Barbados taps David Adjaye for a new heritage district and memorial to Western slavery

In Memoriam

Barbados taps David Adjaye for a new heritage district and memorial to Western slavery

Aerial view of the Newton Enslaved Burial Ground at Newton Plantation in Barbados. (Courtesy Adjaye Associates)

Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley announced today that Ghanaian-British architect Sir David Adjaye has been commissioned to lead the design of the Barbados Heritage District. The new historic-cultural site will be developed at Newton Plantation, located just outside of the small eastern Caribbean island country’s capital and largest city of Bridgetown.

As detailed in a press release, the first-of-its-kind district for a Caribbean country, which will be dedicated to “to accurately recounting the historic and contemporary impact of slavery on Barbados and on the lives of individuals, cultures, and nations of the Western hemisphere,” is set to include a museum that will house the largest collection of British slave records outside of the United Kingdom, a major global research center, and a memorial located adjacent to the Newton Enslaved Burial Ground. The site is the largest and earliest slave burial ground in Barbados, where the remains of 570 enslaved West African men, women, and children who worked in bondage on the island’s sugar plantations were uncovered in the 1970s using LIDAR technology.

The news of the creation of the Barbados Heritage District—and Adjaye’s involvement—comes just days after the 167-square-mile island country formally split with its former head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, to become the world’s newest republic led by inaugural President Dame Sandra Mason. (In addition to Mason being appointed president, Bridgetown-raised multi hyphenate singer Rihanna was also declared the country’s “national hero.”) Standing before the assembled crowd at Mason’s inauguration ceremony held in Bridgetown on November 30, Prince Charles acknowledged the “appalling atrocity of slavery, which forever stains our history.”

rendering of an enslaved burial ground memorial in barbados
Bridge start on center north view of Newton Enslaved Burial Ground. (Adjaye Associates)

Work on the first phase of the project, the Newton Enslaved Burial Ground Memorial, will commence November 30, 2022, to mark the first anniversary of Barbados becoming a parliamentary republic.

“Barbados is authentically enshrining our history and preserving the past as we reimagine our world and continue to contribute to global humanity,” said Mottley. “It is a moral imperative but equally an economic necessity.” In 2018, Mottley became the eighth person and first woman to serve as Prime Minister of Barbados, which gained independence from Britain on November 30, 1966 and, as of November 30 of this year, is now an independent British Commonwealth nation.

Setting out to “demarcate a site of tragedy and trauma and transform it into a charged place of commemoration, remembrance, and connection,” the Adjaye-designed Newton Enslaved Burial Ground Memorial will, according to today’s announcement, “align the sacred landscape with notions of renewal and rebirth, the memorial addresses a traumatic past whilst celebrating the potential for new futures through an inherently African design in which the cycle of birth to death, born from the Earth and returning, becomes manifest and mediated through architecture.”

The memorial site is envisioned as having multiple key components. After entering the larger memorial complex, visitors will first encounter a monolithic domed pavilion built from red laterite earth that presents historical information about the burial ground and the sugar industry-fueled Barbarian slave trade. The structure connects visitors to the heavens above via an oculus and the earth below through an underground aquifer.

rendering of an enslaved burial ground memorial at the Barbados Heritage District
Bridge and north view of the Newton Enslaved Burial Ground Memorial. (Adjaye Associates)

From the memorial’s southern entry point, visitors will travel along a floating ramp that moves up the sloping, sugarcane field-flanked site to the memorial itself, which will be located at the highest point of the site. Here, visitors will encounter a massive mount composed of Barbadian rammed earth encircling a square matrix full of vertical timber poles.

“As a means of physicalizing and commemorating the enslaved buried below this sacred earth, the field is punctuated by 570 individual timber beams each capped with circular brass plates oriented towards the sun to catch the Barbadian light,” the announcement elaborated. “The juxtaposition of a square field within a primary circular form, and the orientation of each timber beam creates a tapestry of interconnected mutations. Both metaphorically and physically, there is an unlocking of connections-a triadic view of the Caribbean waters, extending out to the African continent and up towards the cosmos.”

A floating bench along the perimeter of the memorial site will allow for moments of “individual reflection, observation, and respite,” while an empty space within the center of the timber colonnade provides a larger communal space for “libations, ceremonies, and secular events.”

rendering of a timber colonnade at a enslaved burial ground memorial
South view of the timber colonnade at the Newton Enslaved Burial Ground Memorial. (Adjaye Associates)

“The duality embedded within this ethereal landscape is heightened as the architecture balances earth and sky, water and land, the ancestors and the living, this world and the next,” elaborated the announcement.

“Drawing upon the technique and philosophy of traditional African tombs, prayer sites and pyramids, the memorial is conceived as a space that contemporaneously honours the dead, edifies the living, and manifests a new diasporic future for Black civilization that is both of the African continent and distinct from it,” added Adjaye in a statement.

The development of the Barbados Heritage District, meant to serve as a “cornerstone and catalyst for the ongoing development of Barbados’ independent identity, culture, and place on the world stage,” is anticipated to spur job growth in various sectors across the tourism-dependent island including in the construction and technology fields. The Prime Minister’s Office, the Barbados Archives Department, and the Barbados Museum and Historical Society are spearheading the effort in close collaboration with a team of Barbadian scholars led by Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies.

AN will provide further updates as the project moves along.