A History of the Barbadian Windmill
By Shae Branch
It is important that the history and culture of any people be preserved in an effort to give future generations evidence of their past. The windmills of Barbados are such pieces of concrete proof. These tell their own unique story-a story that is worth repeating, to engrain in the minds of readers, why they are presently scattered across this land. Because of the importance they once held in this island, I will now be the voice of the past three hundred years or so, to research the windmills that once formed a part of the Barbadian landscape and relate the history of these spinning treasures.
For any nation to survive there must be a constant flow of income. In the seventeen century, the main money earner for Barbados, tobacco, ran into difficulties. Since the profits were not as promising as in the earlier days, because of lower prices from America, and heavy taxes when the tobacco was imported into England, farmers saw the need to switch to sugar, since they “heard that three times as much sugar as tobacco could be produced from a given piece of land” (Hoyos 1992: 87). This three to one ratio seemed promising and so mills were introduced to grind the sugarcane. This sugar revolution started in 1637, when a Dutchman introduced canes from Brazil. At first, the mills were propelled by horses and then by cattle, but “later windmills were set up as being better still". Therefore, the birth of the windmill resulted in the death of the animal-turned mill and so Barbados was on its way to becoming a nation to having one of the highest number of windmills in the world, second only to Holland. It is worth noting that James Drax, built the first windmill in Barbados of a Dutch design, with heavy rollers to crush eight tons of cane a day.
Although the windmills were built at various times, the bulk of them were made from solid coral blocks. These were able to withstand the harsh climate so minimum repairs had to be done to the outside of the millwall. Some mills had slight variations, like the one at Orange Hill, St. Peter, where the blocks at ground level were made of coral but those at the top were more rubble-like in nature and filled with mortar. Since Barbados is made up mainly of limestone coral, these would have been easy to obtain on the island. These stones were intertwined with one another, layer after layer, starting with a wide base and narrowing at the top. The millwalls or mill towers were built in a circular way, allowing the wind to move around them easily, without causing damage to the structure. They all had one, two or three doorways, built in the shape of an arch.
In order for the windmill to operate at its best, it had to be built where it was windy. During the crop season, the sails were attached to the arms of the windmill. Then two oxen or mules pulled the tree tail and this allowed the whole structure of the mill to rotate, facing the wind at all times. (Yates: 101). Human power was also needed to help in the operation of the windmill. When the canes were carried to the mill, they were dumped on the ground and had to be fed manually in small bundles into the mill. These were fed into the metal rollers, needed to crush the canes and extract the juice. The canes passed through the rollers twice to ensure that all the juice was removed. It was then transported in open gutters to the boiling house.
Often accidents occurred and a body part such as a hand or a foot of the labourer got trapped between the metal rollers. There was no system put in place to stop these rollers immediately and so, in order to save the life of the labourer, it was necessary to cut off the limb with a bill that was kept on the compound. Needless to say, the advent of the windmill was profitable for the plantation owner but many suffered and some lost their lives as a result of this progress. This suffering did not discourage those who were gaining from this type of work, to find a new method to grind the cane. As long as they benefitted, the death of others did not matter, as seen in this early print about Barbados, shown above.
Nothing lasts forever and soon there was no need for the uses of the windmill. As a progressive nation, there was the need to modernize the industry because there “was a shortage of prime male labour resulting from the Panama migration." (Beckles 1990: 147). A lot of energy and work had already gone into the sugar cane business and the planter class saw it necessary to have modern facilities, if they wanted their industry to thrive. The uses of the windmills were therefore doomed to die a natural death, since the “factories whose higher-quality produce and increased capacity, attracted canes from surrounding estates.” Beckles 1990: 148). In my opinion, this move made good business sense, because the factories could now produce more sugar in a shorter space of time and fewer lives would be lost.
Today, all we have of the windmills are the ruins, spread across this island. Fortunately, the Morgan Lewis Mill in St. Andrew has not suffered this same fate. It is the last windmill to operate on the island, grinding its last bundle of canes in 1947. This windmill is the only one that is preserved with its sails intact. Given to the Barbados National Trust by the owner Egbert Lawrence Bannister, the windmill was restored recently and completed in December 1999. It is presently the only functional windmill in the world today.
During the crop season, February to July, the sails of the mill are put into place and it is operated one Sunday in each month. Canes are ground and the juice is provided. This seemingly insignificant activity gives visitors a sense of the scene years ago when the windmills ruled. To make it more interesting to visitors, the Barbados National Trust has converted it into a museum with artifacts of sugar mills and plantations, such as ladles and yokes. These were used to produce sugar when the industry was operated by wind power (Hoyos 1982: 93).
The windmill has been such an important physical structure of this island’s landscape that it is used as a national symbol, being printed at the back of the Barbados $2 banknote. When this note is held up to the light, the windmill becomes clearer. This is used as a security device. The windmill is also featured on the front of the twenty-five cent coin. In 1970, the Barbados Postal Service also issued a stamp featuring the Morgan Lewis windmill. This gave a view of the mill from its rear, with the ramp going up to the sugar mill in the foreground of the image. This stamp was worth a mere six cents at that time.
It was a good decision for government to incorporate the windmills into our national symbols as a reminder of these previous spinning treasures. This is because most of them have fallen into ruin and continue to do so. If nothing is done with the few that remain, the only remnants that will be seen are the pieces of stones from which they were built. As people acquire land on which these windmills are found, they would be demolished to erect modern buildings but in the meanwhile a piece of our history would be gone forever. The only memories that future generations would have are pictures of these historic treasures. Government should therefore move swiftly to restore these icons that are still in good condition or encourage landowners to restore these derelict structures and incorporate them as a part of their homes, as was done with the windmill in the photo below at Ealing Park.
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