Island country, West Indies.
The most easterly of the Caribbean islands, it lies about 100 mi (160
km) east of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Area: 166 sq mi (430 sq
km). Population (2005 est.): 270,000. Capital: Bridgetown. More than
nine-tenths of the population is of African ancestry. Language: English
(official). Religion: Christianity (mostly Protestant). Currency:
Barbados dollar. Largely covered by a layer of coral, Barbados is low
and flat except in its north-central part; its highest point is Mount
Hillaby, at 1,115 ft (340 m). There is little surface water. The island
is almost encircled by coral reefs. Bridgetown is its only seaport. The
economy is based on tourism and sugar, while the offshore financial
sector is growing. Barbados is a constitutional monarchy with two
legislative houses; its chief of state is the British monarch,
represented by a governor-general, and the head of government is the
prime minister. The island was probably inhabited originally by Arawak
and later by Carib Indians. Spaniards may have landed by 1518, and by
1536 they had apparently wiped out the Indian population. Barbados was
settled by the English in the 1620s. Slaves were brought in to work the
sugar plantations, which were especially prosperous in the 17th–18th
century. The British Empire abolished slavery in 1834, and all the
Barbados slaves were freed by 1838. In 1958 Barbados joined the West
Indies Federation. When the latter dissolved in 1962, Barbados sought
independence from Britain, which it gained in 1966.
Official name Barbados
Form of government constitutional monarchy with two legislative houses
(Senate ; House of Assembly )
Chief of state British Monarch represented by Governor-General
Head of government Prime Minister
Official language English
Official religion none
Monetary unit Barbados dollar (Bds$)
Population estimate (2008) 282,000
Total area (sq mi) 166
Total area (sq km) 430
island country in the southeastern Caribbean Sea, situated about 100
miles (160 km) east of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Roughly
triangular in shape, the island measures some 20 miles (32 km) from
northwest to southeast and about 15 miles (25 km) from east to west at
its widest point. The capital and largest town is Bridgetown, which is
also the main seaport.
The geographic position of Barbados has profoundly influenced the
island’s history and culture and aspects of its economic life. Barbados
is not part of the nearby archipelago of the Lesser Antilles, although
it is usually grouped with it. The island is of different geologic
formation; it is less mountainous and has less variety in plant and
animal life. As the first Caribbean landfall from Europe and Africa,
Barbados has functioned since the late 17th century as a major link
between western Europe (mainly Great Britain), eastern Caribbean
territories, and parts of the South American mainland. The island was a
British possession without interruption from the 17th century to 1966,
when it attained independence. Because of its long association with
Britain, the culture of Barbados is probably more British than is that
of any other Caribbean island, though elements of the African culture of
the majority population have been prominent. Since independence,
cultural nationalism has been fostered as part of the process of
The rocks underlying Barbados consist of sedimentary deposits,
including thick shales, clays, sands, and conglomerates, laid down
approximately 70 million years ago. Above these rocks are chalky
deposits, which were capped with coral before the island rose to the
surface. A layer of coral up to 300 feet (90 metres) thick covers the
island, except in the northeast physiographic region known as the
Scotland District, which covers about 15 percent of the area, where
erosion has removed the coral cover. The government has adopted a
conservation plan to prevent further erosion.
Relief, drainage, and soils
Mount Hillaby, the highest point in Barbados, rises to 1,102 feet
(336 metres) in the north-central part of the island. To the west the
land drops down to the sea in a series of terraces. East from Mount
Hillaby, the land declines sharply to the rugged upland of the Scotland
District. Southward, the highlands descend steeply to the broad St.
Georges Valley; between the valley and the sea the land rises to 400
feet (120 metres) to form Christ Church Ridge. Coral reefs surround most
of the island. Sewerage systems were installed in the late 20th century
to address the threat to the reefs from runoff of fertilizers and
There are no significant rivers or lakes and only a few streams,
springs, and ponds. Rainwater percolates quickly through the underlying
coralline limestone cap, draining into underground streams, which are
the main source of the domestic water supply. A desalination plant
provides additional fresh water.
Barbados has mainly residual soils. They are clayey and rich in lime
and phosphates. Soil type varies with elevation; thin black soils occur
on the coastal plains, and more-fertile yellow-brown or red soils are
usually found in the highest parts of the coral limestone.
The climate of Barbados is generally pleasant. The temperature does
not usually rise above the mid-80s F (about 30 °C) or fall below the low
70s F (about 22 °C). There are two seasons: the dry season, from early
December to May, and the wet season, which lasts for the rest of the
year. Average rainfall is about 60 inches (1,525 mm) annually, but,
despite the small size of the island, rainfall varies, rising from the
low-lying coastal areas to the high central district. Barbados lies in
the southern border of the Caribbean hurricane (tropical cyclone) zone,
and hurricanes have caused great devastation, notably in 1780, 1831,
1898, and 1955.
Plant and animal life
Very little of the original vegetation remains on Barbados; the pale
green of cultivated sugarcane has become the characteristic colour of
the landscape. Tropical trees, including poinciana, mahogany,
frangipani, and cabbage palm, are widespread, and flowering shrubs adorn
parks and gardens.
The few wild animals, such as monkeys, hares, and mongooses, are
considered pests by farmers. Birds include doves, hummingbirds,
sparrows, egrets, and yellow breasts. Marine life includes flying fish,
sprats, green dolphins, kingfish, barracudas, mackerels, and parrot
Ethnic groups and languages
People of African descent and of mixed African-European descent make
up more than nine-tenths of the population. A small fraction of the
population is of European (mainly British) descent, and there is an even
smaller number of inhabitants who originated from the Indian
subcontinent. There are small groups of Syrians, Lebanese, and Chinese.
There is also a sizable expatriate community—primarily from the United
States and Great Britain—made up of international civil servants,
businesspersons, and retirees. English is the official language, and a
nonstandard English called Bajan is also spoken.
The majority of the population is Christian. Anglicanism, the
religious legacy of the British colonists who arrived in the 17th
century, is the largest single denomination. Other churches established
since the 18th century are the Methodist and the Moravian. Since the
19th century, however, significant religious diversity has developed.
Pentecostal churches have large congregations, as does the Seventh-day
Adventist church. Smaller groups include Roman Catholics, Bahaʾīs, Jews,
Hindus, and Muslims.
Barbados is densely populated. More than one-third of the population
is concentrated in Bridgetown and the surrounding area. Most of the
farmland is owned by large landowners or corporations. As a result,
“tenantries”—clusters of wooden houses locally known as chattel houses
and located on the borders of the large estates—are as common as
villages. They are usually owned by the occupants but stand on rented
ground from which they may easily be moved for relocation to another
site. Most of them have electricity and running water. In Bridgetown’s
commercial and administrative centre, multistory buildings are altering
the features of the 19th-century town. Apart from Bridgetown, the
largest towns or settlements are Speightstown, Oistins, and Holetown.
Until the mid-20th century, Barbados had a high rate of population
growth, which created problems of overpopulation. Over the second half
of the 20th century and into the 21st, the rate of growth was slowed by
the successful implementation of a nationwide family-planning program
and by steady emigration, first to Britain and later to other parts of
the Caribbean and to North America. In the same period the death and
infant mortality rates declined sharply, and life expectancy rose above
Barbados has an open, market-oriented economy. Services,
manufacturing, and agriculture are the most significant sectors. A large
amount of income in the form of remittances is received from Barbadians
overseas. Barbados has a relatively high per capita income.
Agriculture and fishing
About three-fourths of the land is arable, and most of it is planted
with sugarcane. Sugar production dominated the economy until the 1950s,
but the industry has declined in importance. Agricultural production
remains dominated by large farm units, but the pattern of production has
changed, mainly as a result of falling sugar prices and of
government-sponsored programs of agricultural diversification and
limited land settlement. As a result, there has been significant growth
in food production (vegetables, fruits, and livestock), mainly for local
consumption. High-quality sea island cotton is also grown. The growing
of tropical flowers and foliage has also proved profitable. Fishing has
always been part of the island’s basic economy, and the government has
supported the industry with modernization programs.
Resources and manufacturing
Apart from some small deposits of crude oil and natural gas that
provide about one-third of the island’s energy needs, Barbados has few
natural resources. Sustained exploitation of the climate and beaches for
their tourist potential has been the most impressive feature of ongoing
economic activity. An abundant population, which provides a ready labour
source, may also be considered one of the island’s resources. The
population working abroad has made significant contributions to the
economy through remittances.
Apart from some quarrying of clay, limestone, and sand, the mining
industry is limited to oil and natural gas production. Manufacturing,
stimulated by government incentives, was one of the main growth areas of
the economy; however, beginning in the later 20th century, this trend
was reversed as a result of globalization and trade liberalization that
increased the competition from cheaper imports.
Finance and trade
Barbados’s banking system consists of the national bank (the Central
Bank of Barbados, established in 1972), commercial banks, and various
development-oriented financial institutions, notably credit unions. Most
of the commercial banks are branches of international banks; others are
regional and local banks. The national currency is the Barbados dollar.
A small stock exchange, trading shares of locally and regionally
owned companies, has operated since 1987. It now trades exclusively
online. Cross-border trading is facilitated by links with similar
exchanges in Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica. In the late 20th and early
21st centuries, there was considerable growth in the offshore financial
sector, closely regulated by legislation.
Chief exports include food and beverages, chemicals, and electrical
components. Principal imports include capital goods, food and beverages,
mineral fuels, and chemicals. Barbados’s main trading partners are the
United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Trinidad and Tobago, as
well as other members of the Caribbean Community and Common Market
Most employment is in services and wholesale and retail trade.
Tourism is vital to the economy as the chief foreign-exchange earner as
well as a major employer. The number of both long-stay visitors and day
tourists from cruise-ship dockings increased greatly during the second
half of the 20th century.
The Barbados Workers’ Union was registered in 1941 and functions
successfully as a general trade union. Other unions include the National
Union of Public Workers and the Barbados Union of Teachers.
The island has a network of good roads. Bridgetown has a deepwater
harbour, and there is a luxury marina development, Port St. Charles, on
the west coast. An international airport is located near the southern
coast. Several international and regional airlines offer regular
scheduled and charter services.
Government and society
The constitution of 1966 established a governmental structure based on
the British parliamentary system. The British monarch is the head of
state and is locally represented by a governor-general. The prime
minister, generally the leader of the largest political party in the
elected House of Assembly (lower house of the legislature), is the head
of government. The prime minister appoints a cabinet. The upper house of
the legislature is an appointed Senate.
The Supreme Court of Judicature consists of the High Court and Court
of Appeal. Final appeal in civil and criminal matters was formerly made
to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, until members
of Caricom agreed in the early 21st century to establish a Caribbean
Court of Justice. This court was to serve as a regional judicial
tribunal and would take over the appellate function of the Privy
Council. Magistrates’ courts have civil and criminal jurisdiction.
The Barbados Labour Party (founded in 1938) and the Democratic
Labour Party (founded in 1955) are the main political parties. All
Barbadians 18 years of age or older are eligible to vote. Women were
granted the right to vote in 1950.
Health and welfare
The poor social conditions that existed in the early 20th century
were ameliorated by political changes after World War II and by
improvement in the economy. Sustained efforts by government agencies in
sanitation, public health, and housing significantly improved health
conditions. The diseases associated with poverty and underdevelopment
have been eliminated or controlled. Health care is provided by both
public and private agencies. Other areas of social welfare, notably
child care, family life, pension plans for the elderly and disabled, and
the status of women, have benefited from government attention. Community
centres and playing fields have been established throughout the island.
Barbados has near-total literacy. This success is attributable to
the presence of a comprehensive, mainly government-funded primary and
secondary school network. The government places high priority on
education, to which it allocates a significant proportion of its budget.
All education in public institutions is free. There are facilities for
secondary, technical, and vocational education, including a polytechnic
school, a community college, and a teacher’s college. Education is
compulsory to age 16. Most study at the university level is done at the
University of the West Indies, which maintains a Barbados campus at Cave
Hill, near Bridgetown.
Most cultural facilities are located in Bridgetown. The Barbados
Museum was established in 1933 and offers permanent and temporary
exhibits covering the natural history and culture of the island. Nearby
is the Barbados Art Gallery, which houses the national collection. The
National Library Service, which comprises a main library in Bridgetown
and several branches, has its origins in the early 19th century. There
are a number of special libraries at educational institutions,
government ministries, and other facilities. The Barbados Department of
Archives holds primary historical documentation from public and private
sources. The country has dramatic groups, schools of dancing, and art
exhibitions. Barbadian writers of international reputation include
George Lamming and Kamau Brathwaite. Music is a popular pastime in
Barbados. The country hosts a popular annual jazz festival (January).
One of the country’s cultural traditions is Crop Over, an annual
multi-week summer festival that has its historical origins in sugarcane
harvest celebrations. The harvest celebrations died out in the mid-20th
century, but Crop Over was reborn in the 1970s as a festival of musical
(notably calypso), culinary, and other arts. Crop Over culminates in the
Grand Kadooment, a carnival parade that features elaborately costumed
Cricket is the national sport, and Barbados contributes many players
to the West Indies team, which is known throughout the world.
International Test matches are often played at Bridgetown’s Kensington
Oval (the country hosted the International Cricket Council World Cup
final in 2007). Garfield Sobers and Frank Worrell are two of Barbados’s
cricketing legends. The first cricket team was formed in 1877 for white
players only, but teams of all races soon sprang up. Other popular
recreations are sailing, surfing, snorkeling, and swimming. Road tennis,
originally played on little-traveled streets with a wooden paddle and a
de-fuzzed tennis ball, is believed to have been invented on the island.
Barbados first sent athletes to the Olympics in 1952 and first
participated as an independent country in 1968.
Daily and weekly newspapers and a number of tourism-related
periodicals are published. A wide range of newspapers and magazines from
other Caribbean countries, the United States, Canada, Britain, and
Europe can be bought or consulted in libraries.
Little of the island’s prehistory is known, but archaeological
investigation indicates that it may have been settled as early as 1600
bce by people from northern South America who later disappear from the
archaeological record. From about 500 to 1500 ce, Arawak and Carib
Indians probably lived on the island, which they called Ichirouganaim.
The first contact with Europeans may have occurred in the early 16th
century, when Spaniards visited Barbados. Portuguese explorers also
touched on the island, which they named Barbados (“Bearded Ones”),
either for bearded fig trees or bearded men on the island. The island
was depopulated because of repeated slave raids by the Spanish in the
16th century; it is believed that those Indians who avoided enslavement
migrated to elsewhere in the region. By the mid-16th century—largely
because of the island’s small size, remoteness, and
depopulation—European explorers had practically abandoned their claims
to it, and Barbados remained effectively without a population.
An English expedition of 1625 assessed the potential of the island,
and on Feb. 17, 1627, the ship William and John landed with 80
Englishmen and about 10 Africans. The early period of English settlement
was marked by the insecurity resulting from infrequent provision of
supplies from Europe and the difficulty in establishing a profitable
export crop. This was complicated by bitter squabbles over the claims of
rival lords proprietors and over the question of allegiance to either
the British crown or Parliament during the constitutional conflicts of
the 1640s that led to the English Civil Wars.
As in the earlier cases of Bermuda and Virginia, an assembly made up
of owners of at least 10 acres (4 hectares) of freehold land was
established in Barbados in 1639. Elections were held annually. There
were also a council and a governor who was appointed first by the lord
proprietor and, after the 1660s, by the king.
The economy of the early colonial era was marked by a pattern of
family farms and by a diversity of products including aloes, fustic (a
dye-producing wood), indigo, and, above all, cotton and tobacco. The
search for a profitable export crop ended in the 1640s, when Dutch
assistance enabled the colonists to convert to sugar production.
The Sugar Revolution, as it is called, had momentous social,
economic, and political consequences. The elite in Barbados chose a form
of sugar production that yielded the greatest level of profit—but at
great social cost. They decided to establish large sugarcane
plantations, cultivated by oppressed labourers from West Africa, who
were brought to the island and enslaved in accordance with a series of
slave laws enacted from 1636 onward. Society in Barbados was composed of
three categories of persons: free, indentured, and enslaved. “Race” was
a central determinant of status. There were three “racial,” or ethnic,
groups—whites, coloureds (those of part-European and part-African
parentage or ancestry), and blacks. Some whites were free and some were
indentured; some coloureds were free and some were enslaved; and some
blacks were free and some were enslaved. No whites were enslaved.
There was a twofold population movement between 1640 and 1700. Many
small family farms were bought up and amalgamated into plantations.
Consequently, there was a significant emigration of whites to Jamaica
and to the North American colonies, notably the Carolinas. At the same
time the Royal African Company (a British slaving company) and other
slave traders were bringing increasing numbers of African men, women,
and children to toil in the fields, mills, and houses. The ethnic mix of
the population changed accordingly. In the early 1640s there were
probably 37,000 whites and 6,000 blacks; by 1684 there were about 20,000
whites and 46,000 blacks; and in 1834, when slavery was abolished, there
were some 15,000 whites and 88,000 blacks and coloureds.
In European markets, sugar was a scarce and therefore valuable
commodity, and Barbadian sugar planters, particularly in the 17th
century, reaped huge profits out of the early lead that the island
established in sugar production. Increasing wealth brought consolidation
of political power for a planter elite, and Barbadian society became a
plantocracy, with white planters controlling the economy and government
institutions. Though enslaved people continually resisted their bondage,
the effective authoritarian power of slave-owning planters ensured that,
apart from a major slave rebellion in 1816 that was put down by the
local militia and British troops, there was no effective threat to their
Sugar remained ascendant in Barbados even through the 19th-century
crises caused by the emancipation of enslaved people, free trade, and
competition from the European beet sugar industry. This was mainly
because a dense population provided cheap labour and because the
political power of the white planters and merchant elite ensured that
government resources would be used to rescue the industry in any
emergency. The workers therefore carried the burden in low wages and
minimal social services. This situation encouraged emigration (often
frustrated by the elite) and occasional, futile political protests.
By the 1930s the social and political pressures from below could no
longer be contained. Population increase, the closing of emigration
outlets, the economic effects of the worldwide Great Depression, and the
spread of socialist ideology and the black nationalist movement of the
Jamaican leader Marcus Garvey had created conditions for a labour
revolt. By then, middle-class reformers had begun to agitate against the
restricted political franchise (the right to vote was limited to males
and restricted by income and property qualifications) and the inadequate
Out of a series of labour disturbances of 1937 emerged a clear
challenge to the existing order. The British government’s response
assisted this successful challenge. The West Indies Royal Commission
(Moyne Commission), dispatched in 1938 to report on social and economic
conditions in the British West Indies, endorsed some of the political
and social reforms that were advocated by the leaders of the new mass
organizations, particularly the full legalization of trade unions and
the extension of the political franchise. The implementation of these
reforms during the 1940s provided the essential base for the
institutionalization of mass political organizations, which became the
principal means through which the elite’s political power was curtailed.
In Barbados black political leaders gained ascendancy by 1944, universal
adult suffrage was adopted in 1950, and full internal self-government
was achieved in 1961.
Barbados since independence
Barbados became independent on Nov. 30, 1966, after joining the
ill-fated West Indies Federation (1958–62). By then the economy was
expanding and diversifying, mainly as a result of the policies pursued
by the governments formed after the planter-merchant elite lost power.
Barbados is a member of the Commonwealth and continues to play a
leading role in the establishment of regional cooperation. In 1968 Errol
Barrow, who served as prime minister in 1966–76 and 1986–87, helped form
the Caribbean Free Trade Association, which became the Caribbean
Community and Common Market (Caricom) in 1973. The island has also
established close ties with countries elsewhere in the developing world.
Throughout the postindependence period, Barbados has had one of the
most stable political systems in the English-speaking Caribbean. The
Democratic Labour Party (DLP) led the country into independence and
continued in office until 1976. Thereafter, in free and fair elections
held at regular intervals, the DLP and the Barbados Labour Party (BLP)
have alternated in leading the government.
Christopher Stewart Jackson
Woodville K. Marshall
Anthony De Vere Phillips