The earliest inhabitants of Barbados were indigenous groups who began arriving by canoe from South America (Venezuela’s Orinoco Valley) around 350 CE. Among these were the Taino (Arawak) who set up several settlements on the island after 800 CE. They were later joined by Kalinago (Carib ) migrants in the 13th century.
The indigenous name for Barbados was Ichi-rougan-aim. The name ‘Barbados’ comes from a Portuguese explorer Pedro Campos who in 1536, called the island Os Barbados (‘The Bearded Ones’) based on the appearance of the island’s fig trees, which have long hanging aerial roots.
Between 1536 and 1550, Spanish raiders regularly seized large numbers of indigenous Taino-Kalinago from Barbados to be used as slave labour on regional plantations. This prompted the Kalinago to flee the island for other Caribbean destinations (see also Dominica and St Vincent).
The first European settlement on Barbados consisted of English colonists. This was not established until 1627. In 1663 the island became a possession of the British Crown and remained so until the late 20th century.
From its earliest establishment large numbers of Africans were taken to Barbados to provide slave labour on the British plantations. In 1659, the English also shipped many Irish and Scots to Barbados as slaves. Furthermore large numbers of people from Ireland and Scotland also went as indentured servants. More British exiles were also shipped in after 1685 following the crushing of the Protestant Monmouth Rebellion in England.
Over the next several centuries this socially marginal British immigrant population was used as a buffer between the rich plantation owners and the larger African population. They served as members of the colonial militia but sometimes also allied themselves with the enslaved African population in a number of local rebellions.
Barbados sugar production on large estates using slave labour became very profitable and important to the British economy. The importation, buying and selling of enslaved Africans ceased in 1804 but plantation conditions did not improve, causing a major and bloody slave rebellion in 1816.
As in the rest of the British Empire, slavery was finally abolished in Barbados in 1834. However unlike plantation colonies like Guyana and Trinidad, after emancipation there was no large scale importation of indentured East Indians to work on Barbados estates. Plantation owners and merchants of British descent continued to dominate local politics until the 1930s when Afro-Barbadians began a movement for political rights.
In 1937 poor economic conditions caused serious unrest, and following the establishment of a British Royal Commission, social and political reforms were gradually introduced leading to universal adult suffrage in 1951.
Barbados was a founding member of the Federation of the West Indies (1958–1962), and when it was dissolved, reverted to its former status as a self-governing colony.
The island became an independent state and a member of the Commonwealth in November 1966 and has since enjoyed over three decades of political stability and economic growth.
Main languages: English
Main religions: Christianity (majority Anglican)
According to various unofficial sources, close to 90 per cent of the population of Barbados is of African descent. The remaining portion includes persons of mixed descent, Europeans, South Asians (Hindus and Muslims) and an influential group mainly of Syrian and Lebanese origin.
There is a small minority of so-called ‘poor whites’ (also pejoratively known as ‘redlegs’), numbering no more than several hundred. They are the descendants of indentured labourers sent from Britain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Traditionally marginalized and engaged in subsistence agriculture, this community is mainly to be found in St John parish on the east coast of the island. After centuries of deliberate separation from wider society, the ‘poor whites’ have now almost disappeared as a distinct minority.
Barbados has enjoyed a stable democratic government, and has experienced regular transfers of power between the two major political parties.
Over the past decade Barbados has been seen internationally as a business-friendly and economically sound society, Construction has boomed across the island resulting in new homes, hotels, redevelopments, office complexes, condominiums, and mansions.
In addition to sugar production and tourism, offshore finance and information services have become increasingly important along with the light manufacturing sector.
With a literacy rate of 99.7 per cent and a per capita income of US$15,700 the UN Development Programme has ranked Barbados among the very highest countries in the developing world in terms of social indicators.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Barbados Association of NGOs
Sources and further reading
Ashie-Nikoi, Edwina Cohobblopot: Africanisms in Barbadian culture through the lens of Crop-Over. Journal of Caribbean History, 32:1/2, 1998
Barrow, Christine. The plantation heritage in Barbados : implications for food security, nutrition and employment / Christine Barrow. Mona, Jamaica : Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of the West Indies, c1995.
Beckles, Hilary. Black rebellion in Barbados: the struggle against slavery, 1627-1838. Bridgetown, Barbados: Antilles Publications, 1984
Beckles, Hilary. White servitude and Black slavery in Barbados, 1627-1715. Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1989.Bullen, Adelaide K. and Ripley P. Bullen. Barbados, a Carib centre. (Bajan [Bridgetown, Barbados
Burns, Sir Alan. History of the British West Indies. George Allen and Unwin Ltd, London England. 1965
Connell, Neville. A short history of Barbados. (BMHS/J [Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society. Barbados, W.I.], 17:1, Nov. 1959,
Dick, Kenneth C. Aboriginal and early Spanish names of some Caribbean, Circum-Caribbean islands and cays. (Virgin Islands Archaeological Society Journal [St Thomas, US Virgin Islands] 4, 1977.
Drewett, Peter L, Prehistoric Settlements in the Caribbean. (St Michael: Archetype Publications) 2000.
Dunn, Richard Slator – Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of a Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713. (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P) 2000.
Gunkel, Alexander and Jerome S. Handler eds. A German indentured servant in Barbados in 1652: the account of Heinrich von Uchteritz a German mercenary, captured by Cromwell’s army and transported to the West Indies. (BMHS/J [Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society. Barbados, W.I.], 33, 1970
Handler, Jerome S. Escaping slavery in a Caribbean plantation society: marronage in Barbados, 1650s-1830s. ( NWIG: New West Indian Guide/Nieuwe West Indische Gids, NWIG, 71:3/4, 1997
Handler, Jerome S. and Robert S. Corruccini. Plantation slave life in Barbados: a physical anthropological analysis. (JIH, 14, 1983
Handler, Jerome S. Slave revolts and conspiracies in seventeenth-century Barbados. (NWIG, 56:1/2, 1982
Handler, Jerome S. The unappropriated people: freedmen in the slave society of Barbados. Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1974
Handler, Jerome S. Aspects of Amerindian ethnography in 17th century Barbados. (UPR/CS [Caribbean Studies. Univ. of Puerto Rico, Institute of Caribbean Studies. Río Piedras, P.R.] 9:4, Jan. 1970
Hamshere, Cyril 1972. The British In the Caribbean. Harvard University Pres, Massachusetts USA.
Henriques, Fernando and Joseph Manyoni. Ethnic group relations in Barbados and Grenada. (Persistence of the ‘white bias in Race and class in postcolonial society: a study of ethnic group relations in the English-speaking Caribbean, Bolivia, Chile and Mexico. Paris: UNESCO, 1977
Ligon, Richard. The true and exact history of the island of Barbadoes, 1657. Edited and annotated by J. Edward Hutson. St Michael, Barbados: Barbados National Trust, 2000.
Quintanilla, Mark S. Late seventeenth-century indentured servants in Barbados. ( Journal of Caribbean History 27:2, 1993
Richardson, Bonham C. Go west, young man: black Barbadians and the Panama Canal. (FIU/CR [Caribbean Review. Florida International Univ., Latin American and Caribbean Center. Miami.], 14:2, Spring 1985
Rogozinski, Jan. A Brief History of the Caribbean – From the Arawak and Carib to the Present. Revised version New York, USA. 1999
Schomburgk, H. Robert. The history of Barbados. London, Frank Cass, 1971.
Sheppard, Jill. The ‘Redlegs’ of Barbados: their origins and history. The origin and fortunes of descendants of English and Irish indentured immigrants Foreword by Philip Sherlock. Millwood, N.Y., KTO Press, 1977
Simmons, Peter. ‘Red legs:’ class and color contradictions in Barbados. (RU/SCID [Studies in Comparative International Development. Rutgers Univ. New Brunswick, N.J.], 11:1, 1976
Sio, Arnold A. The free colored of Barbados and Jamaica: a comparison. (BMHS/J [Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society. Barbados, W.I.], 35:2, March 1976
The white minority in the Caribbean. Edited by Howard Johnson and Karl S. Watson. Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers; Oxford, England: J. Currey Publishers; Princeton, N.J.: M. Wiener Publishers, 1998
Welch, Pedro L.V. and Richard A. Goodridge. ‘Red’ and black over white: free coloured women in pre-emancipation Barbados. Bridgetown, Barbados: Carib Research & Pub., 2000
Watson, Karl S. The civilised island, Barbados: a social history, 1750-1816. Barbados: K. Watson, 1979