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The History of Slavery in Barbados

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Barbados' Settlement

Between 300AD and 1200AD Barbados' inhabitants were the Arawak Indians. They were driven off the island by invading Carib Indians from Venezuela, who then left Barbados around the time the first Europeans sailed into the region. By the early 1500s all signs of Amerindian life had vanished.

In 1536 Portuguese explorer Pedro a Campos stopped over in Barbados en route to Brazil and named the island 'Los Barbados' - the bearded ones, presumably after the island's fig trees, with there long hanging aerial roots. (A beard-like resemblance)

Although known to the Portuguese and Spanish, the British were the first settlers in 1625. Captain John Powell landed on Barbados with his crew and claimed the uninhabited island for England. Two years later, his brother Captain Henry Powell landed with a party of 80 settlers and 10 African 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 food on return voyages.

When Slavery Began

The Slave History of Barbados started after Captain Powell brought the 10 slaves in 1627. The slave population in 1629 was still diminutive with not more than 50 Amerindian and African slaves working the land, in construction and in homes. This low slave population was due to few persons being able to buy slaves at that time.

Slaves brought into Barbados came from various tribes out of the forest region of West Africa, during village raids. Some of the African tribes were Eboes, Paw-paws and Igbo. They came via slave trade forts on the African west coast, set up by Europeans. Such forts were the Axim and El Mina. After being traded for trinkets, the slaves were sent to the Caribbean and sold to Plantation owners.
In 1636, officials passed a law declaring all slaves brought into Barbados, whether African or Amerindian were to be enslaved for life. It was later extended to include their off springs. At this time there were only 22 free coloured persons on the island.

During the 1700s, the main source of labour for cotton and tobacco was indentured servants from Europe, while Amerindians from the Guianas were imported to teach agriculture. As the cotton and tobacco industry started to fail because of the lack of labour, due to terrible conditions for indentured servants, the sugar industry emerged. Sugar in Barbados at that time was used only for feedstock, as fuel and in the production of rum.

Why Slaves From Africa?

Due to the demand for a strong labour force after the Sugar Revolution took place, Africa became the obvious choice for slaves, because they were strong and Africa was closer than Europe to the Caribbean. Slave ships also travelled faster because they were assisted by the Tradewinds blowing towards the west.

The Triangle Trade

This included the slave trade and was the link between Europe, West Africa and the Americas. The ships left Western Europe filled with guns and manufactured goods towards West Africa to be exchanged for slaves who were taken to Barbados and other Caribbean islands to be sold for sugar (called the Middle Passage), which was shipped to Europe.


In 1642, Barbados planters found a new source of revenue when the Dutch introduced them to sugar cane farming. By mid 1600's sugar cane plantations were producing and exporting sugar, attracting wealthy landowners with political affiliations. Enhancing the islands plantocracy, this new emergence of elite planters excluded poor whites and non-whites from Barbados' political infrastructure. The island soon gained the largest white population of any of the English colonies in the Americas, becoming the springboard for English colonisation in the Americas.

As the cost of white labour rose in England, more slaves were imported from West Africa, especially the Gold Coast and by extension more black slaves were brought to Barbados. The main groups of slaves imported were from Ibibio, Yoruba, Lgbo and Efik, as well as Asante, Fante, Ga and Fon. By mid 1600's there was over 5600 black African slaves in Barbados and by early 1800,s over 385,000. The constant importation of slaves was caused by the high mortality rate, due to bad conditions and overwork. By the 1700's, Barbados was one of the leaders in the slave trade from the European colonies.

During the 1800's, the elite were building elaborate estates like Drax Hall and St. Nicholas Abbey, which still exist, while controlling the House of Assembly and the Legislative Council. They encouraged slave reproduction to avoid more importations of slaves, becoming the only island in the British Caribbean no longer dependent on slave imports.

The Colour Shift
During the 1700's to 1800's, Barbados shifted from a majority white population to majority black. This caused tension on the island as white indentured servants became unsure of their place, and plantation owners were afraid of slave rebellion, eventually causing most of them to leave. By the beginning of the 1800's the majority of blacks in Barbados were born locally, with a high percentage of Creole born blacks, as opposed to Africans. This enabled the black population to reproduce itself, rather than rely on new imports from Africa to maintain population levels.

Regulating the Slaves
Due to the unrest, the laws regulating the slaves were strongly enforced. By the 1800's, there were laws prohibiting slaves from leaving their plantations without permission and stopping them from beating drums or any other instruments used by slaves to communicate with each other. There were also laws requiring the return of runaway slaves and leniency for those killing slaves.

The Slave Rebellions

During the 1600's, there were (3) unsuccessful rebellions in Barbados; 1649, 1675 and 1692.

The First Slave Rebellion (1649)
This included two plantations, and the trigger was insufficient food. It was quickly subdued with not much damage.

The Second Slave Rebellion (1675)
This one was island-wide and took over three years to plan but was uncovered when a one of the slaves named Fortuna leaked the information out. Over 100 slaves were arrested and tortured, while over 40 were executed after being found guilty of rebellion. Some committed suicide before being executed, while others were beheaded or burnt alive.

The Third Slave Rebellion (1692)
This was also island-wide with over 200 slaves arrested and over 90 executed after being found guilty of rebellion.

Rebellions simmered in Barbados until 1816 due to an increase in free blacks and slaves born on the island (called Creole Slaves), there were also more frequent visits to the island by British Military Ships for supplies and a colonial militia which was becoming more powerful during the 1800's.

Creole Slaves were believed to be more submissive than African born slave and therefore were placed over the Africans.

The Bussa Rebellion (The Easter Rebellion - Sun 14th April 1816)
During the 1816 rebellion more than 800 slaves were killed while fighting and over 100 executed. This was the first rebellion of this size in Barbados and the Caribbean, and took part for (3) days on the southern part of the island. This rebellion caused reform to ease the hardships of slavery.

In 1825 the 'Amelioration Policy' was changed to 'the Consolidated Slave Law' legislation (The Emancipation Act) which consist of (3) Rights for Slaves; The right to own property / The right to testify in all court cases / Reduction of fees charged for Manumission (a fee charged to slaveowners for emancipating their slaves).

Emancipation - Slave Freedom

During the eighteenth century, although quite small, there were some freed slaves most of whom worked as tradesmen but could not vote. Because of racial discrimination many freed slaves tended to gravitate towards the British culture and its white supremacy to fit in, separating themselves from other slaves.

In 1807 the International Slave Trade was abolished giving slaves in Barbados hope of freedom, but abolitionist missionaries and antislavery debates seemed to hinder the process, ultimately causing the 1816 Revolt by Bussa of Bayley's Plantation. Bussa is now one of Barbados' National heroes with the Emancipation Statue being erected in his memory.

By 1834 slavery was abolished in all the territories of British rule. This was mainly due to the Consolidated Slave Law (The Emancipation Act) and (3) major uprisings; Bussa Rebellion (Barbados - 1816) / Demerara Revolt (now Guyana - 1823) / Jamaica Revolt (1832). Because of the instability within the Caribbean, the British Parliament was forced to emancipate over 80,000 slaves at this time.

Apprenticeships for freed slaves were then introduced under labour contracts as indentured servants. In Barbados Indentured Servants could not join the islands educational systems, and labour contracts were for (12) years, making it the longest in the Caribbean, as well as being paid the lowest wages in the region. Some worked (45) hour weeks without pay in exchange for accommodations in tiny huts.

In 1838 the Masters and Servant Act (Contract Law) made discrimination against persons of colour in Barbados illegal.

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