Barbados wills, 1627-1727: slavery, service and links with England

October 22, 2022 | Blog
Home > Barbados wills, 1627-1727: slavery, service and links with England

By Catherine Talbot (University of Exeter) and Jane Whittle (University of Exeter)

This blog is based upon a grant awarded by the Economic History Society through its Carnevali Small Research Grants Scheme.


‘The advent of sugar cultivation made the Caribbean islands the most desirable American lands because of the riches they brought to the planters and to England.’

So wrote Richard Ligon in A true and exact history of the island of Barbados, published in 1673. Our new research project, funded by a Carnevali Small Research Grant, uses wills and family papers to explore the depth and complexity of economic links between England and Barbados during the first century of settlement. It examines the ways a range of important individuals in Barbados chose to bequeath their property, including indentured and enslaved individuals, and combines this with a comparison of the ways these same families dealt with their English workforce.

During the first century of settlement, Barbados underwent a dramatic economic and social transformation to become the most significant of England’s colonies in terms of revenue and trade. The first English settlers to arrive on the island in 1627 began a process of clearing the dense local vegetation to make way for the planting of tobacco and cotton crops. Early plantations were modest in size and relied on the labour of indentured servants from England and Ireland. As the century progressed, planters switched to sugar production. The profits accrued from the ‘sugar revolution’ led to domination of the economic and social landscape of Barbados by a wealthy elite and cemented the growing importance of this small island among England’s Caribbean colonies.

Those who took up residence in Barbados between 1627 and 1727 maintained very close social, economic, and legal ties with England. A relatively small number of prominent families came to control the island’s sugar production during the seventeenth century, buying up tracts of land from smaller concerns, and dominating the local legislature and judiciary. Many of these same families also held large estates in England. Difficulties recruiting indentured servants in Barbados during the seventeenth century saw the growing use of enslaved labour with the result that, by the first decades of the eighteenth century, a white population of less than 13,000 controlled almost 42,000 enslaved Africans. Contemporary records provide evidence of the harsh treatment suffered by indentured servants in Barbados compared to their counterparts in England and the mainland colonies. The increasing use of enslaved Africans in Barbados during the seventeenth-century ‘sugar boom’ led to the passage of a series of Slave Codes, which equated the ownership of bound labour with that of land, livestock, and other property.

The links between plantation slavery and English economy and society in the first century of colonial slavery have been relatively neglected. While there are some excellent studies of Barbados from 1627-1727, the aim of this project is less to investigate economy and society on the island itself, than to examine the links between society and economy in Barbados and England through the lives of specific people using wills and family papers. Already, the 258 Barbados wills registered in England at the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) and 797 of those registered in Barbados (which are available in print) have been examined and each demonstrate the potential for further exploration. Amongst the PCC wills, which tend to represent the wealthiest members of society, around 50 per cent contain references to plantations, slaves, or servants. Of the wills registered in Barbados, around a third detail bequests involving the transfer of land and enslaved or indentured labour. The Carnevali Small Research Grant will enable family papers held in several English archives to be examined. The aim is to demonstrate the depth and complexity of links between England and her most important and profitable colony between 1627 and 1727 and to contrast the treatment of workers in England and Barbados. We hope that this initial research will lead to a larger research project, exploring the depth of economic and social connections between England and her slave-owning colonies in the Caribbean during this formative period.


To contact the authors:



Dunn, R., Sugar and slaves: the rise of the planter class in the English West Indies, 16241713 (Chapel Hill, 1972).

Ligon, R., A true and exact history of the island of Barbados (1657).

Menard, R., Sweet negotiations: sugar, slavery, and plantation agriculture in early Barbados (Charlottesville, 2006).

Newman, S. P., A world of labor: the development of plantation slavery in the British Atlantic (Pennsylvania, 2013).