This week I had the pleasure of joining, in a personal and unofficial capacity, a Barbados business delegation organised by Invest Barbados and the Barbados Consulate to Miami to the beautiful city of Charleston in the southern United States (US) state of South Carolina. For many years I have heard of the rich history between Barbados and the Carolinas. History tells us that it was in the 17th century that British planters from Barbados and their enslaved Africans established a “colony of a colony” in the Carolinas, the area now roughly North and South Carolina. A vibrant underground trade existed between the colonies of Barbados and the Carolinas during the colonial era but current Barbados-South Carolina trade is quite small.
This three-day trade mission afforded me the opportunity not just to learn much more about this history, but more germane to my profession, consider how these historical ties could be leveraged to expand on the currently miniscule trading relationship between Barbados and the ‘Palmetto State’. In this article, I share my initial reflections coming out of this visit.
Sweet Home Carolina?
One of the first things which struck me upon arrival to Charleston, the State’s largest city, was the warmth of the people I met. Like my visit to Charlotte, North Carolina a couple years ago, this visit felt almost like coming back home. Charleston is a coastal city of roughly 150,000 people but feels, in many ways, like a small town. Its colourful architecture, tree-lined streets and southern charm were immediately alluring to me.
The Barbados-South Carolina connection has its historical genesis in the evils of colonialism and the blood, sweat and tears of our enslaved ancestors. However, because of that unfortunate historical connection, there is much about Charleston that feels familiar to a Barbadian. People would pass you on the street and say good morning, which is something I am used to in Barbados but not in the US! While trying to get from the airport to my hotel, a complete stranger kindly offered me his phone to call my hotel and made sure I was covered with transportation before he left. That kind gesture took me pleasantly by surprise but I later learnt this was all part of the Charlestonian way. Besides the warmth of the people, many of the customs, the architecture and the food reminded me of home, as well as the uncanny similarity between the Gullah language and our Bajan dialect.
But what does all of this have to do with trade? All business, including international trade, is built on relationships. One of the key benefits of participating in trade missions is the ability for businesses to establish relationships with officials and potential business partners, gather preliminary on the ground market intelligence and learn a bit about the culture, business climate and opportunities in the potential target market.
This mission was just one of several efforts over the years at expanding people-to-people and business links between Barbados and South Carolina. Charleston and Speightstown, which share a historical relationship, have been twin cities since the 1990s. Significant credit behind many of these Barbados-Carolinas initiatives goes to Barbados’ Honorary Consul to South Carolina and CEO/Founder of the Barbados and the Carolinas Legacy Foundation, Miss Rhoda Green, a Barbadian based in the US. ‘Miss Rhoda’, as she is affectionately called, has been a tour de force in educating Barbadians and Carolinians about the Barbados-Carolinas connection and her bubbly spirit and passion are instantly charming. She had also written the foreword to the canonical book “The Barbados-Carolina Connection” by Warren Alleyne and Henry Fraser, which is definitely recommended reading for anyone interested in this historical relationship.
In October 2022, Charleston’s Mayor John Tecklenburg, himself a businessman, led a large business delegation to Barbados. In his address on the first day of the current delegation, Mayor Tecklenburg emphasized the importance of the Barbados-Carolinas connection and noted his hope that these business delegations would be an ongoing exchange. Indeed, a South Carolinian business delegation will be coming back to Barbados in October of this year. Similarly, Barbados’ Consul General to Miami, Rudy Grant, which also has responsibility for eleven US states (South Carolina included), reiterated the importance of commercial diplomacy to helping expand Barbados-South Carolina trade ties.
Much of Barbados’ trade with the US is concentrated with the US State of Florida. Two-way merchandise trade between Barbados and South Carolina is very small and concentrated in only a narrow range of goods. South Carolina enjoys a trade surplus with Barbados. Similarly, South Carolina mainly trades with North America and Asia. Barbados does not rank within its top markets. Addressing us in front of the soon-to-be-opened International African American Museum, South Carolina State Senator Marlon Kimpson, who was recently appointed to President Joe Biden’s Trade Advisory Council, remarked on this limited trading relationship and stated his willingness to work with Barbados on expanding it.
Areas of Opportunity
One of the things that became clearer to me coming out of this mission was that there are many areas of opportunity for expanding and diversifying our trade with South Carolina. One area is tourism, particularly niche areas like heritage, culinary, genealogical, medicinal, educational tourism, among others. There is much for a Barbadian tourist to see in Charleston. On the first day, Miss Rhoda provided us a stirring tour of the Charleston Landing’s museum showcasing the Barbados-Carolinas history. This is also definitely an attraction many Barbadians will likely enjoy. Certainly, I did! On the second day, the delegation was graciously provided with a sneak preview of the International African American Museum by its dynamic and insightful President and CEO Dr. Tonya Matthews. The museum is built on the site of a former slave port, a fact driven home by the hunched sculptures representing our enslaved ancestors awaiting their fate. The exhibits offer a raw and powerful look into the lived realities of the African-American experience from historical times to the present-day. The histories narrated share not just the travails and triumphs of those of black descent in America but also weave in the stories of persons from Latin America and the Caribbean, again reiterating that shared history between us.
Additionally, there is much opportunity for collaborative research, business and investment in the areas of renewable energy and the blue and economy between Barbados and South Carolina. Of interest is that the Sea Turtle Care Center at the South Carolina Aquarium, another must-see attraction, is the largest turtle hospital on the US eastern seaboard. Its CEO Mr. Kevin Mills shared that South Carolina is dealing with some of the same issues we have in Barbados regarding turtle conservation, such as turtles and their hatchlings being injured by manmade hazards. Like all cities, Charleston has its share of problems as does Barbados. But like Barbados is in the Caribbean, Charleston is one of the most attractive markets for business in the US. The city also has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the US. With South Carolina’s ‘low country’ being vulnerable to the effects of climate change, the state is not unfamiliar with the imperative to pivot after a major disaster. Hurricane Hugo in 1989 had caused significant devastation and has made resilience a key consideration for them, similar to Barbados.
Charleston’s proximity to Miami makes getting to the city relatively easy for both business and leisure travel for Barbadians. Moreover, most Barbadian goods exports to the US benefit from duty free treatment in the US under the Caribbean Basin Initiative, a one-way trade preferences scheme implemented by the US Government since the 1980s.
In turn, the Barbados delegation, comprising mainly delegates from Invest Barbados, the National Cultural Foundation (NCF), the Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc (BTMI) and the Barbados Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI) and private individuals, did a fabulous job of selling Barbados as a place for work, play and investment. The team highlighted not just the shared connection, but Barbados’ political and economic stability, openness to investment, stable business climate, and its network of trade, tax and investment agreements. Invest Barbados also shared its Blue Book of investment projects for interested investors.
The response and enthusiasm from the South Carolinian business community and their interest in learning about trading and investment opportunities with Barbados reiterated to me that there is much to be gained from this relationship. The South Carolinian businesses represented included manufacturing, renewable energy, higher education, real estate, financial services and logistics, among others. The budding relationship between the Barbados Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI) and the Charleston Metro Chamber, both the oldest chambers in their respective markets, also bodes well for members of both chambers.
I wish to thank Invest Barbados for the opportunity to join this delegation. I also thank my fellow delegates for a wonderful time of both work and play. I also wish to thank the people of Charleston for their impeccable hospitality, including the Barbados-Carolinas Legacy Foundation. I look forward to seeing this Barbados-Carolinas trade connection grow and flourish. May the levels of trade between us one day be as rich as the history we share!
Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is an international trade consultant and founder of the Caribbean Trade Law and Development Blog: Caribbeantradelaw.com. She was part of the Barbados delegation to Charleston, South Carolina in a personal and unofficial capacity.
Correction: The number of States for which the Barbados Miami consulate has responsibility has been corrected to eleven.