As the most densely populated island nation in the Caribbean Sea, Barbados has long experienced strong demographic pressures resulting in emigration. At first, Barbadians focused on labor opportunities in the Caribbean basin; however, after World War II (1939–45), Barbadians increasingly sought access to the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. In the U.S. census of 2000 and the Canadian census of 2001, 54,509 Americans and 23,725 Canadians claimed Barbadian descent. The largest concentration in the United States by far is in New York City; in Canada, it is in Toronto and to a lesser extent Montreal.
Barbados is an Atlantic island occupying 170 square miles of the eastern West Indies near 13 degrees north latitude. St. Lucia and St. Vincent are the nearest islands and lie to the west. The island of Barbados is somewhat mountainous and is surrounded by coral reefs. In 2002, the population of Barbados was estimated at 275,330 and was principally black. Two-thirds of the population were Protestant Christians, while a small percentage practiced Roman Catholicism. British colonists first settled Barbados in 1627, establishing plantations to take advantage of the lucrative sugar trade. The island became one of the main importers of African slaves. During the 17th and 18th centuries, planters sometimes invested their plantation wealth in the American colonies, particularly the Carolinas. Black emigration came after emancipation in 1838, though the numbers remained small until the 20th century. Barbados began to move toward independence in the 1950s and in 1958 joined nine other Caribbean dependencies to form the Federation of the West Indies within the British Commonwealth. The federation dissolved in 1962, and Barbados became fully independent in 1966.
Early immigration figures for Barbados are only estimates. Prior to the 1960s, both the United States and Canada categorized all immigrants from Caribbean basin dependencies and countries, as “West Indians.” Due to the shifting political status of territories within the region during the period of decolonization (1958–83) and special international circumstances in some areas, the concept of what it meant to be West Indian shifted across time, thus making it impossible to say with certainty how many immigrants came from Barbados. Also, migration from island to island within the Caribbean was common, making statistics after the 1960s less than reliable (see West Indian immigration).
Black Barbadians had been migrating as workers to Guyana, Panama, and Trinidad from the 1860s, but it was not until the turn of the 20th century that they came to the United States in significant numbers. Between 1900 and 1924, about 100,000 West Indians, including significant numbers of Barbadians, immigrated to the United States, many of them from the middle classes. The restrictive Johnson-Reed Act (1924) and economic depression in the 1930s virtually halted Barbadian immigration. Barbadian workers were among 41,000 West Indians recruited for war work after 1941, but isolationist policies of the 1950s kept immigration low until passage of the Immigration Act of 1965. It is estimated that more than 50 percent of Barbadian immigrants prior to 1965 were skilled or white-collar workers. The McCarran-Walter Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952 established an annual quota of only 800 for all British territories in the West Indies, including Barbados. When Barbados gained full independence from Britain in 1966, in a new wave of immigration that was dominated by workers, Barbadian immigrants continued to head to the northeast, with 73 percent of them living in Brooklyn, New York, by 1970. Though overall numbers of immigrants remained relatively small, averaging less than 2,000 per year since 1965, Barbadians were generally better educated than most Caribbean immigrants and thus fared better economically and exercised a disproportionate share of leadership. By 1990, the total number of Barbadian Americans was 33,178, with almost three-quarters of them being foreign born. Between 1992 and 2002, an average of about 800 Barbadians immigrated to the United States each year.
Restrictive elements of the Immigration Act of 1952 in Canada excluded most black immigration, though a special program was instituted in 1955 to encourage the immigration of Barbadian and Jamaican domestic workers “of exceptional merit.” Single women with no dependents, healthy, and having had at least an eighth-grade education qualified for landed immigrant status in return for a oneyear commitment to domestic service. This program, continued until 1967 when the nonracial point system was introduced for determining immigrant qualifications, brought perhaps 1,000 Barbadian women to Canada.
Caribbean immigration to Canada peaked between 1973 and 1978, when West Indians composed more than 10 percent of all immigrants to Canada. A substantial number of these were Barbadians, almost all coming for economic opportunities. The proportion can be inferred from the number of immigrants living in Canada in 2001. Among almost 300,000 West Indian immigrants, Barbados had the fourth-highest number (14,650), behind Jamaica (120,210), Trinidad and Tobago (65,145), and Haiti (52,625). Of those, more than 63 percent (more than 9,000) arrived during the 1960s and 1970s; fewer than 2,000 arrived between 1991 and 2001. The proportion of women to men remains high, primarily because of the domestic workers’ program of the 1950s and 1960s. There is an additional but undetermined number of Barbadians (perhaps a thousand or more) who came as part of the “double lap” migration, immigrating first from Barbados to Great Britain and then to Canada. A growing racism in Britain is often cited by “double lap” migrants as their cause for leaving.
See also immigration regulations.