Barbados History

Barbados – 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 very 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 great 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 really 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 neighbouring islands.

1400s: Portuguese Visitors

In the 1400s, the Portuguese reached Barbados whilst sailing through to Brazil. They had no desire to fight with the fierce 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 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 are 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 settlement 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 rich 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.

1640: Sugarcane

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 labour, 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 supressed slaves through brutal repression.

1800s: 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 labour.

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 truly 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 labourers were also now in a position to buy property.

From this moment in time, more historic 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.

1966: Independence

After being recognised 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 who 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.

2015: 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 modelled 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 strong to this very day.


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.

Read More

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.Read More

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.Read More

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.Read More

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.Read More

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.Read More

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.Read More

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.Read More

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.Read More

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