Barbados Map
Insula Barbados in Suas Parochias Distincta by the German geographer and cartographer Homann Heirs (1740)

Introduction:

As many of you know, I am training to become an historian of Atlantic Africa and the Caribbean. With that in mind, I thought it would be helpful to create a bibliography of primary- and secondary- source materials related to some of the places that are central to my interests. That way I have all of the materials I frequently use in one convenient location, and I can also share those resources with interested TZR readers. Below I have started to make a bibliography of materials on Barbados in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, from about the 1620s to the 1830s. These dates represent the beginning of English colonization on the island in 1627 and the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1834. The second date also corresponds well with the end of what historians often label as the “early-modern era” or “early-modern period.” It should not be forgotten, however, that British colonization continued in Jamaica until 1966.

As an introduction to this bibliography, I would like to offer some thoughts on Barbadian history during this period. As historians know, Barbados was much smaller than many of the other colonies in the British West Indies. It was also among the first set of islands of the Caribbean to be colonized by the English, being preceded by Bermuda in 1612 and St. Kitts in 1623. The English also began their “successful” colonial projects in North America during this same period, establishing the Jamestown Colony in 1607 and the Plymouth Colony in 1620. This puts the origins of the colony of Barbados squarely within the first phase of English colonization of the New World. Generally, this has meant that a lot of the literature about Barbados focuses on how its history was fundamental to the development of English ideas about race, slavery, and colonization. For examples, see Susan Dwyer Amussen’s Caribbean Exchanges, Hilary Beckles’ White Servitude and Black Slavery in Barbados, 1627-1715, and Larry Dale Gragg’s Englishmen Transplanted. It was not until the 1720s when Barbados was surpassed by Jamaica in terms of its profitability.

In 1657, the English author Richard Ligon published the first official history of Barbados based off experiences that he had on the island in the 1640s. We learn from his text, as well as other sources, that Barbados was not intended to be a colony run by black slave labor. Rather, colonial planners imagined that Barbados would be worked mainly by white indentured servants from the British Isles. Though white servants did work in the island for much of its early history, mostly clearing land, they did not end up becoming the source of the island’s labor. Already by the 1650s, Barbados was becoming a society based on sugar cultivation and imported African slave labor. Interestingly, this early history became a point of obsession for anti-abolitionist writers like Edward Long in the eighteenth century. Long turned to Barbados’ early history when he wanted to prove that it was impossible for white people to cultivate sugar in the Caribbean. Other authors, like Marisa Fuentes in Dispossessed Lives, show us how structures designed to punish white indentured servants, like the Cage in Bridgetown, became prisons for black slaves.

Much has been written about Barbados serving as a model for later plantation societies, like that of Jamaica and the Low Country of the United States (Carolina and Georgia). But it should also be noted that the kind of slave society that developed in Barbados was quite different from the types of slave societies that developed elsewhere. Barbados was unique for several reasons. First, the island was very small and, unlike Jamaica, was non-mountainous. This meant that it had little space for the formation of potential maroon communities. Land in Barbados was more scarce than it was in Jamaica and the absence of uncultivated lands tended to discourage continued masses of white migration. As the eastern-most island of the Caribbean, Barbados was also the first stop on the British Transatlantic Slave Trade route from West and West-Central Africa. Slave ships entering the Caribbean basin would stop in Barbados first, meaning that Barbadian plantation owners generally had the first pick of slaves imported from Africa. Perhaps this can help explain why Barbados had a higher ratio of female slaves than any other British West Indian island. It might also help to explain why Barbados, unlike Jamaica, did not have any major slave revolts in the eighteenth-century. In fact, the only mass slave revolt in Barbados’ history occurred in 1816. Finally, Barbados position in the eastern Caribbean meant that it was relatively isolated from conflicts with rival colonial powers.

By the mid-eighteenth century, Barbados was starting to look drastically different from the other British West Indian islands in a few key ways. The population (both white and black) was majority female and mixed-race unions were rare, meaning that the color line was policed to a much greater degree than in Jamaica. Barbados’ female majority has given rise to much literature about gender in Caribbean slavery that is centered on Barbados. These works include studies by Hilary Beckles (Natural Rebels and Centering Woman), Jennifer Morgan (Laboring Women), Marisa Fuentes (Dispossessed Lives), and Katherine Paugh (The Politics of Reproduction). Much of this work also emphasizes the high presence of female slaves and slave owners in urban areas like Bridgetown.

In addition, the slave population of Barbados was majority Creole (rather than African-born). This meant that, by the era of slave-trade abolition from the 1780s to 1807, the island depended much less on continual imports of African slaves than many of its counterparts. This can help to explain why Barbadians were less involved in the efforts to fight the abolition of the slave trade than their contemporaries from Jamaica, despite the fact that they sat in on meetings of the London-based West India Society of Planters and Merchants and showed a staunch resistance to amelioration. One exception to this general rule might be a Barbadian agent to London named Samuel Estwick, who wrote a pamphlet against the Somerset decision in 1772 (Considerations on the Negroe Cause).

Finally, Barbados has a unique religious history. Like the short-lived English colony of Providence in 1631, Barbados had a high presence of Quakers. Then, in 1710, Christopher Codrington bequeathed his plantation estates to the British Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. This meant that the Anglican Church of England actually owned and operated slave plantations on Barbados. While there were, of course, many missionary projects in other Caribbean islands (Moravians, Quakers, and Baptists, for example), I do not think there was another case of the Church of England being so directly involved in slavery in the West Indies. This has given rise to a number of works about religion that are heavily based in Barbados’ history. A few examples are Katharine Gerbner’s Christian Slavery, Part IV of Kristen Block’s Ordinary Lives in the Early Caribbean, and Larry Gragg’s The Quaker Community in Barbados.

That concludes my introduction on eighteenth-century Barbados. To browse my ongoing bibliography of materials, check out the drop-down menus for this section. Thanks!