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The Barbados Collections Exhibition
Some evidence exists that Barbados may have been settled in the second millenium BC, but this is limited to fragments of conch lip adzes found in association with shells radiocarbon dated to c.1630 BC. Fully documented Amerindian settlement dates to between about 350 to 650 AD, by a group known as the Saladoid-Barrancoid, who arrived from mainland South America. A second wave of migrants appeared around the year 800 (the Spanish referred to these people as “Arawaks“) and a third in the mid-1200s (called “Caribs” by the Spanish). This last group was more politically organised and came to rule over the others. The arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century led to a massive decline in the Amerindian population of Barbados so that by 1541 a Spanish writer could claim they were uninhabited. The Amerindians were either captured for use as slaves by the Spanish or fled to other, more easily defensible mountainous islands nearby
Early British colonization
Although Spanish and Portuguese sailors had visited Barbados, the British were the first Europeans to colonise the islands. They first arrived in 1625 and claimed it in the name of King James I of England. This first ship, which arrived on 14 May, was captained by John Powell. The first settlement landed some time later on 17 February 1627, near what is now Holetown (formerly Jamestown). The group was led by John Powell’s younger brother, Henry, who arrived with 80 settlers and 10 slaves—these first ten slaves were among the sometimes kidnapped and other times runaway English or Irish youth. This settlement was funded by Sir William Courten, a London merchant who owned the title to Barbados and several other unclaimed islands. Thus, the first colonists were actually tenants and the profits of their labour returned to Courten and his company.
Courten would later lose this title to James Hay, 1st Earl of Carlisle in what was called the “Great Barbados Robbery.” Carlisle then chose as governor Henry Hawley. It was he who established the House of Assembly in 1639, in an effort to appease the planters who might otherwise oppose his controversial appointment.
In the very early years, the majority of the population was white and male, with African slaves providing little of the workforce. Cultivation of tobacco, cotton, ginger and indigo was handled primarily by European indentured labour until the start of the sugar cane industry.
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