Whilst the island of Barbados now attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors to its shores, the first visitors arrived on the island nearly four hundred years ago. The original inhabitants were Amerindians - the peaceful Arawaks who were later driven off the island by the more fierce Caribs from Venezuela. The latter travelled to the island by paddling long dugout canoes across a narrow sea channel in the north of Venezuela, a formidable passage even for today’s sailors. The Caribs remained on the island until the arrival of the Europeans in the 16th Century.
It is thought that the Portuguese were the first Europeans to discover Barbados in the early 1500s, giving it the name which means “bearded ones”. The Spanish later arrived and took many Caribs as slaves, causing other members of the tribe to flee for the safety of the neighbouring islands. The Spanish did not maintain a long-term interest in the island, preferring to concentrate their colonisation on the larger Caribbean islands. This left Barbados available to the many other European colonisers who were exploring the area at that time.
The first English ship reached the island in 1625 and claimed the island on behalf of King James I. A few years later, the first European settlement on Barbados was established and named Jamestown (now Holetown) with the island’s population soon growing to 2000. The English colonists established a House of Assembly - only the second such parliament established in a British colony - and the island was ruled the in tandem with the state sanctioned religion, the Anglican Church.
Soon the island had been deforested to make way for tobacco, cotton and sugar cane plantations. New workers poured in from Britain but each of these industries also relied heavily on slaves brought from West Africa - it is estimated that between 1627 and 1807 some 387,000 Africans were shipped to the island against their will, in overcrowded, unsanitary ships.
With the increase in the workforce and financial backing from English companies, the sugar industry continued to thrive despite the abolition of slavery in 1834. Black islanders did not see an improvement in their living conditions as the power and riches still remained with the large estates, meaning that former slaves had little choice but to stay working on the plantations for low wages.
During the economic depression of the 1930s, unemployment shot upwards, living conditions deteriorated and street riots broke out. To counter growing political unrest, the British reluctantly gave black reformers a role in the political process. One of those reformers, Grantley Adams, became the first premier of Barbados a decade later and was eventually knighted by the Queen.
Barbados gained internal self-government in 1961 and became an independent nation five years later. As the sugar industry declined after the Second World War, tourism steadily increased its share of the island's economy. By the early 1990s tourism was by far the largest industry on the island whilst the sugar business had declined into receivership. The recent years have seen a stable and peaceful Barbados.
Barbados' distinction of having remained under British rule from its first settlement in 1627 to its independence in 1966 profoundly affected the culture of the island.
Alongside traditional British influences, the more flamboyant African sway also pervades local life - this fusion of cultures ripples through all facets of daily living, from the foods and music to the house styles and street names. Even the language is affected, with the Queen's English being the official 'language' while the colourful local dialect remains in common usage.
More than 70 per cent of the island's 260 000 people are direct descendents from the forced mass Africa migration of the late 1600s and 1700s. African influence is readily seen in the art, craft and literary works produced on the island, as well as many of the foods and figures of speech. Bajans are a quick-witted, fun-loving people and their gift for the double entendre or turn of phrase is most visible through calypso and literature.
Music is an important part of life in Barbados. As with so much of the island’s culture, the music has grown out of its diverse history and can now be heard in homes, bars, hotels and carnivals across Barbados. Calypso is a mainstay in the island’s musical heritage with roots in the historical political struggle of the island. The style of music originated in Trinidad and was used by African slaves to communicate and mock their slave masters. Soca is a more upbeat version of calypso and is truly Bajan, with other islands now imitating and merging it into their own local rhythms.
Steel pan is another popular sound on the island is the Steel Pan, having originated from Trinidad where pan men 'beat out' the shape of the oil drum head to create slopes and slants that made notes. Barbados now has many of its own steel bands and some schools have added steel pan bands to their curriculum. The sound of a full steel band is unlike any other musical experience and it conjure up the laid back Caribbean lifestyle perfectly.
A musical form that is indigenous to Barbados is the roving 'Tuk' band - a small assembly of spirited minstrels plays captivating rhythms using a kettle drum, bass drum and penny whistle. 'Tuk' represents an amalgamation of British military and African village rhythms and instruments and first evolved when the only drums allowed were those of the British military. Often dressed in hilarious attire and accompanied by local folk characters, 'Tuk' bands are usually seen during festivals, dancing and wending their way through the crowds, especially at Crop Over time.