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The History of Barbados

Barbados is a history buff's heaven. You can see from grand old Jacobean style 'great houses' (rare in the western hemisphere), and churches of the 1600s to Museums and Archives with their vast records and research base. Barbados is truly a historical treasure.

BARBADOS' HISTORY - Archaeological

The English speaking island of Barbados is located most easterly of the Caribbean Island chain, and was known to be a south coast stop-over and settlement site for Amerindians. These were the first indigenous group of people to Barbados arriving between 300's to the 1200's from Venezuela and South America.

The Arawak Indians who were said to be the original inhabitants were followed by the Caribs (Venezuela), who invaded and forced them off during the 1200's. The Caribs later left Barbados when the first set of Europeans sailed into the region, by the early 1500s, there was no signs of Amerindian life on the island
However excavation work conducted on the northwest coast of the island now shows Barbados was actually a permanent settlement from as early as 1630 BC, pre-dating the Amerindians by up to 2 000 years. A major discovery was several stacks of 'pots' with the bottoms broken out, which turned out to be a very primitive form of water well. This find is now considered the largest collection of 'stacks' ever found in the West Indies and Central America. Top archaeologists from such institutions as London University are now studying this and other sites.

The First Settlers

Portuguese explorer Pedro a Campos discovered Barbados in 1536 en route to Brazil. It was Campos who named the island "Los Barbados" ('the bearded ones'), presumably after the island's fig trees, whose long, hanging aerial roots have a beard-like resemblance.

On May 14th 1625 Captain John Powell landed on Barbados and claimed the uninhabited island for England. Two years later, on February 17th 1627, his brother Captain Henry Powell landed with a party of 80 settlers and 10 slaves. The group established the island's first European settlement, Jamestown, on the western coast at what is now Holetown. They were welcomed only by a herd of Portuguese Hogs thought to be left there by Campos whose intention was to use them as a food source on return voyages.

In order for the settlers to survive they needed a cash crop, which at that time was tobacco followed by cotton. Tobacco proved not to be profitable and so sugar cane was selected as an alternative. Sugar production, because of its financial outlay was not viable for the small farmer and soon he was forced out giving way to the large plantation owners.

The Introduction of Sugar

This switch to sugar cane is probably the single most important event in the history of Barbados, for it brought with it many significant changes. It saw the consolidation of land holdings into large estates bringing the end of small farmers. Barbados became a veritable gold mine for the British as the island's sugar industry grew and prospered. The 'landed gentry' arrived from England in their numbers, all eager to make their fortunes off sugar. Lifestyle was lavish and extravagant, and the residue of this is evident in the many 'great houses' peppered across the island, several of which are open for public viewing by the Barbados National Trust. It also saw the end of the indentured European labourers, bringing the drastic reduction of the white population and the large scale importation of slaves from Africa who provided plantation labour.


The slave trade peaked in the 1700s and continued until 1834 when the Emancipation Act launched an apprenticeship system leading to freedom. Sunday April 14th, 1816 saw the first slave uprising in this island for 124 years. The Bussa Rebellion as it later became known was lead by Bussa, a slave, at Bayley's Plantation. Bussa later became another of Barbados' National heroes and over 169 years later the Emancipation Statue was unveiled in his memory. In 1838 slavery was abolished completely.

The Labour Union Movement

It is not surprising the next events of historical significance involved mass labour, poor working conditions and the advent of labour unions. Clement Payne, one of the country's National Heroes, who is best remembered for his struggle to help the poor working population of Barbados, was deported and this triggered 4 days of violence later known as the infamous 1937 riots. This kicked off a period of democratic growth and within a year the first labour union was launched.


In 1954 the leader of the trade union movement Sir Grantley Adams, became the islands first Premier and in 1961, the man known to Barbadians as the 'Father of Independence', Errol Barrow was elected to lead the country and ultimately pave the way to the island's Independence on November 30th 1966. Barbados remained under British rule until its Independence.

Barbados has enjoyed more than 350 years of unbroken parliamentary rule and is a democratic society, with a Prime Minister as head of the country. The House of Assembly began meeting in 1639 and is the third oldest legislative body in the Western hemisphere.

The Introduction of Tourism

Although tourism dates back to the 1700s when such visitors as George Washington came to the island for its healthy environment, it was not until the 1950s it became truly popular as a long-stay destination for the wealthy, whose lavish lifestyle is still visible primarily along the west coast.

By the 1970s Barbados was gaining wider popularity and by the early 1990s visitors not only came in their numbers during the traditional 'high' or winter season, but also during the summer period, July through August, for the island's biggest national festival Crop Over.
Today, over a million visitors come to Barbados each year, half of which are cruise ship visitors.
Presently Barbados' population is approx. 280,946 (2007) with the predominant race being blacks.

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