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Caribbean Reading: British West Indian Style

15Caribbean Edge Magazine Travel Blog

The term “greathouse” is often used in a general way to describe a variety of plantation estate style structures on more than one continent. In the Caribbean, the design and decor that belong to the word have their own distinct set of characteristics and histories – and then within the Caribbean itself the greathouse dwellings of the former British West Indies also have their own individual style and story. In his just published book, British West Indies Style: Antigua, Jamaica, Barbados and Beyond (New York: Rizzoli, 2010), author Michael Connors explores the features and background that define the long colonial era style of such islands as Jamaica, Antigua, Nevis, Barbados, St. Lucia , Trinidad and Tobago, St. Kitts, Mustique and to the less-traveled islands of Bequia and Dominica.

As Dr. Connors moves from one chapter devoted to each island and then the next, the reader gains a rich insight into both the common elements found in the legacy of this British style and some of the more local island influences. Close to fifty private homes are featured, with stunning photographs taken especially for the book. The visual presentation here delivers the craftsmanship and exquisite beauty of mahogany writing tables, linens, breathtaking terraced gardens – and along the way provide inspiration for the use of local materials, painting techniques, and indoor/outdoor living for wherever you call home. The accompany narrative text covers everything from battles on the high seas and general lawlessness to the elegance of formal entertaining delivers its own vivid recreation of the colonial period in which greathouse style was at its height and heyday in the British West Indies.

Along the way, Caribbean travel enthusiasts will enjoy revisiting some of the Caribbean’s most attractive English style accommodations including, among many others, Ottley’s Plantation Great House and the Golden Lemon, (St. Kitts), Hermitage Plantation (Nevis), Cotton House, (Mustique), and Tryall (Jamaica). While I have enjoyed visiting these locals and staying at the Cotton House, Tryall and the Golden Lemon. I must say that it was a thrill to come across photographs from my favorite villa in St. Lucia, Tamarind House, being featured in the book.

As Dr. Connors readily acknowledges when asked about some of the prominent features of the British West Indian style also described in his book, much can be attributed to attitude and adaptation – and how earlier generations of British colonial residents either dealt with or denied their surroundings. “In these former British islands, you’ll find the houses — and I’m speaking generally, of course — look more like a transplanted English country estate. The English wanted to bring England to the islands,” he points out. “For example, at Rose Hall on Jamaica or St. Nicholas Abbey and Drax Hall on Barbados — these houses such as St. Nicholas Abbey had four bedrooms upstairs with fireplaces. When I talked to Larry Warren, who now owns St. Nicholas Abbey, he said that he doubted whether the fireplaces in the last four hundred some odd years (it was built in 1640) have ever been lit. At Rose Hall, you see that there’s no overhanging rooms to protect from the sun, and it looks just like a country estate from the 18th century, with maybe the exception being there are no fireplaces.” Another interesting point about the British approach to greathouse style he notes is regarding form and function, and how often the former was so much more influential than the latter. While there were working plantations and manager’s residences onsite, more visibly “A lot of the British houses on Jamaica, for instance — Annandale, Belvedere, Rose Hall, or Tryall when it was in fact a part of the plantocracy there – those homes were owned by sugar plantation owners who wanted to sort of show off their wealth. This was new wealth, so it was not only keeping up appearances but outdoing your neighbors, so to speak. They were knowledgeable of the latest fashions and trends not only in architecture but also in furniture and decorative arts, so they really spared no expense during the “sugar era”. Michael Connors’ book opens up not only the exterior and interiors of the British West Indian style, but helps us understand what shaped it based on the minds and manners of the people who lived and created it – making it a dazzling and beautiful but also a thoughtful and well-observed journey, all at once.