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BETHESDA – From the first school in the British West-Indies a village was born. PART 1

Bethesda is a village in the parish of Saint Paul on the island of Antigua. It is located in the southeastern area of the island, to the northeast of English Harbour, at the head of Willoughby Bay.

Antiguan Trumpet provides community entail as our reporters toured the village with community activist, Ian Joseph to discover stories that have played a major role in the history of the twin-island state of Antigua and Barbuda.

A few years after Bethesda school, the first academic institution in the British West Indies was built, a village of the same name came into existence. Ian Joseph, a native of the village and a tourism ambassador in the taxi trade spoke to Antiguan Trumpet in this three-part series about the origins of the school, the village and much more.

Joseph, who is also a community activist and Public Relations Officer (P.R.O) of the Bethesda / Christian Hill community group, told reporters that Bethesda is a village deep-seated in history.

“I grew up in the community of Bethesda, Antigua and we are nested in a lot of history which has revolutionized the country.” 

“Before Bethesda became an official village, it actually started out as a school. This predates the emancipation of the slaves in 1834. There was a Methodist Missionary couple by the name of Mr and Mrs Thwaites, who had a history of teaching the children of the slave masters,”  he continued.

 Joseph revealed that the classes were held in the northern side of Bethesda on the estates. He further explained that the Thwaites resided in the village of English Harbour and they would travel daily to what is now known as the village of Bethesda. 

He explained, “In their travels to Bethesda, they would stop at this particular mount, this is where the Methodist Church sits today and this is the exact site where the Bethesda school was founded before moving to another location in the village.”

During a teaching session with the children of the slave masters, Vigor Blade, a brave slave approached the missionaries requesting to be taught and from that day the Bethesda school birthed. 

“Elizabeth Thwaites the wife of Mr Thwaites came from a coloured family who actually owned slaves. She married into the Thwaites family after becoming a Christian and her life then changed completely. She no longer wanted to enslave others, she became a social activist aiming to free and educate slaves,” the community activist recalls. 

From slaves to students! Where the Methodist church sits today in Bethesda is where Mrs Thwaites started educating Blade. Other nearby slaves were then given this opportunity.

As the number of students attending the tutoring sessions increased, there was a high demand in the community and a strong inclination on the heart of the Thwaites family to launch the school, which went on to enrol over 500 students. 

“This is 21 years before slavery was abolished and it was the only school in the British WestIndies that was educating black people at the time and this is something we as villagers are proud of. Because of economic reasons, the Government closed the school in 2015.”

“We as villagers are very sorrowful that the school had to close because it contains so much of our history. Anyhow, we are proud of this piece of history for this school has produced many top educators and scholars who are impacting the world and this is not an accident,” Joseph said. 

A few years after the forming of the school in the 18th hundreds, a earthquake devastated a nearby unknown community. 

“The settlers of this community gathered bricks and stones to rebuild, settling around the church and school, this new settlement is what eventually became the village of Bethesda, this is my village and my history, the place where I come from, my story.”

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