The location of the island in the tropics makes it vulnerable to Atlantic hurricanes. In September 2017, Hurricane Irma caused catastrophic damage on the island; it damaged or destroyed 95% of the island's buildings and infrastructure, leaving Barbuda "barely habitable" according to Prime Minister Gaston Browne. Everyone on the island was evacuated to Antigua, leaving Barbuda uninhabited for the first time in modern history.
The Ciboney (Guanahuatebey) peoples lived on the island of Barbuda during the Stone Age. Arawak and Carib Indians populated the island when Christopher Columbus landed on his second voyage in 1493. Early settlements by the Spanish and French were succeeded by the English, who formed a colony in 1666.
In 1685, Barbuda was leased to brothers Christopher and John Codrington, who had founded the town of Codrington. The Codrington family also produced food on the land, and they transported slaves as labour for their sugarcane plantations on Antigua. During the 1740s, there were multiple rebellions of slaves at Codrington, during which enslaved people revolted against the people who were enslaving them. All slaves were freed in 1834.
On 1 November 1981, the island gained its independence as an integral part of Antigua and Barbuda, a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. In a 1989 election the Barbuda Independence Movement received too few votes to qualify for a seat in the national parliament.
There is a widespread belief, shared by some Barbudans, that the Codringtons set up a human stock farm on Barbuda for the purpose of breeding the strongest, tallest enslaved people. An article in the Annals of the New York Academy of Science has disputed this, stating that the Codringtons considered using Barbuda as a nursery, where slave children would have been raised to later work on Antiguan plantations, but this plan was also never realized.
Other sources indicate that slaves were in fact an export commodity but this was probably due to natural population growth. No new slaves had arrived on the island since the mid 1700s. In any event, the island was certainly an exporter of slaves. An estimate in 1977 by Lowenthal and Clark indicated that during 1779 to 1834 the number of slaves exported totalled 172; most were taken to Antigua but 37 went to the Leeward and Windward islands and some to the southern US. Several slave rebellions took place on the island, with the most serious in 1834–5. Britain emancipated slaves in most of its colonies in 1834, but that did not include Barbuda, so the island then freed its own slaves. For some years thereafter, the freed slaves had little opportunity of survival on their own because of limited agricultural land and the lack of available credit to buy some. Hence, they continued to work on the plantations for nominal wages or lived in shantytowns and worked as occasional labourers. Sugar cane production remained the primary economy for over a century. Effective trade unions were not formed until the 1930s.
The first map of Barbuda was made in the second half of the 18th century. At that time there were substantial buildings in the Highland area, a castle in Codrington, a fort at River, now known as the Martello Tower, and houses at Palmetto Point, Coco Point, and Castle Hill. The map shows eight catching pens for holding captured runaway slaves, indicating that this was a serious problem. There were several defensive cannon gun battery units around the island perimeter. There was a large plantation in the Meadow and Guava area and another large plantation in the Highlands area.
As one of the most devastating hurricanes to strike the northern Leeward Islands in the 20th century, Hurricane Luis caused significant destruction to Barbuda as a Category 4 storm in September 1995. A large number of houses were damaged or destroyed, with three deaths and over 100 injuries, and power and water system disruptions. The hurricane left over 3000 homeless; many lived in shelters for months. The estimates to rebuild ranged from $100 million to $350 million. Not all damaged buildings were replaced. In early 2013, only two very expensive hotels were operating in addition to a few cottages that were for rent. In fact, there were very few facilities for tourists. A report in early 2017 confirmed that there were still only two hotels; the primary attractions were the pristine beaches. Many of the accommodations listed on the TripAdvisor page for Barbuda were actually in Antigua.
Hurricane Irma caused catastrophic damage when it made landfall on the island on 6 September 2017. Prime Minister Gaston Browne stated that the Category 5 hurricane had destroyed 95% of the structures and vehicles. Initial estimates showed that at least 60% of the island's residents were homeless because of the disaster. All communications with Barbuda were down for a time; the storm had destroyed most of the communications system.
On 8 September 2017, the government began to evacuate the entire island (with residents moved to Antigua) in preparation of the Category 4 Hurricane Jose, which was approaching from the east. Nearly 1,800 residents were evacuated to Antigua; some were accommodated in the Sir Vivian Richards cricket stadium. A hurricane warning for Jose was issued for several islands, including Barbuda. On 14 September, Ronald Sanders, Ambassador to the US, described the situation on Barbuda. "There is no electricity there, there is no potable water anymore, there is no structure in which people can survive. We have a mammoth task on our hands." He also stated this is the first time in 300 years that the island has not had a single living person on it.
Ronald Sanders said. "We are a small island community — the gross domestic product of Antigua is $1 billion a year. We cannot afford to take on this responsibility by ourselves. Barbuda is not just a disaster, it's a humanitarian crisis. We are hopeful that the international community will come to our aid, not because we’re begging for something we want, but because we’re begging for something that is needed."
The United States Agency for International Development confirmed its commitment to provide coordination between the government and aid organizations; it also sent a Disaster Assistance Response Team. On 8 September, the first of three cargo planes arrived in Antigua from the US, with over 120,000 pounds of relief for Barbudans. The cost was covered by the Government of Antigua and Barbuda and with donations from Martin Franklyn and the Coleman Company in the US.
An estimate published by Time indicated that over $100 million would be required to rebuild homes and infrastructure. In a statement, Antigua and Barbuda's Ambassador to the United States Ronald Sanders stated that the reconstruction may cost up to $300 million. Philmore Mullin, Director of Barbuda's National Office of Disaster Services, said that "all critical infrastructure and utilities are non-existent – food supply, medicine, shelter, electricity, water, communications, waste management... Public utilities need to be rebuilt in their entirety... It is optimistic to think anything can be rebuilt in six months... In my 25 years in disaster management, I have never seen something like this."
Barbuda's climate, pristine beaches and geography attracted tourism for many years. Barbuda was served by Barbuda Codrington Airport and also had a ferry service to Antigua. Activities included swimming, snorkeling, fishing, and caving. Years after Hurricane Luis, in August 2017, there were still only two operating resorts on the island, although plans were being made to build other resorts before Hurricane Irma.
Attractions that were popular included the Frigate Bird Sanctuary in the Codrington Lagoon, Martello Tower, a 19th-century fort and the Indian Cave with its two rock-carved petroglyphs. Other points of interest included the beautiful Pink Sands Beach, Darby's Cave, a sinkhole with a tropical rain forest inside and Highland House (called Willybob locally), the ruins of the 18th-century Codrington family home, and the Dividing Wall that separated the wealthy family from its slaves.
The total land area is 160.56 square kilometres (62 sq mi). The capital and largest town is Codrington, with an estimated population of 1,638 (2011 population census). More people of Barbudan descent live on Antigua than on the island itself. The island is mostly coral limestone with little topographical variation. The "highlands" area on the eastern side of the island has hills rising to 125 ft (38 m), but the majority of the island is very flat, with many lagoons in the northwest corner.
The Antiguan racer is among the rarest snakes in the world. The Lesser Antilles are home to four species of racers. All four have undergone severe range reductions; at least two subspecies are extinct, and another, A. antiguae, now occupies only 0.1 per cent of its historical range.
Griswold's ameiva (Ameiva griswoldi) is a species of lizard in the genus Ameiva. It is endemic to Antigua and Barbuda and is found on both islands.
The climate is classified as tropical marine, which means that there is little seasonal temperature variation. In January and February, the coolest months, the average daily high temperature is 27 °C (81 °F), while in July and August, the warmest months, the average daily high is 30 °C (86 °F).
Sir McChesney George Secondary School is the island's public secondary school.