A photograph of the ruins of the Bridgetown Friends Meetinghouse in Barbados was taken in 1906. The photographer was anonymous, but at one time the photograph was in the possession of Robert Moon. The photograph rests now in the George Vaux, Jr., papers at the Haverford College Quaker Collection. The Bridgetown Meetinghouse was built c. 1665. During the time of persecution, for a period, Governor Atkins closed it and had all the benches removed. General Meetings of all the island’s Quakers took place there. A hurricane destroyed it in 1780. It is gone now, though its site is marked by a plaque.
Barbados was the first outpost of Friends, predating Pennsylvania, and was called the “Nursery of Truth”. Ann Austin and Mary Fisher, the earliest Quaker missionaries to the Americas, came in 1655 and were followed by many others, including Elizabeth Hooton, William Edmundson and George Fox. A large contingent of Friends gathered by 1660, arriving as convicts or immigrants. In turn, they converted many on the island to Quakerism, including several leading families. By 1700 there were about 1200 Friends with six Meetinghouses and four cemeteries. Friends were persecuted for many reasons, including their refusal to serve in the militia and their efforts to convert slaves to Quakerism. (“An Act to Prevent the People Called Quakers from Bringing Negroes into their Meetings” was enacted by the House Assembly of Barbados). And yet Friends survived, generations of them living and dying there. The oppression took its toll, however. Over the years Friends emigrated to Pennsylvania or South Carolina or became Anglicans. By 1820 there were no Quakers in Barbados. All the Meetinghouses were torn down, and most of the cemeteries were forgotten or paved over. Only the Cliff Burial Ground survives, and a Quaker Road lies in the west of the island.
Friends first faced slavery in Barbados. While there were some slaves in England, there were many of them in Barbados due to the labor needed for the tobacco and sugar industries. George Fox called for humane conditions and manumission in 1671. William Edmundson went further, condemning slavery outright in 1675. Yet most Friends owned slaves. They tried to find a middle ground: better treatment, education, freedom after a period of years, etc. In the end, however, that compromise failed, and it was one of the reasons they left Barbados. But they took with them seeds that would later bloom into abolitionism.
The Bridgetown Friends Meetinghouse photograph is haunting. The Meetinghouse it depicts was nearly 250 years old by the time of the photograph. Thousands of Friends had passed through those doors. It shows a community that vanished.