Traversing the small yet diverse island of Barbados, one will find millwalls located in both remote and central locations. Millwalls are an important part of the landscape of Barbados as these structures stand as a reminder that until the middle decades of the 19th century, along with the labour of enslaved Africans, the vital sugarcane crop was processed by the windmill and boiling house system.
After settlement in 1627, the principal crops produced in Barbados were tobacco and cotton. Both crops were not particularly profitable. Tobacco was highly taxed in Europe and cotton did not thrive well at higher elevations on the island. It was understood that a piece of land could produce three times the volume of sugar as tobacco could. With farmers seeing the need to switch to a more profitable crop, coupled with the European demand for sugar, a socio-economic revolution was created in Barbados where the production of sugar flourished.
Although sugar cane was grown in the early years of settlement for its juice and the consumption of alcoholic spirits through distillation, the first person to plant sugar cane for the primary production of sugar was Colonel Holdip of Locust Hall Plantation in St. George. This occurred as far back as 1640.
In the initial years of sugar production, cattle mills were used. This type of mill, driven by horses, was used to power and turn rollers of the mill to crush the cane for its juice. Later on, cattle-like oxen were used, but this prolonged method of using animals for such a heavy workload proved to be uneconomical due to care and maintenance costs, and in some cases their premature death. To that end, planters also used rudimentary methods for growing sugar cane; for example, the crop was reaped in 12 months rather than the ideal 15 months. It wasn’t until between the years 1645 to 1647 that Colonel James Drax of Drax Hall Plantation, St. George travelled to Brazil to seek out the proper method of producing Muscovado sugar.
The Charter of Barbados signed at the Mermaid Tavern in Oistins in 1651 played a significant role in the introduction of the windmill in Barbados. Within that Charter permitted the practice of Freedom of Religion. This allowed the Jews, who were driven out of Brazil by the Portuguese, to finance the budding sugar industry and the Dutch, with their technology and shipping industry, to start the sugar revolution in Barbados. It was around 1655, with the finance of the Jews and the technology of the Dutch, that the windmill was introduced into Barbados.
Windmills would normally be constructed on higher ground and on areas with as much open land as possible, to maximize the power of the trade winds needed to turn the sails of the mill. Except for a few windmills that were made of rubble stone and mortar packed together, the first mills were made of wood, remarkably similar to the ones we see today in the Netherlands. Back then, the mill operated with 3 vertical rollers. The rollers were made of wood and covered in an iron cast. Next to the mill would be the Boiling House, which would normally be situated at a lower elevation to the mill to allow the juice to flow into the house by means of gravity, as there was no appropriate machinery then.
In these early years, every time a major storm or hurricane passed, except for the few stone mills, almost all of the wooden dwellings and sugar works, such as the wooden mills and boiling houses, were destroyed. This destruction would be more pronounced in the Scotland district. It was only after the great hurricane of 1675 that all the windmills were built with stone or coral blocks to withstand the weather.
The booming industry of sugar production took hold of the island at such a rapid rate, that when the island was surveyed by William Mayo in 1721, his map had locations of 870 sugar estates and 320 windmills. Robert H. Schomburg notes in his book, “The History of Barbados”, written in 1848, that Sugar Estates numbered 491 with 506 windmills and 1 steam mill. It was said at that time that
Barbados was second only to Holland as the country with the most windmills per square mile. With a minimum of three windmills per every square mile, one could well imagine what the landscape looked like on this small island. This presumably marked the peak of the windmill presence on the Barbadian landscape.
Morgan Lewis Mill, St. Andrew. Erected in the 1700’s, Morgan Lewis Mill is the only complete and working windmill in Barbados. The mill before its sails were damaged by a storm in 2018 (left); the mill with its horizontal roller mechanism still visible on the side in 2017 (right). The mill is owned and managed by the Barbados National Trust.
With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, along with the abolition of slavery in 1838, the use of windmills slowly diminished to be soon dominated by the use of steam-driven mills to produce sugar. The compensation money given to the planters from the abolition of slavery was invested in the steam mill. From around 1850, the steam mill started to slowly take hold in sugar production. Although there is no definite proof, it is thought that the Newcastle factory in St. John was the first factory to have steam works.
In 1866, there were approximately 30 steam-driven mills, and by 1895 there were 102 steam- driven mills and around 338 windmills still in operation. The majority of estates operated with both a windmill and a steam mill. Another type of mill that was used on estates was the water mill, which was smaller but also operated by the power of the wind. Another crop that utilized the windmill was Arrowroot, which was mostly grown in the area of Chalky Mount, St. Andrew.
It wasn’t until 1946 that the remaining windmills ceased operations commercially. The last two were Morgan Lewis in St. Andrew and at Colleton Plantation in St. Peter. The remnants of the windmills were later used by plantations primarily to hold water tanks. The span of the use of the windmill for over 300 years in Barbados (1646 – 1946) thus came to an end.
At present, except for the only fully operational and intact windmill at Morgan Lewis in St. Andrew, whatever has remained of the windmill, now termed millwalls, has been maintained by plantation owners, converted as dwellings, or left to ruin.
Standing like sentinels on the Barbadian landscape, the windmills bear testimony to the hard labor in the wicked sun, the struggle, and the blood, sweat and tears of the enslaved. With the exception of plantation houses, these remaining millwalls are the only structures with us today, that were they brought back to life would evoke: “the enslaved and the indentured touched us, lived and died amongst us; we are witnesses to their pain.” For this and many other reasons, they should be preserved.
In 1963, the late Captain Maurice. B. Hutt and his wife conducted a survey wherein they recorded 130 millwalls and 12 watermills. Since then, some millwalls have been demolished, and year by year their numbers are slowly decreasing due to the lack of their preservation. These include the ones at Martins Bay, the Bay Plantation, Fairy Valley, and more recently at Holders Hill, St. James. With the use of emerging technologies, I have found to date about 145 such millwalls.
Mohammed Patel, Barbados 2023
Personal communication with historian, Dr. Lennox Honeychurch
Badley, G. 2008. Barbados: The Sugar Story. Herbert Publishing, Barbados.