Click here to return to the main page

Caribbean Poetry:
Barbados

insert2.gif (857 bytes)
History of Barbados


Physical
:
Barbados is the easternmost island in the Caribbean, situated a good hundred miles away from the rest of the chain.  Coral stone constitutes the island's base rather than volcanic activity, and the land is relatively flat:  the tallest point is only 1,100 feet above sea level.  The land is fourteen miles wide and twenty-one miles long.  The name comes from the Portuguese reference to the island, "Los Barbados," which means "the bearded ones."   Most likely, the name came from the bearded fig trees lining the coast.

Amerindians:
The first settlers on Barbados arrived around 400 BC when the Arawaks, a group of peaceful hunter-gatherers, set up villages after island-hopping through the Caribbean.  The more aggressive Caribs (another tribe of hunter-gatherers) annihilated the Arawaks around 1200 AD and inhabited the island.  But when the first English colonists landed on the island, the only welcome they received was from a herd of Portuguese hogs.  Scholars theorize that the Carib Indians died of an epidemic, or else that the Spanish settlers gathered them off the island and pressed them into slavery.  Despite their absence, the Amerindians' influence remains on the island through their artifacts and the sounds of modern language.   For example, the Amerindian huracan translates to hurricane and guayaba has evolved into guava.

English Settlement:
When Spain and Portugal came through the Caribbean, they either overlooked the flat island of Barbados or they bypassed it.  But in 1625, Captain John Powell landed near modern-day Holetown to claim Barbados for England in the name of King James I.  The settlement started in earnest on Feb. 17, 1627 when 80 English settlers and 10 African slaves made their home on the west coast.

Many of the early settlers were the misfits of English society:  gamblers, kidnappers, political refugees, etc.  Younger or second sons of wealthy English families also came to Barbados to claim land, money, and a chance at starting a life of their own.  Often, they worked as indentured servants for two to ten years.

Sir William Courteen, a London merchant, funded the initial settlement with 10,000.  The first settlers kept modest lives.  They planted crops such as tobacco, cotton, ginger, and indigo, but they also raised their own food.  Indentured servants performed most of the work rather than slaves.

The Earl of Carlisle (whose name is memorialized in Carlisle Bay) succeeded Courteen when he convinced James I to grant him control of the Caribbean.  Carlisle was less humanitarian than Courteen, and demanded more of the island's profits for his own pockets.  He also sent his own group of settlers to the southern end of Barbados, where they established the city of Bridgetown, carving it out of the swampy land they found.  But Carlisle's demands for more of the colonists' profits sapped the island of the wealth and strength it needed, and the 1630's became known as "the starving time."

Sugar Cane:
In 1637, a Dutchman, Pieter Blower, brought sugar cane to Barbados.  The colonists initially used the cane for making rum, but they began to refine the juice into crystallized sugar by 1642.  The sugar industry spread across the entire island, transforming every piece of arable land from jungle to field.  

The plantation owners also imported more African slaves to work on the plantations, and the black:white ratios soared.  Not only were more Africans brought onto the island, but the number of small-time white planters decreased dramatically as they found they couldn't compete with the large plantation owners.

Home Rule and Slavery:
Barbados was always closely tied to her mother country--so closely, in fact, that she was known by various nicknames such as "Little England" and "Bimshire."  Despite these close ties, the islanders began to argue for home rule, but their political sway remained small.

Slave rebellions also tended to be less serious than on other Caribbean islands because Barbados maintained a heavy police force and because there was nowhere to run.  Unlike Jamaica, which still had forests, almost all of Barbados's land had been cultivated to optimize sugar output.

Rebellions did transpire in the late 1600's, but the nature of their protest changed as the 1700's evolved.  The Africans slowly became native-born or creolized rather than imported.  The plantation owners believed that the creolized slaves were more "trainable" than the newly imported Africans, and they gave the island-born slaves more liberties as a result.

British Parliament officially abolished the slave trade in 1807.  To guard against illegal importation, Parliament required the Barbadian planters to register their slaves.  The plantation owners were furious:  they believed the bill threatened their self-government.

When slaves heard rumors about the controversy, they misinterpreted the events and thought the uproar was over the question of freeing them.  A slave revolt, commonly known as Bussa's Rebellion, erupted in 1816 when the slaves' living conditions were better than ever.  The revolters--free mulattos and slaves--had met at weekend dances for months to plan.  They set fire to cane fields in St. Peter the night of April 14, 1816.  Police and plantation owners stopped the revolt only after one-fifth of the island's sugar crop had been destroyed.  176 slaves died in the uprising, and another 214 were executed.

Because of the revolt, the British Parliament granted Barbados the right to pass its own slave registry bill, a step toward self-rule.  Slavery itself was not abolished until 1834--and, even then, it passed with little fanfare.  "As William Hart Coleridge, an influential abolitionist and Anglican Bishop on Barbados reported: '800,000 human beings lay down last night as slaves, and rose in the morning as free as ourselves . . . '" (Wilder 32).

After Emancipation:
For four years after emancipation, the slaves were required to participate in an apprenticeship program that had largely tied the freed slaves to the plantations where they once worked for free.  When the apprenticeship program ended on August 1, 1838, the newly-freed Bajans celebrated in the streets.  The transition to complete emancipation was simple and bloodless, though the problems with a small wealthy leadership class and a large black labor force would take over a century to resolve.

Certain laws kept the emancipated slaves fairly quiet, docile, and immobile, but not everyone simply accepted the events.  Samuel Jackson Prescod, son of a slave mother and white father, championed the cause of freedom, justice, and equality.  He became the first non-white member of Barbados's Parliament in 1843.  He also helped found the Liberal Party, whose following included small landowners, businessmen, and mulatto and black clerks.

In 1878, when faced with the option of joining a Confederation to unite the British Colonies in the Caribbean, Barbadians refused.  Primarily, they said they didn't want to lose the chance at self-rule; but they also refused because they worried that the black population would emigrate away, and that the island's economy would crumble as a result.

Many black Bajans did leave, in fact, to help build the Panama Canal between 1850 and 1914.  Around this time, Barbados's economy did face collapse as they competed with other countries in the sugar industry.  

In response to the hard times, new political  movements evolved.  Dr. Charles Duncan O'Neale, for instance, championed the need to improve workers' conditions.  In 1924, O'Neale founded the Democratic League, a mass-based, radical, political force.  In 1938, the Barbados Labour Party evolved.  Marcus Garvey also represented a strong figure that gave Bajans the courage to fight for more equality.

In 1937, the anger and frustration erupted into riots sparked by Clement Payne's influence.  Payne advocated the formation of trade unions by speaking publicly in Bridgetown.  He inspired the Bajans to such depths of passion that the authorities deported him July 26, 1937.  But crowds of Bajans gathered to protest his deportation.  The riots that broke out lasted three days, starting in towns and spreading quickly to rural areas (see especially George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin).  The anger and frustration at a government ruled by such a small percentage of the population was finally beginning to erupt.

Various politicians worked to equalize the black and white Bajans.  Grantley Adams became a leader and spokesmen for a mass-movement from 1938-1945.  He helped found the Barbados Labour Party and demanded fair labour laws.  Slowly, the island prepared for independence.

The question of confederation with the rest of the Caribbean islands arose again, and Adams represented Barbados in the coalition.  But the movement never gained enough momentum, and it dissolved in 1962--only four years after it began.

Earl Walton Barrow succeeded Adams in the Barbadian government as Prime Minister.  Barrow supported a very liberal party and put the finishing touches on preparing the island for independence, which came November 30, 1966.  Again, the transition to new status proceeded smoothly.

Despite independence, the island remained very British and conservative in style for several decades.  But Barbados has been working at preserving its own unique culture in the past decade or so (starting mid-1980's).  One aspect of that preservation can be seen in the Bajans' enthusiasm for the Crop Over Festival.  Crop Over began during the days of plantation society as a way to celebrate the end of the sugar cane harvest.  The celebration restarted in the 1970's, and the Natural Cultural Foundation has managed it since 1982.

Crop Over also revived the calypso tradition in Barbados.  "The wildly popular calypsonians are now a major force in Bajan society:  they speak for the people, providing social commentary, gentle protest that grows out of concern for their nation, and a constant source of indigenous entertainment" (Wilder 47).

 

Click here to return to the main page
click on calabash: return to main