The History of Crop Over
The end of the sugar cane harvest, or Crop Over as it is almost always referred to, has long been the occasion for celebration.
In what seems to be the earliest reference to the Crop Over festival, we find the manager of Newton Plantation writing in 1788 to the estate's owner in England, telling him that he had held a "dinner and sober dance" for the slaves, saying: "twas a celebration of Harvest Time after the crop."
Many aspects of plantation life in Barbados carried on unchanged after the end of slavery, and the Crop Over festival likewise continued. Never the less there must have been an important difference in the way in which the festival was perceived. Before emancipation, the planter had no choice but to support his slaves, well or badly as the case might have been, all year round.
After 1838, for most people Crop Over meant not just the end of a period of hard work, but also the beginning of a period of less work and lower wages. For many the interval between two crops would indeed have been "hard times", and the symbol of these, perhaps not invented until after Emancipation, was the figure of a man stuffed with trash (the dried leaves of the sugar cane plant) which was known as "Mr. Harding". Mr. Harding was formally introduced to the manager of the plantation, and, according to some accounts, later burnt as part of the celebrations which must have had a tinge of desperation to them as people strove to enjoy themselves while they could. The festival was apparently fairly common at the beginning of the present century, by which time the name Crop Over seems to have ousted that of Harvest Time. A procession of carts would bring the last canes to the plantation yard, the draught animals being decorated with flamboyant, frangipani and other flowers, whilst brightly colored kerchiefs would be tied like flags to the canes. The laborers would parade around the yard, and it was at this point that that they would introduce Mr. Harding to the manager, after which they would adjourn for a dance, for the manager or the owner for the estate would normally contribute some salt meat and rum.
Even by 1940 Crop Over was being described as a "custom which has very nearly died out", and the continuing decline of sugar and the growing availability of other sources of employment had put an end to much of traditional plantation life. The modern Crop Over, revived by the Board of Tourism in 1974 and now administered by the National Cultural Foundation, pays tribute to the fact that sugar is still important in Barbados and the immense influence which it has had on our history. The present day festival is very different from the old time Crop Over, but it continues as a tradition by offering a thrilling celebration of many aspects of Bajan Culture, old and new.