‘All Hands on Deck’: the ‘Sailing’ Landships as unique Cultural Icons of Barbados

Writer : Allison O. Ramsay
Year : 2016


This article explores Barbados’ intangible cultural heritage through the lens of the Landships of Barbados. Landships are cultural organisations which are complex. Embedded within their histories and origins are British traditions, with an emphasis on the Royal Navy, and Afro-Barbadian cultural practices. A black working class movement, the article highlights two renowned Landships, the BLS Iron Duke and the BLS Director that operated in twentieth century Barbados. Emphasis is placed on traditional knowledge in performance by explaining a specific selection of the drills/manoeuvres that contribute to the defining and acknowledgement of Landships in public spaces and in the funerary practices of the 1970s to 1990s. These Landships are unique cultural icons, exemplifying the cultures and peoples that have shaped Barbadian society and represent Barbadian cultural identity and heritage.


The Barbadian cultural organisation known as the ‘Landship’, rooted in plantation tenantries and villages for most of its existence, is said to have been founded in 1863. Spanning three centuries, thousands of black working class Barbadians ‘launched’ (formed) and belonged to Landships, or ships that ‘sailed’ (operated) across the length and breadth of the island’s landscape. As an indigenous cultural institution, the Landship is a unique cultural icon which embodies traditional knowledge and re/presents a symbol of the national and cultural identity and heritage of Barbados.

This article discusses two aspects of Landship traditional knowledge through highlighting rituals of performance enacted in life and in death, predominately between the 1970s and the 1990s. This is achieved by using oral narratives from members of two renowned Landships that were founded in the twentieth century, the BLS Iron Duke and the BLS Director. Oral history testimonies are used to explain some funerary traditions and performance rituals, because these are orally transmitted and are part of lived experience within the Landship community.

Landships epitomise the intangible cultural heritage of the Caribbean. Article 2 of the UNESCO 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage states that intangible cultural heritage refers to several domains, such as oral traditions and expressions, performing arts, social practices and rituals and traditional craftsmanship. Caribbean heritage is political, partial and contested. It is mixed, given the participation of different ethnic groups in the creation of that heritage… (Bryan and Reid: 2012, p. 2 and p. 4).

The lived experiences of Landship members are part of the historical contestations and negotiations that characterise the Caribbean, the unplanned, unstructured but osmotic relationship (Brathwaite: 1974, p. 6) rooted in the plantation, its rhythms and performance (Benitez-Rojo: 1996). Landships can be considered as one of the richest elaborations of cultural hybridity in the Caribbean (Puri: 2004, p. 2).

The Landship combines many complex layers which makes it unique to Barbados . Aviston Downes asserts that the Landship was one of the friendly societies established by the black working class in the late nineteenth century and was independent of Church patronage (Downes: 2002). According to Sir Hilary Beckles, rather than subscribing to friendly societies, workers created ‘landships’ which were associations whose members were ranked and defined according to the status hierarchy used by the British Navy (2006, p. 152). John Gilmore states that the Landship was the working class equivalent of what fraternal organisations such as the Foresters, the Odd Fellows and the Freemasons were to the Barbadian middle class (1993). Harry Pariser makes a similar comment. The Landship is the lower-class equivalent of the fraternal organisations (Elks, Masons, etc.)… (2000, p. 42). Marcia Burrowes maintains that the Landship can be regarded as a unique form of traditional Barbadian masquerade which dates back to the mid-nineteenth century, and one which combines elements of African-Caribbean performance tradition with naval lore (2013). Originally, the Landship was male dominated but by the 1920s women entered the movement as ‘nurses’ and were called ‘stars’ in the 1930s (Downes 2000).

The ‘crews’ (members) each have their own definition of the Landship. Ryan Gilkes of BLS Director for example, contends that the Landship is an organisation that you can join for fun camaraderie, to learn about the culture of Barbados and to keep fit. Lisa Padmore, also of BLS Director, adds that the Landship is a group of persons who do performances and it is even a way to socialise with peers in your community. According to Lord High Admiral Watson who captained the BLS Director from the 1970s, the Landship is a movement that brings the community together, every parish had several ships afloat, at one time more than 60, but only one ship remains today. For Edith Barker (BLS Iron Duke), when one is ‘sworn into’ a Landship, one is a member for life. At the core of these views is the importance of community. This reiterates the view that at the root of the Landship is the community, not only as an environment but as a family. This bears in mind the fact that in both ‘ships’, many members were biologically related.

The institutional memory of ‘crews’ throughout time maintains the tradition that Moses Wood, a seaman, was the founder of the Landship because he sought to recreate the life he had had at sea. Aviston Downes located a Moses Wood who was born in January 1860 (2002). However, debating the origins of Landships is moot because the oral narrative maintains its stronghold. It has been accepted nationally, most recently cemented by the Government of Barbados in 2013 by recognising the Landship’s 150th anniversary at the Independence Day Parade at the Garrison Savannah, St. Michael, in the UNESCO World Heritage property, Historic Bridgetown and its Garrison. On that occasion, the Barbados Landship Association (BLSA) gave a special maypole performance, for the first time in the island’s recorded history.

The maritime narrative, nautical language and imagery are signatures of the Landship. The nautical language, it is reputed, stemmed from Wood seeking to maintain his connection to the sea he loved and missed. This meant the adoption of naval hierarchy, titles, languages and uniforms associated with the British Royal Navy, most likely because Barbados was a former British colony. Predominant words used in Landship language include ‘Dock’ (headquarters), ‘waters’ (land), ‘ayes ayes’ (men) and ‘captain’ (head of ship). Landships also adopted the names of British public figures, places or men-of-war, therefore in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century ship names emerged such as the Indefatigable the Rosetta the Queen Victoria the Vanguard the Norfolk and the Derbyshire.

Although such elements of British culture were absorbed, Burrowes states it was not simply mimicry of British customs, but a cloaking of a heritage (2005). Landships transformed the British maritime narrative because Afro-Creole elements are visible in many ways, such as in the creation of ‘grand’ titles like ‘Lord Doctor’ and ‘Lord High Admiral’ and the ‘naval manoeuvres’ / ‘drills’ that Landships have performed for centuries to the sound of the ‘engine,’ that is, tuk music, created by the Bumbulum/Bum Drum/Tuk bands (Burrowes: 2013). These bands are typically comprised of a bass drum and ‘kittle’ drum, with a flute or penny whistle at its core. Tuk music is the:

… most significant indigenous rhythm of Barbados. Tuk symbolises the continuation of African musical expression in the “New World” but it also represents the ability of a people to find creative ways to make sense of their changing circumstances … After emancipation … the tuk band and tuk music received substantial support and encouragement through the formation of another institution, the friendly society called the Landship … After emancipation, some working-class Barbadians found a way of banding together to express themselves through the Landship masquerade. (Best: 2012, p. 5)

Therefore, the drumming rhythms of the tuk bands and the crews’ ‘manoeuvres’ clearly anchored Landships within the creolised spaces of Caribbean culture (Burrowes: 2013, pp. 54-55).

In 1942, Captain Charles Carter launched the BLS Iron Duke in Licorish Village, My Lord’s Hill, St. Michael. (Howard: 2004). This Landship’s name originated from the commemoration of the first Duke of Wellington, the hero of the Napeolonic Wars, who was nicknamed the ‘Iron Duke’. Ships of the Royal Navy were named after him (Carrington et. al.: 1990). The BLS Director existed in Welchman Hall, St. Thomas but ‘sank’ (ceased to exist) in the 1930s. The BLS Director was ‘relaunched’ (restarted) in 1972 by the then Captain Vernon Watson who retained the name BLS Director.

Landships were on the decline in mid-twentieth century Barbados. In the 1970s, Landships were revived by Commander Leon Marshall of the BLS Cornwall who was elevated to the highest rank, Lord High Admiral of the ‘fleet of ships’, in 1973, shortly before his untimely death. Under this umbrella body, the Barbados Landship Association (BLSA), several ships were ‘docked’ (based) across the island, such as the BLS Cornwall in St. Michael, the BLS Rodney in St. Philip, the BLS Devonshire in Christ Church, the BLS Queen Mary in St. Michael, the BLS Iron Duke in St. Michael, the BLS Vanguard in St. Joseph, the BLS Queen Victoria in St. Peter and the BLS Director in St. Thomas.

However, since the 1990s, all the ships were merged into one, called the Barbados Landship Association, commonly referred to as the Barbados Landship. It is a ship that has ‘sailed’ from the late 1990s into the twenty-first century. It is headed by Lord High Admiral Watson who was elevated from captain to this rank in 2008.

Social practices

Landships always assumed the important mutual-aid functions that friendly societies had provided in earlier days (Richardson: 1985, p. 225). Therefore, Landships functioned as a space for a continuum of a tradition of meeting turns or ‘susu’. ‘Susu’ is derived from the Yoruba word ‘esusu.’ Across the Caribbean:

… this economic arrangement also called ‘pardner’, ‘meeting’ (or ‘meeting turn’) or ‘len’ han’ (lend hand)’ is a system which allows an individual to acquire capital to invest in buying goods, a house, a car or for social activities …This is possible because a sum of money contributed by several persons is drawn down in turn from the person in charge of the ‘pardner’, known as the ‘banker’ (Warner-Lewis: 2011, p. 560).

The practice of ‘meeting turns’, or ‘susu’, was integral to Landship identity, a cultural norm that reflected a West African heritage. (Burrowes: 2013, pp. 57-58)

The ‘throwing of contributions’ (paying in money) allowed ‘crews’ to pool together money each week to support members in times of need. The dues paid out weekly at the the ‘Dock’ afforded partial protection against the expenses of illness, death and unemployment. Additionally, at the end of the year, money was paid out in the form of Christmas bonuses. The susu thus ensured that members of the ships both contributed to, and benefitted from the pooling of these monetary contributions.

Hence, in the post-emancipation era, when wages in Barbados were extremely low - the lowest in the region at an average of 6d per day - during a period when under-employment and unemployment were rife, (Beckles: 2006) Landships played a vital role in providing an economic safety net for Barbadians. The Landship as a working class mass organisation expanded significantly during the 1920s. By then, there were three fleets of over 60 ships with about 3,000 men and 800 women (Beckles: 2006); (Lynch: 1964). Perhaps this was related to the harsh economic circumstances of that era. Landships functioned as organisations that retained the African cultural practice of susu which provided the formerly enslaved an alternative economic opportunity. It offered members some degree of security and community through belonging to a ship. This sense of community and well-being has also been manifested in the performance arts of Landships.

Landship drills/manoeuvres as performance art

The Landship is part of the creative and artistic expression of Caribbean people. Like many African secret societies, the Landship provided an opportunity to belong, to dress up and to perform. The combination of the Tuk Band and the dances, linked to an organisational structure was a total winner. Landship is a form of masquerade which has facilitated the transferral of traditional knowledge for generations. Members have been taught drills and commands during weekly practice sessions held at their ‘Docks.’ This was how the tradition of performance was transmitted, maintained and exhibited for public display through Landship parades. We may note that culture is never static, but at the core of Landship performance is a combination of music, dance, costume, drama, street theatre, spectacle and spectator participation in a single display. Burrowes maintains that what evolved was a combination of the western style of parade with its straight lines, together with the traditional West African circular movements. There are also several unique movements or ‘manoeuvres’ that have been choreographed to simulate naval activities at sea such as cleaning the decks, stoking the fire and hauling the anchor (Meredith: 2015).

With respect to Landship performance, it is important to examine the fluidity of the black body, the colonised body, the working class male and female body. The marching routines of the Landship signify body movements and techniques that convey cultural and social meanings. The naval manoeuvres of the Landship write the narratives of both the coloniser and the colonised.

Landship members used the trappings of naval culture to mask their own expressive activity, as when they danced and paraded to the music of the tuk band, which served as the engine of the Landship for many decades …The tuk band became a vital component and affiliate of the Landship movement. The tuk band provided the music for the Landship during performance…like the band, the Landship was at its best when the ship’s engine was at full steam, when the beat of the tuk band pounded at quicker tempos. The band and the ship were therefore complementary outfits. (Best: 2012, p. 5)

Tuk band music accompanied performances which have titles such as ‘Changing of the Guard, ‘Sinking Ship,’ ‘Admirals Inspection’ and ‘Rough Seas’ (Pariser: 1990). It is apparent from the names of the commands that homage is being paid to some level of British naval traditions and recreating life at sea, but there is Afro-Barbadian flair in the names used for commands such as the ‘wangle low’. The presence and connection of the tuk band, which is synonymous with Barbadian culture, grounds the Landship even more firmly as a Barbadian cultural tradition.

Landship drills/manoeuvres are a vital component of their cultural performance, therefore it is important to highlight some of the commands/drills/manoeuvres. The selected commands were compiled from the descriptions of informants who ‘sailed’ in the Iron Duke and Director ‘crews’ prior to 1992. Therefore, folk memory is privileged here. [Plate 1]

The Landship performance may consist of a ‘route march’, where the ‘crew’ marches on the road, or an actual parade where they perform their manoeuvres. The ‘crew’ performs the commands as instructed by the Drill Master. When the command 'general exercise' is given, members perform left and right turns, forward and upward stretches. For the 'squatting exercise’, the ‘crew’ kicks forward. They also hop and slide at the same time. 'On the double' means that the ‘crew’ moves forward very quickly on a double march. For 'take it slightly away,' the ‘crew’ moves forward skipping from side to side, always starting on the left foot.

One of the public’s favourite manoeuvres, and therefore one of the most popular, is the 'wangle low'. While marching in formation, the performers place their hands on their hips and go down to the ground with their bodies in a circular motion in time to the beat of tuk music. Traditionally, women only go down half-way because this was more respectable as they wore skirts. They come up slowly and go down again.

Another crowd pleaser is 'rough seas'. It involves the ‘crew’ dancing around the parade square, rocking their bodies from left to right with their hands circling round and round like windmill sails. The manoeuvre called 'Section 20' is performed after the ship comes out of ‘rough seas.’ Members would jump on the spot with their knees up to their chests. At ‘man overboard,’ a member of the ‘crew’ dramatically falls to the ground, and a ‘nurse’ comes over to revive him with ‘quinine’ —which is actually white rum prescribed by the ‘Doctor’ (Burrowes: 2013).

Drills such as ‘Section 20’, ‘rough seas’, and ‘wangle low’ remain a predominant part of the repertoire of performance of the Barbados Landship of the twenty-first century, thereby demonstrating the aspects of continuity and retention. However, ‘man overboard’ is no longer performed in the twenty-first century context. A contributory factor to this situation is the consistent dwindling of membership in the Barbados Landship, so much so that the joining age has gone down from twenty-one to twelve. In 2013, of the twenty active members in the group, only three were adults. For some manoeuvres to have a visual impact on the audience, a larger membership would be required. From the twenty-first century, membership has mainly comprised of young men and girls mainly of school age, changing the gender balance and with it the ability to perform some of the traditional manoeuvres. In most cases, the ‘man overboard’ would have been an adult male, therefore, it would be inappropriate for a young boy or girl to be given rum to be ‘revived’. Therefore, this manoeuvre would not be suitable for performance with the age of the current membership.

One of the most memorable and enjoyable elements of a Landship parade is ‘plaiting the maypole’. The maypole is one aspect of a traditional masquerade found in the Americas. The maypole dance is referred to in Trinidad as the Sebucan dance (Hernandez and Forte: 2006) or the Pah de Mayo in Nicaragua. It was known in St. Lucia and Barbados as ‘plait the ribbon.’

The maypole used by the Landship has eight strings and therefore calls for eight dancers, with one person sitting in the middle holding the pole upright. Traditionally, there would be four male strings and four female strings. The colours of the female strings included white, pink and yellow while the male strings included red, mauve and orange. Under the Barbados Landship Association, the dancers plait any string they choose, presumably because there are so few members, but the tradition of the King and the Queen holding the red and white strings respectively remains. The maypole in twenty-first century Barbados continues to be a staple of Landship performance that is enjoyed by the viewing public. Through their performances, the Landship demonstrates that it is a receptacle of traditional Barbadian art forms and knowledge. [Plate 2]

The institutional memory of Landship manoeuvres or drills has been maintained through its negotiation of, and performance in public spaces across all eleven parishes of the island. In so doing, the Barbadian public, though they may not have understood the performances, over the years have identified that what they saw was ‘Landship’. Moreover, the display of this intangible heritage has not only occurred within village life, at schools or community events, but on the national and regional stage. From marching as a unit at Independence Parades since 1966, to the stage of the local national Crop Over Festival since 1974, to performing at Caribbean events such as the Caribbean Festival of Arts (CARIFESTA), the Landship has brought its traditional performances to Barbadians and the public of the wider Caribbean. [Plate 3]

Additionally, various schools and organisations such as Yoruba Yard, Dancin’ Africa and Pinelands Creative Workshop have been taught naval manoeuvres by Landship members (Meredith: 2015). While these organisations are not members of the Landship, the institutional memory has been transmitted to the wider community in this way and still lives on in an adapted form, as these groups have showcased Landship naval manoeuvres at events such as the annual National Independence Festival of Creative Arts. The Landship is usually represented in some form at significant events in Barbados’ history. For example, in June 2012 the Pinelands Creative Workshop children performed their interpretation of ‘Landship’, which incorporated traditional manoeuvres, at the UNESCO World Heritage Inscription Ceremony for ‘Historic Bridgetown and its Garrison’. [Plate 4]

The Landship has become so much a part of Barbadian identity that the public recreates the Landship in ways other than its traditional dances. This is exemplified with Landship dress. For example, performers at annual festivals - the Crop Over Festival, bandleaders for Junior Kadooment and at Grand Kadooment, events to display masquerades for children and adults respectively - have used Landship dress in their presentations. Deacon’s Primary School, for example, has depicted the Landship at Junior Kadooment. In 2010, the band ‘Ooutraje’ won the lion’s share of prizes, including Best Band on the Road and the BMA Brands of Barbados Award in the large band category, for the theme ‘The Many Movements of the Landship’ at Grand Kadooment. For independence celebrations during the month of November, some schools pay homage to the Landship by recreating/ re-interpreting Landship dress for students to wear. In 2013, Prime Minister of Barbados Freundel Stuart unveiled a monument to commemorate the contribution of the Landship to Barbados on the Landship’s 150th anniversary. The monument which is in the shape of an Asante stool is located in front of The Steel Shed, Queen's Park, the City of Bridgetown, St. Michael. The Landship has also been celebrated through productions such as Winston Farrell's award winning folk play 'The House of Landship' in 2014. The Landship was also featured in the 2014-2015 Barbados Telephone Directory on an inside spread and on the front cover, prominently displaying the dress and the institution of the Barbados Landship. In these various ways, the Landship has been acknowledged as a symbol of Barbadian national and cultural identity and heritage by the wider public. [Plate 5]

Funerary rituals

The cultural practices of Landships are not only visible in life in the public domain through performance, dress and public recognition. Though not subjected to the public gaze in the same way, Landship performance is not only evident on the parade square but on sacred ground. The purpose of this section is to highlight some aspects of funeral traditions that were practised by Landships. Generally, for Landships, funerals occasioned major turnouts with a squad of “blues” (young boys) preceding the hearse, followed by a flock of “nurses,” (women) each of which had a pair of scissors hanging from her waist. The Lord High Admiral followed, walking alone, with the other officers behind him (Pariser: 1990). As it relates to attendance and a continuation of African traditions with respect to burial practices, Richardson (1985, p. 225) adds, the entire landship unit also was expected to turn out for funeral processions on the occasion of a member’s death, thereby assuming the duties and obligations of the traditional Barbadian friendly society and reinforcing an old Barbadian, and even older African, burial tradition. The Landship, through maintaining the tradition of procession, retained some African practices evident during the period of African enslavement. Jerome Handler and Charlotte Frisbie (1972, p. 15) note that funeral processions and burial ceremonies, including the musical activities associated with them, were a long-standing feature of slave life and they continued to be of fundamental importance throughout the slave period.

Within the Landship community, emphasis has been placed on receiving a ‘proper’ funeral and ‘a good send off.’ This not only included the allocation of money to ensure a suitable burial, but Landship members themselves being involved in the funeral service with the intention of giving their former members a ‘Landship farewell’. Members of the Iron Duke and Director also attended their shipmates’ funerals, regardless of the deceased person’s ship. At funerals, the combination of the Landships’ naval, military and Afro-Caribbean flair was visible once more.

According to the Iron Duke and Director ‘crews’, members would usually pay for the funeral services if the family could not afford to do so. The committee of the ship made the decision and this would be discussed with the ‘crew’. On the day of the funeral, all Landship members wore a black sash at the service and the captain would wear white gloves. The Landship funeral was held at the ‘Dock’ of the deceased. At the ‘Dock,’ a black flag was flown. The sentry man then held this flag and he would lower it when the coffin was about to cross the ‘Dock’s’ doors. After which, the Landship flag would be flown.

The Sons of God Apostolic Spiritual Baptist Church has had a long connection to the Landship. The church’s late Archbishop, the Reverend Granville Williams, or his representatives, would conduct the service at the former’ Dock’ of the deceased. At the ‘Dock’, two officers, who would keep sentry until the service had ended, flanked the coffin. If the deceased were not a member of any church, the deceased would then proceed straight to the burial site. Alternatively, the deceased would proceed to his or her church for a second service.

At the second service, only Landship members could be the pall-bearers, regardless of which ship they officially belonged to. In both ships, the pall-bearers would be assigned by their sex. In this way, Landship funerals can be equated to military ones where only officers can be pall-bearers.

During the period of African enslavement, funerals featured singing, dancing and music (Senhouse: 2011). Handler and Frisbie (1972, p. 15) assert that the enslaved held graveside rituals on Sundays and on holidays to propitiate the spirits of the dead. We see some continuity of this practice within these two Landships. For example, after the second church service, there would be a procession to the graveside with the pall-bearers leading, followed by the tuk band. At the burial site, the string that the former maypole dancer used to plait would be placed in the grave with the body. This tradition can be seen as fitting, since the string that had become part of the identity of the person who plaited it, remained with that person in death. Moreover, according to Matron Edith Barker in the Iron Duke maypole plaiters gave a short maypole performance as a last tribute to the former dancer (2004). This shows the emphasis placed upon performance for the Landship members in both life and in death.

Music also became an integral part of the service where the drums are played at the burial site in a way ‘to suit the person.’ Hence, if the deceased liked a lot of ‘fussy drumming’ the drums would get ‘lick up real bad’, if not, the drums were beaten softly (Jones: 2004). At funerals of officers such as Admirals and Captains who were of the highest rank, Commander Roland Gilkes, Director (2004) noted that ‘the last horn’ would be played on the trumpet. Therefore the Iron Duke and Director maintained a tradition of combining naval, military and its own Afro-Caribbean flair for the final performance for deceased members. By performing their own rites at burial sites, the Landships maintained some degree of surviving African cultural practice through their own sort of dancing and music, that is, maypole dancing and beating the drums. Furthermore, this was the members’ means of offering respect by paying tribute to the dead in this manner. Perhaps it was a means of closure for the bereaved, and could very well be a bereavement tradition which ships continued, but without recognising the significance. In so doing, they were preserving something of African cultural practices embedded within the last rites.

Landships such as the Iron Duke and the Director have ‘sailed’ across Barbados’ twentieth century landscape. For many decades, the rank and file of these two ships continued the traditions passed down over the generations through performance and funerary rituals. This article has sought to highlight the voices of some of the ‘crews’ who identified with an oral tradition of life at sea; even though they never left the land they embraced an institution that struggled to be accepted at many points within its own society, one which ‘floundered’ (declined) after the organisation reached its peak in the 1930s. Though encountering ‘rough seas,’ the ‘crews’ of the Iron Duke and Director had ‘all hands on deck’ and ‘stayed the course’ for as long as possible in late twentieth century Barbados. In so doing, these ships and their ‘crews’ contributed to the Landship becoming an integral part of Barbados’ intangible cultural heritage. The Landship embodies Afro-Barbadian and British cultural traditions in one entity, combining to create a unique Barbadian heritage in rituals of performance in life incorporated through masquerade, susu, performance of naval manoeuvres to tuk music and, in death, through funerary customs. Landships are unique cultural icons of Barbados. [Plate 6]