Located in the east of the Caribbean, Barbados is a beautiful island country famous for its beaches, turquoise seas and friendly atmosphere. Every year, thousands of tourists flock to the small island in search of relaxation, fun and food.
Barbados has a rich history. It is believed that the first settlers on the island were Indigenous peoples from present-day Venezuela. In the 15th century, the Portuguese became the first Europeans to reach Barbados and give it its name: Los Barbados (bearded-ones), named for the island’s fig trees.
In the 17th century, English ships arrived in Barbados to establish settlements and slave plantations there. Barbados remained a British colony until 1961 when internal autonomy was granted. The island gained full independence from Britain in 1966, with Queen Elizabeth II remaining the head of state. This changed on 30 November 2021, when Barbados became a republic, though still a part of the Commonwealth.
Here are some of the most important historic sites in Barbados.
Bridgetown is the capital city of Barbados and is a UNESCO world heritage site. As an island country and a key part of the British expansion into the Atlantic, it was important to build a fortified port town to protect maritime interests and to establish a network. Bridgetown became a hub for the British Empire in the Caribbean and across the Atlantic, ensuring a strong military and maritime presence in the area.
The layout of the city is unusual as it follows the street layout type of a medieval town or city, with serpentine streets and irregular settlement patterns. Many other European-planned towns and cities in the Caribbean follow a grid layout. Architecturally, it is an outstanding example of British colonial architecture with well-preserved sections from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
2. The Garrison
The European powers of Britain, France, Spain and Holland were often at war over the Caribbean islands due to their value, resources and strategic location. It was important that an island was fortified to protect against potential invasions.
Fortifications were built across the western coast of Barbados with the Garrison at Bridgetown being the largest in the British colonies. St Ann’s Fort was built in 1705 and the garrison grew around it, forming a district. It was the headquarters for the British West India Regiment and included a barracks, horse racetrack, parade ground and commissariat. It is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Bridgetown and the Garrison.
3. St Nicholas Abbey
St Nicholas Abbey dates back to 1658 and is one of just three genuine surviving Jacobean mansions in the western hemisphere. Despite its name, the property isn’t related to the church: it was used as a plantation house – sugar was grown nearby – until the 1940s, and it’s now a museum and rum distillery.
Visitors to the St Nicholas Abbey museum will find an array of exhibits recreating plantation life in 18th-century Barbados. The architecture inside and out is remarkable, much of it in 17th-century Jacobean style, and the museum’s collections are comprehensive. The Barbados Tourism Authority considers the abbey one of the ‘Seven Wonders of Barbados’.
4. The George Washington House
In 1751, George Washington visited the Garrison and stayed with his sick brother in the Bush Hill area. Barbados was the first and only country Washington visited outside of America. The house he stayed in is now known as the George Washington House and is a must-see for all visitors to the island.
The presentation changes as you explore the house. The ground floor has been furnished as it would have been in 1751 to give visitors an idea of how Washington would have seen and experienced the house. The second floor is dedicated to an exhibition of objects and stories from the mid-18th century. These include medical practices, the importance of Barbados to the British Empire and the history of the slave trade in Barbados.
Items on display are intended to show the horrors of the slave trade, including barbed-neck collars and spike manacles, as well as tools used by slaves whilst working on the plantations.
5. St John Parish Church
St John parish church in Barbados is one of the oldest churches in the country, possibly first built – out of wood –in 1645. The wooden structure burned down in 1658 but was later rebuilt. Today, much of what exists of St John parish church dates back to the 1830s.
Featuring glorious stained glass windows and gothic architecture, St John is a popular site amongst both churchgoers and tourists. Visitors to the church can also enjoy breathtaking views of Barbados’ East Coast, hence the area is known as ‘Church view’.
6. The Barbados Museum
The Barbados Museum charts over 4,000 years of history. It includes displays on natural history, social and military history, as well as the British Empire and the slave trade. The museum is housed in the former British Military Prison and holds a collection of around 500,000 objects.
Visitors to the Barbados Museum can expect to see exhibits on the country’s coral structures, the island’s early Amerindian inhabitants and a reconstructed 18th-century plantation house. There is also an archive and library that can be used to research family histories.
7. The Emancipation Statue
Following the English occupation of Barbados in the 17th century, plantations were established across the island producing tobacco, sugar and cotton. The slave trade became a significant part of the island’s economy. In 1816, the largest slave rebellion in the history of Barbados took place under the leadership of Bussa.
Though the slave trade had been abolished throughout the British Empire in 1807, slavery itself was still legal (this would only be abolished in 1834). The rebellion started due to a belief that emancipation was to be put into effect, but it never happened.Nearly 400 slaves gathered under Bussa and attacked the Bailey’s Plantation. Bussa was killed during the battle and the rebellion was defeated by the British. Bussa became a hero, and a statue was erected in his honour in 1985.
8. Blackmans Gully and Bridge
Across Barbados you will find a series of gullies that help protect and support the ecosystem of the island. Many animals have made their homes in the gullies, and they allow for flora and fauna to thrive.
Overlooking one such gully is Blackmans Bridge, located on the east side of the island. It was built before 1692 and was made from limestone, sand, molasses (the bridge is also known as Molasses Bridge) and eggshells.
9. Screw Dock
Located in Bridgetown, the screw dock is the oldest surviving ship lift in the world. Built in 1893, its purpose was to raise ships out of the water for repairs, surveys, cleaning and general maintenance. The lift could accommodate ships up to 1,200 gross registered tonnage, around 3,400 cubic metres.
It is a unique piece of history, reflecting not only the ingenuity and expertise of people but also highlighting the of the maritime world to Barbados. The island’s maritime history can be explored further at the Historical Maritime Centre.
10. Parliament Buildings and the National Heroes Gallery
Built in 1871, the Parliament Buildings are the third oldest in the Commonwealth. They are of a neo-Gothic style and house the Senate and House of Assembly. The museum celebrates Barbados’s strong democratic heritage.
In addition to the Museum of Parliament, there is also a gallery of national heroes. The national heroes of Barbados have been recognised for their roles in making positive changes to Barbados. Those honoured include Bussa, Sarah Ann Gill (a Methodist who championed religious tolerance in Barbados) and Errol Walton Barrow, who was known as Barbados’ ‘father of independence’.