Barbados – Historical Synthesis of International Migration

In its early years of development, Barbados experienced the arrival of many settlers. Cane cultivation brought prosperity to the English colony, which became the “richest colony in English America,” attracting new settlers (Sutton and Makiesky, 1975). English landowners, unpaid workers and ranchers, as well as slaves brought from Africa to work on the sugar plantations, arrived on the country’s shores. With the sugar economy flourishing, the new colony was densely populated just thirty years after its first settlement in 1627, with a population density then exceeding that of England four times (Lowenthal, 1957). European migration to Barbados continued into the early 20th century, with the arrival of French, German, Greek, Italian, Portuguese and Russians. The slave trade continued until slavery was abolished in 1834.


After the independence of many former British colonies, the governments of the English-speaking Caribbean countries encouraged intra-regional movement through the Caribbean Free Trade Association (CARIFTA), which was organized to create a link between English-speaking countries after the dissolution of the Federation of the West Indies that had existed between 1958 and 1962. In 1973, with the Treaty of Chaguaramas, CARIFTA was supplanted by the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).

The Revision of the Treaty of Chaguaramas allows the free movement of people within the CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME). The treaty gives qualified community nationals, service providers, self-employed individuals and investors the right to conduct economic activities in any CARICOM member state.

According to the World Bank, in 2010 migrants represented 10.9% of the population of Barbados, coming mainly from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Lucia, the United Kingdom and Guyana (World Bank, 2012).


By the middle of the 20th century, the population of Barbados was so abundant that the government, in an attempt to alleviate overpopulation and the consequent social problems, passed a law to promote emigration (Roberts, 1955). Some 30,000 people left the island in the 30 years after 1861, mainly for Trinidad, British Guiana and Suriname. Even with the drop in the population growth rate due to emigration, the total population continued to grow rapidly. By the end of the 19th century, there were more than 1,000 people per square mile (Lowenthal, 1957).

With the beginning of the 20th century, the population of Barbados began to experience an opposite trend, mainly in response to large-scale contracting by United States companies seeking the labor necessary for the construction of the Panama Canal. Within a decade, at least 20,000 Barbadians signed advance contracts to work in the Canal Zone, and thousands more went without a contract. After the Canal was completed in 1914, Barbadian emigrants began to travel to the United States. Between 1904 and 1921 at least
70.1 people left Barbados. This emigration movement caused the birth rate to drop, since most of the emigrants were young (Lowenthal, 1957).

However, by the middle of the 20th century, with the decline of great job opportunities abroad, emigration fell (Gmelch, 1987) and the population resumed its growth.
During the 1950s and 1960s, West Indians, including Barbadians, migrated to Great Britain, Canada, and the United States of America. Many Barbadians left for Great Britain and North America after the end of the Second World War, some to study at universities, others in search of employment. The men went to Britain to work in post offices and on public transport, while the women went mainly to train and work as nurses.

By the late 1960s, migration to Britain slowed after the Commonwealth Migration Act of 1965 was passed, regulating the number of people who could enter the country. However, Barbadians migrated to Canada and the United States in large numbers until those countries introduced greater restrictions in their migration policies.

Migration helped raise the standard of living in Barbados through remittances sent by Barbadians residing in the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States and Panama. According to the World Bank, in 2010, 41% of people born in Barbados lived abroad, mainly in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Trinidad and Tobago (World Bank, 2011).

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