Barbados History – At A Glance
Barbados may be a small island, but it still has a vibrant history. From its humble beginnings as a settlement of Amerindians to its standing as one of the world’s most sought-after holiday destinations, two 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,’ most 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 comprises people 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 based on the British system. British English is also the island’s official language; however, Barbadians speak a unique Bajan dialect in more casual settings.
Barbados is an island of high contrasts with a rich heritage to be discovered. And we’ve made it easy for you to learn 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.
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 is 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 where they could grow crops like cassava, a staple in many Bajan diets today.
Mid-1200 AD: ‘Carib’ Invasion
Another Amerindian tribe eventually invaded the Arawaks, 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 they did not make an effort to colonize the island. However, thanks to one of their sailors, Pedro, a Campus, the island first received the name ‘Barbados.’
Legend says 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 officially discovered Barbados, as the declining Amerindian population had rendered the island ‘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 enslaved people, the Caribs fleeing to nearby islands, or the Caribs dying due to European diseases 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.
1532 to 1620 – the Portuguese Empire briefly claimed Barbados.
1625: English Landing
On May 4th, 1625, Captain John Powell landed an English ship on Barbados’ deserted shores. This landing is said to have been a navigational error when the crew sailed off course 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 February 17th, 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). Over the next decade, Barbados was divided amongst England’s wealthy gentry, 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, 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 globally.
The sugarcane farming industry begins in Barbados; to 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, enslaved West Africans brought 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 enslaved people through brutal repression.
The 1800s: Tensions Build
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 enslaved people and enslavers. The humanitarian movement in England was also building momentum as anti-slavery campaigners fought to abolish the slave trade.
1807: The Slave Trade Is Abolished
Slavery was abolished by the British via the Slave Trade Act. However, this only outlawed the slave trade,’ Therefore, slavery continued throughout the British Empire.
1815: Slavery Continues
The African Institution put forth the Slave Registry Bill to the British Parliament, which sought 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 enslaved Barbadian, led the largest slave rebellion in Barbadian history. Hundreds of enslaved people rose to overthrow the white planter class, but this did not abolish slave labor.
1823 – 1832
More large-scale rebellions in 1823 in Demerara (now part of Guyana) and 1831 – 1832 in Jamaica increased pressure on the British Government to address slavery.
1833 – 1834: Emancipation Is Achieved
On August 28th, 1833, the British Government passed the Slavery Abolition Act, brought into effect on August 1st, 1834, and enslaved people across the British Empire were granted Emancipation.
Although slavery had been officially abolished, a four-year ‘apprenticeship period’ remained, whereby ‘free men’ continued to work without pay in exchange for small housing. This continued until August 1st, 1838 when it was finally agreed that all enslaved people were set free.
1838: True Freedom Comes
Freedom was celebrated with over 70,000 Barbadians of African descent taking to the streets and 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 office jobs. Free laborers were also now in a position to buy property.
More historical developments occurred from this time – the introduction of income tax and the Minimum Wage Act, the Barbados Labour Party’s creation, and of course, Independence from British rule.
After being recognized as a British colony for over 300 years, Barbados was granted full independence from Britain on November 30th, 1966, led by the Right Excellent Errol Walton Barrow. He 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 expanded its international allegiances by becoming a member of the United Nations and the American States Organisation.
2017: Barbados 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 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 day.
2020 – Barbados’ new President-elect
In 2020, the Barbados parliament voted to transition from a constitutional monarchy to a parliamentary republic (link to new TB republic article) consisting of a Prime Minister / and a ceremonial President as Head of State.
“The time has come to leave our colonial past behind fully,” Dame Sandra Mason said during the annual 2020 Throne Speech, delivered on behalf of Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley.
“Barbadians want a Barbadian Head of State.”
The following year, on October 12th, 2021, Dame Sandra Mason was nominated to become the first President of Barbados and then unanimously elected by the two houses of Parliament in a special sitting of the lower and upper houses. Please read about it at the GIS (Government Information Service) for more information.
Although her role is primarily ceremonial, and Barbados will remain a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, Sandra Mason was sworn in as President of Barbados and assumed office coinciding with the official national Independence Day (November 30th).
In 2021, this day significantly marked the 55th year of Independence for Barbados and the day the island transitioned to becoming the world’s newest republic.
The British Queen was officially removed as the Head of State in a Presidential Inauguration Ceremony hosted at Heroes Square in Bridgetown.
See photos of the historic town and places of interest in Barbados within our Adobe Portfolio.
- Barbados Festivals
- Barbados Independence 2010
- 1492 and Before – Amerindians in Barbados
- 1807 – 1966 – Barbados from Emancipation to Independence
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Last Updated: February 19th, 2023
Publisher: Totally Barbados