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North America & Caribbean

Beards and Bims – the naming of Barbados

Portuguese explorer Pedro a Campos ‘discovered’ Barbados in 1536, and it was he who named the island Los Barbados, which means ‘the bearded ones’.

A number of theories exist as to how the island got its name(s). Portuguese explorer Pedro a Campos ‘discovered’ Barbados in 1536 en route to Brazil, and it was he who named the island Los Barbados, which means ‘the bearded ones’.

It is unclear whether ‘bearded’ refers to the long, hanging roots of the bearded fig-tree (Ficus citrifolia), indigenous to the island, or to the allegedly heavily bearded Caribs who once inhabited the island; or perhaps it was a visual impression of a beard of white foam created by breaking waves over the outlying reefs that would have been seen by the early sailors.

Other names or nicknames associated with Barbados are ‘Bim’ and ‘Bimshire’, and again several theories exist. Bim could have been a corruption of the surname Byam, after Lieutenant General William Byam, a Royalist leader faithful to the crown during the Civil War. Soon after the war began (1642) Byam was imprisoned in the Tower of London, but later accepted a pass to be exiled to Barbados.

After the war, many other Royalists fled to the Caribbean and, following the execution of Charles I (1649), Barbados’ government fell under the control of these Royalists. In 1651, parliament in England decided they would need to take back the island again and, after some skirmishing, the Royalists were defeated by the British Navy.

This time Byam was banished from Barbados and went to Suriname in South America. It is said that his followers became known as ‘Bims’ and that this became a name for all Barbadians. A second theory is that ‘Bim’ is derived from a word meaning ‘my home’, ‘my people’ or ‘those that lived there’ in the language of the Igbo people of West Africa, many of whom arrived from modern-day southeastern Nigeria as slaves in the 18th century.

Over time, and long before the island’s independence, Barbados became known as ‘Bimshire’, an affectionate reference to its long colonial relationship with England.