Sir David Adjaye to build transatlantic slavery memorial in Barbados

Adjaye Associates is set to build the Barbados Heritage District, dedicated to documenting the harrowing portal through which millions of African lives toiled and suffered.

by Zohra KhanPublished on : Dec 13, 2021

Between the late 15th and the early 19th century, it is estimated that over half a million Africans were forcibly moved to the small Caribbean Island and the then British colony of Barbados – a historic migration that led to an appalling degree of African slave trade. Centuries of enduring a past painted with several atrocities, Barbados recently relieved itself from the British rule by turning into a Parliamentary Republic; Barbadian politician and lawyer Dame Sandra Mason has replaced the former head of state Queen Elizabeth II as the country’s first president. In the wake of a new nation, the government also announced its plans of building a place of remembrance to honour the lives impacted by the transatlantic slave trade, and "a cornerstone and catalyst for the ongoing development of the country’s identity, culture, and place on the world’s stage". 

An aerial view of the visualised Newton Enslaved Burial Ground Memorial | Barbados Heritage District | Adjaye Associates | STIRworld
An aerial view of the visualised Newton Enslaved Burial Ground Memorial Image: © Adjaye Associates

Ghanian-British architect and RIBA Royal Gold Medallist Sir David Adjaye has been commissioned to design the Barbados Heritage District – a complex constituting a memorial, a museum, and a global research institute documenting the country’s role as a harrowing portal of African slavery. The facility is set to be constructed on the Newton Plantation - a site next to the largest burial ground of the country carrying remains of over 570 enslaved West Africans who suffered through brutal plantation slavery. As per the project’s official press release, the district will be dedicated to "acutely recounting the historic and contemporary impact of slavery on Barbados and on the lives of individuals, cultures. and nations of the Western Hemisphere".

South entrance showing a ramp leading to the memorial on the left | Barbados Heritage District | Adjaye Associates | STIRworld
South entrance showing a ramp leading to the memorial on the left Image: © Adjaye Associates

The first phase of the district begins with the development of the Newton Enslaved Burial Ground Memorial, concepualised in red laterite earth and timber. As per the design visualisations, visitors will enter the memorial premises via a monolithic dome pavilion designed to facilitate historic information about the site. Punctuated by an oculus opening up views to the sky, the pavilion-like museum leads to the highest point on the sloped site featuring the memorial - a rammed earth mound hosting rows of vertical timber poles. The installation demarcated by a square field is placed contrastingly on the circular mound.

  • South entrance showing a ramp leading to the memorial on the left | Barbados Heritage District | Adjaye Associates | STIRworld
    The domed, rammed earth museum on the right, memorial on the left Image: © Adjaye Associates
  • 570 individual timber beams commemorate the lives of those enslaved Africans | Barbados Heritage District | Adjaye Associates | STIRworld
    570 individual timber beams commemorate the lives of those enslaved Africans Image: © Adjaye Associates

Relaying the idea of the memorial design in the press release, Adjaye Associates share, "As a means of physicalising 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 juxtaposition of a square field within a primary circular form and the orientation of each timber beam", the firm continues, "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.”

Memorial threshold, east view | Barbados Heritage District | Adjaye Associates | STIRworld
Memorial threshold, east view Image: © Adjaye Associates

As per David Adjaye, the memorial addresses a traumatic past whist celebrating the potential of new futures through "an inherently African design". He says, "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 civilisation that is both of the African continent and yet distinct from it."

While the memorial's ground-breaking ceremony is scheduled for November 30, 2022 (a year celebrating the transition of Barbados into a Parliamentary Republic), the development of the district’s other facilities is yet to be announced.

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