Barbados, a small island nation in the eastern Caribbean, has a complex and fascinating history. The island has experienced multiple stages of development, from early Amerindian settlements to British colonisation, the arrival of African enslaved people, the growth of the sugarcane industry, and, ultimately, the path to independence.
Early Amerindian settlements
Arrival of the first Amerindians
The history of Barbados dates back thousands of years to the arrival of its first settlers, the Amerindians. These indigenous people are believed to have journeyed across the open seas in dug-out canoes from present-day Venezuela. The Arawaks, a peaceful Amerindian group, were among the first to settle on the island. They lived in harmony with nature, fishing in the surrounding coral reefs and cultivating crops like cassava in the fertile soil.
The Carib invasion
By the mid-1200s, a more aggressive tribe known as the Caribs invaded Barbados. The Caribs were renowned for their advanced fighting techniques and quickly overtook the Arawaks, either killing them or forcing them to flee to neighbouring islands.
European encounters and colonisation
The Portuguese and Spanish expeditions
In the 1400s, Portuguese explorers reached Barbados en route to Brazil. The island’s native fig trees, with their distinctive beard-like features, inspired Portuguese sailor Pedro a Campus to name the island “Los Barbados,” meaning “The Bearded Ones.” Although they made contact with the island, the Portuguese did not attempt to colonise it due to the fierce Caribs.
In 1492, the Spanish arrived in Barbados and claimed it as their own. They successfully defeated the Caribs, either capturing them as enslaved people, forcing them to flee, or causing their deaths due to European diseases. Despite their victory, the Spanish soon abandoned Barbados to focus on conquering larger Caribbean islands.
The British ship Olive Blossom encountered Barbados in 1625. Its crew, discovering the uninhabited island, claimed it in the name of King James I. In 1627, the first British settlers arrived under the direction of Sir William Courteen. The settlers, 80 Englishmen, and 10 kidnapped Irish and English workers established Jamestown, now known as Holetown. Barbados was then divided among England’s wealthy gentry, who had the resources and connections to develop the land.
Development of the sugar industry and slavery
Introduction of sugarcane
In the 1640s, the sugarcane farming industry took root in Barbados, becoming one of the world’s largest producers. The island was divided into large sugarcane plantation estates, which required a significant amount of manual labour to cultivate.
The Atlantic Slave Trade
To meet the labour demands of the sugarcane industry, slave codes were implemented, and the Barbadian sugarcane industry flourished. The workforce shifted from white British prisoners and poor immigrants to enslaved West Africans forcibly brought to Barbados. Many white residents left the island during this time, leading to a small group of wealthy European plantation owners who controlled the government and brutally repressed the enslaved people. As with many colonised Caribbean countries, there were slave revolts.
Struggles for freedom and emancipation
Growing tensions and abolitionist movements
By the end of the 18th century, the Barbadian population had shifted from majority white British to majority black African. Tensions between the enslaved people and enslavers were mounting, and the humanitarian movement in England gained momentum as anti-slavery campaigners pushed for the abolition of the slave trade.
The abolition of the slave trade and emancipation
In 1807, the British government passed the Slave Trade Act, which outlawed the slave trade but not slavery itself. This led to continued unrest among the enslaved population. Finally, on 28 August 1833, the British government passed the Slavery Abolition Act, granting emancipation to enslaved people throughout the British Empire on 1 August 1834.
The road to independence
The rise of Black political leaders and social reforms
In the 1930s, descendants of emancipated slaves began a movement for political rights. One of the leaders of this movement, Sir Grantley Adams, founded the Barbados Progressive League, later known as the Barbados Labour Party. By 1942, political reforms expanded voting rights and granted women the right to vote. In 1949, the control of the government shifted from the planters to the people, and by 1958, Adams became the Premier of Barbados.
The West Indies Federation and the path to self-government
From 1958 to 1962, Barbados was one of the ten members of the West Indies Federation, a federalist organisation composed of British colonies. However, the Federation dissolved due to nationalist attitudes and limited legislative power. Errol Walton Barrow, a reformist leader, founded the Democratic Labour Party as an alternative to Adams’ conservative government. Barrow implemented progressive social programs like free education and a school meals system. In 1961, Barrow replaced Adams as Premier, and the Democratic Labour Party took control of the government.
Independence and beyond
In June 1966, Barbados negotiated independence at a constitutional conference with Britain. After centuries of peaceful and democratic progress, Barbados finally became independent on 30 November 1966, with Errol Barrow as its first Prime Minister. Although Queen Elizabeth II remained the monarch, Barbados maintained historical ties with Britain by becoming a member of the Commonwealth of Nations.
Barbados has continued to evolve and build on its rich history as an independent nation. The island’s unique blend of West African and English influences has shaped its vibrant culture and identity, making it a captivating destination for travellers and historians alike.