The Caribbean is one of the most beautiful places on earth. The weather, the beaches and the luxury create a perfect heaven for visitors from around the world who are looking for an escape. Beyond the physical beauty and the friendliness of the people, the region is rich in history and culture. Barbados, the Gem of the Caribbean Sea, is one of those islands where the history is rich and well preserved. So much so, that an area of the island paradise was inscribed on the prestigious UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.
What is a World Heritage Site?
In 1972 the United Nations, Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization otherwise known as UNESCO, adopted the 'Convention Concerning the Protection of the World's Cultural and Natural Heritage'. UNESCO realised the significant importance of cultural and natural heritage sites to society. If left untreated, these sites lay vulnerable to not only the natural elemental of decay but also to the impact of development. They also recognised that Inefficient funding for the upkeep of these sites also contributed to their disappearance. As such, since its inception, the convention has been the most widely accepted by governments around the world for the support and maintenance of UNESCO World Heritage Sites around the globe.
Across 167 countries, there are 1121 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Of these, 869 are cultural, 213 are natural, and 39 are mixed. The three countries with the most Heritage Sites are Spain with 48, and China and Italy where there are 55 in each country. Within the Caribbean, there are 23 world Heritage Sites. Historic Bridgetown and its Garrison in Barbados was added to the list in 2011. Here, 115 landmark buildings can be found within Historic Bridgetown, and its Garrison and those buildings span the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
Bridgetown and its Garrison
UNESCO aptly describes the Barbadian historic site as "... an outstanding example of British colonial architecture consisting of a well-preserved old town built in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, this is a testament to the spread of Great Britain’s Atlantic colonial empire. The property also includes a nearby military garrison which consists of numerous historic buildings. With its serpentine urban layout, the property testifies to a different approach to colonial town-planning compared to the Spanish and Dutch colonial cities of the region which were built along a grid plan." With that backdrop, it's easy to explain that Bridgetown, Barbados was once the centrepiece in the British empire as it relates to the Caribbean and Americas. This was because of the great importance that was placed on the infrastructural enhancements and fortification of its buildings and port. Currently the capital and largest town on the island, Bridgetown is a daily hive of commercial activity. Malls, banks, bars, restaurants and more can be found in the city. However, the architectural blend of old and new - more old than new, adds to the attractiveness and historic value of the town. Take a stroll around one of the oldest cities in the Caribbean. At every turn and step, you will set your eyes upon historic buildings waiting to tell their stories in Barbados’ UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The History of Bridgetown and its Garrison
Before the English Settlers arrived in Barbados, an indigenous people inhabited parts of the island, the Bridgetown area being one of them. The current UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bridgetown, was swamp-like, with a river dividing it. Upon arriving on the island, the English settlers discovered a bridge, which was suspected to have been built by the indigenous people, ( they were driven out of the country before English settlement by raids which occurred years earlier). Hence, Indian Bridge was the first name given to the area. Around 1654, the structure was replaced by a sturdier frame and then again in 1872 where a more permanent structure was built. The name of the town was also changed. From Indian Bridge to the Town of St. Michael then eventually to its present name, Bridgetown. The city became a centrepiece in the British Empire, as one of the earliest established centres for trade and commercial activity for the Caribbean and Americas. And it became the main distribution point for sugar and enslaved Africans. Today, the collection of dockside warehouses and colonial structures bear testimony of the great trade that took place centuries ago.
Due to this heavy commercial activity and the importance of Bridgetown to the British, great lengths were taken to secure the town and its shores from opposing forces. As such, you will find an impressive array of British Military fortitude and defence on the southern outskirts of Bridgetown, its Garrison. Established in 1780 as the military headquarters for the Imperial Forces the Garrison held claim to being the largest throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Before this, many forts equipped with canons were constructed, two of which remain. These are the Charles Fort, which is the present-day location of the Hilton Hotel and St. Ann's Forts which is the current home of the Barbados Defense Force. St. Ann's is kept in immaculate condition and houses the only Elizabethan cannon left in the world, along with a world-class gun collection. Other notable buildings which reside within the Garrison are:
- The former British Military prison, this is currently the Barbados Museum and Historical Society
- The Main Guard, with its impressive clock tower and aesthetically pleasing architecture, is now home to the Barbados Legion and Barbados Poppy League.
- George Washington House, formerly known as Bush Hill House, this property also has some American significance among the proliferation of British Military history. In 1751, it became the only place outside of the United States of America that George Washington ever lived.
The Garrison Savannah has been used for many years for horse racing and is the venue for the most prestigious race in the eastern Caribbean, The Sandy Lane Gold Cup. This is also the site where the Barbados National Flag was first raised.
Many of the buildings have been repurposed for commercial and residential uses. However, their historic structural integrity has been fittingly maintained to tell the story of Historic Bridgetown and its Garrison.
How to experience the history
There are several UNESCO World Heritage Site walking tours available with knowledgeable guides. Some even dressed in traditional wear to tell the tales of bygone Bridgetown. Conversely, a guide is not always needed as many visitors venture out alone and explore the town. With numerous signs and information points, you will find it fun and easy to go at your own pace, mixing historical sightseeing with shopping or stopping to get a bite to eat. What better way to immerse yourself in the culture and history of Bridgetown than to stroll along the boardwalk, take a photo on the famous bridge or sit dockside at one of the restaurants.
Must-See Attractions/Historic Buildings
Barbados Museum and Historical Society: Formerly the British Military Prison, it has been transformed into a wonderful experience filled with artefacts, displays and knowledgeable staff.
Blackwoods Screw Dock: Is the only dry dock of its kind in the world, built-in 1893 to service and clean marine vessels.
Nidhe Israel Synagogue and Museum: The oldest synagogues in the western hemisphere which has an original Mikvah and an interactive museum on site.
Perfect View: Take a walk to the Charles Duncan O'Neal Bridge and enjoy a fantastic view of the Careenage and the old bond houses, Independence and Heroes Square and the Parliament Buildings.
With 115 buildings to find and explore, there is no shortage of things to do on our UNESCO World Heritage Site on a visit to Barbados. Search our site for more information on other sites and opportunities.