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 under uninterrupted British control. 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 replaced 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.
Local politics were dominated by plantation owners and merchants of British descent. It was not until the 1930s that a movement for political rights was begun by the descendants of emancipated slaves. 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 universal adult suffrage was introduced. 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.
Under its constitution, Barbados is a parliamentary democracy modeled on the British system. The governor general represents the monarch. Control of the government rests with the cabinet, headed by the prime minister and responsible to the parliament.
The bicameral parliament consists of the House of Assembly and Senate. The 28 members of the House are elected by universal suffrage to five-year terms. Elections may be called at any time the government wishes to seek a new mandate or if the government suffers a vote of no confidence in parliament. The Senate's 21 members are appointed by the governor general--12 with the advice of the prime minister, two with the advice of the leader of the opposition, and seven at the governor general's discretion.
Barbados has an independent judiciary composed of magistrate courts, which are statutorily authorized, and a Supreme Court, which is constitutionally mandated. The Supreme Court consists of the high court and the court of appeals, each with four judges. The Chief Justice serves on both the high court and the court of appeals. The court of last resort is the Judicial Committee of Her Majesty's Privy Council in London, whose decisions are binding on all parties. Judges of the Supreme Court are appointed by the governor general on the recommendation of the prime minister after consultation with the leader of the opposition.
The island is divided into 11 parishes and the city of Bridgetown for administrative purposes. There is no local government. Barbados' defense expenditures account for about 2.5% of the government budget.