HEATHER LYNN’S HABITAT: Quarter of Barbados’ population wiped out
THEY ARE SCATTERED around the island, mute testimony to a disease that wiped out a quarter of the Barbados’ population in 1854.
But today, apart from the memories handed down by oral tradition, there is no tangible memorial to the cholera epidemic that laid waste to the island’s population in less than six months.
This, said two of the island’s most eminent historians, should not be.
Earlier this week, images surfaced of major works being done on the cholera burial ground to the west of St George’s Parish Church. Loads of marl were dumped on the spot which was the final resting place of those from St George who succumbed to the disease.
However, said both Morris Greenidge and Dr Karl Watson, such cholera burial grounds dot the island as the number of deaths from the water-borne disease outstripped the availability of land in the churches’ graveyards. The makeshift grave sites were usually near the same churches. Many of the victims are interred in mass graves, with registers listing numbers and not names.
“Cholera overwhelmed Barbados,” said Greenidge. “There were over 25 000 deaths from cholera alone, so there are a number of satellite graveyards. The significance is that nobody knew what caused it.
“And it killed so many people and so many people were buried alive. That’s another thing that is not talked about. The gravediggers were paid a fee for burial and many of those people had passed out and went into comas, and they recovered in the coffin on the way down. But then when the doc say you dead, you done dead,” Greenidge told Heather-Lynn’s Habitat.
Watson said the authorities turned to mass graves in an attempt to keep pace with the hundreds who were dying every day.
“Every parish would have had its cholera ground because when the graveyard began to overflow with people, they had to dig mass burial pits at different parts of the island where bodies were just dumped,” he explained.
The former burial ground for cholera victims at Batts Rock.
The majority of victims were poor as they were the ones who were living in substandard conditions.
“It was a disease of dirty habits and the poor died in greater numbers,” Watson said.
Both men bemoaned the fact that there was no memorial to the thousands of Barbadians who died from the disease, many within hours of contracting it.
“What is interesting is that people seem to have forgotten completely that that was the greatest demographic disaster that ever befell Barbados, where in just about three months, nearly 23 000 people died,” said Watson. “It is strange that there is no monument put up to memorialise almost the quarter of Barbados population that died in 1854.”
Greenidge added: “It’s like people seem to have forgotten about it. I don’t think people today know where they [the burial grounds] all are. The reason I would want them to keep them is as a memorial.
“You would want to leave some of those intact as memorials. Batts Rock is the most prominent and no one knows about the one on Courts’ pasture [on Spring Garden],” he added.
And how does cholera last?
“In Barbadian mythology, it lasts forever,” Greenidge said, laughing.
As a result of the disease, piped water was introduced into Bridgetown, a fact commemorated by the Water Fountain in Heroes Square. In addition, the Montefiore Foundation, now standing in the square on Coleridge Street, but first erected in Beckwith Street, was donated by John Montefiore in memory of his father, who was one of the first victims of the disease.
The cholera burial ground at The Glebe, St George, with St George’s Parish Church in the background.