Barbados has been described as the Caribbean's most "British" island. Blacks in Barbados speak with a British accent, play the traditionally British sport of cricket, and adhere to British custom in their legal and political affairs. Great Britain has indeed been an important force in the nation's development. But standard accounts of the history of Barbados have often focused on its British character at the expense of its African heritage. Some historians have emphasized the British role in creating the institutions that govern Barbados today. Similarly, its educational system, sports industry, and economy have all been tied to Great Britain. However, British culture has not necessarily played the most important role in the historical emergence of Barbados as a free and democratic society.
Many historians now acknowledge that slavery was perhaps the defining institution in Barbados and that African slaves are essential players in the island's history. In fact, the African roots of contemporary Barbadian society are evident in its music, literature, and poetry. On an equally compelling note the history of this island country offers a fitting introduction to the rise and fall of European colonialism. Slavery and the sugar plantation were first perfected in the 17th century by British planters in Barbados.
The economic role that Barbados played in the development of European capitalism is vital to understanding both the history of slavery and its demise in the Western world. Barbados was a colony founded entirely on slave labor. As early as the 17th century black slaves outnumbered whites by nearly four to one, culminating in the creation of legal and political institutions that dominated and subjugated the island's black majority for more than 300 years. The authoritarian style with which the white minority ruled Barbados was admired and emulated by white colonists throughout the Caribbean. By the mid-17th century Barbados was the prototype for European colonialism, and the demise of that system on the island bears vivid testimony to the ability of African slaves to overcome enormous obstacles on the road to freedom (see Role of Slaves in Abolition and Emancipation in Latin America and the Caribbean).
2. Amerindian Presence
The earliest inhabitants on Barbados were nomadic Native Americans (often called Amerindians). The island was a temporary stopping ground for three successive waves of Amerindian migrants moving north toward North America. The first wave, a group known as the Saladoid-Barrancoid, migrated by canoe from South America around 350 c.e. They were farmers, fishermen, and ceramists. Many of their customs and languages resembled those of the Arawak, who were among the largest indigenous groups in the Caribbean in the 1st century c.e. The Arawak, also known as the Lokono, constituted the second wave of Amerindian migrants, arriving in Barbados from South America around 800 c.e. Some of the more famous extant Arawak settlements include Stroud Point, Chandler Bay, Saint Luke's Gully, and Mapp's Cave. The Arawak lived relatively isolated from other Amerindian groups until the 13th century, when the Carib arrived from South America, representing the third wave. Within a few years the Carib had displaced both the Arawak and the Salodoid-Barrancoid populations.
For centuries the Carib lived in isolation on the island. However, that peaceful existence was disrupted in the first decade of the 16th century when Spanish conquistadores began enslaving Amerindians throughout the Caribbean, forcing them to work as slaves on plantations throughout the region. The Carib on Barbados were among those seized by Spanish conquistadores. Scholars believe that those Carib who managed to avoid enslavement did so by emigrating to nearby islands. Both of these forces—the enslavement and subsequent emigration—left the island uninhabited by the time the first British ship arrived in 1625.
3. English Colonization
Although Barbados was well known to Spanish and Portuguese sailors at least a century earlier, England did not become acquainted with the island until the 17th century. On May 14, 1625, a ship led by the English captain John Powell stopped to explore the island. After verifying that it was uninhabited, Powell returned to England to formalize the plan to establish a permanent settlement on Barbados. Two years later, on February 17, 1627, an English ship carrying 10 African slaves and more than 80 English colonists landed on the western side of the island, at a site later named Holetown Village.
There were few colonists who could afford to purchase slaves, so most had to work the land themselves. But even though the slave population was small—according to the records of a British merchant there were less than 50 in 1629—they occupied a central position in the Barbadian economy from the onset. African and Amerindian slaves were forced to perform some of the most physically demanding work, such as constructing colonial buildings and clearing land for colonial homes. Their status as the property of white settlers was formalized in 1636 when colonial officials passed a law declaring all slaves who were brought into Barbados—both Amerindian and African—to be enslaved for life. This law was extended to include the offspring of slaves. During this period there were only 22 free people of color on the island—Amerindian farmers from the Guianas brought in to teach the settlers new agricultural techniques.
European indentured servants were the primary source of labor during most of the island's history throughout the 17th century. Poor, uneducated laborers were recruited in England, Scotland, and throughout Europe to work on tobacco and cotton plantations. Although they could not be enslaved under law, indentured servants during this period were considered tenants at will. They could not own the land they worked and were unable to leave the plantation without permission in the form of a pass from their employer. The harsh conditions of indentured servitude made it increasingly difficult for Barbadian tobacco and cotton planters to recruit white labor. As the labor supply dwindled, so did the capacity of the island's tobacco and cotton producers to compete with their international competitors. A drop in world tobacco prices in the early 1640s further weakened the island's economy.
4. The Emergence of the Sugar Industry
For years Barbadian planters had searched avidly for alternatives to tobacco and cotton as sources of revenue. In 1642 Dutch merchants introduced them to a far more lucrative crop—sugarcane. Before 1642 sugar was used in Barbados mainly as fuel, in the production of rum, and to feed livestock. By 1644 large sugarcane plantations were producing sugar exports across the island. The political infrastructure of Barbados drew wealthy landowners; with political participation tied to landowning, they reigned supreme. The planter elite, or so-called plantocracy, excluded all nonwhites and most poor whites from participation in government affairs. In the words of historian Hilary Beckles: "Partly because of these political and constitutional developments, Barbados emerged in the mid-1640s as perhaps the most attractive colony in the English New World." Land values doubled and tripled in the 1640s as wealthy British capitalists flocked to Barbados to commence the operation of sugar plantations.
5. Escalation of the Slave Trade
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries slaves from various parts of West Africa, including the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana) and Benin, were packed in crowded European vessels bound for the Caribbean. The transatlantic slave trade carried between 10 million and 20 million African slaves to colonial plantations throughout the world. By the mid-17th century Barbados was already a leading participant in the slave trade and one of the most profitable European colonies in the world. In 1645 there were an estimated 5680 African slaves in Barbados. In 1685, 40 years later, their numbers had soared to nearly 60,000. Historian Philip Curtin estimates that by 1700 there were 134,500 African-born slaves in Barbados.
6. 17th Century Slave Society
Slaves in Barbados spoke a variety of languages and represented various ethnic groups, including the Igbo, Asante, Fante, Ga, Fon, and Yoruba. Most were forced to work on sugar plantations, where they cut and processed sugarcane. The highly labor-intensive work was performed in conditions of severe heat. One of the most physically demanding aspects of sugar production was grinding the cane, which slaves were forced to do by hand.
As early as 1685 slaves had outnumbered whites in Barbados by about four to one, but the thriving slave trade of the late 17th and early 18th centuries had an even more dramatic effect on the demographic landscape in Barbados. As the African presence increased, white indentured servants, who at one time had been the primary source of labor in Barbados, began to question their place in the island's future. At the turn of the 18th century white indentured servants began leaving Barbados in waves.
More than 30,000 whites emigrated to neighboring islands throughout the first half of the 18th century. The racial imbalance created by this "white flight" placed the colony's white plantation owners in an uncomfortable position. They were intimidated by the sheer size of the slave labor force and its potential for rebellion, but they were dependent upon the cheap and seemingly inexhaustible supply of African slaves. Colonial officials responded to the racial imbalance by institutionalizing white hegemony.
7. Black Codes
They began by reemphasizing, and in some cases, strengthening the island's slave codes—laws regulating the behavior of slaves (see Black Codes in Latin America). Colonial officials had already passed a series of slave codes in 1661, 1676, 1682, and 1688, creating one of the most repressive political and economic systems in the slaveholding Caribbean. By the mid-18th century Barbadian law prohibited slaves from leaving their plantations without permission from their owners and barred them from beating drums, blowing horns, or playing other loud instruments—tools enabling slaves who spoke different languages to communicate with each other.
Barbados enacted its own version of the Fugitive Slave Law by requiring all whites to return runaway slaves to colonial officials. The law was lenient toward a master who intentionally killed a slave, requiring him only to pay a fine of $15. Those who killed their slaves "unintentionally" often escaped with no fine. The Barbadian Slave Codes served as models for other slave colonies in the Caribbean, including Jamaica and Antigua, which passed similar laws in 1664 and 1702, respectively.
8. Slave Resistance
Attempts to use these laws to intimidate slaves and to discourage them from resisting did not succeed. Though they met with defeat, slaves undertook three major rebellions in Barbados in 1649, 1675, and 1692. The first insurrection involved two plantations and was sparked by anger over the inadequate food supplies being allocated to slaves. This uprising did little damage and was suppressed almost immediately. Plans for the second rebellion were uncovered in 1675 when a female slave named Fortuna betrayed the organizers. The revolt had reportedly been devised over a three-year period and involved plantations throughout the island. Colonial officials arrested more than 100 alleged conspirators and tortured them until they named others. The court found nearly 50 slaves guilty of rebellion and sentenced them to be executed. At least 6 were burned alive; 11 more were beheaded and their bodies dragged through the streets of Speightstown. Five slaves committed suicide before they could be executed. Plans for the third rebellion were discovered in 1692. An estimated 200 to 300 slaves were arrested, including the principal conspirators, and 93 slaves were executed for their alleged involvement.
There are no records of any armed slave insurrections occurring in Barbados between 1702 and 1815, a fact that scholars attribute to the presence of a powerful colonial militia that had been assembled on the island by the beginning of the 18th century. Moreover, British military ships frequently stopped at the island to purchase supplies, probably an indication to most slaves that armed rebellion was an unrealistic option.
Armed resistance also lost its appeal as the proportion of Barbadian-born slaves (known as Creoles), coloureds (Barbadian term for persons of African and European ancestry), and free blacks increased. Scholars of slave resistance cite evidence that African-born slaves who had experienced freedom at some point in their lives were more likely to engage in overt acts of defiance. The perception held by many white slave owners in Barbados was that Creole slaves were more docile than their African-born counterparts. Plantation owners often tried to widen these divisions by appointing Creoles to positions of power over African-born slaves.
9. Free Blacks and Free Coloreds in the 18th Century
By most historical accounts the number of free blacks and free coloureds on Barbados remained quite small throughout the 18th century. According to official records there were only 78 free blacks and free coloureds on the island in 1773. Most were treated little better than slaves. Free blacks could not vote, hold public office, or testify against whites in court. Most lived in towns and worked as tradesmen and innkeepers.
Free coloureds were placed under the same political restrictions as free blacks. Since they represented 75 percent of the free nonwhite population in 18th century Barbadian society, free coloureds occupied an important place in the social hierarchy. Many of them reacted to racial discrimination by distancing themselves from free blacks, embracing British culture, and in some cases even accepting many tenets of white supremacy, including the notion that blacks were intellectually incapable of being productive citizens. Many in the free coloured community distanced themselves even more from their African ancestry by favoring those with European features, such as light skin and straight hair, and by embracing British customs.
10. The Plantocracy
White Barbadian society experienced its own demographic shift in the late 18th century. The enormous profits accumulated by white plantation owners in Barbados made the island a haven for the European elite. Since most were sugar and tobacco planters, they became known as the white plantocracy—a planter elite who controlled the economic, legislative, and political affairs on the island. During the 18th century the Barbadian plantocracy solidified its power, and in the process perpetuated the racial and class-based distinctions in Barbados. Ownership of land became concentrated in the hands of fewer than 100 of the colony's elite families, in contrast to the more than 700 landowning families in 1667. Members of the plantocracy firmly controlled the House of Assembly and the Legislative Council. They lived on a grand scale, building elaborate estates like Drax Hall and Nicholas Abbey, which still exist today. They promoted slave reproduction in an effort to avoid dependence on the importation of slaves. By the beginning of the 19th century Barbados was the only island in the British Caribbean that was no longer dependent on slave imports. The British Parliament met with little resistance from Barbadian planters when it abolished the international slave trade in 1807.
11. Easter Rebellion
The 1807 ban posed no immediate threat to Barbadian planters, but it sent a glimmer of hope to slaves throughout the Caribbean. In the meantime slaves in Barbados were closely following the Haitian Revolution, the presence of abolitionist missionaries on Barbados, and antislavery debates in England and the United States. Their desire to be free culminated in the Easter Rebellion of 1816. Also known as Bussa's Rebellion, because it was led by an African-born slave named Bussa, the revolt began on Sunday, April 14, and engulfed the southern half of the island for more than three days.
Between 500 and 1,000 slaves were killed in the fighting; more than 140 slaves were executed, and 123 were forcibly removed from the colony. Frightened by the uprising and hoping to avoid future insurrections, officials in London insisted that the colonists implement reforms to ease the burdens of slavery. This policy, known then as amelioration, met with fierce resistance from Barbadian planters. But after a tumultuous debate the policy was approved by the Barbadian legislature. The 1825 Consolidated Slave Law, as the new legislation was called, established three "rights" for slaves: the right to own property; the right to testify in all court cases; and a reduction of the fees charged for manumission (a strategy used in the past to discourage white slaveholders from emancipating their slaves).
12. Emancipation and Apprenticeship
By the mid-1820s, abolitionist pressure resulted in supposedly humane changes to the harsh slave codes in place in Barbados, Britain’s oldest slave colony. However, in this analysis of the Slave Act of 1825, the Anti-Slavery Society in Britain concluded that slaves were scarcely better off than they had been under codes dating to 1688. The new law’s supporters in the British Parliament had defended it as providing “very great and substantial improvements.” Nonetheless, the Anti-Slavery Society pointed out, there was still no legal way for slaves to be freed, educated, married, or to acquire property, and there was still no effective way to protect them from brutal treatment.
The 1816 insurrection and the Consolidated Slave Law advanced the crusade for freedom more than any other events in Barbadian history. Slaves became more defiant, and British abolitionists increased their pressure on Parliament, frequently citing the severity and repressiveness of slavery on the island. These factors, combined with two other major slave insurrections—in Demerara in 1823 and Jamaica in 1832—moved the British Parliament to reconsider abolition. In 1833 it voted to abolish slavery in all British territories, including Barbados, where an estimated 83,150 slaves were emancipated when the law went into effect the following year.
To ease the burden of abolition on white planters, Great Britain imposed a program known as apprenticeship, which required slaves to enter into labor contracts as indentured servants for varying periods of time (see Apprenticeship in the British Caribbean). In Barbados apprenticeship was implemented in a particularly cruel fashion. The 12-year tenure of labor contracts there was the longest in the British Caribbean. Black and coloured laborers were paid just 9 to 11 pence per day, the lowest wages of all indentured workers in the region; were charged exorbitant rents; and were barred from participating in the island's educational systems. Great Britain repealed apprenticeship in 1838, but in 1838 and 1840 the Masters and Servant Act, also known as the Contract Law, institutionalized discrimination against black and coloured workers in Barbados. Little changed over the next 60 years. Black and coloured workers were confined to laboring on sugar plantations, and few earned enough to purchase their own land.
13. Black Empowerment
Toward the end of the 19th century, black and coloured workers began to unite within a self-help movement inspired by black activists throughout the Caribbean, including Marcus Garvey in Jamaica. The beginning of the 20th century witnessed the emergence of "friendly societies" that provided insurance to the families of black workers who fell ill or died. Weekly dues, or premiums, were collected and deposited in the National Savings Bank of Barbados. These groups became so popular that in 1905 the plantocracy prohibited individual societies from holding more than one acre of land. By 1910 there were 110 friendly societies. Thirty-six years later there were 161 groups across the island, worth close to $130,217 and with more than 97,000 dues-paying members. In addition to the friendly societies, voluntary neighborhood associations (known as landships) and revivalist churches worked to empower blacks in Barbados during the first two decades of the 20th century.
In 1919 a radical wing of the black empowerment movement emerged with the formation of the Barbados Labor Union. In that same year the Barbados Herald, a weekly newspaper representing the black working class, was founded. Five years later the Democratic League (DL) became the first political party in Barbados. Led by black activist Charles Duncan O'Neale, the DL fought during the 1920s and 1930s to end child labor and provide compulsory education for black youth. Black workers also contributed to the self-help movement by establishing the Workingmen's Association, the union arm of the DL, in 1926.
White planters reacted to the emergence of black political and economic consciousness by consolidating their political and economic power. Although a few blacks and coloureds from the DL held positions within the legislature, in the 1930s the government was still dominated by wealthy whites. A further challenge to black advancement came in 1934, when white sugar planters united to form the Barbados Produce Exporters Association (BPEA). The organization secretly agreed to lower wages, thus weakening the emerging strength of black labor. Black workers in Barbados, like their counterparts throughout the Caribbean during this period, responded in 1937 with a strike. The demonstrations were met with violent resistance from the police, leaving14 strikers dead and 47 wounded.
In 1938 black activist Grantley Adams and others institutionalized the demands of black labor by forming the Barbados Progressive League (later renamed the Barbados Labor Party). Working with the Democratic League, they registered black voters who could meet the government's income and property requirements. They achieved their greatest victory when the government announced in 1946 that it would introduce limited reforms. Another milestone was reached four years later when the government granted universal adult suffrage. Reforms continued throughout the 1950s, and in 1961 Barbados was granted self-rule. It became an independent state on November 30, 1966.
Since 1966 Barbados has been a member of the British Commonwealth of Nations and has assumed a leadership role in the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM). It has enjoyed a stable democratic society in which the Barbados Labor Party and the Democratic Labor Party have continued to share power peacefully. In 1986 Errol Barrow, leader of the Democratic Labor Party, became prime minister, but he died in 1987 and was replaced by Erskine Sandiford. In 1994 Sandiford was removed from power by a no-confidence vote in the House of Assembly and was replaced by Owen Arthur, a member of the Barbados Labour Party. Arthur’s party swept the 1999 legislative elections, winning 26 of 28 seats in the House of Assembly.
Barbados has fused two worlds, the African and the British, to create a vibrant nation and popular tourist destination. It still relies on its sugarcane exports, and labor remains a powerful political force. Education has been an important tool in empowering the island's black majority; Barbados boasts a literacy rate of 98 percent — one of the highest in the world. But not all Barbadians are beneficiaries of the island's political and economic stability; poverty is still a persistent problem for some.