If you saw camels roaming the hilly uplands of Barbados, you might fear you’d drunk one too many of the island’s famous rum punches the night before. But, in the 1640s, these beasts of burden hauled hogsheads of beer and wine to the great plantation houses on the new sugar estates, then returned to the capital, Bridgetown, carrying sugar cane, the island’s ‘gold’.

The camels didn’t do well on Barbados they preferred the dry heat of North Africa to the humidity of the tropics. But the sugar trade did flourish. After Dutch Jews arrived from Brazil in the 1640s to teach the newly arrived English settlers and the enslaved African labourers how to cultivate sugar cane, the island swiftly became a profitable monoculture, creating huge wealth for its landowners and, indirectly, helping to fund England’s other colonial adventures.

Richard Ligon, who lived on the island from 1647–50 and wrote about the camels in his book A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados, was told by one settler, Col James Drax, that he wouldn’t return to England ‘till he were able to purchase an estate of ten thousand pound land yearly, which he hop’d in a few years to accomplish’. He and his descendants’ success was such that his island home, Drax Hall, is still a working plantation house.

Tourism has long overtaken sugar, rum and molasses as the island’s biggest earner. The closest many holidaymakers come to learning something of Barbados’ rich history is during the transfer from the airport to the glittering hotels on the west coast, when, to avoid traffic jams on the main highway, they may be driven along lanes through the sugar-cane fields. But on this, my fourth trip to the island, I visited a clutch of fascinating plantation houses and new museums that made me realise there’s far more depth and history to this winter favourite than you can discover from a sunlounger.

In the 18th century, some 700 estates were squeezed on to an island 21 miles by 14. Plantation owners, mostly from England, built large, European-style houses. Many have been demolished or, like Farley Hill in the parish of St Peter, destroyed by fire its blackened shell forms a surreal backdrop to one of the island’s favourite picnic spots.

But two have been furnished as they would have been at first, and are open to the public: Sunbury Plantation House in the south-east parish of St Philip, and the impressive St Nicholas Abbey, in the northern parish of St Peter (despite its name, it was never an abbey). The latter was built in the 1650s and combined architectural features of Jacobean England (a Dutch-style gable roof with finials, casement windows and, ludicrously, fireplaces) with structural adaptations to the climate, such as walls 3ft thick and heavy shutters to protect from hurricanes.

Tourists have been able to visit since 1980, but, since a change of ownership in 2006, it’s been transformed. The downstairs rooms have been repainted original shades of green and terracotta to set off the furniture and china. In a new theatre, you can watch a wonderful 18-minute video narrated by Lt-Col Stephen Cave, a former owner, which shows his grandfather’s experiences on the plantation in the early 20th century. Col Cave’s amusing commentary and the unintentionally comic scenes of coopers working on the estate are worth the admission fee alone.

But Dr Karl Watson, senior history lecturer at the University of the West Indies, gave me a more sobering view of plantation life. ‘The great houses are a relic of a time gone by that was bittersweet. Most are beautiful, but they also elicit memories of slavery. Yet the great houses were built by skilled African slaves, or their descendants, so we can also look at them as objects that celebrate the architectural skills of the slaves.’

I also visited two excellent new museums. Arlington House in Speightstown, a once bust-ling trading port known as ‘Little Bristol’, was a former ship’s chandlery saved from demolition by the Barbados National Trust and converted to a museum celebrating the island’s heritage, which opened in January 2008. Interactive displays allow you to steer a ship through the Caribbean. A sobering poster lists the ‘value’ of slaves on Harrow Plantation: Daniel, a cattle driver, was worth £100, but Lovelace, an infant, only £5.

The harsh life of slaves is more graphically illustrated, with neck and leg shackles in the first-floor museum at George Washington House, a town house near Bridgetown, also restored by the National Trust, which opened it in 2007. The future first US president stayed here in 1751–52, and the ground floor has been sympathetically restored to reflect domestic life as he’d recognise it: the heavy mahogany furniture includes a short bed (he slept sitting up, propped on pillows) and the kitchen has been returned to its original position outside the building, to lessen the risk of fire or smells affecting the house.

Kevin Farmer, a curator at the Barbados Museum in Bridgetown, said tourists can do their bit. ‘These houses need quite a bit of maintenance, and visiting them helps create jobs and allows old skills to be maintained. There are people who want to be immersed in the culture of the island we see heritage tourism as a booming niche market.’

Elegant Resorts (01244 897517; www.elegantresorts.co.uk) offers a week’s B&B at Treasure Beach Hotel (www.treasurebeachhotel.com) and BA flights from £2,570pp in March (£1,515 in July), based on two sharing and including a one-day tour of the historic houses. Groups of up to 12 can hire Fustic House, dating from 1740 (www.fustichouse.com), from US$3,900 (£2,735) per night until April 14, and US $3,000 thereafter (www.bajanservices.com)

  • Euan Bagshawe

    You have to spell Edghill correctly. There were Edghills on the same ship as my ancestors in the 1670s and some Edghills bought my grandparents’ home in St James from the estate.

  • Laura Mary O’Neill Midkiff

    Mr. Watson and Mr. Farmer, I put my families’ names in your search engine. I received nothing. Edgehill and Hutchinson. I would refer you to the book, The Hutchinson and Edgehill Families Of Barbados (1595-1995). Compiled by Herbert Allan Hutchinson. We have traced it back 32 years before Barbados was settled. As an American (raised in Europe, after all my mother was British, y’all screwed up). Yeah, I don’t know how to spell it , but Frizers (sic). My cousin Robin. The Brown’s also. My great uncle Evelyn. Research is a good thing.