Opinions differ as to the derivation of the name of the island. It may be the Spanish word for the hanging branches of a vine which strike root in the ground, or the name may have been given from a species of bearded fig-tree. In the 16th-century maps the name is variously rendered St Bernardo, Bernados, Barbudoso, Barnodos and Barnodo. There are more numerous traces of the Carib Indians here than in any other of the Antilles. Barbados is thought to have been first visited by the Portuguese. Its history has some special features, showing as it does the process of peaceful colonization, for the island, acquired without conquest, has never been out of the possession of the British. It was touched in 1605 by the British ship "Olive Blossom," whose crew, finding it uninhabited, took possession in the name of James I.; but the first actual settlement was made in 1625, at the direction of Sir William Courteen under the patent of Lord Leigh, afterwards earl of Marlborough, to whom the island had been granted by the king.

Two years later, a compromise having been effected with Lord Marlborough, a grant of the island was obtained by the earl of Carlisle, whose claim was based on a grant, from the king, of all the Caribbean islands in 1624; and in 1628 Charles Wolferstone, a native of Bermuda, was appointed governor. In the same year sixty-four settlers arrived at Carlisle Bay and the present capital was founded. During the Civil War in England many Royalists sought refuge in Barbados, where, under Lord Willoughby (who had leased the island from the earl of Carlisle), they offered stout resistance to the forces of the Commonwealth. Willoughby, however, was ultimately defeated and exiled. After the Restoration, to appease the planters, doubtful as to the title under which they held the estates which they had converted into valuable properties, the proprietary or patent interest was abolished, and the crown took over the government of the island; a duty of 4½% on all exports being imposed to satisfy the claims of the patentees. In 1684, under the governorship of Sir Richard Dutton, a census was taken, according to which the population then consisted of 20,000 whites and 46,000 slaves.

The European wars of the 18th century caused much suffering, as the West Indies were the scene of numerous battles between the British and the French. During this period a portion of the 4½% duty was returned to the colony in the form of the governor's salary. In the course of the American War of Independence Barbados again experienced great hardships owing to the restrictions placed upon the importation of provisions from the American colonies, and in 1778 the distress became so acute that the British government had to send relief. For three years after the peace of Amiens in 1802 the colony enjoyed uninterrupted calm, but in 1805 it was only saved from falling into the hands of the French by the timely arrival of Admiral Cochrane. Since that date, however, it has remained unthreatened in the possession of the British. The rupture between Great Britain and the United States in 1812 caused privateering to be resumed, the trade of the colony being thereby almost destroyed. This led to an agitation for the repeal of the 4½% duty, but it was not till 1838 that the efforts to secure this were successful. The abolition of slavery in 1834 was attended by no ill results, the slaves continuing to work for their masters as hired servants, and a period of great prosperity succeeded.

The proposed confederation of the Windward Islands in 1876, however, provoked riots, which occasioned considerable loss of life and property, but secured for the people their existence as a separate colony. Hurricanes are the scourge of Barbados, those of 1780, 1831, and 1898 being so disastrous as to necessitate relief measures on the part of the home government.

See Ligon, History of Barbados (1657); Oldmixon, British Empire in America (1741); A Short History of Barbados (1768); Remarks upon the Short History (1768); Poyer, History of Barbados (1808); Capt. Thom. Southey, Chron. Hist. of W. Indies (1827); Schomburgk, History of Barbados (1848); J. H. S. Moxby, Account of a West Indian Sanatorium (1886); N. D. Davis, The Cavaliers and Roundheads of Barbados (1887); J. H. Stark, History and Guide to Barbados (1893); R. T. Hill, Cuba and Porto Rico (1897). For geology, see A. J. Jukes-Browne and J. B. Harrison, "The Geology of Barbados," Quart. Journ. Geol. Soc. London vol. xlvii. (1891), pp. 197-250, vol. xlviii. (1892), pp. 170-226; J. W. Gregory, "Contributions to the Palaeontology and Physical Geology of the West Indies," ibid. vol. li. (1895), pp. 255-310; G. F. Franks and J. B. Harrison, "The Globigerina-marls and Basal Reef-rocks of Barbados," ibid. vol. liv. (1898), pp. 540-555; J. W. Spencer, "On the Geological and Physical Development of Barbados; with Notes on Trinidad," ibid. vol. lviii. (1902), pp. 354-367.