Landship Ahoy

As Landship marks its hundred and fiftieth anniversary, Marcia Burrowes investigates how the movement has responded to changing times

BLS Barbados Landship performing the  “maypole” manoeuvre in National Heroes Square, Bridgetown, in the early 2000s. Photograph by Mike ToyCommander Leon  Marshall of the BLS Cornwall on parade in the 1970s. Photograph courtesy the Barbados Government Information ServiceLandship nurses performing the “wangle low” manoeuvre. Photograph by Mike ToyLandship officers in Bridgetown on Independence Day, 1973. Photograph courtesy the Barbados Government Information ServiceLandship tuk band parading at a funeral, 1973. Photograph courtesy the Barbados Government Information Service

A uniformed group of men, women, boys, and girls march out in straight-line formation, to the rhythms of the drums and flute of a tuk band. When the Drill Master calls out “rough seas,” they start to dance around the parade space, creating the image of sails tossed in the wind.

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. Other “manoeuvres” include the plaiting of the maypole and the “wangle low,” for which the crew, hands on hips, dance low to the ground with circular waist movements.

Landship is a unique form of traditional Barbadian masquerade, combining elements of naval lore with African-Caribbean performance tradition, and dating back to the mid nineteenth century. Oral history refers to 1863 as the year when the community ritual of forming ships on land first began. The narrative remembers Moses Wood as the seaman and founder who decided to recreate on land the discipline and camaraderie he had experienced at sea.

Wood and a number of his friends, also former seamen, created this ritual by adopting and transforming the uniforms of the British Royal Navy. They also followed the ranks of naval hierarchy, and used titles such as Captain, Lieutenant, and Commander for the crews of these “ships” that “sailed” on dry land.

Documented evidence of Landship activity surfaces briefly from 1875, when a group entertained sugar plantation workers with their “marchings” and “dancing” at a Crop Over celebration. But it is at the end of the nineteenth century that the “ships” appear in records as Friendly Societies, known also as Shipping Societies. The records also note their ritual of naming: in 1898, the Ship Nelson and the Naval Victory were the first two Landships to be registered.

Between 1907 and 1912, further “ships” were launched, such as the Indefatigable, Queen Mary, and Rosetta. By the 1930s, such famous Landships as the Cornwall, Ironduke, and Vanguard were afloat. In 1931, a central authority, called the Barbados Land Ship Association, was formed to oversee the administration of the various groups. The association devised the prefix “BLS” — “Barbados Land Ship” — further acknowledging a nautical heritage. And the crews had the support of prominent members of Barbadian society, such as Dr Hugh Cummins, later premier of Barbados.

By this time, many of the crews had never actually been to sea. With occupations based in and around Barbados’s plantations or villages, Landship crews of the early twentieth century were, for example, cane-cutters, lighter men, washerwomen, and domestic servants. Sixty Landships are estimated to have been in existence in the 1930s, with crews totalling three thousand men and eight hundred women.

In 1937, the Landship sailed into a significant event in Barbadian history. When Marcus Garvey visited the island for one day, it was the BLS York, comprised of twenty-four men and women, who formed his guard of honour. And the women in the Landship crews, “nurses,” were given the title of “star,” in memory of Garvey and his Black Star liners.

Key aspects of Landship ritual had been established by this time. With the ship as the central image, the headquarters of a Landship was called the “dock” and the surrounding land was called the “waters.” In the early days, many docks were identified by the presence of a “moses,” or small fishing boat, out front, or by a miniature ship on its roof. When on parade, some Landships in Bridgetown created the image of a ship through the use of ropes. The crew on the outside of the formation held the ropes while the officer, known as the Sailing Master, marched on ahead.

The tuk band — with its bass drum, kettle drum, flute, and steel triangle — had also become an integral component of the Landship’s public appearance. Though evidence suggests that other musical combinations, such as the string band, accompanied some ships, it was the tuk band, known as the “engine,” that ultimately delivered the musical wind force for the Landships to set sail. Often the Landships on parade were so big that two or more tuk bands would play for their performances.

Landship history is characterised by lost ships. Lord High Admiral Vernon Watson, head of the present-day Landship, explains that just as a new ship is said to be “launched,” his father used the terms “foundered” and “sank” to describe a ship that ceased to exist.

Landship membership fell after the Second World War, possibly because crew members had been recruited for the war effort, or migrated after the war. Only the BLS Cornwall appears to have been active in the late 1950s and early 60s. For the ceremony marking the Independence of Barbados on 30 November, 1966, a combined squadron of Landships went on parade. But membership and morale were low, and the movement seemed to be heading for extinction. Commander Leon Marshall of the BLS Cornwall worked assiduously at resuscitating the Landship. His efforts were successful: in 1972 six ships were re-launched: the BLS Director, Ironduke, Queen Victoria, Rodney, and Vanguard.

Consequently, the 1970s witnessed the launch of several other Landships in parishes around the island, known for their parades, which were held on pastures and other designated areas, such as the field at WIBSCO, the biscuit company in Bridgetown. In many ways, Landship visibility in the 1970s echoed the popularity of the 1930s. Newspaper coverage was intense, and Landships became central to national events, such as Crop Over celebrations. The Matron of the BLS Director remembers the vast and appreciative crowds witnessing Landship performances at plantation fairs.

But the sudden publicity resulted in closer scrutiny of these community groups, with some members of the public accusing them of playing the “monkey game” — mimicking the culture of former colonial masters. Those in the Landships’ defence came swiftly forward and the public was made aware, perhaps for the first time, of their Friendly Society histories. Many young Landship members could attest to support for the purchase of schoolbooks and the payment of tuition fees as they prepared for the eleven-plus examinations. The practice of “meeting turns,” or susu, was integral to Landship identity, a cultural norm that reflected a West African heritage. And the drumming rhythms of the tuk bands and the crews’ “manoeuvres” clearly anchored Landship within the creolised spaces of Caribbean culture.

Despite the 1970s Landship revival, and in keeping with the cycles of its history, by the early 1980s membership dwindled and several Landships foundered. Officers of the remaining Landships opted to become a combined squadron. This decision proved unpopular, especially among the rank and file, as many crews wanted to retain their individual Landship identities. The union proceeded, but with a much-reduced membership.

The unified ship was named the BLS Barbados Landship. It sailed under the command of Vernon Watson, then at the rank of Captain. As older members died or withdrew their membership, Watson took steps to ensure the ship’s survival. He lowered the entrance age for members from twenty-one to eight years, a move that allowed him to welcome children, especially girls, into the crew — a significant change to Landship identity. Watson also ensured that the Barbados Landship continued key rituals, such as meeting at the dock on Fridays, “throwing” meeting turns, attending church services, and hosting parades.

Three decades later, the now Lord High Admiral Watson continues to work at keeping the Landship afloat, as it sails into its century-and-a-half anniversary. “My passion,” says Watson, “is not to let it die!” With an aging crew of officers and much younger and fewer numbers in its rank and file, the future of the Landship is once again uncertain. But the Landship has faced rough seas before. Perhaps more favourable winds are waiting ahead.