Prehistoric Barbados is believed to have been inhabited by cave-dwellers of the Siboney culture, from Florida. At an unknown later time, Arawaks arrived from South America. These latter were agriculturists, and excellent weavers and potters. They survived invasions and raids by the warlike Caribs (also from South America), which took place before the 1490s. By the early 1500s, Spanish and Portuguese sailors had sighted the island. It was invaded in 1518 by Spanish colonists from Hispaniola. No Spanish settlement was made, as there appeared to be no mineral resources, but the island acquired a Spanish name – Barbados (or ‘bearded’), apparently a reference to local fig trees. By 1536 the island was deserted, either because the slavers had depopulated it or because the remaining inhabitants had fled.
In 1625 it was formally claimed for King James I of England. In 1627 English immigrants settled there and King Charles I granted a Barbados patent to Lord Carlisle; after 1660, this patent was surrendered to the Crown and a 4.5% duty on exports levied, which, bitterly resented, was levied until 1838. Between 1627 and 1640, the island was settled by British colonists, who brought with them indentured labour from Britain and some enslaved Africans, to produce tobacco, cotton and indigo. The introduction of sugar in the 1650s had led to the development of large plantations, and by 1685 the population was around 50,000, consisting mainly of African slaves.
By the end of the 18th century, Barbados had 745 plantations worked by more than 80,000 African and African-descended slaves. Harsh working conditions led to slave revolts in 1702 and 1816. Slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1833–34.
Barbados had a house of assembly since 1639 but, due to the property qualifications for the franchise, this was dominated by plantation owners until the franchise began to be widened in 1944. Universal adult suffrage followed in 1951, a full ministerial system in 1954, and cabinet government in 1958.
The Barbados Labour Party (BLP), which developed out of the trade unions, was set up under the leadership of Grantley Adams, and began working for economic improvement and the extension of political rights. The BLP, led first by Adams, and after 1958 by Dr Hugh Cummins, gained a majority in the House of Assembly between 1944 and 1961. In 1955 a split in the BLP led to the formation of the Democratic Labour Party (DLP), led by Errol Barrow, who won the 1962 elections.
Thus, by 1957, Barbados had virtual self-government under a democratic system, a status formally recognised in 1961. Barbados had been a member of the Federation of the West Indies, set up in 1958. When the Federation was dissolved in 1962, the Barbados Government announced its intention to seek independence separately. Arrangements were agreed at a constitutional conference in London, and Barbados became an independent sovereign state within the Commonwealth on 30 November 1966.
The DLP was in power from 1966 to 1976, and the BLP from 1976 to 1986, led by Tom Adams, Sir Grantley Adams’s son. In 1986 the DLP, still led by Errol Barrow, won a decisive election victory, maintaining its majority in the 1991 elections. This was despite a breakaway movement by DLP dissidents who formed a new National Democratic Party (NDP) but failed to win any seats in the 1991 elections. Erskine Sandiford became prime minister in June 1987 after the death of Barrow.