INSIGHT: GINGERBREAD AND BALLAST BRICK - Caribbean: The Lesser Antilles - Insight Guides

Caribbean: The Lesser Antilles - Insight Guides (2016)


Caribbean architecture reveals influences from Amerindians, Africa, and the European colonizers, from simple Kunuku cottages to opulent Great Houses.

When Columbus hit upon the West Indies at the end of the 15th century, the dwellings he found there were nothing compared to what he was used to in Europe, and he wrote to a friend that the “[Indians] live in rocks and mountains, without fixed settlements, and not like ourselves.” In fact Amerindians slept in round or oval-shaped huts built of timber and covered with a conical roof made of palms or grass from swamps.

The first Europeans left on islands to set up trading posts, and then the settlers, copied these Indian shelters, but soon introduced wall construction with wooden beams and shingles for the roofs. However, even after Emancipation the slaves rarely built with stone, and single-roomed thatched houses with walls of clay and straw were still in use in the 20th century.

A medley of styles

When the sugar trade to Europe started, many ships brought huge amounts of red brick and stone in their hulls as ballast. Wealthy planters and merchants on islands like Barbados and Antigua built their Great Houses with it. In Statia’s heyday ballast was used for the warehouses on the waterfront. Several styles developed, the Spanish adopting Moorish traditions while the French introduced cast iron. Later, the American invention of mechanical saws gave rise to the intricate wooden lacework - gingerbread - on many facades.


Shady verandahs and shutters help keep rooms cool, even when there is no air conditioning. They also encourage outdoor gatherings.


Chattel houses: mobile homes

For the black population of Barbados, mobility was once essential to survival. After Emancipation the planters had to employ labor and, still wanting to control the freed slaves, allowed them to establish small settlements on their land. This made the workers dependent on their employer’s goodwill, and they were rapidly chased off the land if there were any problems. So the chattel house was developed: a small wooden “sleeping box” easy to dismantle and take along on a cart to another plantation.

Supported by big rocks or concrete blocks so that rainwater can pass underneath, the one-room house with an optional partition inside is made up of wooden planks fixed to a framework. Makeshift steps lead up to the only door, opening on to the family’s living space. Here parents and children, and often grandparents as well, used to sleep in one room. The cooking was done outside, as was any entertaining of neighbors and friends.

This nucleus of a family home - with one or two extensions - is still a common sight in Barbados, especially in the more remote country districts, and only a few years ago a whole village moved from a hilltop to a valley, where running water was available.


Vermont Nature Trail, St Vincent.

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Great Bay Beachfront, Philipsburg, St Maarten.

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Government of Grenada Financial Complex.

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