barbados and help improve the understanding of this neglected part of Bajan Quaker history.

Addenda

World Quaker Day is Sunday 2nd October 2022 but Barbadians have become so divorced from our Quaker heritage that we don’t even realise that once upon a time Barbados was referred to as “The Cradle of Truth5.

The Truth in “Cradle of Truth” refers to the Biblical Truth as in “I am the way the Truth and the Life”, John 14:6.

Quakers fled England to practice their religious beliefs as did Puritans before them. Both were Christian. Both brought the same Bible with them and ended up spreading it from their humble origins, the Cradle.

Successful settlement of the New World from England was driven principally by religion believe it or not.

The Reformation produced the Bible in languages other than Latin in the Roman Catholic Church and the Gutenberg press made it available to the masses.

Persecuted non-conformist sects (Protestants) sprung up led by individuals who interpreted the Bible according to their understanding and those individuals attracted followers such as Ranters, Familists, Anabaptists, Muggletonians… and finally, George Fox and the Quakers at the end of the Reformation period, 1648.

Persecution drove emigration and spread from Europe.

Who would want to go to some virgin country and start from scratch with no known means to employment?

For sure, there were merchants and financiers looking to profit with no thought of religion or the Bible, but they needed a market in the New World and the only people who could survive the vagaries of life and multiply were people of great faith who were in it for their beliefs and their freedom from persecution.

As things got easier, the original driving force was paid lip service so that today trying to imagine how it was possible is impossible.

Wills exist from 1649 which suggest Quakers were present in Barbados from their beginning in the late 1640’s during the English Civil war. 

Beginning in 1656, and throughout the 1660s, missionaries such as Mary Fisher, Anne Austin, Henry Fell, and Richard Pinder brought their simple faith in the Truth and Inward Light to Barbados, where significant numbers of wealthy slaveholding planters and merchants were “convinced,” lending the Quakers legitimacy and status in Barbados. We also know at this time that Quakers first began to engage with the moral problems of slavery in Barbados.

Mary Fisher and Anne Austin went on to Boston from Barbados and were whipped and expelled by Puritans as heretics. They were the first Quakers to reach North America. Mary Fisher ended up in South Carolina, a colony settled from Barbados by Quakers! Before that Quakers also settled in New Barbados Neck in New Jersey which is now western Hudson County and southern Bergen County.


References

  1. How Quaker Cemeteries Are Different – YouTube: https://youtu.be/ZqaNa7nZbug.
Thomas Hamm Ph.D. Quaker Historian at Earlham College, Richmond, in Wayne County, Indiana USA: How Quaker burial grounds (cemeteries) are different.
  1. Handler, Jerome S. “A Prone Burial from a Plantation Slave Cemetery in Barbados, West Indies: Possible Evidence for an African-Type Witch or Other Negatively Viewed Person.” Historical Archaeology, vol. 30, no. 3, 1996, pp. 76–86. JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25616477.
  2. The lost burying-ground of London’s Quakers – Flickering Lamps: https://flickeringlamps.com/2020/04/17/the-lost-burying-ground-of-londons-quakers/.
  3. Besse, Joseph. A Collection of the Sufferings of the People Called Quakers: For the Testimony of a Good Conscience from the Time of Their Being First Distinguished by that Name in the Year 1650 to the Time of the Act Commonly Called the Act of Toleration Granted to Protestant Dissenters in the First Year of the Reign of King William the Third and Queen Mary in the Year 1689. United Kingdom, L. Hinde, 1753.
  4. Carey, Brycchan, and Geoffrey Plank, eds. Quakers and Abolition. University of Illinois Press, 2014. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/j.ctt7zw60d.
  5. Report of the Committee Appointed to Enquire Into the Present Condition of Historical Sites etc in Barbados 1910
  6. Thee and Me: A Beginner’s Guide to Early Quaker Records Paperback – April 23, 2014
  7. A portraiture of Quakerism, taken from a view of the Moral Education, Discipline, Peculiar Customs, Religious Principles, Political and Civil Economy, and Character, of the Society of Friends by Thomas Clarkson, M.A, author of several essays on the subject of the slave trade. In three volumes. Second edition, London printed by E. Taylor & Co., Shoe Lane printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, Paternoster Row. 1807.

Additional sources of information on Quaker Gardens / Burial Grounds in Barbados

  • An Old Quaker Burial Ground in Barbados – Maris Corbin pages 36 – 40, Journal of the Friends Historical Society Volume 60 Number 1 (2003 – issued 2005). https://journals.sas.ac.uk/fhs/article/view/3412/3364.
    Maris Corbin is a retired librarian, who was brought up as a Quaker (Harrogate Meeting, then Carperby Meeting in the Yorkshire Dales). She and her Barbadian-American husband have worked in a number of American Friends Service Committee projects.
  • The Quakers in Barbados timeline on Caribbean Family History. http://www.caribbeanfamilyhistory.org/quakers/.
  • Barbados Quakers – Early History – Genealogy of the Gittens and related families of Barbados 1640 to 1900. https://gittens.info/archives/386.
  • The Quakers of Barbados – Barbados Synagogue Historic District. https://synagoguehistoricdistrict.com/the-quakers-of-barbados.
  • An example of Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) in action. GPR radar was used successfully in December 2018 to discover and assess possible evidence of burials and historic foundations beneath the car park of what was the Quaker burial ground adjacent to the Nidhe Israel Synagogue in Bridgetown, Barbados. Dan Bigman of Bigman Geophysical explaining GPR lessons from a cemetery: https://youtu.be/k9c94-C1WuM.
  • Old Doll. The Matriarch of Newton Plantation – gives the history of a family of slaves and their relationship with their masters, both in Barbados and England.

1 thought on “The Gardens of St. Thomas – Friends’ equality even in death”

Leave a comment about the post...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top