Following in the footsteps of Harley documents our research and travels in writing my latest book, The Adventures of a Black Edwardian Intellectual, The Story of James Arthur Harley. It is a wry look at our experiences, including the sublime, funny, unbelievable, poignant moments in realizing what Harley had undertaken and achieved.
So, who are we? I am Pamela, the author, as my mother calls me, and my mother, Enid, my fellow researcher and traveller in arms. We, tongue in cheek, refer to ourselves as the dilapidated duo, half-dead and bruk up. Why? I have a hereditary blood condition, sickle cell anaemia. The condition has taken its toll on my body, which I describe as the Taj Mahal - crumbling slowly. Most noticeably, I walk with a very pronounced limp. My mother suffered a heart attack in 2013 and, as a result, lost a tremendous amount of weight. We pride ourselves that we're still going and will get there in the end.
In this week’s instalment, we continue our research journey by visiting Antigua’s sister island Barbuda. Famed for its pink beaches and serenity but find out why we were being told to ...
"BRACE DOWN. BRACE DOWN"
A friend had mentioned Barbuda, Antigua's sister island, famed for its pink sands, the pink conch shells ground into a fine powder from the sea crushing them against the rocks, was an excellent place to visit. The island was used as a 'seasoning' base (to break the spirits of enslaved people and get them used to the hard work) by the Codrington family. Several of the island's historical sites and buildings belonging to the Codrington family still stood, albeit run-down and ramshackle.
I did not want to participate in the organized hotel trips that took visitors to the bird sanctuary, the caves, and an afternoon at the beach. I had booked an independent taxi driver, Mr D. back in England to take us to the historical sites. On Saturday morning, we arrived at the jetty in St John's at 8.00 am to board the Barbuda Express. In front of us, a sleek silver-blue catamaran bobbed on the water. An image of a streak of lightning racing across the sea entered my mind.
'Where are you going?' 'Barbuda,' I said. We paid $40.00 each for the two-and-a-half-hour journey. The man taking the money pointed to what looked like a small ferry; the catamaran was going to Montserrat. The Barbuda Express rocked and tossed its passengers from side to side. The sea gushed in through the plastic flaps dousing several passengers.
The journey was unpleasant, but thoughts of enslaved people being cramped into a boat after being broken into servitude were haunting. Eventually, the Barbuda Express settled and lulled us into a gentle sleep. The slowing of the engine indicated that we were coming to land. We could see a vast jetty from the vessel with a row of cars lined up for alighting passengers.
Passengers made their way to the various waiting cars and taxis. We looked for Mr D’s taxi. A tall black man with a slight paunch made his way toward us.
The disappointment showed on his face; all the glamorous young girls, with weaves flying in the wind, had departed with either family or the other taxis. He was left with half-dead and bruk up. We both confirmed who we were – 'Ms Roberts?' – 'Mr D.?' Pointing to where his taxi was parked, he told us what we would do – go to the bird sanctuary and the caves and have lunch at the beach.
I came to an immediate stop. I had booked an independent tour to see the historical sites; I explained this back in England. 'If I wanted to see birds, the caves, and the beach, I would have booked the hotel's trip.' He nodded, and we continued to his taxi. The air-conditioned taxi was a welcome relief from the unrelenting sun.
Mr D's two mobile phones constantly rang as we drove along the hot, dusty road into Codrington, the capital, and he would reply with short cryptic answers. The taxi stopped unexpectedly, and Mr D. hopped out and returned with a large bottle of water. We continued our journey, only for him to stop outside what looked like an ironmonger's shop. 'Soon come,' said Mr D.. His 'soon come' was a thirty-minute wait. 'Are you going to be a taxi driver now?' I asked sarcastically to voice my displeasure at the two unscheduled stops and how he was conducting his own business on our time.
Once again, the topic of the bird sanctuary was mooted. 'The Firebird is the island's national bird. We retorted we had seen enough birds at the hotel; 'I don't want to go to the bird sanctuary, and that's not why we are here'. My answer seemed to satisfy Mr D. and he continued along Barbuda's dusty roads giving out random facts about the island. Eighteen hundred people live on the island; tourism was the primary source of income. Codrington, the capital, was half the length of Oxford Street in London, with a few traders selling old clothes and food. The locals ate plenty of seafood, and the soldier crab was a delicacy.
Mr D. took us to the first site I requested, Codrington House. He kept looking at my walking cane during the drive. 'I don't know if you can walk up there; it's steep.' 'Let's go and have a look,' I insisted. We got out from the comfort of the air-conditioned taxi and immediately started to swelter. We walked down a little lane and reached a tourist notice board with information about the house. Glancing up at the steep climb to the top, I looked at the information board and took a picture. 'Seen it – let's go.' We all piled back into the taxi.
After a call from one of his continually ringing mobiles, Mr D. muttered the subject of the bird sanctuary under his breath. He looked at us in the back seats, 'Your mother will like the bird sanctuary; there is a nice boat ride, about forty-five minutes.' We pulled up outside a house; I consulted my list; which site was this? Out of the window, we could see a short, stocky black woman standing in the front yard, her face like thunder, glaring at us.
Mr D. was gesticulating, 'I told you to have them ready.' Not aware of where we were and what was happening, we sat watching the woman watching us. Two young girls came out of the house. 'Hurry up - I told your mother to have you ready.' Like the cakewalk arcade game, the penny just dropped. 'Brace down, brace down,' Mr D. gestured to us to move along the seat as his daughters got into the taxi. You're kidding me – he went home, collected his daughters to take them to the bird sanctuary, and expected us to be free babysitters for them. Now the hard sell for the bird sanctuary made sense. Unbelievable.
I started to speak through gritted teeth; I engaged and talked to Mr D’s daughters as he explained what school they were at and that the eldest was going to England in the New Year to attend college in Walthamstow. My anger temporarily subsided as I exclaimed in amazement, 'Walthamstow. I grew up in Walthamstow.' My enthusiastic romanticizing of Walthamstow came to an abrupt halt when the taxi stopped at the jetty for the boat to take us to the bird sanctuary. 'I just have to wait for the boat.'
I smiled sweetly, asked his daughters to leave the taxi, and then my rage exploded like a firecracker. Nostrils flared, hands flying and eyes rolling, I tore into Mr D. 'How dare you disrespect us? We are paying you US$100 for a private tour. So far, you have made two unscheduled stops are constantly taking phone calls and - the crowning glory - you collected your daughters intending to palm them off on us for this bird sanctuary trip that I told you I had no interest in going on when I booked you.' Peppered with a liberal dose of expletives, Mr D. did not know what had hit him - astonished by the anger erupting from this little woman.
Mr D. started apologizing profusely. He made a phone call and arranged for his daughters to be taken to the bird sanctuary by another taxi. He asked what the other attractions were on my list. Back on schedule, we visited Government House and the wells and watering holes where enslaved people met, plotted and planned while retrieving water. Despite our misadventures with Mr D., Barbuda illustrated the strength and resilience of the enslaved people.