An Early Metropolis of the Atlantic World
Emma Theedom explores the early growth of the colonial settlement of Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados, which by the early 19th century had developed into an urban metropolis to rival the great cities of America's East Coast.
Barbados’s capital city, Bridgetown, is the financial, commercial and political hub of the island. Barbadians, visitors and tourists that frequent the town are greeted with the familiar urban sights and sounds recognised the world over: department stores like Cave Shepherd; fast food restaurants like KFC and Barbados’ very own Chefette; and nightclubs like Harbour Lights. Slow-moving traffic lines the streets. Yet in comparison to other world capitals, even in the Caribbean, Bridgetown seems like little more than a large market town rather than an urban metropolis.
Looking around today, it is difficult to believe that there was a time when Bridgetown was a leading town in the Atlantic World; it was once home to one of the busiest ports in the world, and served not only as a blueprint for towns in North America, but also often provided the finances needed to develop them.
Situated further east than any other Caribbean island, Barbados benefitted from being largely ignored by vested European interests, so generally kept out of conflict’s way. Whilst expensive and time consuming battles for supremacy were fought out on other islands, Barbados was able to continue developing a stable, sugar based economy, undisturbed by the fight for monopoly of the West Indies. Thus despite the West Indies being colonised by the British at the same time as the mainland colonies, by 1660 the island of Barbados was already worth more to England than the combined wealth of all these colonies. This wealth was due to the introduction of sugar plantations in 1640 as well as to the labour of African slaves and indentured servants. Between 1627 and 1807, nearly 400,000 slaves were shipped to the British colony. Many would then be re-shipped northward to Britain’s North American holdings. Within forty years Bridgetown had developed into a metropolis that rivalled Boston, Massachusetts and Port Royal, Jamaica.
In 1700, Father Jean-Baptist Labat, a French clergyman and explorer visited the town and described it as ‘fine and noble; its streets are straight, long, clean and well intersected’. It was also home to approximately three thousand people, many of whom were extremely wealthy and enjoyed a standard of living better than that of their counterparts in the mainland and at home. The source of this growth was not lost on Father Labat; he also observed that black slaves in Bridgetown outnumbered free whites by almost ten to one.
Those who settled in the ‘New World’ often aimed to recreate their surroundings in the image of their countries of origin, and by 1680, settlers in Barbados had not only achieved this, but surpassed it. Bridgetown’s development advanced beyond that of many English towns. Indeed, an eighteenth-century English gentleman would have felt quite at home in seventeenth-century Bridgetown. In short, it developed into a sophisticated urban port town, with a distinctive urban identity long before anything similar had developed anywhere else in the Atlantic.