Barbados History – At A Glance
Barbados may be a small island, but it still has an incredibly rich history. From its humble beginnings as a settlement of Amerindians through to its standing as one of the world’s most sought-after holiday destinations, two very distinct historical influences remain – English and West African.
Today, Barbadian life embraces its diverse combination of influences, making it a unique ‘melting pot’ of local Barbadians or ‘Bajans,’ the majority of whom are of African descent because of the large West African slave trade in the island’s early history. The rest of the population are made up of people who are of mixed race, Caucasian or European descent, East Indian, Oriental and Middle Eastern.
From English settlement to slavery days and Emancipation, and finally to its Independence, Barbados today continues to be shaped by its British heritage. The Government, schools, and religion are all based on the British system. British English is also the official language of the island, however, in more casual settings Barbadians speak a unique Bajan dialect.
Barbados is an island of high contrasts with a rich heritage to be discovered. And, we’ve made it easy for you to learn all about its history with our timeline below.
A Snapshot Of Barbadian History
Early Settlers: Arrival Of The First Amerindians
Interestingly, no one is sure when exactly Barbados’ first settlers arrived.
What we do know, is that some of its first settlers were Amerindians who discovered the island after journeying across the open seas in dug-out canoes from Venezuela.
One group of Amerindians known to have settled in Barbados are the Arawaks. Historical records suggest they lived in peace for hundreds of years in Barbados, freely taking advantage of the abundance of fish in the surrounding coral reefs, and the fertile soil in which they could grow crops like cassava, which remains a staple in many Bajan diets today.
Mid-1200 AD: ‘Carib’ Invasion
The Arawaks were eventually invaded by another Amerindian tribe; the ‘Caribs.’ The Caribs were a stronger and more war-like tribe with advanced fighting techniques. They settled in Barbados, killing many of the Arawaks or running them to other neighboring islands.
the 1400’s: Portuguese Visitors
In the 1400s, the Portuguese reached Barbados while sailing through to Brazil. They had no desire to fight with the fierce Caribs so did not make an effort to colonize the island. However, it is thanks to one of their sailors, Pedro a Campus, that the island first received the name of ‘Barbados.’
Legend has it, that when Campus saw the native fig trees with a distinctive beard-like feature, he dubbed the island ‘Los Barbados‘; Portuguese for ‘The bearded ones.’
1492: Spanish Invasion
In 1492 the Spanish were said to have first officially discovered Barbados, as the declining Amerindian population had rendered the island as ‘uninhabited.’
Despite the skilled warfare of the Caribs, the Spanish wiped out this local population; either by capturing the Caribs and transporting them to Spain as slaves, the Caribs fleeing to nearby islands, or Caribs dying as a result of European diseases brought over by the Spanish.
Despite the Spanish successfully taking control of the island, they soon abandoned Barbados to take over larger Caribbean islands, leaving Barbados uninhabited once more.
1625: English Landing
On 4th May 1625, Captain John Powell landed an English ship on the now deserted shores of Barbados. In fact, this landing is said to have been a navigational error, when the crew sailed off course on a journey from Brazil to England and ended up in Barbados. Nevertheless, Powell claimed the island in the name of King James 1st of England.
1627: First Settlement
The first British settlers arrived in Barbados on 17th February 1627, brought over by Captain Henry Powell (John’s brother). It consisted of 80 English settlers and 10 kidnapped Irish and English workers. They named the settlement ‘Jamestown’ (now Holetown), and over the next decade, Barbados was divided up amongst the wealthy gentry of England, who had the finances and connections to manage and develop the land.
Did you know? Although the Portuguese and the Spanish had visited Barbados earlier, England was the first European nation to establish a lasting settlement on the island, therefore becoming known as the ‘first settlers.’
1639: House Of Assembly
The Barbados House of Assembly was established and was also historically only the third Parliamentary democracy in the world.
The sugarcane farming industry begins in Barbados; to later become one of the world’s biggest sugarcane industries. Barbados is divided into large sugarcane plantation estates.
1661 – 1688: Slavery Days
Because the sugarcane plantations required a great deal of hard labor, slave codes were implemented, and the Barbadian sugarcane industry exploded. Land workers shifted from white, British prisoners and poor immigrants, to black, West African slaves brought over to Barbados to cultivate the sugarcane.
Many of the white population left the island during this time in a mass exodus which left Barbados under the control of a handful of wealthy European plantation owners who ran the Parliament and suppressed slaves through brutal repression.
the 1800’s: Tensions Build
Because of this, by the end of the 18th century, the Barbadian population had shifted from majority white British to majority black African, and tension was building between slaves and masters. The humanitarian movement in England was also building momentum, as anti-slavery campaigners fought for the abolition of the slave trade in its entirety.
1807: The Slave Trade Is Abolished
Slavery was abolished by the British via the Slave Trade Act. However, this only outlawed the slave ‘trade’ and therefore slavery continued throughout the British Empire.
1815: Slavery Continues
The African Institution put forth the Slave Registry Bill to the British Parliament, which would seek to start abolishing slavery in the colonies. This was rejected, causing much resentment in the slave communities.
1816: Bussa’s Slave Rebellion
Bussa, an African-born Barbadian slave, led the largest slave rebellion in Barbadian history. Hundreds of slaves rose up to overthrow the white planter class, but this still did not result in the abolition of slave labor.
1823 – 1832
More large-scale rebellions in 1823 in Demerara (now part of Guyana), and in 1831 – 1832 in Jamaica, increase pressure on the British Government to address the issue of slavery.
1833 – 1834: Emancipation Is Achieved
On 28th August 1833, the British Government passed the Slavery Abolition Act, brought into effect on 1 August 1834, and slaves across the British Empire were granted Emancipation.
Although slavery had been officially abolished, there remained a four year ‘apprenticeship period’, whereby ‘free men’ continued to work without pay in exchange for small housing. This continued until 1 August 1838, when it was finally agreed that all slaves were to be indeed set free.
1838: True Freedom Comes
Freedom was celebrated with over 70,000 Barbadians of African descent taking to the streets singing local folk songs.
Following emancipation, 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 offices. Free laborers were also now in a position to buy property.
From this moment in time, more historical developments occurred – the introduction of income tax and the Minimum Wage Act, the creation of the Barbados Labour Party, and of course Independence from British rule.
After being recognized as a British colony for over 300 years, Barbados was granted its full Independence from Britain on 30th November 1966, led by the Right Excellent Errol Walton Barrow and became the nation’s first Prime Minister.
Although Barbados was now considered an Independent state, the island maintained ties to the British monarch by becoming a member of the Commonwealth of Nations.
Barbados expands its international allegiances by becoming a member of both the United Nations and the Organisation of American States.
2017: Barbados Today
Today, the Barbadian Prime Minister is the Hon. Freundel Jerome Stuart, PC, QC, MP. He is the seventh Prime Minister of Barbados and a member of the Democratic Labour Party.
Since 1966, the Barbadian Parliament has remained a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy, which is modeled on the British Westminster (or Cabinet) system of government. Queen Elizabeth II of England is the head of state, represented by the Governor General and the Prime Minister, which keeps ties between Barbados and England active to this very day.
Author: Brett Callaghan