Barbados, a tiny, sun-suffused coral island in the southern Caribbean, is keenly sought out for the abundant sunshine, azure waters, soft-sand beaches, world-class restaurants and rental villas staffed with the friendliest folk. It’s also a place rich in history, tradition, sporting events, primeval forests, and the epic revelry brought on by the carnival in August.
The hinterland too is worthy of exploration, and venturing away from the glamorous coastline in a small car on sugarcane-trimmed roads is sure to bring unexpected discoveries around every bend.
The most delightful of these is the presence of innumerable free-standing chattel houses. These small wooden homes, painted in deliriously joyful colours, leap out at you. The hue of the portico often contrasts sharply with the rest of the house; ultramarine and orange, aubergine and fuchsia, lime-green and red. The simplest of these homes features a two-room floor plan, sloping roofs of corrugated iron, front porches, and two windows each on the front and side that let in light and breeze. The bell-shaped window hoods and openable shutters are a feature of these iconic working-class homes imbued with history.
Today, chattel houses are known for their aesthetics, affordability, and the story they represent. These silent sentinels remind us of the grit and inventiveness of the plantation workers of the 17th century, for they have a trick up their sleeves—they are movable homes.
The word “chattel”, in old English law, means movable property. English plantation owners had large sugarcane fields which were tended by workers brought in from Africa. These workers lived in small wooden homes, and if they were let go for any reason, they would be evicted from the land. Their houses would have to be abandoned, for the patch of land they stood on did not belong to them.
The solution was portable homes. From the late 17th century, the homes were set on a plinth, rather than embedded into the ground. They could be dismantled easily. The wooden beams slatted in without the use of nails, so they could also be taken apart with ease. If a worker was asked to leave or had a better job elsewhere, he would unstack it all, put the pieces on a donkey cart, head off and set it all up again.
Barbados was colonized by the English in 1625, when other European powers, such as the French, Spaniards and Dutch, too were fighting fiercely for the islands of the Caribbean. The buildings they constructed reflected the structures of the home countries, and they became a matter of pride. While the large plantation houses, churches and abbeys had Jacobean, Palladian and Regency styles of architecture, the humble chattel houses acquired a gingerbread-house feel with the addition of a single flourish—the hand-carved strips of latticework. Also known locally as fretwork, the pretty lace-like patterns, usually painted white, decorated the roofs, windows, arches and balustrades, enhancing the charm of the homes. “Barbados is more English than England sheself,” goes the saying, and these pieces of confection became one of the strongest links between the two islands.
The chattel house style became so popular that it extended to the local rum shops, outhouses and village markets. Other islands of the West Indies adopted it too. Today they can be seen mainly in Barbados and Trinidad, for the wooden houses can be flimsy in comparison to brick and cement structures, and these islands happen to be outside the hurricane belt.
As Barbados gained in stature and popularity as a Caribbean destination, it became one of four places in the world, besides London, Paris and New York, to which the supersonic Concorde flew. Investments poured in and the chattel-house architectural style was adopted by private villas, boutique hotels and strings of shops, such as the pretty pastel Chattel Village in Holetown, St James parish.
Modern versions of chattel houses tend to be anchored to a concrete foundation instead of sitting on blocks or ground sill. They are larger, with a bathroom and kitchenette included indoors. They are connected to electrical mains and have permanent septic tanks. Many are marvels of modern technology, fitted with turf roofs, solar heaters, photovoltaic systems, compost boxes, pocket gardens and sliding roofs.
These homes can be inspiring at a time when winding back to the lifestyle of a more sustainable era is becoming increasingly appealing to people who care about the future of the planet. We are getting attuned to the notion of downsizing abodes and reducing our ecological footprint. Many no longer want to deal with the hassles of maintaining big households, and are inverting the house-rich, time-poor model.
This is where we can take the lead from these nimble-footed, low-impact homes. The Chattel House Movement, part of the global Small House and Tiny House Movement, has inspired many a wilderness and safari camp, where these homes can be unpegged, just like tents, in the off-season, or when the lease on the land ends. They also make beautiful outhouses, guest cottages and writers’ escapes.
Once homes for slaves who worked on sugar plantations, chattel houses are now symbolic of a considered, earth-friendly lifestyle.
Geetika Jain shares notable notions from around the world.