Barbados Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Barbados has a unique history amongst many Atlantic island nations, which has impacted how its citizens view ethnicity. In this lesson, we'll talk about ethnicity in Barbados and see what this means for the island today.


At only 21 miles long and 14 miles wide, the island nation of Barbados isn't the largest nation in the world. It is, however, one of the premier tourist destinations in the world, and with its island climate and soft beaches, it's not hard to see why. Although technically an Atlantic island, it is often associated with the Caribbean proper due to its climate. Now, some very lucky people actually get to live on this island. We call them Barbadians, and they often informally call themselves Bajan. But who are the Barbadian people? Well, to find out, we're going to need to take a quick glance through their history.

The appeal of Barbados is not hard to understand

A Brief History of Barbados

When the island of Barbados was first visited by Europeans, it was already home to the Kalingo people, an Amerindian island society. The Spanish landed on Barbados, as did the Portuguese, though neither formally claimed it. Barbados was not officially colonized by Europeans until British sailors claimed it for King James I in 1627. Barbados quickly became one of the most important colonial centers for the British and one of their primary hubs for transporting materials between the Western Hemisphere and England. It is through Barbados that the British started bringing slaves into Europe. In fact, Barbados was one of the preeminent slave trading centers of the Caribbean/Atlantic islands. The vast majority of these slaves were Africans, although it shouldn't be ignored that the English also spent several decades in the 17th century enslaving the Irish. Irish slaves generally ended up in Barbados, where they were called Red Legs thanks to the vicious sunburns the generally fair-skinned Irish suffered under the Caribbean. Slavery was abolished throughout the entire British Empire in 1833, and the Barbados slaves entered into mainstream society at that point. Barbados remained a British colony all the way until the 1960s. In 1961, the island was given limited autonomy, and 1966 it was granted full independence within the British Commonwealth. It was one of the only colonized islands to only exist under a single empire, earning it the nickname of Little England.

The relationship between mostly enslaved Africans and white colonists defined much of Barbados history

African Ethnicity in Barbados

So, what does this history have to do with ethnicity in Barbados? Well, it's important to understanding why Barbadians identify the way they do. You see, roughly 93% of Barbadians self-identify as being ethnically African. Considering that slaves outnumbered white Europeans for practically all of the island's history, this isn't surprising. However, it should be contextualized. Islands like Haiti have a similar ethnic distribution, but for different reasons. In places like Haiti, that high of an ethnically African population is often a legacy of violent slave rebellions that established the island's independence. That's not the case in Barbados. The island did have slave rebellions, the most notable under a slave named Bussa in 1816, but slavery was abolished in Barbados thanks to an empire-wide decree and a reform-minded British Parliament.

Statue of Bussa

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