Barbados: from slave plantation to republic

Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Mottley (photo: Karwai Tang/UK Government (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

With a legacy of colonial racism and exploitation, Barbados is moving on to a new republican era, explains Patricia Stafford

The island of Barbados was claimed by Britain in 1625, settled in 1627, became independent in 1966, and became a republic on 30th November 2021, under the first female prime minister, Mia Mottley, and with Dame Sandra Mason, previously governor-general, now president.

Few, if any, indigenous people were living in the island when the British arrived, but a small number were brought from other areas of the Caribbean to help the settlers learn to manage tropical crops. Sugar cane had been grown by Amerindians to feed domestic animals; but after 1640, when the settlers realised the value of sugar as an export crop, the island was transformed into a plantation society by the import of enslaved Africans, and by the 1680s, the island’s planter class had prospered so well by sugar production that Barbados became known as the ‘jewel in the British Crown’. By 1712, it was estimated that the population of the island was 12,528 Whites – mostly free, a few indentured – and 41,970 Blacks, nearly all of them enslaved. In 1661, an act “for the better ordering and governing of Negroes” was introduced ordering that masters should accommodate, feed and clothe slaves, and ordered various severe punishments such as whipping, the removal of limbs and execution depending on the ‘offence’.

The African slave trade was abolished in 1807, but slavery stayed until the Act of 1833, ordering the emancipation of slaves in British territories on 1st August 1834. This article examines the processes limiting ‘freedom’ until Barbados finally threw off the colonial yoke and became a Republic.

By the 1780s, the abolition of slavery was a political issue in Britain. Mercantilism, with its limits on which products could be traded and to whom, was being challenged by advocates of free trade. Adam Smith wrote that free labour was more efficient than slave labour, and the growth of non-conformist religions meant the reconsideration of the rights and freedoms of human beings. Hence the transatlantic slave trade was abolished in 1807. However, further arguments had to be made for the abolition of slavery in the American colonies. Many enslaved people in Barbados worked on the plantations, but there was a considerable growth of a ‘free people of colour’ population, especially in the city of Bridgetown. Also in Bridgetown were over 10,000 enslaved people who often worked as ‘hired’ labour and who had more freedom to move around. The country also had a regular newspaper which reported activity in the Westminster parliament. Free people of colour were demanding the equal rights with the white community they were being denied, and the enslaved people who had contact with those working on the plantations could spread hope that freedom would be theirs.

Conditions on the plantations were especially harsh, and it was here that an insurrection, which became known as ‘Bussa’s rebellion’, took place in 1816. Although put down by troops with several of the leaders hanged, this did not stop enslaved people across the region demanding freedom. There was a rebellion in Demerara in 1823, again brutally put down, and another in Jamaica in 1832. Much to the concern of the planters, slavery was formerly abolished by the Emancipation Act of 1833 which declared all children, black and coloured, totally free as from 1st August 1834, and all other enslaved people free but subject to serving their former masters as ‘apprentices’ for a period of 12 years, later reduced to four years.

Emancipation did not mean freedom. Because of agitation from planters, ‘apprentices’ were compelled on plantations to work for 45 hours per week under their previous conditions – no cash, but bed and board provided – before being able to work further hours for wages. As children had been freed, this created issues as to how the former slaves could provide for their upkeep from the small plots where they had traditionally farmed to increase family food provision. On 1st August 1838, the burden of apprenticeship was lifted, but planters were afraid to lose workers and passed two laws, the Master and Servants Act of 1838 and, in 1839, a law to prevent emigration agents recruiting workers for other Caribbean territories. Unlike Barbados, there were larger, more mountainous countries with unclaimed land enabling workers to desert the plantations if their demand for higher wages failed. The first act was rejected by colonial government as being too draconian; but as they had envisaged former slaves becoming labourers, they were happy to allow the Assembly to pass an emended form in 1840. This decreed that plantation workers who worked for a number of hours per week had committed themselves to a monthly contract and had to pay towards the rent of their accommodation which had traditionally been free.

Barbados had a Legislative Assembly from the early period, and following a declaration in 1652, the colonial authorities could not have full control of the island without the agreement of the Barbados Assembly. However, representative voting was based on a very high property qualification, so was totally composed of a tiny group of white males. This changed with the election of a man of colour, Samuel Jackman Prescod in 1840, but because of even slightly relaxed property qualifications, only three people of colour served in the legislature prior to 1900.

Freedoms after 1838 were conscribed for the labouring classes by two issues: food poverty and the inability to purchase land, as most land was owned by the plantocracy. When depression hit the sugar industry, rather than sell land in small lots to allow a peasantry to form, the government brought laws to hold plantations in the Court of Chancery until debts could be wiped out and the land sold to other planters. During this period, a number of riots, strikes and burning of cane fields took place in the form of protests. Only towards the end of the 19th century did speculators start dividing plantations into small lots, and it was not until workers went in their thousands to work on the Panama Canal after 1903 that many had the money to buy. Until then, many were tied to the plantations, or failing that, homelessness.

Racism was still endemic, but throughout the 19th century there was a slow but steady growth of a black middle class with the education and ability to demand change, and as the towns were modernising infrastructure such as running water, more working-class people were able to move there and seek education for their children. In this way, many were able to leave the island for other territories such as the Windward Islands and British Guiana with skills as teachers and civil servants.

In 1876, the Colonial government was looking at saving expenditure on the former sugar islands, and they proposed a Confederation of the Windward Islands. Barbadian agricultural workers were delighted at this as they saw it as an opportunity to earn higher wages and find their own land in places such as St Lucia. The upper classes fought it tooth and nail as they saw the loss of cheap labour this could bring them, and in response, ‘Confederation crisis’ riots broke out, again with lives lost and arrests made.

Because of remittances from those working in Panama, things eased slightly in the early 1900s, and this era brought a growth in both Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association and socialist political thought.

The UNIA took off with vigour. An official estimate was that seven to eight hundred people attended the first public meeting. The organisation was seen as dangerous; regular meetings were being held in Bridgetown and in rural areas, and the colonial government in Barbados kept a careful eye on them. Also in the 1920s, the Democratic League and the Working Men’s Association were founded, widely advocating for social change. Although the League never crystallised into a fully-fledged political party, between 1926 and 1936 these movements were to change the face of politics in Barbados.

People were already suffering the effects of the Depression when Clement Payne, a political activist, arrived from Trinidad in 1937 and held street meetings demanding social change. When supporters heard that the authorities decided to deport him, major riots broke out across the island. They were put down brutally by the police, but the result of this and other rebellions in other Caribbean territories in the 1930s led to a major enquiry. It was the report of Lord Moyne’s Royal West Indian Commission that brought major changes to the island. Moyne noted that only 3.3% of Barbadians were eligible to vote, and it was suggested that extension of the franchise would be necessary if the island were to move to self-government.

In 1950, an act was passed for universal adult suffrage, and this was followed by independence on 30 November 1966. Universal suffrage meant that people of African heritage were now overwhelmingly voters. Two new political parties arose, both controlled by the black majority. As some whites were uncomfortable with this, they relocated to other parts of the former British Empire, meaning that 97% of citizens were now black.

The Black Power movement of the 1970s increased interest in African cultural retentions. The former British education curriculum was reformed and the history syllabus upgraded. Free secondary education for all was introduced in 1962, examinations reflecting the new teaching with the establishment of the Caribbean Examinations Council, and a branch of the University of West Indies was opened in Barbados in 1963.

The island retained the British Crown, but the Queen last visited in the 1980s. In 1979, the first commission was set up to consider the suggestion of a republic. Some Barbadians wished to retain the umbilical cord to Britain at that time, but the question arose again in 1998 when another commission recommended a republican system. Another three efforts to move to republicanism were made over several years, but action was not seen as urgent. However, in 2019, partly inspired by the international Black Lives Matter movement, a statue of Admiral Nelson was removed from the centre of Bridgetown. Psychological needs for total independence could be ignored no longer, and in 2020, the prime minister announced that Barbados would become a republic, losing the final chains on 30 November, exactly 55 years after Independence Day.


  1. Why not include a link in ‘related articles’ to link to your recent piece, ‘Jubilee – or a mask for anarchy?’ here? Republican ideas urgently need promoting, given most socialists say they are republicans, although in practice do little argue to make the case for republicanism itself!. Chartist has an ‘oven ready article’ to link to this excellent article about Barbados!

  2. A good point (though I would argue that “republican” ideas have a rather different resonance in a former colony such as Barbados than in the UK). Tags updated.

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