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When architecture tells a story
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When architecture tells a story

UNESCO heritage sites in the Caribbean tell a story of colonialist influence.

As of July 2016, there were 1,052 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage Sites scattered across the globe. They are considered to have cultural or natural value and so should be safeguarded for future generations. There are currently 22 UNESCO sites spread across 13 islands in the Caribbean: Barbados, Bermuda, Cuba, Curaçao, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Haiti, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, Suriname, Puerto Rico, Belize, and Jamaica. 15 of these have a cultural designation and 7 have a natural designation, and Cuba dominates the list, with a total of 9 UNESCO Heritage Sites.

The high level of diversity in the Caribbean is evident in these Sites, but they also give a peek into the history and complexities of the region. A region whose cultural identity has been impacted by many forces and is tied to a colonial past.

The Caribbean’s colourful cultural tapestry is clearly mirrored in its architecture. History comes alive when you stand before remarkable monuments in well-preserved 17th, 18th, or 19th-century towns. What is notable is that heritage architecture gives a glimpse of the past but it also plays a significant role in creating a sense of belonging to a community, to a collective memory.

The 5 Sites highlighted below give a taste of various powerful colonial influences and how they remain a part of the way-of-life of the citizens, even today. Memories of indigenous peoples, slavery, indentureship, and the fight for freedom are witnessed in these Sites. They show the significance of architecture’s ability to tell a story as well as the ability of a people’s reality to be a driving force in the creation of historic buildings. Facing incursions, our ancestors found themselves coming together to build fortifications, while on the other hand, conquerors set up parliament buildings and churches to mimic what they knew back in Europe. As we will see, architecture plays a complex role in the development of culture, even as they jostle each other over time.

Barbados, Historic Bridgetown and its Garrison (2011)

The parliament building of Barbados in Bridgetown, an example of a British colonial structure(Photo by The Caribbean Photo Archive)


The parliament building of Barbados in Bridgetown, an example of a British colonial structure (©Roslyn Russell/Flickr)

Bridgetown, the capital city of Barbados, remains an example of British colonial settlement. Built from the 17th to 19th century, the town is not laid out in a grid plan as the surrounding Dutch and Spanish settlements, but rather it follows a serpentine urban layout. It is one of the earliest towns with a fortified port in the Caribbean network and became a major route for the trade of sugar and enslaved Africans. Although known to the Portuguese and Spanish, the British were the first settlers in 1625 and slavery began in Barbados in 1627. Yet, this Site shows that even though the majority of Britain’s Caribbean colonies gained independence between 1962 and 1983, it left in political institutions and norms based on Britain’s Westminster model of government in place. Barbados has the 3rd oldest Parliament in the Commonwealth and the House of Assembly and Senate still meet weekly in these historic buildings.

Cuba, Viñales Valley (Cultural, 1999)

The Viñales Valley looking across to the Mogotes of the Cordillera de Guaniguanico mountain range in Cuba. Photo by  Ralph Kränzlein

Situated in the province of Pinar Del Rio, the Viñales Valley, in the Sierra de los Organos near the western end of Cuba is an outstanding landscape encircled by mountains. The dramatic mountain range protects old civilisations. It is admired for its beauty as well as the preservation of traditional methods of agriculture, such as tobacco planting by hand. Even today, the citizens use a rich vernacular of several different indigenous languages, heard in the music and crafts. The area was inhabited for many centuries before the arrival of Spanish conquerors and was home to a small Taino population, which then mixed with former enslaved Africans, and it was home to tobacco growers from the Canary Islands in the beginning of the 1800s. It is an ideal example of the way union of various cultures in one region, living in peace today. Out of the oppressive system of colonialism came multi-ethnic society, similar to most countries in the Caribbean.

Curaçao, Historic Area of Willemstad, Inner City and Harbour (Cultural, 1997)

The floating market in the Punda district of Willemstad  (Photo by  UltraPanavision)

Curaçao is a mix of Spanish, Portuguese, and Netherlands influence. The capital of the islands, Willemstad, blossomed from a trading settlement into a modern town and now its colourful architecture draws people from all around the world. Curaçao represents colonial trading, which was prevalent in the Caribbean region. In this island, the Dutch established it, and today the island remains an autonomous country in the Kingdom of the Netherlands. TheThe floating market lining the waters of the Santa Anna Bay, the Handelskade, clearly displays the distinctly Dutch architecture and style. It is even reminiscent of an Amsterdam canal with a vibrant colour scheme.

Dominican Republic, Colonial City of Santo Domingo (Cultural, 1990)

Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

First founded and laid out on a grid system in 1498, Santo Domingo became the site of the first cathedral, hospital, customs house, and university in the Americas under the colonial system.  The pattern became the model for almost all town planners in the ‘New World.’ This capital city is the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the Americas and one of the most populated in the Caribbean. There are clear Spanish and African influences on the culture of the Dominican Republic, but the city has an old-world appeal, with medieval palaces, fortresses, and castle-type buildings, while modern nightclubs and malls speckle the in-between.

Haiti, National History Park – Citadel, Sans Souci, Ramiers (Cultural, 1982)

The Citadel, Haiti (Photo by Alan B Owens Photography)  



Rear view of the Sans Souci Palace (Photo by Remi Kaupp)

On 1 January 1804, after 14 years of struggle by the island’s black slaves against the colonists, Jean-Jacques Dessallines, the principal leader of the Haitian Revolution, proclaimed the independent Republic of Haiti. This island was the first independent nation in the Western Hemisphere and has the largest fortress in the Western Hemisphere, the National History Park. This Site is a reminder of freedom which was hard-fought and won back in 1804, when the former enslaved gained their freedom and built monuments to mark the independence of Haiti.  The Park consists of the Sans Souci Palace, Citadelle Laferrière, and Ramiers building, all built. The Citadel was built by up to 20,000 workers between 1805 and 1820 to keep the newly independent nation of Haiti safe from French invasions.

Heritage architecture represents the power of any political regime in constructing a community. Metaphorically, there is a level of supremacy, which is established by those in power in having the capacity to define what that heritage is. Those were only 5 out of 22 UNESCO Heritage Sites in the Caribbean; 5 examples of various cultural elements present in the region. Whether Spanish, Dutch, English, French, Portuguese, or indigenous influences, the Caribbean is a true melting pot, where various countries are represented in some way. We are proud to come together and live in peace. It is something we often overlook but we must cherish.

Protecting the built heritage and conserving the local traditional and cultural values of the communities for future generations may present a challenge for developers and architects. However, we must recognise that heritage conservation in all forms in important. After all, there is always a story to tell.

Caribbean Connections

Dizzanne Billy is a Content Creator, Social Media Manager, and Digital Marketing professional. She is an Outreach and Communications Officer at Climate Tracker and a youth leader in the field of environmental activism. Dizzanne graduated from the University of the West Indies with an MSc. in Global Studies, focusing her research on global environmental governance. She is passionate about writing, environmental advocacy, and travel.
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