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Barbados History

Barbados has an incredibly diverse history and its modern day lifestyle embraces all the various aspects of its past.

From its humble beginnings as a settlement of Amerindians, through to its modern day standing as one of the most sought after holiday destinations in the world, Barbados continues to evolve with the modern world, capturing the imagination of its visitors and residents alike.

Barbadians or 'Bajans' as they are locally known are warm, friendly, open and fun. The demographic spread of the 280,000 residents extends from people who work in the sugar industry, the tourist industry, the burgeoning finance sector, right through to the world's rich and famous.

All Barbadians are able to receive acclaimed English style education, which has resulted in a 99.7% literacy rate in Barbados (Central Intelligence Agency, US) one of the highest in the world.

The local Bajan population is now made up of 90% from African descent, 4% from European descent and 6% are Asian or mixed (US Department of state). This is largely due to the historical sugar cane farming industry when the British colonised Barbados and brought in British workers and African slaves to work the land.

Barbados was one of the key supporters of slavery abolition across the globe and eventually slavery was abolished in Barbados in 1834. The sugar cane industry still thrives today, helping create some of the world's finest rums and provide a stable export that continues to fund Barbados.

Barbados today is shaped by its British heritage. The Government, schools and religion (which is predominantly protestant) is based on the British system. This has allowed Barbados to develop with a strong and stable parliament, providing the necessary means for its continued successful growth.

Barbados is an island of contrasts - from the rugged East Coast to the developed West; from the busy, thriving South coast to the tranquil North, Barbados has something to offer everyone.

Below is a potted history about the people of Barbados.

Early settlers: The arrival of the Amerindians

No one is sure when Barbados' first settlers arrived. However we do know that the first settlers were Amerindians who found Barbados having paddled across the dangerous open seas from Venezuela in dug-out canoes.

The journey across the seas must have been long and very challenging, but such was the attraction of Barbados even then, that the Amerindians bravely pursued its colonisation.

One group of Amerindians that settled in Barbados were the Arawaks. They lived in Barbados in peace for many years, taking advantage of the abundance of fish in the surrounding waters and fertile soil in which they could grow crops.

Mid 1,200s: The invasion of the 'Caribs'.

Having peacefully settled in Barbados, the Arawaks were invaded by the Caribs, another Amerindian tribe. Unfortunately, the Caribs were a stronger tribe with advanced fighting techniques, utilising skilled bowman with poison tipped arrows that quickly put an end to the Arawak's way of life.

1400's: The Portuguese visitors

The Portuguese reached Barbados whilst sailing through to Brazil. They had no desire to fight with the local Caribs so did not make an effort to colonise the island. However, it is thanks to one of their sailors, Pedro a Campus, that the island first received its name of Barbados.

Legend has it that Campus saw the native fig trees, that grow with a distinctive beard like feature, and dubbed the island "Los Barbados" - which in Portuguese means "The bearded ones".

1492: The Spanish invasion

In 1492, the Spanish first discovered Barbados. It is unclear exactly how long they stayed, or when and how often they returned to Barbados. However, what is understood is that from 1492 onwards, despite the skilled warfare of the Caribs, the Spanish ended up wiping out the local Caribs. This was through a mixture of the Caribs either being captured for use as slaves by the Spanish, fleeing to other, more easily defensible mountainous islands nearby, or dying as a result of European diseases that they were not accustomed to. Despite the Spanish successfully now having effective control of the island, they abandoned the island in order to take over the larger islands in the Caribbean, leaving Barbados once again uninhabited.

1625: The English arrive

On May 4th, Captain John Powell landed an English ship on the now deserted shores of Barbados, claiming the island in the name of King James 1st.

1627: The first British settlement arrived, brought by Captain Henry Powell. It consisted of 80 English settlers, and 10 kidnapped Irish and English workers. Over the next decade, Barbados was divided up amongst the rich gentry of England, who had the finances and connections to manage the land and develop the agriculture.

1639: The Barbados House of Assembly was established, which is the lower house of the bicameral Parliament of Barbados. It was also only the 3rd Parliamentary democracy in the world.

At this time tobacco, ginger, cotton and indigo dye were farmed by European indentured labour.

1640: The sugar cane farming industry in Barbados began.

1661 - 1688: Slave codes were implemented and the sugar cane industry exploded. The land workers shifted from white, British prisoners and poor immigrants to black, African slaves.

1800s: By the end of the 18th century the population of Barbados had shifted from majority white British to majority black African.

1807: Slavery was abolished by the British, but continued throughout the British Empire.

1816: Bussa, an African born, Barbadian slave, led a mass scale slave rebellion. 20,000 slaves rose up and drove the whites off the plantations; however, this did not result in the abolition of slave labour.

1834: Slavery was abolished; however, this was followed by a four year apprenticeship period during which time, the freed slaves continued to work a 45-hour week without pay, in exchange for living in the tiny huts provided by the plantation owners.

1838: Freedom from slavery was celebrated in 1838 at the end of the apprenticeship period with over 70,000 Barbadians of African descent taking to the streets singing Barbados folk songs.

Following freedom many Barbadians took advantage of the excellent free English based education system in Barbados. Some stayed working the sugar cane fields, while others gained prominent jobs in office.

1966: Barbados was granted independence from Britain with Errol Barrow becoming the first Prime Minister. Barbados maintained ties to the British monarch represented in Barbados by the Governor General. It is a member of the Commonwealth.

2011: Today the Barbadian Prime Minister is the Hon. Freundel Stuart, Q.C.The Barbadian parliament is modelled on the British Westminster system, with Queen Elizabeth II as head of state represented by the Governor General and the Prime Minister.

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1492 and Before - Amerindians in Barbados
It is not known exactly when these first Amerindians discovered Barbados and settled on the island. Estimates range from 1623 BC until around 400AD. Archaeologists have been able to analyse remains of the first Amerindians in Barbados, including pottery covered in intricate designs and also some primitive forms of agriculture, to determine these dates.

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1625 - 1627 - The Early Beginnings of English Settlement in Barbados
May 14th 1625 - the first English landing - Captain John Powell and his crew were sailing from Brazil to England and went off course, due to a navigational error.

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1628 - 1630 - Barbados Changes Hands
Sir William Courteen had successfully financed the initial settlement of Barbados. Using his experience of exploits throughout the East Indies and the West Indies, Courteen had developed a fair system of rewarding initial workers through payment; whilst keeping the land and any profits for himself.

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1629 - 1639 - Henry Hawley and the First House of Assembly of Barbados
Whilst Tufton succeeded in alleviating some of the problems for the workers, he did not succeed at appeasing his employers. Carlisle and the merchants were not happy with the lack of profit that was being generated and replaced him with their favoured Governor, Henry Hawley, who arrived back in Barbados in June 1630.

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1634 - 1649 - The Early Economy and White Servants in Barbados
Much is heard of the sugar industry in Barbados; however, less is discussed of the first settlers who made Barbados the success that it is today. Much is owed to these brave few who created the platform for the Barbados that we know today.

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1637 - 1702 - From Tobacco to Sugar; From White Servants to Black Slaves
Barbados started as an island with a tumultuous beginning, and a dependency on tobacco and white indentured servants. But this system was ultimately not sustainable.

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1639 - 1641 - Setting the foundation for the future of Barbados
In 1639, Henry Hawley had established the first House of Assembly, in a desperate effort to win the support of the people that he had suppressed for so long.

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1764 - 1834 - Bussa and the Road to Emancipation
The man remembered as ‘Bussa’ led the largest slave revolt in Barbadian history, helping to pave the way to full emancipation and the abolition of slavery.

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1807 - 1966 - Barbados From Emancipation to Independence
The movement from Emancipation to Independence began in Barbados during a time of civil unrest in the 1930s, 100 years after the abolition of slavery on the island. Read on for more.

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