There were Amerindians on Barbados for a thousand years or more. The first Europeans to find the island were the Portuguese, who named it ‘Os Barbados’ after the bearded fig trees which grew on the beaches, and left behind some wild pigs. These bred successfully and provided meat for the first English settlers, who arrived in 1627 and found an island which was otherwise uninhabited. It is not clear why the Amerindians abandoned Barbados, although several theories exist. King Charles I gave the Earl of Carlisle permission to colonize the island and it was his appointed Governor, Henry Hawley, who in 1639 founded the House of Assembly. Within a few years, there were over 40,000 white settlers, mostly small farmers, and equivalent in number to about 1% of the total population of England at this period. After the ‘sugar revolution’ of the 1650s most of the white population left. For the rest of the colonial period sugar was king, and the island was dominated by a small group of whites who owned the estates, the ‘plantocracy’. The majority of the population today is descended from African slaves who were brought in to work on the plantations; but there is a substantial mixed-race population, and there has always been a small number of poor whites, particularly in the east part of the island. Many of these are descended from 100 prisoners transported in 1686 after the failed Monmouth rebellion and Judge Jeffrey’s ‘Bloody Assizes’.
The two principal political parties are the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) and the Democratic Labour Party (DLP). The DLP held office from 1986 to 1994. Economic difficulties in the 1990s eroded support for the government. The Prime Minister Erskine Sandiford narrowly lost a vote of confidence in June 1994, and stood aside for his Finance Minister David Thompson, who led the party into a general election on 6 September. The BLP won the elections with 19 seats, compared with eight for the DLP and one for a third party, the NDP. Mr Owen Arthur, then 44, an economist, became Prime Minister and took on the portfolios of Finance and Economic Affairs. In the January 1999 general elections, the BLP was returned with an overwhelming vote of confidence. It won 26 of the 28 seats, while the DLP won the other two. In the latest elections, on 21 May 2003, the BLP won a further landslide with 23 seats over the DLP’s seven in the newly-expanded Assembly.
Barbados has been an independent member of the Commonwealth since November 1966. The British Monarch is the Head of State, represented by a Governor General. There is a strong parliamentary and democratic tradition. The House of Assembly is the third oldest parliament in the Western Hemisphere dating from 1639, although voting was limited to property owners until 1950. There are 21 senators appointed by the Governor General, of whom 12 are on the advice of the Prime Minister, two on the advice of the Leader of the Opposition and seven at his own discretion to reflect religious, economic and social interests. Thirty single-member constituencies elect the House of Assembly.
A 1998 Commission on the constitution chaired by a former BLP leader and Attorney General, Sir Henry Forde QC, recommended abolition of the monarchy, with the Governor General replaced by a ceremonial president, changes in the composition of the Senate, and replacement of the London-based Privy Council as final appeal court by a Caribbean Court of Justice.
Natural resources are few. Sugar is still the main crop but many producers have abandoned the land, while trying to get planning permission for golf courses or housing developments. There is a well-established service sector and an expanding offshore financial sector with a good reputation. A range of light industries produce mainly for the local, regional, and North American markets. Manufacturing is the second largest foreign exchange earner. There is a small oil industry. Barbados National Oil Company’s onshore field in St Philip produces enough for local requirements (although it is refined overseas). There is also enough natural gas for piped domestic supply to urban and suburban areas.
By far the main foreign exchange earner is now tourism, which accounts for 15% of GDP and employs 10,300 people. In 2004, 551,953 stopover tourists and 736,626 cruise ship passengers visited the island, an increase of 3.9% and 27.2% respectively over the previous year as the world economy picked up. In contrast with most Caribbean islands, the UK is the main tourist market, accounting for 39% of arrivals compared with 25% from the USA. Barbados has no hotels with more than 330 rooms. The emphasis on small scale tourism may be an advantage in the British market, but has held back sales in North America, where customers prefer branded hotel chains.
Barbados is 21 miles long and 14 miles wide, lying east of the main chain of the Leeward and Windward islands. Most of the island is covered by a cap of coral limestone, up to 600,000 years old. Several steep inland cliffs or ridges run parallel to the coast. These are the remains of old shorelines, which formed as the island gradually emerged from the sea. There are no rivers in this part of the island, although there are steep-sided gullies down which water runs in wet weather. Rainwater runs through caves in the limestone, one of which, Harrison’s Cave, has been developed as a tourist attraction. The island’s water supply is pumped up from the limestone. In the Scotland District in the northeast, the coral limestone has been eroded and older, softer rocks are exposed. There are rivers here, which have cut deep, steep-sided valleys. Landslides make agriculture and construction hazardous and often destroy roads.
Barbados has a population of 269,000. This is more than any of the Windwards or Leewards, and is considered enough to make the island one of the ‘big four’ in the Caribbean Community. With population density of 1,620 per square mile in 2002, Barbados is one of the most crowded countries in the world.
Because Barbados lies upwind from the main island arc, it was hard to attack from the sea, so it never changed hands in the colonial wars of the 17th and 18th centuries. There is no French, Dutch, or Spanish influence to speak of in the language, cooking or culture. People from other islands have often referred to Barbados as Little England, and have not always intended a compliment. Today, the more obvious outside influences on the Barbadian way of life are North American. Most contemporary Barbadians stress their Afro-Caribbean heritage and aspects of the culture which are distinctively ‘Bajan’. There are extremes of poverty and wealth, but these are not nearly so noticeable as elsewhere in the Caribbean. This makes the social atmosphere relatively relaxed. However, there is a history of deep racial division. Although there is a very substantial black middle class and the social situation has changed radically since the 1940s and 50s, there is still more racial intolerance on all sides than is apparent at first glance. Barbadians are a religious people and although the main church is Anglican, there are over 140 different faiths and sects, including Baptists, Christian Scientists, Jews, Methodists, Moravians and Roman Catholics.
Two Barbadian writers whose work has had great influence throughout the Caribbean are the novelist George Lamming and the poet Edward Kamau Brathwaite. Lamming’s first novel, In The Castle Of My Skin (1953), a part-autobiographical story of growing up in colonial Barbados, deals with one of the major concerns of anglophone writers: how to define one’s values within a system and ideology imposed by someone else. Lamming’s treatment of the boy’s changing awareness in a time of change in the West Indies is both poetic and highly imaginative. His other books include Natives Of My Person, Season Of Adventure and The Pleasures Of Exile.
Brathwaite is also sensitive to the colonial influence on black West Indian culture. Like Derek Walcott and others he is also keenly aware of the African traditions at the heart of that culture. The questions addressed by all these writers are: who is Caribbean man, and what are his faiths, his language, his ancestors? The experience of teaching in Ghana for some time helped to clarify Brathwaite’s response. African religions, motifs and songs mix with West Indian speech rhythms in a style which is often strident, frequently using very short verses. His collections include Islands, Masks and Rights Of Passage.
A to Z of Barbadian Heritage (Heinemann Caribbean). Worth reading (new edition in preparation).
Barbados – Photos from Within (Miller Publications). A good photo book.
Cummins, Alissandra, et al Art in Barbados, (1999, Ian Randle Publishers and Barbados Museum and Historical Society). Examines the work of Barbadian artists over 6 decades.
Fraser, Harry S Treasures of Barbados (Macmillan). A guide to Barbadian architecture.
Machel, Hans Geology of Barbados (Barbados Museum publication).
O’Callaghan, Sean To Hell or Barbados – Irish Slavery in Barbados (2000, Brandon Book Publishers).
Watson Yates, Ann (editor) Bygone Barbados. History of Barbados (1848, Schomburgk). Reprint. Probably the best of several books of old photos; a natural history and geography of the island in early Victorian times.