The settlement of the island dates back to about 1630 BC according to radiocarbon dating of tools made by early inhabitants from conch seashell fragments. Indigenous Kalinago people called the island Ichiroganaim, which meant “red land with white teeth” in apparent reference to the waves breaking on the hazardous reefs which fringe the coastline.

St. Nicholas Abbey: one of the grandest Jacobean plantation mansions in the western hemisphere.

European Arrival

Portuguese navigators were the first Europeans to visit the island, naming it Os Barbados (meaning "bearded ones") after the bearded fig trees along the coast. Spanish raids to capture the indigenous inhabitants and enslave them caused a massive depopulation of the island as people were either captured by Spanish raiders or escaped by canoe to nearby islands like St Vincent, Dominica, or St Lucia, which are more mountainous and afford better protection from raids. By 1541 a Spanish writer reported that Barbados was uninhabited.

The English were the first European settlers here, arriving in 1627 and founding a colony that lasted until Barbados gained independence in 1966. After the settlers experimented with indigo and tobacco as staple crops, Jewish planters fleeing the effects of the inquisition in Portuguese Brazil introduced sugar cane to Barbados in 1637. Within a few decades the extraordinary success of this crop completely transformed the economy and society of the island; by 1660 Barbados was the most important English colony, generating more trade than all the others combined.

Sugar & The Triangular Trade

Some made great fortunes out of the prosperity of the sugar industry. Magnificent Jacobean plantation mansions like Drax Hall Great House and St. Nicholas Abbey are among the legacies of this extraordinary wealth.

Among the other legacies of the Barbados sugar industry are the bloodshed, death, and deprivation caused by the enslavement of African people brought here and forced to work on the plantations. Barbados played a major role in the transatlantic trade that transported between 10 million and 12 million enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas between the 16th to the 19th centuries. Barbados was a pivotal corner of this triangular trade which shipped weapons and other manufactured goods from England to West Africa to foment conflicts which generated prisoners of war who were then enslaved and transported from West Africa to Barbados to work the sugar plantations and produce the sugar to be shipped back to England.

The passage from West Africa to Barbados, the Middle Passage, was 5,000 miles (8,000 km) of torture in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions with hundreds of Africans jammed tightly below decks chained together with low ceilings did not even allow them to sit upright. Intolerable heat, oxygen deprivation, filth, malnutrition, brutality, and disease claimed the lives of between 15 and 25 percent of the African people subjected to this voyage. 

Conditions on the plantations were sometimes little better because in 1661 Barbados legislators passed an Act for the Better Ordering and Governing of Negroes which classified African people and their descendants in Barbados as “goods and chattels” rather than human beings, so they were stripped of human rights and subjected to torture, mutilation or death in order to maintain social control. The enslaved people mounted a few rebellions but none were successful, so this plantation system lasted until slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1834. The trauma of this period in our history continues to plague social relations in Barbados.

After Enslavement

After the British Government abolished the legal restrictions of enslavement, Black people still had few options for making a living in Barbados. The British Government compensated plantations and other enslavers, but there was no compensation for the many generations of forced labor. Neither was there arable land available because plantations had already appropriated it, so most people had to go back to work for meagre wages on the same plantations where they had previously been enslaved. Plantation owners and merchants of British descent dominated Barbados politics because they restricted voting privileges to those with high income, so the majority of the population were excluded.

There was little meaningful socio economic reform until civil unrest broke out in 1937. This sparked a period of reform in which the income qualification to vote was lowered and women won the right to vote in 1942, then the population won universal voting rights in 1951. Social reforms to implement universal education and health care that are free at the point of delivery characterised the 50s and early 60s until Barbados gained full independence from Britain in 1966.

After Independence

There have been economic ups and downs since independence, but Barbados is fortunate to be among the most prosperous countries in the region and to have maintained consistent social peace and constitutional governance. 

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