We're going to Barbados

4th July 2003 at 01:00
Terry Saunders takes us on a guided tour of a tropical paradise

Take a map of the Caribbean and run your finger down the arc of tropical islands. Stop when you get to St Vincent and then go eastwards about 160km to a tiny pear-shaped island standing alone in the Atlantic Ocean. This is Barbados - geographically aloof, geologically unique and historically much older than the other Caribbean islands. Such characteristics provide a wealth of opportunities for children to study a contrasting locality in a different part of the world, investigate and compare settlements, look at how places change and explore the impact of tourism on island economies.

The Barbados story began millions of years ago, when sediment from the great Orinoco and Amazon rivers poured into the Atlantic and formed a small low-lying island. Then, slowly, as the water levels rose, the island began to sink back into the waves. As it lay under the shallow waters, a cap of coral about 100 metres thick built up over its limestone base. Finally, during the massive volcanic explosion that created the other Caribbean islands, Barbados rose again out of the ocean. One legacy of its creation is that it has one of the best natural water supplies in the world. Pure fresh water filters up through the coral from a maze of underground rivers and lakes that have formed in the limestone.

Today, Barbados conjures up images of luxury holidays on sun-kissed beaches fringed by palm trees. True, its intriguing conception and dramatic birth bequeathed it all the features necessary for a genuine paradise island - but children need to know that the realities of life there have not always matched that tranquil image. (You can discuss its "discovery", and its part in the 17th and 18th-century slave trade triangle between Europe, Africa and the Caribbean with older children.) When Portuguese explorers first arrived in 1536, they stayed only long enough to establish that the island was uninhabited - although archaeological evidence now shows that Arawak and Carib tribespeople had previously set up settlements there - and to give it a name. They chose Los Barbudos ("the bearded one"), because of the great bearded banyan trees that grew all over the island.

Discussion point

Because coral is so important to Barbados, set the scene with a classroom discussion on what it is, how it is created, what life-forms it sustains and how easily it can be damaged. Compare and contrast the island's landscape and its coral and limestone composition, with its volcanically created Caribbean neighbours.

Settlement and sugar

It was almost another century before Barbados again came to the attention of Europeans. In 1627, settlers arrived, lured by a climate where they could grow some of the highly-prized products that were becoming fashionable in 17th-century Britain. These settlers brought with them indentured labourers and tried to grow coffee and tobacco. But although there was an abundance of fresh water for irrigation, the layer of topsoil that covers the island's limestone and coral foundation was too sparse, causing the crops to fail. So the farmers switched to a more suitable crop - sugar cane. It was this decision that was to change life on Barbados for ever.

Sugar cane is a labour-intensive crop; soon, the indentured labourers found they could not work in the intense heat. Without an adequate labour force, many of the settlers were forced to sell up and both they and their workers returned home. Their land was bought by profiteering landlords who created large plantations and brought in slaves from Africa to work in the fields.

For almost 200 years, from about 1640 until 1838 when slavery in the islands came to an end, "white gold", as sugar was known in Europe, brought enormous wealth to the plantation owners.

Although sugar still dominated the island's economy for 150 years after slavery ended, recent problems on the world sugar market have forced growers to find other ways to earn foreign currency. Encourage children to think about the problems that small islands face because the people cannot grow or make everything they need. Barbados is a tiny country, so many goods have to be imported. As revenue from sugar exports dropped, the Barbadians (also known as Bajans) had to find new ways to survive, such as growing more of their own produce to reduce imports and expanding the tourist industry to bring in much-needed foreign currency.

Both ventures have been successful. Barbados now produces 60 per cent of its fruit and vegetables - there is even a dedicated fruit-tree zone.

Although sugar cane is still grown and exported, and is still the island's main crop, tourism now earns more foreign currency.

Pupil activities

lSeventeenth-century European explorers brought home all kinds of exotic food and spices which they found on their long sea voyages in search of treasure or new lands. These became very fashionable and highly sought after. Create a shopping list of some of these products and match each item to its country of origin.

lWhat sort of products do you think the islanders can't produce themselves and have to import from other places? How do these products get to the island? Where do they come from? Why do the islanders need to earn foreign currency?

Sand into money

It is the white sand that now attracts a million tourists to Barbados each year. The beaches, created by coral and washed by warm seas, are particularly beautiful on the west coast and this is where the main tourist hotels and attractions have been developed. From there, the landscape rises gently to the central uplands. The east coast has rougher seas and a more dramatic cliff-lined coastline. Provide the children with a guide book containing a detailed map. It will offer a strong visual introduction to Barbados and act as a springboard for gathering basic information on the island's history, geography, climate, culture and economy.

The natural deep-water harbour in the capital, Bridgetown, has always been important to the island's economy. In the past it provided docking for trading ships; today, some of the world's largest cruise ships stop there.

Half of all the island's tourists now visit from these huge floating hotels, staying just long enough to enjoy the leisure attractions and spend their money shopping.

By encouraging this kind of tourism, Barbados can benefit from large numbers of visitors without severely overloading its domestic infrastructure. The money generated by tourism has increased prosperity on the island, helping to provide new houses, schools, hospitals, a university, an international airport and roads, and attracting investment in hotels, restaurants, shopping malls, craft centres and supermarkets.

But, as with all holiday locations, strong policies are needed to balance the advantages with the disadvantages and deal with problems such as increased pressure on natural resources, waste disposal, pollution and environmental damage, endangered wildlife and sealife and the destruction of the island's fragile fringe of coral reefs.

Barbados has introduced a number of positive initiatives to limit environmental damage, such as wildlife parks and sanctuaries that protect indigenous creatures, the preservation of historic sites, buildings and landscapes and the launching of a major coastal conservation programme.

Pupil activity

* Hold a class debate about the advantages and disadvantages of tourism to small islands such as Barbados and then create a "managing tourism" policy that highlights ways to increase the benefits and decrease the dangers of so many visitors.

Always sunny...

Children may believe that the weather in Barbados is always sunny and calm.

Mostly it is, with a stable climate in which the temperature rarely varies between 23oC and 30oC. From December to March it is almost always dry. But it does rain sometimes - usually between July and November - and the Caribbean lies on a regular hurricane route, so Barbados also experiences some of the world's most ferocious storms.

Teach children this popular Barbadian saying to remind them when hurricanes usually happen: "In June, too soon; in July, stand by; in September, remember; in October, all over."

From 1627, when the British settlers arrived, until 1966, when it gained independence, Barbados remained a British colony and adopted many of its customs. But the island also has a colourful and dynamic culture of its own, with vibrant folklore traditions and a great awareness of its history.

It is a member of the Commonwealth, with strong links to Britain, particularly since the 1950s when many Barbadians came to the UK. Jobs were scarce in Barbados and post-war Britain needed more workers to rebuild the country after the Second World War.

Pupil activity

* Encourage the children to use the internet, reference books and, if possible, arrange for visits from people with personal experience of Barbados so that pupils can learn about growing up in the Caribbean.

Display ideasstory corner

When they were taken to Barbados all those years ago, the slaves took with them many of the traditional songs, stories, poems and musical rhythms of their African homelands. Later, these were brought to Britain by 20th-century immigrants and have become an important part of our culture.

Create a Caribbean folklore corner in the classroom - start with the Anansi spiderman stories, or verse by Caribbean-born writers. Find out about the island's Crop Over festival, which is held for three weeks each year from mid-July to early August.

Information and resources

Barbados Tourism Authority, 263 Tottenham Court Road, London W1T 7LA A large list of children's fiction and non-fiction from the Caribbean is available from Turnaround Publishing, Unit 3, Olympia Trading Estate, Coburg Road, London N226TZ.

Tel: 0208 829 3000 Barbados (Insight Pocket Guides) includes large map. pound;6.99 from bookshops Country File - The Caribbean by Ian Graham. Franklin Watts pound;12.99 Sustainable Future: Tourism in the Balance by Sally Morgan. Franklin Watts pound;6.99 Tales from the West Indies by Philip Sherlock. Oxford University Press pound;4.99 Under the Moon and Over the Sea - A Collection of Caribbean Poems edited by John Agard and Grace Nichols. Walker Books pound;14.99


LATITUDE: 13 North


SIZE: 22km wide by 34km long


CURRENCY:Barbados Dollars and Cents

MAIN INDUSTRIES: Tourism, fruit, sugar, vegetables, handicrafts


* One million visit every year

* Half a million arrive on cruise ships: average stay 1 - 2 days.

* Half a million stay in hotels, apartments or holiday complexes - average stay two weeks.

* Most tourists come from the UK, then the US, then Canada.

* Top tourist activities are water sports and golf.

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