San José State University
Department of Economics
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Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley
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Economic History of Barbados

Barbados is the southeasternmost of the islands of the West Indies, a couple of hundred miles north of the Venezuelan coast. It originated as a coral reef and is low and flat. Most of the land is planted in sugar cane, but tropical fruits of all sorts can be grown there. However agriculture is less important to the economy than tourism.

The name of the island comes from the word barados which means bearded ones in both Portuguese and Spanish. This name probably arose from the appearance of Spanish moss hanging down from the branches of fig trees on the island. An alternate explanation is from the appearance of white surf above coral reefs off the coast of the island.

Barbados was originally inhabited by the Arawak Amerindians who migrated there from South America. This occurred by 400 AD but may have started many centuries before that time. Much later, about 1200 AD, Carib Amerindians came to the island and conquered the Arawaks. The first European contact was by a Portuguese ship on its way to Brazil. This probably was a ship of the Portuguese explorer Pedro a Campos. This occurred somewhat before 1511, the time it appeared on a Portuguese map. But by 1536 the island was uninhabited, apparently as a result of a Spanish invasion which causes the Amerindians to migrate to other islands .

But the Spanish did not establish a permanent settlement there and it was not until English settlers landed about a century later, in 1626, that Barbados again became inhabited. The first settlement was made up of 80 British and 10 African slaves.

The English settlement in initially tried growing cotton and tobacco. Barbados tobacco developed a notoreity as being really bad tobacco. Tobacco and cotton growing were not financially successful. Later the plantation owners started sugar plantations in imitation of those of Brazil and brought slaves from Africa. Sugar growing was a financially successful industry. By 1639 a local government had been established.

Soon the population of Barbados became predominantly African. But the life expectancy of African slaves in the tropics was not long and a constant importation of slaves from Africa was required to keep the plantation economy functioning. The population density was very high in colonial times and continues to be one of the highest in the world. In colonial times the population of Barbados was about 40,000 which was comparable to the total population of all the British North American colonies.

Very early the high density led to an outmigration of the English with their African slaves. One major outlet for the Barbados population surplus was South Carolina. As a result of this migration the population of South Carolina was for a period of time predominantly African in origin. Since this migration from Barbados brought plantation slavery in a fully developed form there was a cultural difference of slavery in South Carolina from the slavery which evolved under different circumstances in the other colonies.

Despite the continued outmigration Barbados is still densely populated. In 1937-38 British restrictions on migration prompted riots.

Barbados still produces tropical crops but earnings from tourism exceeds those industries.


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