British sailors who landed on Barbados in the 1620s at the site of present-day Holetown on the Caribbean coast found the island uninhabited. As elsewhere in the eastern Caribbean, Arawak Indians may have been annihilated by invading Caribs, who are believed to have subsequently abandoned the island.
From the arrival of the first British settlers in 1627-28 until independence in 1966, Barbados was a self-funding colony under uninterrupted British rule. Nevertheless, Barbados always enjoyed a large measure of local autonomy. Its House of Assembly, which began meeting in 1639, is the third-oldest legislative body in the Western Hemisphere, preceded only by Bermuda's legislature and the Virginia House of Burgesses.
As the sugar industry developed into the main commercial enterprise, Barbados was divided into large plantation estates, which replace the small holdings of the early British settlers. Some of the displaced farmers relocated to British colonies in North America. To work the plantations, slaves were brought from Africa; the slave trade ceased a few years before the abolition of slavery throughout the British empire in 1834.
Plantation owners and merchants of British descent dominated local politics. It was not until the 1930s that the descendants of emancipated slaves began a movement for political rights. One of the leaders of this movement, Sir Grantley Adams, founded the Barbados Labor Party in 1938. Progress toward more democratic government for Barbados was made in 1951, when the first general election under universal adult suffrage occurred. This was followed by steps toward increased self-government, and in 1961, Barbados achieved internal autonomy.
From 1958 to 1962, Barbados was one of 10 members of the West Indies Federation, and Sir Grantley Adams served as its first and only prime minister. When the federation was terminated, Barbados reverted to its former status as a self-governing colony. Following several attempts to form another federation composed of Barbados and the Leeward and Windward Islands, Barbados negotiated its own independence at a constitutional conference with the United Kingdom in June 1966. After years of peaceful and democratic progress, Barbados became an independent state within the British Commonwealth on November 30, 1966.
On July 4, 1973, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, and Jamaica signed a treaty in Trinidad to found the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM). In May 1974, most of the remaining English-speaking Caribbean states joined CARICOM, which now has 14 members. Barbados also is a member of the Caribbean Development Bank, established in 1970, with headquarters in Bridgetown. The eastern Caribbean's Regional Security System, which associates Barbados with six other island nations, also is headquartered in Barbados. In July 1994, Barbados joined the newly established Association of Caribbean States (ACS).
As a member of CARICOM, Barbados supported efforts by the United States to implement UN Security Council Resolution 940, designed to facilitate the departure of Haiti's de facto authorities from power. The country agreed to contribute personnel to the multinational force, which restored the democratically elected government of Haiti in October 1994.
In May 1997, Prime Minister Owen Arthur hosted President Clinton and 14 other Caribbean leaders during the first-ever U.S.-regional summit in Bridgetown, Barbados. The summit strengthened the basis for regional cooperation on justice and counternarcotics issues, finance and development, and trade.
The ruling BLP was decisively returned to power in May 2003 elections, winning 23 seats in the Parliament with the DLP gaining seven seats. The Prime Minister, Owen Arthur, who also serves as Minister of Finance and Minister of Culture, has given a high priority to economic development and diversification. The main opposition party, the DLP, is led by Sen. Clyde Mascoll, who was elected
President of the DLP in 2001, as part of a party reorganization.
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