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’.

Portuguese explorer Pedro a Campos ‘discovered’ Barbados in 1536 en route to Brazil and named it Los Barbados, meaning ‘the bearded ones’, and it is assumed this refers to the long, hanging roots of the bearded fig tree (Ficus citrifolia) found across the island.

But it could have been the allegedly heavily bearded Caribs who once lived there, or perhaps the ‘beard’ of white foam created by waves breaking over outlying reefs that would have been seen by early sailors.

Other names associated with Barbados are ‘Bim’, meaning a Barbadian person, and ‘Bimshire’ referring to the island. Bim could have been a corruption of the surname of Lieutenant General William Byam, a Royalist leader faithful to the Crown, who among many other Royalists fled to the Caribbean after being defeated by the Roundheads in the English Civil War.

Following the execution of Charles I (1649), Barbados’ government fell under the control of these Royalists, but in 1651, Parliament in England decided they would take back the island again and the Royalists were defeated by the British Navy. Byam was banished and went on to become governor of Suriname in South America, and his followers became known as ‘Bims’.

Another theory is that ‘Bim’ is derived from a word meaning ‘my home’ or ‘my people’ in the Igbo language of West Africa from the many slaves that arrived from modern-day southeastern Nigeria 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 and Barbados being compared to an English county or ‘shire’.

More information

For more information, check out Lizzie Williams’s guide: