History of Barbados

The history of Barbados, the eastern most island in the Caribbean, is complicated by slavery

Photo credit: © Ramunas Bruzas | Dreamstime.com

Barbados History

Although both the Spanish and Portuguese would reach the island prior to 1625, it was the English who would eventually colonize Barbados. The island has been a part of Britain or the British Commonwealth for nearly 400 years, since 1625. That period saw slavery, sugar cultivation, independence, and the rise of tourism.

Before the English

As evidenced by recently discovered artifacts, it is believed that early settlers or explorers made their way to Barbados as early as 1623 B.C. Barbados itself was formed from a collision of two land masses that slowly built up a coral formation, and the island appears to be less than one million years old.

The first inhabitants were Amerindians who traveled by canoe across the waters of the treacherous Atlantic from Venezuela. Limited remains are intact from these early explorers, but it is believed that an early settlement was established on the island. The Arawaks were the next group of indigenous settlers on Barbados. The members of this culture practiced agricultural techniques to grow crops such as cotton and corn. Advanced tools such as nets and hooks were used in fishing practices. The seemingly peaceful Arawaks were conquered by the ruthless cannibal tribe, the Caribs, around 1200 A.D. The Spanish first stopped in Barbados in 1492 and through slavery and disease, the Carib population was wiped out. The Spanish, however, chose not to colonize the island. The Portuguese would also land in Barbados in the 16th century, and it was these explorers who gave the island the name of Los Barbados (bearded one, after the indigenous fig trees).

The Arrival of the English


The English would first arrive in Barbados in 1625. Unlike the Spanish and the Portuguese however, the English immediately claimed the island in the name of King James I, and would return two years later, in 1627, to establish a settlement. Led by Captain Henry Powell, 80 settlers and 10 slaves would establish their camp at Holetown. By 1639, the world's third parliamentary democracy had been formed.

Affluent English citizens were granted land, and before long sugar, cotton, and tobacco plantations were established on the island. White indentured servants from England were allowed to emigrate by providing 5 to 7 years of service on the plantations. After the Dutch introduced sugar cane in the 1630's, it would only take around 20 years for the crop to dominate the entirety of the island. The crop became the main source of wealth, investment, and profit for the island, and Barbados dominated the sugar industry until 1720. Slaves from West Africa were introduced during this period to support the expanding industry. Natural disasters in the late 1600's would hinder the capabilities and output of the plantation owners.

The End of Slavery

Although slavery was abolished in 1834, a 4 year period of apprenticeship followed that kept many of the former slaves on the plantation. In return for accommodations, the workers continued to toil on the plantations. In 1838, the apprenticeship ended, and 70,000 Bajans (Barbadians) were officially freed from their forced labor. Former slaves began to fill jobs and important positions on the island.

The last 100 years

By 1910, the once defunct sugar industry had return to being profitable in Barbados. This development was followed by the introduction of trade unions in the 1920's and 1930's. The Great Depression caused widespread unemployment and rioting, and the quality of life on the island was quickly reduced. The English stepped in to supply funding to keep Barbados and it's other Commonwealth holdings afloat, but Bajans were by now pushing to have hand in their own affairs. The island gained control of it's affairs in 1961, and was granted full independence in 1966. The island remains within the Commonwealth. After World War II, tourism quickly became the most lucrative contributer to the economy of Barbados.

With colonization, slavery, and struggle, the history of Barbados mirrors that of many of the Caribbean islands. However, also like many of the Caribbean islands, the end result of has produced a unique melange of culture and friendly residents.


Help us improve! We welcome your corrections and suggestions.

About Food