Fascinating History of Barbados Island

European Colonizers

Barbados island was inhabited by Arawaks and Caribs at the time of European colonization of the Americas in the 16th century. The island of Barbados was an English, and later British colony, from 1625 until 1966. Since 1966, Barbados island has been a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy modeled on the Westminster system with Queen Elizabeth the second as titular head of state.

Barbados Pre-History – Amerindians

Some evidence suggests that Barbados island may have been settled in the second millennium, BC but this is limited to fragments of conch found in association with shells that have been radiocarbon dated to about 1630 BC. Fully documented Amerindian settlement dates to between about 350 and 650 AD. The arrivals were a group known as the salad oi Barranco from mainland South America. A second wave of settlers appeared around the Year 800. The Spanish referred to these as Arawaks. And a third in the mid 13th century called Caribs by the Spanish. This last group was politically more organized and came to rule over the others.

Barbados Early History

The Portuguese were the first of the European colonizers to land on the island of Barbados. Portuguese navigator Pedro a Campos named the island of Barbados, Los Barbados, meaning bearded ones. Barbadians, or Bajans, as the local population refers to itself,  know this history as having been associated with a “Bearded Fig Tree”.  Frequent slave raiding missions to the island of Barbados by the Spanish Empire in the early 16th century led to such a massive decline in the Amerindian population that by 1541 a Spanish writer claimed that Barbados and the islands known as the Caribbean were uninhabited.

The Amerindians were either captured for use as slaves by the Spanish or fled to other more easily defensible mountainous islands nearby. From about the year 1600, the English, French, and Dutch began to found colonies on the North American mainland and throughout the smaller islands of the West Indies. Although Spanish and Portuguese sailors had earlier visited the island of Barbados, the first English ship touched the island on the 14th of May 1625.

England Claims Barbados

Beginning in 1625, England was the first European nation to establish a lasting settlement in Barbados. England is commonly said to have made its initial claim to Barbados island in 1625. By some reports,  an earlier claim may have been made in 1620. Nonetheless, Barbados was claimed in 1625 in the name of King James, the first of England. There were earlier English settlements in the Americas – 1607 Jamestown, 1609 Bermuda, and 1620 Plymouth Colony. Also, several islands in the Leeward Islands were claimed by the English at about the same time as Barbados island. In 1623,  St.

Kitts was claimed, 1628 Nevis,  1632 Montserrat,  and 1632 Antigua. Nevertheless, Barbados island quickly grew to become the third major English settlement in the Americas due to its prime eastern location.

Early English Settlement on Barbados Island

The settlement was established as a proprietary colony and funded by Sir William Curtin a city of London merchant who acquired the title to Barbados island and several other islands. So the first colonists were actually tenants and much of the profits of their labor returned to Curtin and his company. The first English ship which arrived on the 14th of May, 1625, was captained by John Powell.

The first settlement began on the 17th of February, 1627, near what is now Hole Town, formerly Jamestown, by a group led by John Powell’s younger brother Henry. This settlement consisted of 80 settlers and 10 English laborers. The latter were young indentured laborers who, according to some sources, had been abducted, effectively making them slaves. Court ins title was transferred to James Hay 1st, Earl of Carlyle, in what was called the great Barbados island robbery. Carlisle then chose as governor Henry Hawley who established the House of Assembly in 1639 in an effort to appease the planters who might otherwise have opposed his controversial appointment.

English Attraction to the Caribbean

In the period 1640 to 60, the West Indies attracted over two-thirds of the total number of English emigrants to the Americas. By 1650, there were 44,000 settlers in the West Indies as compared to 12,000 on the Chesapeake, and 23,000 in New England. Most English arrivals were indentured.  After five years of labor, they were given freedom dues of about 10 liras- usually in goods. Before the mid-1630s, they also received five to ten acres of land. But after that time, the island filled, and there was no more free land.

Around the time of Cromwell, a number of rebels and criminals were also transported there. Timothy Means of Warwickshire was one of the rebels sent to Barbados at that time before he received compensation for servitude of 1,000 acres of land in North Carolina in 1666. Parish registers from the 1650s show for the white population four times as many deaths as marriages. The death rate was very high. Before this, the mainstay of the infant Barbados island colony’s economy was the growth export of tobacco. But tobacco prices eventually fell in the 1630s as Chesapeake production expanded.

England Civil War

Around the same time, fighting during the war of the Three Kingdoms and the interregnum spilled over into Barbados and Barbadian territorial waters. The island was not involved in the war until after the execution of Charles the First when the government of the island fell under the control of Royalists. Ironically, Governor Philip Bell remained loyal to parliament while the Barbadian House of Assembly was under the influence of Humphrey. While Ron supported Charles 2nd to try to bring the recalcitrant colony to heel, the Commonwealth parliament passed an act on the 3rd of October, 1650, prohibiting trade between England and Barbados.

English Dutch Trade

And because the island of Barbados also traded with the Netherlands, further Navigation Acts were passed prohibiting any but English vessels from trading with Dutch colonies. These Acts were a precursor to the first Anglo-Dutch war. The Commonwealth of England sent an invasion force under the command of Sir George Ayscue which arrived in October 1651. After some skirmishing, the Royalists in the House of Assembly, led by Lord Willoughby, surrendered. The conditions of the surrender were incorporated into the Charter of Barbados Treaty Oistins which was signed at the mermaids in Oistins on the 17th of January 1652.

Barbados Island
Barbados Island Sugar Cane

Sugar Cane and Slavery – Island of Barbados

Sugarcane cultivation in Barbados began in the 1640s. After its introduction in 1637 by Peter Blower, initially rum was produced. But by 1642, sugar was the focus of the industry as it developed into the main commercial enterprise. Barbados was divided into large plantation estates which replaced the small holdings of the early English settlers. As the wealthy planters pushed out the poorer, some of the displaced farmers relocated to the English colonies in North America – most notably South Carolina – to work the plantations.

Black Africans, primarily from West Africa, were imported as slaves in such numbers that there were three for every one planter. Increasingly after 1750, the plantations were owned by absentee landlords living in Britain and operated by hired managers. The slave trade ceased in 1807, and slaves were emancipated in 1834. Persecuted Catholics from Ireland also worked the plantations.

Barbados Sugar Industry

The life expectancy of African slaves was short, and replacements were purchased annually. The introduction of sugar came from Dutch Brazil in 1640 and completely transformed society and the economy. Barbados eventually had one of the world’s biggest sugar industries. One group instrumental in ensuring the early success of the industry were the Sephardic Jews who had originally been expelled from the Iberian Peninsula to end up in Dutch Brazil.

As the effects of the new crop increased so did the shift in the ethnic composition of Barbados and surrounding islands. The workable sugar plantation required a large investment and a great deal of heavy labour. At first, Dutch traders supplied the equipment financing and African slaves in addition to transporting most of the sugar to Europe. In 1644, the population of Barbados was estimated at 30,000 of which about 800 were of African descent with the remainder mainly of English descent. These English smallholders were eventually bought out and the island filled up with large African slave work.

Sugar Plantations on Barbados Island

By 1660, there was near parity, with 27 thousand blacks and 20 6000 whites. By 1666, at least 12,000 white smallholders had been bought out, died or left the island. Many of the remaining whites were increasingly poor. By 1680, there were 17 slaves for every indentured servant. By 1700, there were 15,000 free whites and 50,000 enslaved blacks. Due to the increased implementation of slave codes, which created differential treatment between Africans and the white workers and ruling planter class, the island became increasingly unattractive to poor whites.


Slave codes were implemented in 1661, 1676, 1682, and 1688. In response to these codes, several slave rebellions were attempted or planned during this time, but none succeeded. Nevertheless, poor whites who had, or acquired, the means to emigrate often did so. Planters expanded their importation of African slaves to cultivate sugarcane. One early advocate of slave rights in Barbados was the visiting Quaker preacher Alice Kerwin in 1677.

For I am persuaded that if they whom thou cost thy slaves be upright hearted to God the Lord God Almighty will set them free in a way that thou knowest not for there is none set free but in Christ Jesus for all other freedom will prove but a bondage.

Barbados Value for England

By 1660, Barbados generated more trade than all the other English colonies combined. This remained so until it was eventually surpassed by geographically larger islands like Jamaica in 1713. But even so, the estimated value of the colony of Barbados in 1732-31 was as much as five million, five hundred thousand liras. Bridgetown, the capital was one of the three largest cities in English America. The other two being Boston Massachusetts and Port Royal, Jamaica.

By 1700, the English West Indies produced 25,000 tons of sugar compared to 20,000 for Brazil, ten thousand for the French islands, and four thousand for the Dutch islands. This quickly replaced tobacco, which had been the island’s main export. As the sugar industry developed into its main commercial enterprise, Barbados was divided into large plantations of states that replaced the small holdings of the early English settlers. In 1680, over half the arable land was held by 175 large planters each of whom held at least 60 slaves. The great planters had connections with the English aristocracy and had great influence on Parliament.

In 1668, the West Indian sugar crop sold for 180,000 pounds after customs of 18,000 pounds. Chesapeake tobacco earned 50,000 pounds after customs of 75,000 pounds. So much land was devoted to sugar that most foods had to be imported from New England. The poor whites who were moved off the island went to the English leeward islands, or especially to Jamaica. In 1670, the province of South Carolina was founded when some of the surplus population again left Barbados.

Other nations benefiting from large numbers of Barbadians included British Guyana (known as B.G. to Bajans) and Panama. Roberts 2006 shows that slaves did not spend the majority of time in restricted rolls cultivating harvesting and processing sugarcane, the island’s most important cash crop. Rather, slaves were involved in various activities and in multiple roles – raising livestock, fertilizing soil, growing provisional crops, maintaining plantation infrastructure, caregiving, and other tasks.

One notable soil management technique was intercropping –  planting subsistence crops between the rows of cash crops – which demanded of the slaves skilled and experienced observations of growing conditions for efficient land use. Slaveholders often counted as married only the slaves with mates on the estate. For example, the manager of Newton estate recorded 20 women with co-resident husbands and 35 with mates. Elsewhere, members of the latter group were labeled single members of extended units or mother-child units.

Bussa’s Rebellion

Towards the Abolition of Slavery

The British abolished the slave trade in 1807 but not the institution itself. In 1816, slaves rose up in the largest major slave rebellion in the island’s history. Of 20,000 slaves from over 70 plantations, they drove whites off the plantations, but widespread killings did not take place. This was later termed Bussa’s rebellion after the slave Ranger Bussa who, with his assistants, hated slavery, found the treatment of slaves on Barbados to be intolerable, and believed the political climate in Britain made the time ripe to peacefully negotiate with planters for freedom.

Bussa’s rebellion failed. 120 slaves, including Bussa, died in combat or were immediately executed, and another 144 were brought to trial and executed. The remaining rebels were shipped off the island. In 1826, the Barbados Legislature passed the consolidated slave law which simultaneously granted concessions to the slaves while providing reassurances to the slave owners. Slavery was finally abolished in the British Empire 18 years later in 1834.

In Barbados and the rest of the British West Indian colonies, full emancipation from slavery was preceded by an apprenticeship period that lasted four years. In 1884, the Barbados Agricultural Society sent a letter to Sir Francis Hanks requesting his private and public views on whether the Dominion of Canada would favorably entertain having the then colony of Barbados admitted as a member of the Canadian Confederation. Asked from Canada were the terms of the Canadian side to initiate discussions and whether or not the island of Barbados could depend on the full influence of Canada in getting the change agreed to by the British Parliament at Westminster.

Towards Decolonization on Barbados Island

In 1952, the Barbados Advocate newspaper polled several prominent Barbadian politicians, lawyers, businessmen, the Speaker of the Barbados House of Assembly, and later, as first president of the Senate, Sir Theodore Branca QC, and found them to be in favor of immediate Federation of Barbados along with the rest of the British Caribbean with complete Dominion status.

West Indies Federation

Within five years from the date of the inauguration of the West Indies Federation with Canada, however, plantation owners and merchants of British descent still dominated local politics owing to the high-income qualification required for voting. More than 70% of the population, many of them disenfranchised women, were excluded from the democratic process. It was not until the 1930s that the descendants of emancipated slaves began a movement for political rights.

Sir Grantley Adams

One of the leaders of this movement, Sir Grantley Adams, founded the Barbados Progressive League in 1938 which later became known as the Barbados Labour Party. Adams and his party demanded more rights for the poor and for the people and staunchly supported the monarchy. Progress toward a more democratic government in Barbados was made in 1942 when the exclusive income qualification was lowered and women were given the right to vote.

By 1949, governmental control was rested from the planters. And in 1958, Adams became Premier of Barbados. From 1958 to 1962, Barbados was one of the ten members of the West Indies Federation, a federalist organization doomed by nationalist attitudes and the fact that its members, as British colonies, held limited legislative power. Grantley Adams served as its first, and only premier.  But his leadership failed in attempts to form similar unions, and his continued defense of the monarchy was used by his opponents as evidence that he was no longer in touch with the needs of his country.

Errol Barrow & Barbados Independence

Errol Walton Barrow, a fervent reformer, became the people’s new advocate. Barrow had left the BLP and formed the Democratic Labour Party as a liberal alternative to Adams’s Conservative government. Barrow instituted many progressive social programs such as free education for all Barbadians in a school meal system. By 1961, Barrow had replaced Adams as Premier and the DLP controlled the government. With the Federation dissolved, Barbados island reverted to its former status – that of a self-governing colony.

The island negotiated its own independence at a constitutional conference with Britain in June 1966. After years of peaceful and democratic progress, Barbados finally became an independent state on the 30th of November 1966 with Errol Barrow its first Prime Minister, although Queen Elizabeth ii of Great Britain remained the monarch. Upon independence, Barbados maintained historical linkages with Britain by becoming a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. A year later Barbados’s international linkages were expanded by obtaining membership of both the United Nations and the Organization of American States.

Island of Barbados Political History

Carrington 1982 examines politics during the American Revolution revealing that Barbadian political leaders shared many of the grievances and goals of the American revolutionaries but that they were unwilling to go to war over them. Nevertheless, the repeated conflicts between the island assembly and the royal governors brought important constitutional reforms which confirmed the Legislature’s control over most local matters and its power over the executive.

From 1800 until 1885, the island of Barbados then served as the main seat of government for the former British colonies of the Windward Islands. During the period of around 85 years, the resident Governor of Barbados also served as the colonial head of the Windward Islands. After the government of Barbados officially exited from the Windward Island Union in 1885, the seat was moved from Bridgetown to St. George’s on the neighboring island of Grenada where it remained until the territory of the Windward Islands was dissolved.

Soon after Barbados’s withdrawal from the Windward Islands, Barbados became aware that Tobago was going to be amalgamated with another territory as part of a single state. In response, Barbados made an official bid to the British government to have neighbouring Island Tobago joined with Barbados as a political union. The British government, however, decided that Trinidad would be a better fit, and Tobago instead was made a ward of Trinidad. African slaves worked on plantations owned by merchants of English and Scottish descent. It was these merchants who continued to dominate Barbados politics even after emancipation due to a high income restriction on voting.

Only the upper 30% had any voice in the democratic process. It was not until the 1930s that a movement for political rights was begun by the descendants of emancipated slaves who started trade unions. One of the leaders of this movement, Sir Grantley Adams founded the Barbados Progressive League – now the Barbados Labour Party in 1938. The Great Depression caused mass unemployment and strikes and the standard of living on the island fell drastically. Adams continued to advocate more help for the people, especially the poor. Finally, in 1942, the income qualification was lowered. This was followed by the introduction of universal adult suffrage in 1950, and Adams was elected as premier of Barbados in 1958.

For his action and leadership, Adams would later become a national hero. From 1958 to 1962, Barbados was one of the 10 members of the West Indies Federation an organization doomed to failure by a number of factors including what were often petty nationalistic prejudices and limited legislative power. Indeed, Adams’ position as prime minister was a misnomer, as all of the Federation members were still colonies of Britain. Adams, once a political visionary, and now a man whose policies seemed to some blind to the needs of his country not only held fast to his notion of defending the monarchy but also made additional attempts to form other Federation-like entities after that union’s demise.

When the Federation was terminated, Barbados reverted to its former status as a self-governing colony, but efforts were made by Adams to form another federation composed of Barbados and the Leeward and Windward Islands.  Errol Walton Barrow was to replace Grantley Adams as the advocate of populism, and it was he who would eventually lead the island of Barbados into independence in 1966. Barrow, a fervent reformer, and once a member of the Barbados Labour Party, had left the party to form his own Democratic Labour Party as the Liberal alternative to the conservative BLP government under Adams.

He remains a national hero for his work in social reformation including the institution of free education for all Barbadians in 1961. Barrow supplanted Adams as premier as the DLP took control of the government. Due to several years of growing autonomy, Barbados island, with Barrow at the helm, was able successfully to negotiate its independence at a constitutional conference with the United Kingdom in June 1966. After years of peaceful and democratic progress, Barbados finally became an independent state and formally joined the Commonwealth of Nations on the 30th of November 1966 with Errol Barrow serving as its first prime minister.

Confederations and Union Proposals

A number of proposals have been mooted in the past to have Barbados integrated with either neighboring countries or even the Canadian Confederation. To date, all have failed, and one proposal even led to deadly riots in 1876 when Governor John Pope Hennessy tried to pressure Barbados politicians to integrate more firmly into the Windward Islands. Governor Hennessy was quickly transferred from Barbados by the British Crown in 1884.

Attempts were then made by the influential Barbados Agricultural Society to have Barbados island form a political association with the Canadian Confederation. From 1958 to 1962 Barbados became one of the 10 states of the West Indies Federation. Lastly, in the 1990s a plan was devised by the leaders of Guyana, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago to form a political association between those three governments again this deal was never completed following the loss of Sir Lloyd Erskine Sandiford in the Barbadian general elections.

Source – Wikipedia audio article as found on Youtube

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