Bajans: A Brief History of Barbados

Bajans: A Brief History of Barbados
In the first of two articles, George Brown discusses the history of Barbados.

The island of Barbados is situated in the Lesser Antilles, in the Caribbean region of the Americas. It is 21 miles in length and 14 miles in width, covering an area of 167 sq. mi or 430 square kilometres. Situated in the western area of the North Atlantic, it is 62 miles east of the Windward Islands and the Caribbean Sea. Barbados is located in both Central America and the Caribbean, with Bridgetown as its capital and the largest city on the island. Despite being classified as an Atlantic island, Barbados is considered to be a part of the Caribbean, where it is ranked as a leading tourist destination. On November 30th, 1966, Barbados became an independent state and a Commonwealth Member.  It currently has a population of 287,010 people, who are predominantly of African descent.


A Little Bit of Early History

Archaeological evidence suggests that humans may have first settled or visited the island around 1600 BC. More permanent Amerindian settlement of Barbados dates from about the 4th to 7th centuries AD, by a group known as the Saladoid-Barrancoid. The two main groups were the Arawaks from South America, who became dominant around 800–1200 AD; and the more war-like the Kalinago (Island Caribs) who arrived from South America in the 12th–13th centuries.

Inhabited by Kalinago people since the 13th century, and prior to that by other Amerindians, Barbados was first claimed for the Spanish Crown in 1511. Next, the Portuguese Empire claimed the island between 1532 and 1536, but abandoned it in 1620. On May 14th, 1625 an English ship, the Olive Blossom, arrived in Barbados; its men took possession of the island in the name of King James I. The first permanent settlers arrived from England in 1627, and it became an English and later British colony. As a wealthy sugar colony, it also became an English centre of the African slave trade, until that trade was outlawed in 1807, with the emancipation of slaves in Barbados occurring from 1834 onwards.


The Sugar Revolution                                                        

The introduction of sugar cane from Dutch Brazil in 1640 completely transformed society, the economy and the physical landscape. Barbados eventually had one of the world's biggest sugar industries. One group instrumental in ensuring the early success of the industry were the Sephardic Jews, who had originally been expelled from the Iberian Peninsula, to end up in Dutch Brazil.

As the effects of the new crop increased, so did the shift in the ethnic composition of Barbados and surrounding islands. The workable sugar plantation required a large investment and a great deal of heavy labour. At first, Dutch traders supplied the equipment, financing, and enslaved Africans, in addition to transporting most of the sugar to Europe.

In 1644 the population of Barbados was estimated at 30,000, of which about 800 were of African descent, with the remainder mainly English, and small farms were worked by indentured servants, including royalist supporting soldiers captured during the English Civil War. These English smallholders were eventually bought out by larger plantation owners, and the island filled up with large sugar plantations worked by enslaved Africans. By 1660 there was near parity with 27,000 blacks and 26,000 whites. By 1666 at least 12,000 white smallholders had been bought out, died, or left the island, many choosing to emigrate to Jamaica or the American Colonies. By 1680 there were 17 slaves for every indentured servant on the island. By 1700, there were 15,000 free whites and 50,000 enslaved Africans.


Slavery and Rebellion

The harsh conditions endured by the slaves resulted in several planned slave rebellions, the largest of which was Bussa’s rebellion in 1816, which was suppressed by British troops. Bussa was killed in battle, and of his followers, 300 were tried in Bridgetown, with 144 recorded as executed, and another 132 transported other colonies to prevent further rebellions.      

Growing opposition to slavery led to its abolition in the British Empire in 1834 after nearly 200 years of the practice on the island. However, the white plantocracy class retained control of the political and economic situation on the island, with most black workers living in relative poverty.