Bajans: A Brief History of Barbados

Bajans: A Brief History of Barbados
In the second part of his two-part series, George Brown explores the history of Barbados

Although slavery had been abolished on the island in 1834, at the outbreak of World War One in 1914, Barbados remained a British colony with a population of around 176,000. As an island Barbados prospered due to the demand of its key export, sugar; and while Jamaica contributed two thirds of the manpower to the volunteer West Indian Regiments, Barbadians also made up a proportion of the Caribbean fighting force. Men were encouraged to join the war effort through pay and tax relief, and churches promoted the idea that the war constituted a battle between ‘Good and Evil.’ Other volunteers hoped that the potential reward for participation would be political independence from the Empire.  

However, Caribbean volunteers who joined the war effort faced severe discrimination. The British military had not in fact wanted to include Caribbean volunteers, and it was only on the insistence of George V that they were recruited at all. As a result, Warrant Officer was the highest military rank WIR soldiers could achieve. Despite this discrimination, Barbadian soldiers went on to achieve honourable mentions in dispatches and medals for gallantry and bravery, particularly during the campaigns against the Turks over Palestine.

The Depression  

General dissatisfaction with life on Barbados led many to emigrate from the island in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Matters came to a head in the 1930's during the Depression, as Barbadians began demanding better conditions for workers, the legislation of trade unions and a widening of the franchise, which at that point was limited to male property owners. In 1938, as a result of increasing unrest, the British sent a commission (The West Indies Royal Commission, or Moyne Commission), which recommended enacting many of the requested reforms. As a result, Afro-Barbadians began to play a much more prominent role in the colony's politics, with universal suffrage introduced in 1950.

Prominent among early activists for reform was Grantley Herbert Adams, who helped found the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) in 1938. He became the first Premier of Barbados in 1953, followed by fellow BLP-founder Hugh Gordon Cummins from 1958–1961. A group of left-leaning politicians, who advocated swifter moves to independence, broke off from the BLP and founded the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) in 1955. The DLP won the 1961 Barbadian general election and their leader, Errol Walton Barrow, became Premier.

Errol Barrow and WWII

Born in Nesfield, Barbados, on 21st January 1920, Errol Barrow proved to be a gifted student who won three scholarships, the last of which came in 1939 to study Classics at Codrington College. At the outbreak of WWII, the young Barrow travelled to Britain to fight for Queen and country, volunteering for the RAF.

He joined the RAF in London on 31st December 1940, and was selected as a Navigator. After training in Britain and Canada, on 4th November 1944 Barrow was commissioned as an officer and posted to 88 Squadron, where he completed 48 bombing operations against targets in occupied Europe and Germany. Widely praised for his war efforts, Squadron Leader Alfred Barnes remembered him as 'a bloody good Navigator – first class. Gets you there, gets you back. Never saw Barrow in a flap…a good man to have along.' After VE day, Flying Officer Barrow was chosen as the personal navigator of Marshal Sir William Sholto Douglas, commander of the RAF in Germany.

Barrow, however, had plans for the future and later studied at the London School of Economics, returning to Barbados in October 1950 as a lawyer. As Prime Minister he introduced measures to tackle poverty and improve the quality of life of ordinary Barbadians. He also set out to developed industry, commerce and tourism and reduce the reliance of Barbados on foreign powers, especially the United States, and strengthened ties between the English-speaking countries of the Caribbean.

Full, internal self-government in Barbados was finally enacted in 1961. Barbados joined the short-lived West Indies Federation from 1958–62, later gaining full independence in November 1966. Errol Walton Barrow, PC, QC a Caribbean statesman, and a descendant of the enslaved people of Africa, became the newly independent country's first Prime Minister.

At the age of 46, Barrow was younger than most West Indian politicians, though his experience as both the Vice-President of the Barbados Transport and General Workers Union and as a lawyer, enabled him to grasp firmly the problems facing the island. Although small in size, Barbados at independence was noted as one of the most politically mature communities in the Caribbean. It had a well-established Civil Service, a competent Judiciary, and above all a sophisticated electorate, and its main problems were economic rather than political.


In the Post-Independence era, Barrow’s government sought to diversify the economy away from agriculture, seeking instead to boost both industry and the tourism sector. Yet the BLP lost the 1976 general election to the DLP under Tom Adams. Adams adopted a more conservative, pro-Western stance, allowing Reagan to use Barbados as the launchpad for the invasion of Grenada in 1983. Adams died in office in 1985, and was replaced by Harold Bernard St. John; however, he lost the 1986 general election, which saw the return of the BLP under Errol Barrow, who had heavily criticized the US invasion of Grenada. However, Barrow too died in office, on 1st June 1987, at the age of 67.

Barbados Today

Currently, Barbados is one of the most developed countries in the Eastern Caribbean, enjoying one of the highest per capita incomes in the region. Despite its historical dependence on sugar cultivation, the economy has diversified into light industry and tourism; offshore finance and information services remain important foreign exchange earners, boosted by being in the same time zone as the eastern US financial centres.

Following the 2008-09 recession, external vulnerabilities like fluctuations in international oil prices have hurt economic growth and raised Barbados's already high public debt to 105% of its 2016 GDP. Nonetheless, Barbados has transformed itself from a low-income agricultural economy into a diversified, middle income economy, generating one of the Caribbean’s highest per capita incomes - even if serious challenges to medium-term economic growth remain. 

In May 2018, the centre-left Barbados Labour Party won all 30 parliamentary seats and defeated the incumbent Prime Minister Freudel Stuart. This stunning result led to the country electing its first female Prime Minister, Mia Mottley.

Updated 03/03/2021. With Thanks to Peter Burton. For a full history of Errol Barrow's experiences of WW2 visit BajanThings