They say history is written by the victors but I think we are now, more than ever, keen to know the absolute truth. Let’s look honestly at the history of Barbados Island. This magical island has endured through centuries of upheaval and conflict and has emerged the most beloved, best Caribbean destinations.
Location Location Location
Let me start with some basic information to set the stage. Location: Barbados is an island nation sandwiched between the Western Atlantic Ocean and the Eastern Caribbean. A question frequently asked: is Barbados part of the West Indies can be answered simply, yes! It may be the Easternmost of this island grouping with its nearest neighbours St Lucia and Grenada but it is a significant player in the diverse and culturally rich history of the West Indies.
At 167 square miles, it is an island that is ranked at number 26th in size in the Caribbean and has the great fortune to sit comfortably outside of the notorious Hurricane Belt. For this reason, the best time to travel to Barbados is all year round.
Barbados – What’s in a Name?
I love tracing back the origins of place names. It can reveal a great deal about the history of a country or city. The origins of the name Barbados is taken from the Portuguese word Barbados meaning ‘bearded’. The first Europeans to discover this pretty island in the Caribbean were the Portuguese.
Following in the tradition of explorers naming islands based on the first observed object of most noticeable feature, the Portuguese explorer Pedro o Campos named the island for the native fig trees that proliferate across Barbados. These trees have long hanging roots that look like beards.
In 1632, the Spanish included Barbados on one of its maps and it is identified as Isla del Barbado. This translates as The Island of the Bearded Man. I am doubtful that this is in any way a reference to the natives being bearded. This wouldn’t have been anything remarkable of note for the Conquistadores as both they and their fellow Spaniards and Portuguese back home would all have been nations of bearded men. I think the earlier Portuguese reference to the bearded fig trees simply evolved overtime into this Spanish derivative.
The Conquistadores – The beginning of Colonization in Barbados History
Barbados was inhabited by the warlike Carrib Indians. This cannibalistic tribe had invaded Barbados and subdued the peaceable Arawak Indians, the first known settlers on these temperate shores. The early Arawaks had cultivated tobacco and cassava and enjoyed a harmonious existence in this Caribbean outpost before the Carribs arrived to crush them.
When Pedro A Campos first discovered Barbados on his route to Brazil, he decided against attempting to subdue the aggressive Barbados natives. It was Christopher Columbus, arriving on Spain’s behalf who overthrew the Carrib population through a combination of tactical warfare and the unwitting introduction of European diseases to which the natives had no natural immunity. Yet for all of this effort, Spain saw no reason to establish a colony on the island as it was deemed of little economic value to the Crown of Spain.
It’s no surprise that the British Empire was the largest Empire in the history of the world. Never a nation to pass up an opportunity to raise the flag on an island anywhere on the globe, a Captain John Powell who veered off course while sailing from Brazil to England, weighed anchor in Barbados on 4th May 1625. The island was now completely uninhabited and Captain Powell took an opportunity to claim this island paradise for King James I of England.
Two years later on 17 February 1627, a ship captained by Henry Powell (a brother to John), arrived with 80 settlers and 10 press-ganged Irish and English workers who established the first settlement named Jamestown – known today as Holetown. This was the beginning of the history of Barbados island, as we know it today.
Agriculture and Progress
These early English settlers in Barbados recommenced the arduous task, started by the Arawak’s many centuries before, of clearing the land to make way for agriculture on a grand scale. Sugarcane was the agriculture crop of choice and by the year 1661 some expansive sugar plantations had been established across the island. The need for manpower to clear, cultivate and harvest sugarcane, started a grim chapter in Barbados History that reflects what was happening across so many of the other island nations in the Caribbean. Slavery.
I will digress slightly at this point. A lesser known fact is that a small group of Barbadians set sail to establish colonies elsewhere in the Americas. Where did people from Barbados settle? Well, the Carolinas for a start. With their knowledge of establishing plantations on Barbados, these early continental American settlers, set about planting indigo and rice and after a series of trial and error they eventually planted tobacco that would establish this part of the world as one of the biggest tobacco producers.
About Mairead Moriarty
Born and raised in Co Kerry, lived in London, New York, San Francisco, Dublin. Owner of one very battered suitcase, a well-worn passport and a million memories.
It seems very fitting for a travel writer that my surname translates as ‘Skilled Navigator’. Apart from an occasion when, aged 3, I got lost in a Supermarket in Tralee, I have managed to live up to my name! Curiosity is probably the driver that has sent me on magical mystery tours around the world. I want to ‘feel’ a place. I want all my senses to be engaged: from the history and geography that has influenced a country or city, the arts and achievements of its natives, anything and everything really. Regardless of whether I am on a local train travelling through Morocco, or poking around in Marconi’s study in Bologna or on a canal boat weaving through the heart of the English countryside, the same rules apply - ask questions, talk to locals, eat what they eat, sit quietly with nature and simply be. Assimilate as much as is possible so as to understand the soul of a place. That is my passion. That is the compass by which I navigate.