Glittering like a jewel set in warm golden sunshine Barbados is the eastern border of the Caribbean islands. Located at geographic coordinates 13 10 N, 59 32 W the coral studded island, formed by the collision of sub-Atlantic plates, has a long, rich history. Archeological remains suggest that the island was inhabited around 1623 B.C. Early settlers appear to have traveled north from Venezuela, bringing families and civilization in their long, dug-out canoes.
Wikipedia states that during 350-400 B.C. people from the Arawak tribe settled on the island of Barbados. Sailing out of The Dragon's Mouth, the region where the Orinoco empties into the Caribbean Sea, the Arawaks successfully navigated their way through the currents that make sailing in this area perilous today. From the website www.Barbados.org we learn that the Arawaks relied on agriculture to sustain their people. Crops of cassava, corn and peanuts were grown and harvested by the Arawaks, they also cultivated cotton which they wove into nets for fishing.
Around 1200 A.D. the Carib, a cannibalistic tribe, conquered the Arawaks. Various sources describe the Caribs as tall, savage and war-like. Reputedly they were skilled hunters, felling their prey with a combination of sportsmanship and poisoned arrows. The word Barbados means bearded ones. While accounts I’ve read agree that Portuguese explorer Pedro a Campos is responsible for the name there is some speculation about whether he was referring to the facial hair of the natives, the curious bearded appearance of ficus trees he saw or possibly the white-capped waves that surround the island.
Although the Portuguese were aware of the island’s existence Spain was the next major European power to take an active interest in Barbados. In 1492 the Caribs were defeated by the Spanish and enslaved. Oppressive living conditions, famine, smallpox and tuberculosis all played their part in destroying the Carib population. Although the Spaniards had conquered the island and dominated its inhabitants their interest in Barbados diminished in favor of the larger and more promising islands in the Carribean leaving the small island of Barbados ungoverned.
Little is known regarding the next hundred and fifty years until English sailors arrived. Captain John Powell landed his ship at Barbados on the fourteenth day of May in 1625. The land was declared British soil and two years later on February 17, 1627 Captain Powell returned to Barbados with a small contingent of colonists and their slaves. Important cash crops included tobacco and cotton. These were the main exports until the 1630’s when sugar cane was introduced to the island.
Sugar is a valuable but labor intensive crop. Harvesting the cane is back-breaking work and when the small labor force present on Barbados proved inadequate plantation owners imported slaves. Ships known as Blackbirders jammed humans together. Filth and excrement contaminated their living space. How many people died on these trans-Atlantic voyages is unknown but those who survived the hellish journey found themselves in a foreign country where they were expected to work from dawn to dusk tending the crops that made Barbados valuable to the Crown.
Sugar and its derivatives were the main exports during this period. Many growers grew wealthy shipping their white gold back to Britain. During the early years of settlement plantation earnings were substantial but as the cotton, rum, sugar trade grew Barbados lost ground to other, larger Caribbean islands. Later in the century other natural disasters threatened the financial security of the Barbados planters. Fire, locusts, hurricanes, and drought plagued the island. Previously wealthy colonists lost money and when desperate times came to the island some unscrupulous men turned towards another more profitable venture, that of piracy.
Sam Lord and Stede Bonnet are two of the Caribbean pirates that called Barbados home. Both men have left interesting legacies behind. Pirates are typically associated with ships and bloodthirsty sea battles but legend has it that Sam Lord found another more lucrative way to loot vessels bound for Barbados. Allegedly this clever pirate set out lights to deceive captains and sailors into thinking that they were near the harbor of the capital city. Heavy wooden ships were no match for the rocky reefs. After debillitating crashes Sam Lord and his crew plundered the ruined ships.
Stede Bonnet, another infamous pirate, purchased his ship Revenge in 1717. This was an unusual act at the time and perhaps even more startling is the fact that Bonnet was a plantation owner and had served as a Major in the British Army. While Sam Lord focused on ships sailing to Barbados, Bonnet was a scourge to ships sailing near the New England coast. Rumor has it that Bonnet met up with Blackbeard and after a brief power struggle Blackbeard abdicated control of the Revenge in favor of Bonnet. How profitable Stede Bonnet would have been is something we’ll never know as he was hanged for his crimes in 1718.
Tourists visiting Barbados today may be interested in hearing that although the British abolished slavery in 1834 it was four years after that in 1838 that the slaves were finally free. The four years between 1834 and 1838 were spent living in huts provided by plantation owners in exchange for a 45 hour work week for which the workers were not compensated. The Emancipation Statue, created by Barbadian sculptor Karl Broodhagen, was erected to honor the more than 70,000 men who gained their freedom in 1838. A running man with clenched fists and chains that dangle from the shackles on his wrists reminds those who pass by today that for more than two hundred years it was legal for men to own and control other men, their wives, their lives and their children.
Politically Barbados is independent although the island remained a British colony until 1961. Full independence was granted on November 30, 1966. Today in Barbados November 30 is celebrated as Independence Day. The island is a member of the British Commonwealth with British Common Law as the currrent legal protocol. Economically Barbados suffered through a recession during the 1980's. CIA World Factbook reports that revenue increases in construction and tourism gave the flagging economy a boost in 2003. Local currency is the Barbadian dollar.
Light industry and tourism are an important part of the Barbadian economy. Approximately thirty percent of the tourists are British with visitors from Germany and the United States comprising a smaller percentage. Construction, fishing, manufacturing, natural gas and more recently off-shore banking have also become important income generators for Barbados. Cigarettes, furniture, rum and sugar are exports of Barbados although competition from Latin America and other Caribbean islands remains fierce.
More than two hundred years ago George Washington traveled to Barbados in an effort to help his ailing half-brother. During the Victorian era vacations to the Caribbean were prescribed as a cure for the vapors and although this malady no longer upsets women Barbados remains a lovely island to visit. On my desk is a picture of the Caribbean Sea. A luminous lagoon blends into brilliant ultramarine depths. That rocky sun drenched beach is a destination my mind travels to when I want to escape.
Barbados doesn't promise you endless days of resort filled happiness, it may not be a dream of yours to vacation there but I keep that dream of mine because the day you abandon your dreams is the day you die a little inside. I don't know why the Arawaks and Caribs left their homes to explore Barbados. I don't understand why the Spanish weren't content with what Barbados had to offer. I have no idea if anyone reading this will ever see the island of Barbados but if you do go bring a little sunshine back for people you know. Barbados, a warm Caribbean jewel awaiting your discovery.