Molasses, money and murder
17 February 2022
We are supposedly in the dry season but as I write the rain is hammering down again; a true tropical downpour. These downpours don’t last for long but they are regular and help keep the island looking green and fertile.
The tourist trade I’m told, by those who ply their trade in this sector, is up to 50% and increasing, of its normal capacity which is encouraging. There are many more planes flying in and many more tourists on the beaches.
With this increase in tourists came two separate sets of friends from the UK who stayed in local hotels. We enjoyed showing them what we know about the island.
One attraction which we had not visited before was St Nicholas Abbey. Not an abbey at all but a sugar plantation dating back to the 1650s when it contributed to the fabulous wealth generated from sugar and molasses produced in Barbados. The plantation is a rarity in that it has maintained its exact boundaries since that time; surrounding some four hundred acres.
The estate has a vivid history worthy of a murder mystery. The original owners, two British partners, Colonel Benjamin Berringer and John Yeamans, competed for the affections of one Margaret, the beguiling daughter of a local reverend. Colonel Benjamin Berringer prevailed and they married and had three children.
Some years later, in May of 1661, the good colonel set off from the plantation to dine with an old friend in Speightstown, a busy seaport on the west coast, leaving Margaret with the three children at home. During the meal, he clasped his throat, cried out, vomited on the floor and died.
Poisoning was the verdict. John Yeamans was the main suspect but the case against him remained unproven. No local Hercule Poirot in those days!
Yeamans and Margaret were married within ten weeks of her husband’s death. He was never brought to justice and continued to lead a colourful life being knighted by Charles II for his loyalty and offered the appointment as Governor-General of Carolina which was a single colony at the time. This appointment came with 48,000 acres of land so Yeamans and Margaret uprooted and with a coffle of slaves set off for Carolina to start up a plantation. These slaves were the first to be introduced into that colony.
Upon the death of Yeamans and Margaret, the plantation in Barbados passed to her children. The subsequent history of the estate is just as fascinating.
Moving to the present, apart from a short interlude after 1947, St Nicholas Abbey has grown sugar cane and produced molasses to this day. Now, it’s a working plantation that’s become a micro-brewery making its own rum which they bottle and knockout in an airy room behind the house. They make their own labels, stoppers out of solid mahogany and leather plugged into beautiful bottles.
Pure single estate rum tastes similar to a good cognac or whiskey; totally different to the cheap blended stuff. And the difference in taste between a 5 and an 8-year-old rum was noticeable; 8 years being very smooth on the palate. I can’t imagine what the 25-year-old rum tastes like! Amazing I should think. But at USD700 a bottle I’m not likely to find out. It smelt fantastic though. Both the owner’s wife and son gave us the insights. Fascinating.
We looked around the house which is only one of three original Jacobean houses still standing in the Western Hemisphere, typically period British architecture and furniture.
The owner must also be a train enthusiast as he has installed on the 400-acre estate a narrow-gauge railway with a steam locomotive and carriages to evoke the days when Barbados had a train system that shifted molasses and rum to the port and locals to the east coast for trade or leisure. We took the trip of around 18 minutes to a nearby lookout spot from where you could Ragged Point lighthouse close to where we reside — a clear view of 18 miles.
Following this, we ate dinner at a good local eatery right on the beach and watched the sunset; something special at this time of year.
This day trip reminded me how much of Barbados’s colourful past we have still to explore. We have all too easily slipped into a local’s way of life. No doubt the visit of more friends and family from the UK will help us redress this.