No one knows which European nation first claimed the island of Barbados, though the name of the island is probably either Portuguese (Barbados) or Spanish (los Barbados) both meaning “bearded.” This may refer to the hanging, bearlike roots of the native fig-trees, or to way the sea-foam sprays out over the island’s surrounding reefs. Stories of bearded natives are also told, but there is no evidence of any such people.
The original inhabitants, members of the Arawak tribe, called it Ichirouganaim, meaning “red land with white teeth.” The island, the easternmost in the string of Caribbean islands called the Lesser Antilles, is one of the earliest to be colonized by Europeans, and most of the indigenous people left the island early on. By 1519, it was named and show in its correct position on European maps.
Another name for this island is Bim or Bimshire. This name is probably derived from the Igbo term meaning “The place where my people (kin) are.” This would be because of the relatively large number of enslaved Igbo people (from what is now south-eastern Nigeria) who were brought to the island.
The island of Barbados is so far east it is actually a part of the Atlantic, but is described as a Caribbean island, mostly because of its place at the end of the Lesser Antilles chain, and also because of it cultural identity as Caribbean. First the Amerindians, and later European colonists treated it as Caribbean.
The English took control of Barbados in 1627. Unlike the Spanish, who were only interested in gold and silver at the time, the English were looking for places to grow tropical crops. Tobacco, cotton, indigo and ginger were all raised on the island.
But the island’s history includes a darker note. In its early years, hundreds of thousands of European poor, criminals (sometimes guilty of extremely minor offenses), Prisoners of War and religious minorities were sold into slavery on the island.
During the English Civil War, Ireland, which had been conquered by England, rebelled, trying to regain its freedom. The rebellion of 1641 was put down. When Oliver Cromwell, general of the Civil War’s winning side, took control of Ireland, he decided on an effort to eradicate the Irish people entirely. To this end, he encouraged transportation of the Irish to slave-labor camps in Barbados.
Estimates of the number of Irish transported range from 50,000 to over 500,000, but records are scarce, since during this time the Irish also faced famine, bubonic plague and cholera. An estimated 1/3 of the population either died or was transported.
Today Barbados is one of the most popular vacation destinations in the world, and it may be difficult to understand why transportation there from Ireland was such a harsh blow. Certainly it would be an emotionally stress to be cut off from one’s homeland, family, religion and language. But the difference in climate between the two islands is remarkable.
In Ireland today, the temperature rarely goes above 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and frequently sits at 85 degrees. Ireland in the 1600’s was just emerging from a “little ice age.” In contrast, the temperature in Barbados rarely dips below 70 degrees. Imagine the hottest temperature you’ve ever experienced, and now imagine that this is the coolest you’ll ever be again. Not a pleasant idea.
Many Europeans died in the harsh climate of the Caribbean, Eventually, slaves from Africa began to be imported. These people were better able to deal with the tropical climate, and as farming moved toward sugar production, African slaves became a near-necessity. Sugar production also brought about a business in the production of rum.
Barbados rum is still a valuable commodity, but during the Golden Age of Piracy, it was of such consistent high quality and value that it became a standard form of commerce, used alongside gold and silver as currency.
Barbados, like many other islands, faced several slave revolts, the largest of which was named “Bussa’s Rebellion” In 1816 a free African named Bussa, who had been kidnapped and sold to the English in Barbados, gathered a group of some 400 freedom fighters, both men and women. They attacked a plantation, and Bussa was killed in the action. His followers fought on until they were overwhelmed by the guns of the colonial militia.
While the rebellion was not successful it was part of a series of rebellions and uprisings which caused the British to reconsider the practice of slavery. When slavery was abolished in 1833, 83,000 people were released. Today the population of the island is over 90% of African descent, though a strong vein of Irish can also be seen in the faces of the people, and heard in its accent. A statue of Bussa stands in the island’s capital of Bridgetown.
Today Barbados has a thriving economy, a population that is nearly 100% literate, and a healthy concern for the protection of its natural beauty. In addition to its other attractions, it is considered to be the only Caribbean island not in the hurricane strike zone. While Irish rebels used to say that they were going to either “Hell or Barbados” when they headed out to battle for their own country’s freedom, Barbados is today a pleasant place to vacation.