Barbados was inhabited by its indigenous peoples—Arawaks and Caribs—prior to the European colonization of the Americas in the 16th century. Barbados was briefly claimed by the Portuguese from 1532 to 1620. The island was English and later a British colony from 1625 until 1966. Since 1966, it has been a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy, modelled on the Westminster system, with Elizabeth II, Queen of Barbados, as head of state.
Some evidence suggests that Barbados may have been settled in the second millennium BC, but this is limited to fragments of conch lip adzes found in association with shells that have been radiocarbon-dated to about 1630 BC. Fully documented Amerindian settlement dates to between about 350 and 650 AD. The arrivals were a group known as the Saladoid-Barrancoid from the mainland of South America. A second wave of settlers appeared around the year 800 (the Spanish referred to these as "Arawaks") and a third in the mid-13th century (called "Caribs" by the Spanish). This last group was politically more organised and came to rule over the others.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to discover the island. Portuguese navigator Pedro A. Campos named it Os Barbados (meaning "bearded ones").
Frequent slave-raiding missions by the Spanish Empire in the early 16th century led to a massive decline in the Amerindian population, so that by 1541 a Spanish writer claimed 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 found colonies in the North American mainland and the smaller islands of the West Indies. Although Spanish and Portuguese sailors had visited Barbados, the first English ship touched the island on 14 May 1625, and England was the first European nation to establish a lasting settlement there from 1627. England is commonly said to have made its initial claim to Barbados in 1625, although reportedly an earlier claim may have been made in 1620. Nonetheless, Barbados was claimed from 1625 in the name of King James I of England. There were earlier English settlements in The Americas (1607: Jamestown, 1609: Bermuda, and 1620: Plymouth Colony), and several islands in the Leeward Islands were claimed by the English at about the same time as Barbados (1623: St Kitts, 1628: Nevis, 1632: Montserrat, 1632: Antigua). Nevertheless, Barbados quickly grew to become the third major English settlement in the Americas due to its prime eastern location.
The settlement was established as a proprietary colony and funded by Sir William Courten, a City of London merchant who acquired the title to Barbados and several other islands. So the first colonists were actually tenants and much of the profits of their labor returned to Courten and his company.
The first English ship, which had arrived on 14 May 1625, was captained by John Powell. The first settlement began on 17 February 1627, near what is now Holetown (formerly Jamestown), by a group led by John Powell's younger brother, Henry, consisting of 80 settlers and 10 English laborers. The latter were young indentured laborers who according to some sources had been abducted, effectively making them slaves.
Courten's title was transferred to James Hay, 1st Earl of Carlisle, in what was called the "Great Barbados Robbery." Carlisle then chose as governor Henry Hawley, who established the House of Assembly in 1639, in an effort to appease the planters, who might otherwise have opposed his controversial appointment.
In the period 1640–60, the West Indies attracted over two-thirds of the total number of English emigrants to the Americas. By 1650, there were 44,000 settlers in the West Indies, as compared to 12,000 on the Chesapeake and 23,000 in New England. Most English arrivals were indentured. After five years of labor, 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 and there was no more free land.) Around the time of Cromwell a number of rebels and criminals were also transported there. Timothy Meads of Warwickshire was one of the rebels sent to Barbados at that time, before he received compensation for servitude of 1000 acres of land in North Carolina in 1666. Parish registers from the 1650s show, for the white population, four times as many deaths as marriages. The death rate was very high.
Before this, the mainstay of the infant colony's economy was the growing 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 prohibiting trade between England and Barbados, 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 in the House of Assembly led by Lord Willoughby surrendered. The conditions of the surrender were incorporated into the Charter of Barbados (Treaty of Oistins), which was signed at the Mermaid's Inn, Oistins, on 17 January 1652.
Sugar cane cultivation in Barbados 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 English settlers as the wealthy planters pushed out the poorer. Some of the displaced farmers relocated to the English 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. Increasingly after 1750 the plantations were owned by absentee landlords living in Britain and operated by hired managers. 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.
The introduction of sugar cane from Dutch Brazil in 1640 completely transformed society and the economy. Barbados eventually had one of the world's biggest sugar industries. One group instrumental in ensuring the early success of the industry were the Sephardic Jews, who had 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 which about 800 were of African descent, with the remainder mainly of English descent. These English smallholders were eventually bought out and the island 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, or left the island. Many of the remaining whites were increasingly poor. By 1680, there were 17 slaves for every indentured servant. By 1700, there were 15,000 whites and 50,000 enslaved blacks.
Due to the increased implementation of slave codes, which emphasized 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. One early advocate of slave rights in Barbados was the visiting Quaker preacher Alice Curwen in 1677: " "For I am persuaded, that if they whom thou call'st thy Slaves, be Upright-hearted to God, the Lord God Almighty will set them Free in a way that thou knowest not; for there is none set free but in Christ Jesus, for all other Freedom will prove but a Bondage."
By 1660, Barbados generated more trade than all the other English colonies combined. This remained so until it was eventually surpassed by geographically larger islands like Jamaica in 1713. But even so, the estimated value of the colony of Barbados in 1730–31 was as much as £5,500,000. Bridgetown, the capital, was one of the three largest cities in English America (the other two being 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, which had been the island's 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 enslavers/planters, each of whom enslaved at least 60 persons. The great enslavers/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 foods had to be imported from New England. The poorer whites who were moved off the island went to the English Leeward Islands, or especially to Jamaica. In 1670, the Province of South Carolina was founded, when some of the surplus population again left Barbados. Other nations benefiting from large numbers of Barbadians included British Guiana and Panama.
Roberts (2006) shows that enslaved persons did not spend the majority of time in restricted roles cultivating, harvesting, and processing sugarcane, the island's most important cash crop. Rather, the enslaved were 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 enslaved skilled and experienced observations of growing conditions for efficient land use.
"Slaveholders often counted as 'married' only the enslaved with mates on the estate. For example, the manager of Newton estate ... recorded 20 women with co-resident husbands and 35 with mates elsewhere. Members of the latter group were labeled single, members of extended units, or mother-child units."[a]
The British abolished the slave trade in 1807, but not the institution itself. In 1816, enslaved persons rose up in what was the first of three rebellions in the British West Indies to occur in the interval between the end of the slave trade and emancipation, and the largest slave uprising in the island's history. Around 20,000 enslaved persons from over 70 plantations are thought to have been involved. The rebellion was partly fueled by information about the growing abolitionist movement in England, and the opposition against such by local whites. It largely surprised planters, who felt that their slaves were content because they were allowed weekly dances, participated in social and economic activity across the island and were generally fed and looked after.  However, they had refused to reform the Barbados Slave Code since its inception, a code that denied slaves human rights and prescribed inhumane torture, mutilation or death as a means of control. This contributed to what was later termed "Bussa's Rebellion", named for the slave ranger, Bussa, and the result of a growing sentiment that the treatment of slaves in Barbados was "intolerable", and who believed the political climate in Britain made the time ripe to peacefully negotiate with planters for freedom. Bussa became the most famous of the rebellion's organizers, many of whom were either enslaved persons of some higher position or literate freedmen. One woman, Nanny Grigg, is also named as a principal organizer.
Bussa's Rebellion failed. The uprising was triggered prematurely, but the slaves were already greatly outmatched. Barbados’ flat terrain gave the horses of the better-armed militia the clear advantage over the rebels, with no mountains or forest for concealment. Slaves had also thought they would be supported by freed men of colour, but these instead joined efforts to quell the rebellion. Although they drove whites off the plantations, widespread killings did not take place. By the end, one hundred and twenty slaves died in combat or were immediately executed, and another 144 were brought to trial and executed. The remaining rebels were shipped off the island.
Slavery was finally abolished in the British Empire 8 years later, in 1834. In Barbados and the rest of the British West Indian colonies, full emancipation from slavery was preceded by a contentious 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 from 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 British Parliament at Westminster.
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 percent 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, Sir Grantley Adams, founded the Barbados Progressive League in 1938, which later became known as the Barbados Labour Party (BLP).
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, a federalist organisation doomed by nationalist attitudes and the fact that its members, as British colonies, held limited legislative power. Grantley 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 people's new advocate. Barrow had left the BLP and formed the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) as a liberal alternative to Adams' conservative government. Barrow instituted many progressive social programmes, such as free education for all Barbadians and a 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 becoming a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. A year later, Barbados' international linkages were expanded by obtaining membership of both the United Nations and the Organization of American States.
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 English and Scottish descent. It was these merchants who continued to dominate Barbados politics, even after emancipation, due to a high income restriction on voting. Only the upper 30 per cent 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. Charles Duncan O’Neal, Clennell Wickham and the members of the Democratic League were some of the leaders of this movement. This was initially opposed by Sir Grantley Adams, who played an instrumental role in the bankruptcy and shutdown of The Herald newspapers, one of the movement's foremost voices. Adams would later found the Barbados Progressive League (now the Barbados Labour Party) in 1938, during the Great Depression. The Depression caused mass unemployment and strikes, and the standard of living on the island fell drastically. With the death of O’Neal and the demise of the League, Adams cemented his power, but he used this to advocate for causes that had once been his rivals, including more help 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, and Adams was elected as Premier of Barbados in 1958. For his action and leadership, 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's position as "Prime Minister" was a misnomer, as all of the Federation members were still colonies of Britain. Adams, once a political visionary and now a man whose policies seemed to some 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 other Federation-like entities after that union's demise. When the Federation was terminated, Barbados 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 advocate of populism, and it was he who would eventually lead the island into Independence in 1966. 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 successfully to 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.
A number of proposals have been mooted in the past to have Barbados integrated with either neighboring countries or 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. 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 to 1962 Barbados became one of the ten 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.