January 21, 2015 issue

Arts & Entertainment

Myths, legends and folklore of the Caribbean
Recalling youthful days at Barbados’ night-clubs

Bernard Heydorn

As New Year’s Eve rolled around, I thought of Barbados and the night clubs I used to go to in the 60’s and 70’s. The New Year’s Eve dance at the Crane Hotel in 1970 comes to mind. It’s no surprise that the Crane Hotel reportedly scored in second position of the top ten most beautiful beaches in the world. The Crane Hotel at the top of the rock, tilted to catch the breeze of Africa and the Atlantic, foaming and gnashing its teeth at its feet, is one of my favourite memories of Barbados. The band playing that night was the very popular Merrymen of Barabados.

My date for that evening was a beautiful brown skin beauty with Bajun roots. As it turned out, later that year, I met in Barbados, another brown skin beauty with Bajun roots whom I married. In the early 60’s when I migrated to Barbados from Guyana, the Merrymen had started out on their rise to fame, playing at the old Driftwood Bar in St. Lawrence Gap. This was a popular nightclub for both tourists and locals.
Other popular nightspots included the Acquatic Club on Bay Street, just outside of Bridgetown. In those days (early 60’s), it was a mostly white club with a smattering of “browns” and a few blacks. Bands like the Merrymen and Tropical Islanders of Barbados, the Silver Strings Combo from Trinidad, and the Telstars touring from Guyana, played there.
The Barbados Acquatic club has an interesting history. The story is told of Grantley Adams (1898 – 1971), a coloured Barbadian and English educated lawyer, who later rose to prominence as the first black Prime Minister of Barbados, would drop off his white English wife at the Club and later come to pick her up as he was unwelcome to enter it himself! In any case, I did manage to enter the Acquatic Club in the early 60’s and enjoyed some rollicking dances there.
Later at the Acquatic Club gap came the Hilton Hotel and the Holiday Inn . At the entrance was The Island Inn, a very popular nightclub for tourists. This venue put on some very entertaining floor shows on Monday nights with limbo, fire eating and calypsonians with picong (teasing members of the audience with spontaneously made up verse and song).
Further up Bay Street was a strip joint called Harry’s Nitery. This joint attracted a lot of tourists and some locals. When a tourist ship arrived, the place was packed. With a naval ship in port, the line waiting to enter stretched all the way down Bay Street toward Bridgetown.
I, myself, never went into Harry’s Nitery but my wife said that she was taken there once on a date. My brother who patronized the place once said there were strict rules you had to adhere to such as “Down taw, nuh touch” – “Look but don’t touch”.
Many of the bands in Barbados at that time were either white or black. The white bands, including the Tropical Islanders, played at posh hotels like the Marine Hotel that had a fabulous ballroom dance floor. My father danced there on a visit to Barbados in the 50’s and boasted about showing off his steps. I also danced there in the 1970’s.
In the 60’s there were bands like the Staccatos, the Sand Pebbles, the Young Ones - white bands, performing at venues like the Ursuline Convent, Presentation College, and St Winifred’s School. Black bands like the Blue Rhythm Combo played at venues like the YMPC on Beckles Road.
Returning to Barbados in 1970, I found the social and musical landscape had changed considerably. After Independence in 1966, the restraints of race had been replaced with more mixing, more bands, more clubs, and the rise of local music like spouge. The influence of the outside world with the disco beat dominating had also reached Barbados.
The ever populr Merrymen were still going strong with their “caribbeat”. The most popualar nightclub at that time was the new Pepperpot in the St. Lawrence area. A fully integrated club, it was always packed with revelers of every colur, class and creed every night. If a wife or girlfriend found a partner or spouse absent, he could often be found at the Pepperpot, probably hooked up with a tourist.
The Pepperpot was a great place to let your hair down and have a Bajun jump up. There were also entertaining floor shows. I believe that the Merrymen had a recording studio in the vicinity.
The Bearded Fig Tree, Mary’s Moustache, and the Cat’s Whiskers were new clubs, popular with the young crowd in the 70’s. Barbados was the playground of the rich and famous. There, you never knew who you would be bouncing up with – a taxi driver, an aristocrat, a movie star, a test cricketer, an heiress, a millionaire, even a billionaire!
The Cats Whiskers I particularly remember in Black Rock, not far from where my wife used to live. There was no light inside except for the flashing strobe lights. The DJ’s sound was loud, loud, loud! You couldn’t be heard. The music was rocking with the sounds of disco and Credence Clearwater Revival – the wailing lead guitar of songs like Up Around the Bend and the rhythmic Down at the Corner.
The clubs would start to show some life after 10.00 pm. They wouldn’t close till near daybreak. I don’t know how I made it to work the next day. Coming home from a club and a date with Vivienne, after dawn one morning, I met my father rising for the day. Seeing me fully dressed, he said, “Boy. You’re up early”. Little did he know that I was up all night and had not gone to bed yet.
I tell these stories as they are all part of my wasted youth. The narrative is part of history, nostalgia, sociology, the culture and music of Barbados. There was much liquor and love in those joints, lots of smoke and the beginnings of the drug culture. It was uninhibited and free – the beginning of the age of decadence, perhaps the equivalent of the Jazz Age in America in the 1920’s.
As a young man, single and free, I visited these places, having fun and sometimes trying to make a connection. I remember going to the Paradise Beach Hotel in the 60’s and trying to get to know some Venezuelan girls who were visiting the island with their chaperone. Using the few words of Spanish I knew, I tried but could not even get to “first base”. The chaperone also did a good job of blocking my advances. All I got from the girls were the words “amigo banco” perhaps alluding to the fact that I told them I worked at a Bank in Bridgetown.
Those times in Barbados were memorable. Luckily, I found Vivienne soon afterwards and settled into domestic life, putting my days and nights of clubbing behind me.
Beautiful Barbados it then was and still may be. It’s time for me to re-visit the island. If the creeks don’t rise and the sun still shines, I’ll be talking to you.

Nankivell’s story unusual, dramatic in ‘Price of Conscience’

B. Samaroo, The Price of Conscience: Howard Noel Nankivell and Labour Unrest in the British Caribbean in 1937 and 1938, Hansib, Hertford, United Kingdom, 2015, pp.117 ISBN 978-1-910553-04-6

A review by Frank Birbalsingh

Professor Brinsley Samaroo’s The Price of Conscience: Howard Noel Nankivell and Labour Unrest in the British Caribbean in 1937 and 1938 tells the unusual and dramatic story of a British Colonial administrator, Howard Nankivell (1893-1938), who was born in Jamaica of British/American parentage, and attended Christ’s Hospital school in Britain. In 1911, after school, Nankivell returned to Jamaica where he joined the British Colonial service as Assistant Clerk. In 1916 he enlisted in World War One and won medals in the Royal Flying Corps. He also met his first wife Sybil during the war, but the marriage was short-lived. After the war, Nankivell continued working in Jamaica. In 1925, he was promoted to First Class Clerk, and five years later, to Principal Clerk. In April 1928, he not only rose to the rank of Assistant Colonial Secretary, but was transferred to Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago.
Nankivell’s career is best understood within the context of economic hardship in British Caribbean colonies generally, following the Great Depression and: “decline of the European market for West Indian sugar in the 1930s”; “unrest among the sugar workers in Central Trinidad in 1934”, and “uprisings in St.Kitts, British Guiana, St.Vincent, St. Lucia, Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago” especially in 1937 and 1938. This gives an impression of neglect in the Anglophone Caribbean, during the century after the abolition of slavery and introduction of indenture in the 1830s; and the impression is reinforced by W.M. MacMillan’s book Warning from the West Indies A Tract for the Empire: (1936) mentioned by Professor Samaroo. A review of this book by P.G. appears on page 350 of The Labour Monthly in June, 1936: “The West Indies, like Newfoundland, have been sucked dry by the absent landlords and imperialist landholders. Misery, starvation, squalid conditions and death is the lot of the population.”
After the war, while still in Jamaica, in 1925, Nankivell had first hand experience of West Indian unrest when striking Kingston Corporation workers clashed with police in a dispute over pay, and three people were killed, while others were wounded. Upon his arrival in Port of Spain in April, 1929, he threw himself into a flurry of activity granting oil leases to British, American and Canadian investors, and mediating between Government and the East Indian community in Trinidad. He was also secretary to an inter-colonial conference on trade relations with Canada, and often acted as Colonial Secretary, and served as the Governor’s Deputy, for instance, in 1932 and 1934. But the most interesting aspect of the work of both Nankivell and his second wife, a Dutch woman - Florence Muysken - whom he met in Trinidad, was their: “concern for ordinary people ...and the socio-economic situation of the working class.”
Such concern was not exactly in the job description of British colonial officials in the early twentieth century. It was conspicuously absent in colonies visited by British writers, notably George Orwell who worked as a policeman in Burma and depicts British rule in Burma, negatively, in his novel Burmese Days. Another British writer, James Pope-Hennessy, who worked briefly as aide-de-camp to the Trinidad Governor, shortly after the Nankivells left Trinidad in 1938, came to a similar conclusion in his memoir West Indian Summer: A Retrospect: “everything that could be done to keep them [West Indian colonies] poverty-stricken and neglected, to make them sullen and disloyal had been done by the colonial office.” Speaking about John Gorrie, former Chief Justice of Trinidad & Tobago, Professsor Samaroo’s colleague Bridget Brerton, is quoted in The Price of Conscience: “the entire structure of the empire worked against his [Gorrie’s] efforts to protect the humbler subjects of Her Majesty in Mauritius, Fiji and the Caribbean.”
As a couple, the Nankivells adopted the civilising mission aspect of the imperial creed, and Florence, a pianist, gave recitals to raise funds for needy causes, or made speeches recommending improvement in housing and living conditions, which were later adopted in the Moyne Report of the West India Royal Commission that was sent out to investigate unrest in British Caribbean colonies in 1937/38. Meanwhile, in his chapter “Nankivell in Action” where the author outlines the conflict between elite merchants, planters and oil magnates against workers’ representatives such as Tubal Uriah Buzz Butler and Adrian Cola Rienzi, Nankivell does not conceal which side he is on when he speaks of the Government: “collecting large revenues,” and the oil companies “paying big dividends” and “Government, the oil industry and the sugar industry being able to pay a fair wage to provide decent conditions for labour.”
As the author puts it, these remarks “were to seal his [Mankivell’s] fate,” when the Foster Commission of Enquiry was later set up to report on the unrest, and despite support of Nankivell from the Governor Sir Murchison Fletcher, there was fierce lobbying of colonial officials by the usual suspects – vested interests representing oil, sugar, shipping, cocoa and the asphalt industry. The result was that the Governor was forced to resign on grounds of ill health, while Nankivell was demoted and transferred to Cyprus as Colonial Treasurer. Florence then took the couple’s two children to London, and Nankivell travelled to Cyprus in September 1938.
If this was the end of his drama, Nankivell could be considered fortunate; but he worked in Cyprus for twelve weeks before taking sick leave and setting out for England on 15th December, 1938. On 21st December, while en route through France, he fell from his train into the path of an oncoming train and was killed. Despite a verdict of accidental death, Professor Samaroo claims: “Howard Nankivell committed suicide” due to “intense depression caused by the injustice of a system over which he had no control.” Proof of this is now probably impossible; but The Price of Conscience suggests it is entirely plausible.

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