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Barbados was inhabited by Arawaks and Caribs at the time of European colonization in the 16th century. The island was a British colony from 1625 until 1966. Since 1966, it has been a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy, modelled on the British Westminster system, with Elizabeth II, Queen of Barbados, as head of state.
Some evidence exists that Barbados may not have been settled in the second millennium BC, but this is limited to fragments of conch lip adzes found in association with shells radiocarbon dated to c.1630 BC. Fully documented Amerindian settlement dates to between about 350 to 650 AD, by a group known as the Saladoid-Barrancoid, who arrived from mainland South America. A second wave of migrants appeared around the year 800 (the Spanish referred to these people as "Arawaks") and a third in the mid-13th century (called "Caribs" by the Spanish). This last group was more politically organised and came to rule over the others. Frequent slave-raiding missions by the Spanish Empire in the early 16th century led to a massive decline in the Amerindian population of Barbados so that by 1541 a Spanish writer could claim they were uninhabited. The Amerindians were either captured for use as slaves by the Spanish or fled to other, more easily defensible mountainous islands nearby.
From about 1600 the English, French and Dutch began to find colonies in the North American mainland and the smaller islands of the West Indies. Although Spanish and Portuguese sailors likely had visited Barbados, the Commonwealth of England was the first Europeans to establish a lasting settlement in Barbados from 1627. England is commonly attributed as making their initial claim of Barbados in 1625, though reportedly an earlier claim may have been made in 1620. Nonetheless, by 1625 Barbados was claimed in the name of King James I of England. Despite earlier settlements by England in The Americas, (1607:Jamestown, 1609:Bermuda, and 1620:Plymouth Colony, and closer to Barbadoes the Leeward Islands were claimed by the English at about the same time as Barbados: 1623: St Kitts, 1628: Nevis, 1632: Montserrat, 1632: Antigua.), Barbados quickly grew to became the third major English settlement in the Americas due to its prime eastern location.
The first English ship arrived on 14 May 1625 and was captained by John Powell. The first settlement began some time later on 17 February 1627, near what is now Holetown (formerly Jamestown). The group was led by John Powell's younger brother, Henry, who arrived with 80 settlers and 10 slaves—these first ten slaves were among the sometimes kidnapped and other times runaway English or Irish youth. This settlement established as a proprietary colony and was funded by Sir William Courten, a London merchant who owned the title to Barbados and several other islands. Thus, the first colonists were actually tenants and the profits of their labour returned to Courten and his company.
Courten would later lose this title to James Hay, 1st Earl of Carlisle in what was called the "Great Barbados Robbery." Carlisle then chose as governor Henry Hawley. It was he who established the House of Assembly in 1639, in an effort to appease the planters who might otherwise oppose his controversial appointment.
In the period 1640–60 the West Indies attracted over two thirds of English emigrants to the New World. By 1650 there were 44,000 English settlers in the West Indies, as compared to 12,000 on the Chesapeake and 23,000 in New England. Most English emigrants arrived as indentured servants. After five years of labour, they were given 'freedom dues' of about ₤10, usually in goods. (Before the mid-1630s, they also received 5 to 10 acres of land but after that time the island filled up and there was no free land.) Around the time of Cromwell a number of rebels and criminals were also transported. The death rate was very high (Parish registers from the 1650s show, for the white population, four times as many deaths as marriages.)
Before this the main stay of the infant colony's economy was the growth export of tobacco, but tobacco prices eventually fell in the 1630s as Chesapeake production expanded.
Around the same time fighting during the War of the Three Kingdoms and the Interregnum spilled over into Barbados and Barbadian territorial waters. The island was not involved in the war until after the execution of Charles I, when the island's government fell under the control of Royalists (ironically the Governor, Philip Bell, remained loyal to Parliament while the Barbadian House of Assembly, under the influence of Humphrey Walrond, supported Charles II). To try to bring the recalcitrant colony to heel, the Commonwealth Parliament passed an act on 3 October 1650 which prohibited trade between England and the island, and because the island also traded with the Netherlands, further navigation acts were passed prohibiting any but English vessels trading with Dutch colonies. These acts were a precursor to the First Anglo-Dutch War. The Commonwealth of England sent an invasion force under the command of Sir George Ayscue which arrived in October 1651. After some skirmishing, the Royalists supporters in the Barbados House of Assembly led by Lord Willoughby surrendered. The conditions of surrender were incorporated into the Charter of Barbados (Treaty of Oistins), which was signed in the Mermaid's Inn, Oistins, on 17 January 1652.
The introduction of sugarcane from Dutch Brazil completely transformed society and the economy. Barbados eventually had one of the world's biggest sugar industries after starting sugar cane cultivation in 1640. One group which was instrumental for ensuring the early success of the sugar cane industry were the Sephardic Jews, who 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 African slaves, in addition to transporting most of the sugar to Europe. In 1644 the population of Barbados was estimated at 30,000, of this amount about 800 were of African descent, with the remainder mainly of English descent. These English smallholders were eventually bought out and the island was filled up with large African slave-worked sugar plantations. 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, left or the island. Many of the remaining whites were increasingly poor. By 1680 there were seventeen slaves for every indentured servant. By 1700, there were 15,000 free whites and 50,000 enslaved blacks.
Due to the increased implementation of slave codes, which created differential treatment between Africans and the white workers and ruling planter class, the island became increasingly unattractive to poor whites. Black or slave codes were implemented in 1661, 1676, 1682, and 1688. In response to these codes, several slave rebellions were attempted or planned during this time, but none succeeded. Nevertheless, poor whites who had or acquired the means to emigrate often did so. Planters expanded their importation of African slaves to cultivate sugar cane.
By 1660, Barbados generated more trade than all the other English colonies combined. This remained until it was eventually surpassed by geographically larger islands like Jamaica in 1713. Even though, in 1730–31 the estimated value of the colony of Barbados was as much as ₤5,500,000. Bridgetown, the capital, was one of the three largest cities in British America (the other two were Boston, Massachusetts and Port Royal, Jamaica.) By 1700 the English West Indies produced 25,000 tons of sugar, compared to 20,000 for Brazil, 10,000 for the French islands and 4,000 for the Dutch islands. This quickly replaced tobacco plantations on the islands which were previously the main export.
As the sugar industry developed into its main commercial enterprise, Barbados was divided into large plantation estates that replaced the smallholdings of the early English settlers. In 1680 over half the arable land was held by 175 large planters who held at least 60 slaves. The great planters had connections with the English aristocracy and great influence on Parliament. (In 1668 the West Indian sugar crop sold for £180,000 after customs of £18,000. Chesapeake tobacco earned £50,000 after customs of £75,000). So much land was devoted to sugar that most food had to be imported from New England. The poorer whites that were squeezed off the island went to the British Leeward Islands or, especially, Jamaica. In 1670 the Province of South Carolina was founded with surplus persons leaving Barbados. Other nations benefiting from large numbers of Barbadians include: British Guiana, as well as Panama.
The British abolished the slave trade in 1807 but not the institution itself. In 1816, slaves rose up in the largest major slave rebellion in the island's history. Twenty thousand slaves from over 70 plantations rebelled. They drove whites off the plantations, but widespread killings did not take place. This was later termed "Bussa's Rebellion" after the slave ranger, Bussa, who with his assistants hated slavery, found the treatment of slaves on Barbados to be "intolerable", and believed the political climate in the UK made the time ripe to peacefully negotiate with planters for freedom (Davis, p. 211; Northrup, p. 191). Bussa's Rebellion failed. One hundred and twenty slaves died in combat or were immediately executed; another 144 were brought to trial and executed; remaining rebels were shipped off the island (Davis, pp. 212–213).
Slavery was finally abolished in the British Empire 18 years later in 1834. In Barbados and the rest of the British West Indian colonies, full emancipation from slavery was preceded by an apprenticeship period that lasted four years.
In 1884, the Barbados Agricultural Society sent a letter to Sir Francis Hincks requesting his private and public views on whether the Dominion of Canada would favourably entertain having the then colony of Barbados admitted as a member of the Canadian Confederation. Asked of Canada were the terms of the Canadian side to initiate discussions, and whether or not the island of Barbados could depend on the full influence of Canada in getting the change agreed to by the United Kingdom. Then in 1952 the Barbados Advocate newspaper polled several prominent Barbadian politicians, lawyers, businessmen, the Speaker of the Barbados House of Assembly and later as first President of the Senate, Sir Theodore Branker, Q.C. and found them to be in favour of immediate federation of Barbados along with the rest of the British Caribbean with complete Dominion Status within five years from the date of inauguration of the West Indies Federation with Canada.
However, plantation owners and merchants of British descent still dominated local politics, owing to the high-income qualification required for voting. More than 70% of the population, many of them disenfranchised women, were excluded from the democratic process. It was not until the 1930s that the descendants of emancipated slaves began a movement for political rights. One of the leaders of this movement, Sir Grantley Adams, founded the Barbados Labour Party in 1938, then known as the Barbados Progressive League.
Adams and his party demanded more rights for the poor and for the people, and staunchly supported the monarchy. Progress toward a more democratic government in Barbados was made in 1942, when the exclusive income qualification was lowered and women were given the right to vote. By 1949 governmental control was wrested from the planters and, in 1958, Adams became Premier of Barbados.
From 1958 to 1962, Barbados was one of the ten members of the West Indies Federation, an organisation doomed by nationalistic attitudes and by the fact that its members, as British colonies, held limited legislative power. Adams served as its first and only "Premier", but his leadership failed in attempts to form similar unions, and his continued defence of the monarchy was used by his opponents as evidence that he was no longer in touch with the needs of his country. Errol Walton Barrow, a fervent reformer, became the new people's advocate. Barrow had left the BLP and formed the Democratic Labour Party as a liberal alternative to Adams' conservative government. Barrow instituted many progressive social programmes, such as free education for all Barbadians and the school meals system. By 1961, Barrow had replaced Adams as Premier and the DLP controlled the government.
With the Federation dissolved, Barbados reverted to its former status, that of a self-governing colony. The island negotiated its own independence at a constitutional conference with Britain in June 1966. After years of peaceful and democratic progress, Barbados finally became an independent state on 30 November 1966, with Errol Barrow its first Prime Minister, although Queen Elizabeth II remained the monarch. Upon independence Barbados maintained historical linkages with Britain by establishing membership to the Commonwealth of Nations grouping. A year later Barbados' international linkages were expanded by obtaining membership to the United Nations and the Organization of American States.
Sugar cane cultivation began in the 1640s, after its introduction in 1637 by Pieter Blower. Initially, rum was produced but by 1642, sugar was the focus of the industry. As it developed into the main commercial enterprise, Barbados was divided into large plantation estates which replaced the small holdings of the early British settlers as the wealthy planters pushed out the poorer. Some of the displaced farmers relocated to British colonies in North America, most notably South Carolina. To work the plantations, black Africans - primarily from West Africa - were imported as slaves in such numbers that there were three for every one planter. The slave trade ceased in 1807 and slaves were emancipated in 1834. Persecuted Catholics from Ireland also worked the plantations. Life expectancy of slaves was short, and replacements were purchased annually.
Increasingly after 1750 the plantations were owned by absentee landlords living in Britain and operated by hired managers.
Roberts (2006) shows that slaves did not spend the majority of time in restricted roles cultivating, harvesting, and processing sugarcane, the island's most important cash crop. Rather, slaves involved in various activities and in multiple roles: raising livestock, fertilizing soil, growing provisional crops, maintaining plantation infrastructure, caregiving, and other tasks. One notable soil management technique was intercropping, planting subsistence crops between the rows of cash crops - which demanded of the slaves skilled and experienced observations of growing conditions for efficient land use.
Carrington (1982) examines politics during the American Revolution, revealing that Barbadian political leaders shared many of the grievances and goals of the American revolutionaries, but that they were unwilling to go to war over them. Nevertheless, the repeated conflicts between the island assembly and the royal governors brought important constitutional reforms which confirmed the legislature's control over most local matters and its power over the executive.
From 1800 until 1885, Barbados then served as the main seat of Government for the former British colonies of the Windward Islands. During the period of around 85 years the resident Governor of Barbados also served as the Colonial head of the Windward Islands. After the Government of Barbados officially exited from the Windward Island union in 1885, the seat was moved from Bridgetown to St. George's on the neighbouring island of Grenada, where it remained until the territory of the Windward Islands was dissolved.
Soon after Barbados' withdrawal from the Windward Islands, Barbados became aware that Tobago was going to be amalgamated with another territory as part of a single state. In response, Barbados made an official bid to the British Government to have neighbouring Island Tobago joined with Barbados as a political union. The British government however decided that Trinidad would be a better fit and Tobago instead was made a Ward of Trinidad.
African slaves worked on plantations owned by merchants of British descent. It was these merchants who continued to dominate politically even after emancipation, due to a high income restriction on voting. Only an exclusive 30%, therefore, had any voice in the democratic process. It was not until the 1930s that a movement for political rights was begun by the descendants of emancipated slaves, who started trade unions. One of the leaders of this movement, Sir Grantley Adams, founded the Barbados Progressive League (now the Barbados Labour Party) in 1938. The Great Depression caused mass unemployment and strikes, and the quality of life on the island lowered drastically. Adams continued to advocate more for the people, especially the poor.
Finally, in 1942, the income qualification was lowered. This was followed by the introduction of universal adult suffrage in 1951, with Adams elected the Premier of Barbados in 1958. For his actions, Adams would later become a National Hero.
From 1958 to 1962, Barbados was one of the ten members of the West Indies Federation, an organisation doomed to failure by a number of factors, including what were often petty nationalistic prejudices and limited legislative power. Indeed, Adams' position as "Prime Minister" is a gross misnomer, as all of the Federation members were still colonies of Britain. Adams, once a political visionary and now a man blind to the needs of his country, not only held fast to his notion of defending the monarchy but also made additional attempts to form similarly flawed Federation-like entities after that union's demise. When the Federation was terminated, Barbados had reverted to its former status as a self-governing colony, but efforts were made by Adams to form another federation composed of Barbados and the Leeward and Windward Islands.
Errol Walton Barrow was to replace Grantley Adams as the people's advocate and it was he who would eventually lead the island into Independence. Barrow, a fervent reformer and once a member of the Barbados Labour Party, had left the party to form his own Democratic Labour Party, as the liberal alternative to the conservative BLP government under Adams. He remains a National Hero for his work in social reformation, including the institution of free education for all Barbadians. In 1961, Barrow supplanted Adams as Premier as the DLP took control of the government.
Due to several years of growing autonomy, Barbados, with Barrow at the helm, was able to successfully negotiate its independence at a constitutional conference with the United Kingdom in June 1966. After years of peaceful and democratic progress, Barbados finally became an independent state and formally joined the Commonwealth of Nations on 30 November 1966, Errol Barrow serving as its first Prime Minister.
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A number of proposals have been mooted in the past to have Barbados integrated with either neighboring countries or once even the Canadian Confederation. To date all have failed, and one proposal even led to deadly riots in 1876 when Governor John Pope Hennessy tried to pressure Barbados' politicians to integrate more firmly into the Windward Islands. Governor Hennessy was quickly transferred from Barbados by the British Crown following the situation. In 1884 attempts were then made by the influential Barbados Agricultural Society to have Barbados form a political association with the Canadian Confederation. From 1958-1962 Barbados became one of the 10 states of the West Indies Federation. Lastly in the 1990s, a plan was devised by the leaders of Guyana, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago to form a political association between those three governments. Again this deal was never completed, following the loss of Sir Lloyd Erskine Sandiford in the Barbadian general elections.