History & Background
The nation of Barbados, the easternmost island of the West Indies, lies in the Atlantic Ocean, 100 miles (160 kilometers) east of the Windward Islands; a former British colony, it has a total of 166 square miles, about 2.5 times the size of Washington, D.C. The name Barbados comes from the Portuguese word for "bearded" and probably refers to the bearded fig trees that grow there.
Barbados, sometimes referred to as "little England," was colonized by the British in the 1620s. However, Amerindian tribes were the first inhabitants of Barbados. Both the peaceful Arawaks and the more warrior-like Caribs claimed the island as their home. Barbados historians believe that the Caribs may have forced the Arawaks off the island. By the early 1600s, few Indians remained on the island because the Caribs either migrated to the north or south or were taken by Spanish sailors as slaves. In 1625, Captain John Powell arrived in Barbados and claimed it for Britain. Later British colonists settled the island; it was officially made a Crown possession in 1663. The introduction of sugarcane as a principal crop prompted the importation of African slaves to work the plantations. This practice continued until Britain abolished slavery in 1834. Its economy remained heavily dependent on sugar, rum, and molasses production throughout most of the twentieth century. In the 1990s tourism and manufacturing surpassed the sugar industry in economic importance. Although Barbados had a relatively high per capita growth rate in the 1980s, unemployment, especially among the youth and women, has been a serious problem. Most of the employment is in service and distribution trades, the greater part of which has been unionized.
Barbados is one of the world's most densely populated countries. In 2000 the population was estimated to be 275,000, with 1,597 persons per square mile. Three quarters of its population is under age 44. Population projections put growth at less than 2 percent by the year 2010. Since the 1950s the rate of population growth has been slowed by a successful family planning program and by emigration, now mostly to the other parts of the Caribbean and to North America. During this same time, the death and infant mortality rates declined sharply, and life expectancy rose to 73 years. More than one third of the population is concentrated in Bridgetown, the capital and only seaport, and its surrounding area. About 80 percent of its residents are descendants of African slaves brought to the island 300 years ago. The remaining population includes whites (about 4 percent), East Indians, and persons of mixed African and European descent. English is the official language and is the language of instruction in the schools; a nonstandard English called Bajan is spoken.
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