The original inhabitants of Barbados were Arawaks, who were driven off the island around AD 1200 by Caribs from South America. The Caribs, in turn, abandoned (or fled) Barbados close to the arrival of the first Europeans. The Portuguese visited the island in 1536, but Barbados was uninhabited by the time Captain John Powell claimed it for England in 1625. Two years later, a group of settlers established the island’s first European settlement, Jamestown, in present-day Holetown. Within a few years, the colonists had cleared much of the forest, planting tobacco and cotton fields. In the 1640s they switched to sugarcane. The new sugar plantations were labor intensive, and the landowners began to import large numbers of African slaves. These large sugar plantations – some of the first in the Caribbean – proved immensely profitable, and gave rise to a wealthy colonial class. A visit to a plantation estate, like the one at St Nicholas Abbey, will give some idea of the money involved.
The sugar industry boomed during the next century, and continued to prosper after the abolition of slavery in 1834. As the planters owned all of the best land, there was little choice for the freed slaves other than to stay on at the cane fields for a pittance.
Social tensions flared during the 1930s, and Barbados’ black majority gradually gained more access to the political process. The economy diversified through international tourism and gave more islanders the opportunity for economic success and self-determination. England granted Barbados internal self-government in 1961 and it became an independent nation on November 30, 1966, with Errol Barrow as its first prime minister. While not flawless, Barbados has remained a stable democracy.
Owen Arthur and the Barbados Labour Party were in power from 1993 to 2008. In a campaign that saw ‘change’ as the popular theme, David Thompson and the left-leaning Democratic Labour Party won election in 2008. But in late 2010 Thompson died suddenly, which was a traumatic event for a nation used to political stability. He was succeeded by Deputy Prime Minister Freundel Stuart.
Unlike other Caribbean islands, Barbados maintains its sugar industry, although the majority of the economy is now based on tourism and offshore banking. Condos are being built as fast as the concrete dries.
Numerous books cover Bajan history. The History of Barbados by Robert H Schomburg is a thorough study of the island’s past. To Hell or Barbados: the Ethnic Cleansing of Ireland by Sean O’Callaghan traces the scores of Irish sent by Cromwell to work as slaves on sugar plantations.
Treasures of Barbados by Henry Fraser, a past president of the Barbados National Trust, surveys island architecture.
The Barbadian Rum Shop: the Other Watering Hole by Peter Laurie is an overview of the history of the rum shop and the role it has played in Bajan life.
In the Castle of My Skin by George Lamming is a much-acclaimed 1953 novel about growing up black in colonial Barbados.