Source: The Library of Congress Country Studies
Following the introduction of sugar by a Dutchman in the early 1640s, the island was deforested, and the economy became dominated by large plantations. As the plantation economy developed, the land became consolidated in the hands of a decreasing number of white familes, leading, between 1650 and 1680, to the emigration of some 30,000 landless Barbadians, who left the island for other Caribbean islands or North America. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, slaves were imported from Africa by the thousands. In 1645 the black population was estimated at 5,680; by 1667 it was over 40,000. As the slave trade continued, Barbados became the most densely populated island in the Caribbean, a position that it still held in the late 1980s (see The Impact of the Conquest; The Colonial Period, ch. 1). Because labor was plentiful, few indentured servants were brought to Barbados even after emancipation in 1838.
During the eighteenth century, Barbados languished. The price of sugar fell sharply as abundant supplies were produced more cheaply in other islands. European wars and the American Revolution interfered with trade, and the British embargo on shipment of American goods to British colonies during the American Revolution also hurt Barbados severely. In the early months of the embargo, food and supplies fell so low that residents of Barbados would have faced starvation had not George III ordered special food shipments in 1778. Barbados also suffered several other calamities. Hurricanes devastated the island in 1780 and 1831. The 1780 hurricane killed over 4,000 people and destroyed most of the island's buildings and livestock; the 1831 hurricane ruined many buildings, including seven of the eleven churches on the island. In addition, a cholera epidemic killed over 20,000 people in 1854.
Throughout the nineteenth century, Barbados resisted change. Although free blacks were granted the vote in 1831 and slavery was commuted to an apprentice system in 1834, with emancipation following four years later, the ex-slaves stayed on the island and life remained essentially the same. As historian Ronald Tree has put it, the hurricane of 1831 was "followed by a hundred years of sleepy impoverishment, during which time the island was a source of constant annoyance to the Colonial Office." Barbados successfully resisted British efforts in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to abolish its House of Assembly and install crown colony government (see Glossary). The British had found local assemblies to be intractable and cumbersome to manage from London. Under the system called crown colony government, which was installed in all of the Commonwealth Caribbean islands except Barbados, the British replaced these argumentative assemblies with a unicameral legislature, the majority of whose members were appointed by the governor, and in which the king theoretically represented the lower classes (see Political Traditions, ch. 1). As a result of multiple petitions, Barbados managed to retain its local House of Assembly, which functioned in addition to the governor's Legislative Council. Barbados was also successful in securing the repeal of the British sugar tax.
For almost 300 years, Barbados remained in the hands of a small, white, propertied minority who held the franchise. Reform finally came after World War I, however, as a result of ideas brought back by Clennell Wilsden Wickham of Barbados, Andrew Arthur Cipriani of Trinidad, and others who had served in the British forces abroad (see Precursors of Independence, ch. 1). Wickham returned home in 1919 fired by enthusiasm to make Barbados a more democratic place. His newspaper articles inspired Charles Duncan O'Neale to organize the Democratic League, a political party that espoused franchise reform, old-age pensions, compulsory education, scholarships, and trade union organization. The Democratic League succeeded in electing a few representatives to the House of Assembly between 1924 and 1932, but it is chiefly remembered for inspiring O'Neale's nephew, Errol Barrow, to found the Democratic Labour Party (DLP).
During the 1920s and 1930s, Barbados was confronted with a rapidly growing population, a rising cost of living, and a wage scale that was fixed at the equivalent of US$0.30 a day. Spontaneous rioting erupted throughout the Commonwealth Caribbean in the late 1930s as the region felt the effects of the worldwide depression. In Barbados, fourteen people were killed and forty- seven wounded in protests in 1937.
The rioting spurred Grantley Adams to found the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) in 1938. (The BLP was known briefly as the Barbados Progressive League.) Adams, a lawyer who had won the Barbados Scholarship to Oxford in 1918, became the most important figure in preindependence politics. He quickly rose to prominence through his testimony before the British Moyne Commission, which was charged with investigating the causes of the regional disturbances in the late 1930s (see Labor Organizations, ch. 1). Adams argued that the main cause of the riots was economic distress. Elected to the House of Assembly in 1940, Adams became president general of the Barbados Workers Union (BWU) on its formation in 1941. Under Barbadian governor Sir Grattan Bushe, the constitution was changed to effect a semiministerial form of government, and the franchise was progressively liberalized. During the 1942 House of Assembly session, Adams led a fight for reforms that broadened the franchise by reducing the cost of qualification, increased direct taxation, established a workmen's compensation program, and protected union leaders from liability in trade disputes.
Under the terms of the Bushe reforms, Adams became leader of the government in 1946. Between 1946 and 1951, he presided over uneasy coalitions in the House of Assembly as the BLP failed to win a clear majority. In 1951, in the first election conducted under universal adult suffrage with no property qualifications, the BLP captured sixteen of the twenty-four seats. Although the BLP had finally gained a majority in the House, Adams was unable to hold the party together. The BLP and BWU, which had formerly acted in unison, pulled apart in 1954 after Adams resigned as president of the BWU, became premier (the preindependence title for prime minister), under a new ministerial system of government, and neglected to include the new BWU president, Frank Walcott, in his cabinet. Meanwhile, a new member of the House, Barrow, emerged as leader of a discontented BLP left wing, which felt that Adams was too close to the governor and not close enough to labor. Barrow had served in the Royal Air Force in World War II and subsequently studied and passed the bar in London. After returning to Barbados in 1950, he joined the BLP and was elected to the House in 1951. In 1954 Barrow left the BLP and the following year founded the DLP, which he led for the next thirty-two years. In spite of Barrow's defection, Adams led the BLP to victory in the 1956 election.
Plans for a British Caribbean federation had been drawn up in London in 1953, and elections for a federative assembly were held in 1958. The BLP also swept these elections, capturing almost all of the seats allotted to Barbados; subsequently, Adams, who had been knighted in 1952, was elected prime minister of the West Indies Federation. He was the only individual ever to hold that office because the federation dissolved in 1962, when Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago both opted for independence (see The West Indies Federation, 1958-62, ch. 1).
Adams's devotion to the cause of federation cost the BLP dearly. H.G. Cummins, who had become premier of Barbados when Adams was elected prime minister of the West Indies Federation, was unable to hold the party together. By the late 1950s, unemployment, always a persistent problem in Barbados, exceeded 20 percent. While Adams struggled with increasing problems in the federation, Barrow supported the sugar workers in their campaign for higher wages and in turn won their support for the DLP; as a result, the DLP won the 1961 elections by a large majority. Barrow became premier and continued to lead the government until 1971. Between 1961 and 1966, the DLP government replaced the governor's Legislative Council with a Senate appointed by the governor, increased workers' benefits, instituted a program of industrialization, and expanded free education. Barrow also explored the possibility of joining another federation of the so-called Little Eight islands (Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, barbados, Montserrat, St. Christopher [hereafter, St. Kitts]-Nevis-Anguilla, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines); this too came to naught, however, and the DLP espoused full independence with the concurrence of the opposition parties. The DLP won the election of November 2, 1966, capturing fourteen of the twenty-four House seats. On November 30, 1966, Barbados gained independence, and Barrow became its first prime minister.
NOTE: The information regarding Barbados on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Barbados History information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Barbados History should be addressed to the Library of Congress.