In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Barbados in the Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Source Guides
  • Journals
  • Geography and the Natural World
  • Trade and the Economy
  • Free Blacks
  • Poor Whites
  • Settler Society and Government
  • Religion
  • Connections with the Atlantic World
  • Emancipation and Post-emancipation Adjustments

Atlantic History Barbados in the Atlantic World
Justin Roberts
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0293


Barbados, settled by Europeans in 1627, was among the first permanent English colonies in the Americas, and it was where the English variant of race-based plantation slavery first took root; not surprisingly, it plays a central role in the scholarship of the Atlantic world. Although Barbados was uninhabited when the English arrived, they were certainly not the first people on the island. Arawak-speaking peoples first migrated to Barbados from South America long before 1492. The Kalinago were the last people to live on Barbados before the English arrived. The Portuguese and Spanish visited the island after 1492 but never established colonies there. The Spanish claimed that the island was uninhabited in the mid-16th century. Yet, by the mid-17th century, Barbados was the most densely populated and lucrative colony in the English Americas. Barbadian planters began growing sugar in the 1640s. They were innovators and they developed a proto-industrial and integrated sugar plantation system that was more productive than the sugar industry had been in Brazil. At first, planters relied on a mixture of Africans and white servants, but the Barbadian plantation model became increasingly dependent on a brutal and ruthlessly efficient system of racial slavery. The island was quickly deforested, the environment was destroyed, and the soils were degraded by sugar. Barbadians became the vanguard of expansion through the English plantation Americas, and they helped extend their new model of race-based plantation slavery and the legislative measures designed to entrench it to Surinam, Jamaica, Antigua, the Carolinas, and the Chesapeake. Although the island was threatened by hurricanes, the Barbadian elite benefited from fewer threats to production than the planters in other British Caribbean islands; no other European power invaded Barbados before emancipation, and there was only one major slave insurrection. After the transition to sugar, Barbados continued to have a majority black population throughout its history, but the ratio of blacks to whites was smaller than in other major British Caribbean colonies. Barbados had the only naturally reproducing slave population among all the Caribbean sugar colonies before emancipation. A Barbadian creole culture developed among the peoples of African and European descent. The white population, however, was divided into a planter elite and a marginalized poor white population. A small number of free blacks also carved out lives on the island. After emancipation in 1833, the Barbadian sugar economy recovered but the ex-slaves continued to struggle against economic and racial oppression.

General Overviews

Barbados was central to the expansion of the British Atlantic, and the turn to Atlantic history generated much more historical interest in the small island. In fact, the recontextualization of Barbados within a British Atlantic world has raised important questions about the dangerous teleology inherent in nationalist historiography, and about notions of US exceptionalism, by showing just how interconnected Barbados was with the other British Atlantic colonies, particularly some of the southernmost of the thirteen colonies that would become the United States. Mulcahy 2014 explores these shared histories and overlapping themes. Barbados has played a particularly significant role in historiographies addressing the development of slavery in the Atlantic world. Burnard 2015 offers an example of how early-21st-century scholars position Barbados as central to the development of slavery in the British Atlantic world. There have also been nationalist histories of Barbados in isolation that trace the evolution of Barbados as a colonial society and, eventually, as a nation. Some of the older works in this area, such as Harlow 1969 and Schomburgk 1971, are focused in particular on the history of Barbados in the 17th century, when the island was in its economic heyday and when it was the crown jewel of the English Empire in the Americas. Schomburgk 1971 is more complete in its chronological scope, but it is so old that it serves better as a primary source than a modern academic history. These older works tend to be focused on the history of governance and on elite Europeans living on the island, largely ignoring the history of the vast majority of the population: people of African descent. The author of Hoyos 1978 attempted the first comprehensive history of the island after Schomburgk 1971. Beckles 2006 not only updates Hoyos 1978 but offers more nuanced and thoughtful writing and deeper research. Hilary Beckles devoted more attention to the enslaved population and to the experience of the black population after emancipation, while also attending to the histories both of the rich and the poor people of European descent in Barbados. His history is by far the most complete, balanced, and thoroughly researched overview of Barbadian history from pre-European settlement to the first decade of the 21st century.

  • Beckles, Hilary McD. A History of Barbados: From Amerindian Settlement to Nation-State. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    Currently the best complete one-volume academic history of Barbados. Well written and grounded in excellent research, and very attentive to social and political history. Weighted evenly across the centuries. Author demonstrates a remarkable command of the entire history of the island. Offers much on black resistance and agency in the pre-emancipation era. Filled with helpful tables. Good introduction for undergraduates and nonspecialists.

  • Burnard, Trevor. Planters, Merchants, and Slaves: Plantation Societies in British America, 1650–1820. American Beginnings, 1500–1900. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226286242.001.0001

    An overview of the development of plantation systems in the Americas, putting Barbados in this context. Stresses the remarkable productivity and adaptability of the plantation system and the wealth created for planters. Focused on the 18th century but offers great insights into the innovative development of the integrated plantation system and gang labor in early Barbados. Emphasizes the virulent racism and coercive force that drove the exploitation of slaves.

  • Harlow, Vincent T. A History of Barbados, 1625–1685. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969.

    Originally published in 1926, so naturally very dated now. Focused on politics and individual political figures. Devoted almost exclusively to the 17th century but concludes with his thoughts on 20th-century Barbados. A surprisingly long chapter of the book is devoted to trade with New England. Somewhat useful primary-source bibliography. The last chapter is filled with racist assumptions about black and white people in Barbados.

  • Hoyos, F. A. Barbados: A History from the Amerindians to Independence. London: Macmillan, 1978.

    Written for the classroom. The first effort to write a full history of the island after more than a century (see Schomburgk 1971). Not a sophisticated analysis; source base is slim. Includes questions and exercises at the end of each chapter for students. Makes very little effort to understand the lived experience of enslavement.

  • Mulcahy, Matthew. Hubs of Empire: The Southeastern Lowcountry and British Caribbean. Regional Perspectives on Early America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.

    Examines a greater Caribbean world that includes the southeastern Lowcountry of the United States and the British Caribbean, with some attention to Barbados. Divided thematically. Stresses commonalities in the region, particularly the majority slave populations. Important geographic lens for thinking about Barbados in larger contexts. Ends with the American Revolution, privileging the history of the US colonies. Excellent text for teaching undergraduates.

  • Schomburgk, Robert H. The History of Barbados. London: Frank Cass, 1971.

    Originally published in 1848. The first Barbadian historian to extensively examine the primary sources for a full study of the island’s history; very long and thorough. More of a chronicle of events than an interpretive work, focused on the political history of Barbados. Also includes an extensive section on the geology and ecology of Barbados. Still a useful resource as an overview but must be read with a critical eye.

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