Caribbean History – An overview
The history of the Caribbean is rich with adventerous tales, blended cultures, and natural diversity. The impact of colonialism and slavery can still be seen in many of the island cultures today; so much so, in fact, that travelers often note a sense of living with the near-tangible history that permeates the region.
This overview article covers the main themes and events of Caribbean history, however, more detailed, in-depth articles about the region can be found chronologically. A timeline can also help you learn more about any event or time period you’re interested in. Themes of slavery and warfare have dominated throughout the region’s past.
When European explorers first traveled to the New World, there were primarily two races of American Indians living in the Caribbean: the Taínos (often called Arawaks), who originally settled in the Windwards and Leewards and eventually inhabited the Greater Antilles and the Bahamas; and the Caribs who came from Venezuela in South America and lived throughout the Lesser Antilles. History tells us that before both of those groups, the Ciboneys came to the Caribbean islands nearly four or five thousand years ago.
The Taínos (which translates to “peace”) began populating the region around a few hundred years B.C. European explorers noted separate Arawak tribes occupied several islands: the Borinquens were in Puerto Rico and the Lucayans inhabited the Bahamas, while other Taínos were on the islands of Hispaniola, Jamaica, and Cuba.
The Taínos slept in hammocks, held celebratory rituals and worshipped a male and a female god using icons called “zemis,” which were stone and wood figurines. Their main food sources were the land and ocean: fish, parrots, manatee, doves, and small land animals provided sustenance along with crops like cassava and maize, and various wild fruits. They considered rain, wind, fire, and hurricanes their natural spiritual forces and believed the afterlife was in a place called “coyaba”–a hallowed land of dancing that was free of sickness, hurricanes, or hunger.
Eventually, the Carib tribesmen began systematically forcing the Taínos off the islands. However, it was the Spaniard explorers who ultimately exterminated the Taíno. During their quest for gold, the Spaniards eradicated the tribe in fewer than fifty years. The conquistadors sent the Taíno to South Africa to work in the gold mines and pearl beds, but many Taínos committed suicide to escape this enslavement. The gold plundering continued until 1521 when larger reserves were discovered in Mexico.
Although the Caribs had superstitions, they were largely uninterested in religion. A warrior tribe, the Caribs wore their dark, black hair oiled and long. Their native dress consisted of parrot feathers, necklaces made of victims’ teeth, and red body paint. While the males fished and hunted for food, the females tended the “carbet,” a circular, thatched shelter which was their primary dwelling. As many of the women were actually Arawak captives, they spoke their own language among themselves.
The Carib people cultivated foods such as “yucca” and sweet potatoes. The Caribs were also said to be an expert and aggressive hunting tribe; the men were excellent shots with bows and arrows but their rapid-fire hunting was not limited to the land: With 100-men “piragua” canoes they would attack vessels on ocean waters.
Almost no indigenous Caribbean Indians survive today. There is a lasting legacy of their history, however, in Arawak features found in the faces of some Cubans and Dominicans.
Christopher Columbus’ voyages, although sometimes controversial, certainly set the mark for New World exploration. After the fall of Constantinople, the previously safe routes to the Far East were sealed off, putting a tremendous hindrance on the ancient spice trade. There was an increased desire to explore the west and forge new routes that would reopen the spice trade. This was the motivation for Columbus? historic voyages to the west and he called the islands he stumbled upon the Indies because he thought he’d found the western passage to Asia and maintained such until his death in 1506. For his inaugural trek, Columbus solicited funds from all the major European kings until King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain agreed to sponsor his travels to the western world. In 1492, he readied his vessels – the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria–and set off with his crew from Palos. Columbus first spotted land on October 12, 1492. He christened this Bahamian island San Salvador. He would eventually touch down in Cuba before crashing the Santa Maria off the coast of Hispaniola, known today as the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Columbus abandoned thirty-eight of his crew members on Hispaniola and returned to Spain where he proclaimed that he had reached Asia.
Columbus made his way to Trinidad in 1498, then returned to a tumultuous Hispaniola where he contended with island rebels. Despite being sent back to Spain in shackles, Columbus secured a fourth commission from the Spanish monarchy in 1502, but with the stipulation that he not return to Hispaniola. When he set sail this time, he discovered Central America’s gold coffers. This journey ended, however, when he shipwrecked off the coast of Jamaica.
Colonization and Independence
Some islands changed hands more than twenty times during the Caribbean wars. European imperialists waged war among themselves and with the Carib Indians. Spanish explorers wiped out the Taíno as they plundered the Caribbean for gold in the 16th century. It wasn’t until the Emancipation Act of 1834 ended slavery and Europe no longer relied on the islands for sugar production that the Caribbean became less of a fighting prize; however, the lasting European influence on the history of the Caribbean can be seen by this colonization timeline:
• 1496 The Spanish founded settlements in Hispaniola
• 1508 The Spanish founded settlements in Puerto Rico
• 1515 The Spanish founded settlements in Cuba
• 1554 The Dutch plundered Santiago de Cuba
• 1555 The French plunder Havana
• 1586 Santo Domingo surrendered to the British
• 1595 The British took over San Juan
• 1628 The Dutch captured the Spanish silver fleet off Cuba
• 1634 The Dutch seized Cura?ao
• 1635 The French acquired Martinique
• 1655 The British commandeered Jamaica from Spain
• 1665 The French occupied half of Hispaniola and called it Haiti
Cuba and Puerto Rico were ceded to the United States in the late 19th century, and Cuba gained its independence in 1901, but independence for all the island nations wasn’t a legitimate prospect until the 1960s. The French possessions remain departments of France; citizens of these islands have the same rights and privileges as citizens of Burgundy or Province. In 1962, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago became independent states within the British Commonwealth; Barbados did the same four years later. Next came independence for Antigua, Barbuda, Redonda, Anguilla, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, and Dominica. Today, the islands continue to build on this self-reliance.
Pirate ships pervaded the Caribbean coastline in the early 17th century. Some pirates made their homes in Hispaniola and adopted the cattle trade. They were called “buccaneers” because they cured the cattle meat in ovens called “boucans.” These Brethren of the Coast, as they called themselves, lived in small clans and were seafaring misfits, ship deserters and former indentured servants. They wore loose-fitting clothes and slung knives around their waists. Their eventual home base was the island of Tortuga off the north coast of Haiti, overlooking the Windward Passage. From here they pirated the high seas, attacking vessels as far away as the Indian Ocean.
The 18th century brought about a turning point in Caribbean history when slavery was brought to the islands. European importers demanded high quantities of sugar, the product of sugarcane, which grew easily in the Caribbean’s temperate weather. As demand for sugar increased, so did the demand for plantation labor.
The indigenous Arawaks were the Europeans’ original slaves but they were quickly dying out. By this time slavery was a fixture in European and Arab countries. To continue the grievous trend in the Caribbean, then-friar Bartoleme de las Casas of Hispaniola suggested enslaving Africans. Hence, many new slaves came from Africa’s Guinea coast. They were taken from their homes by slave-raiding parties, which were often endorsed by the local government.
They were shipped to the West Indies via the notorious Middle Passage–a horrendous mode of transport in which slaves were packed into the ship’s hold so tightly that they could not move freely and sometimes suffocated to death. On average, 12 percent of slaves died on the trip; those who survived were fed, “oiled”, and paraded through the streets to the slave market where they were auctioned off and traded for liquor, guns, and other goods.
They were pawns in the infamous Triangular Trade: European ships set sail for the Caribbean colonies with bartering goods, arms, and liquor for African slave traders; slaves were captured and shipped from Africa to the islands; and in the final step, sugar and rum were exported from the Caribbean back to Europe.
The average life expectancy for an imported slave was only seven years, but history tells that many died within the first year after they arrived. The acclimation period, or “seasoning” as it was called, was a time of brutal adjustment for the new slaves. They were forced to adopt new cultural customs and language.
On the plantations, owners demanded slaves sever every tie to their homeland and kept slaves of the same culture apart; rebellion was still common. They exercised harsh punishments for disobedience or acts of will; indeed, it was not illegal to kill an African man in the British colonies until the beginning of the 19th century.
In the 1770s, anti-slavery movements began to take shape in Europe. The Society for the Abolition of Slavery was established in 1787 to raise public awareness of the inhumane treatment of slaves. It wasn’t until 1807, however, that a law was passed banning the trade of slaves on British ships.
Soon after the law was passed, many other countries enacted similar laws; in 1831, a massive anti-slavery rebellion in Jamaica destroyed many sugar estates, motivating Parliament to sanction the Emancipation Act of 1834. After a four-year “apprenticeship” during which the slaves were still bound to plantation life, they were released unconditionally.
Cuba was still importing slaves until 1865, and did not officially abolish slavery until 1888. The French possessions did not free their slaves until 1848, followed by the Dutch in 1863 and Puerto Rico in 1873. Many freed slaves purchased parcels of land for subsistence farming. On some of the smaller Caribbean islands, however, there was little land left to buy, so they had to return to plantation work.
On August 1, 1834 all the enslaved people in the British colonies were declared free. Those in the French islands were freed in 1848.
Many of the freed Africans left the plantations for work in towns; others set out on their own forming free villages and producing other crops (such as cocoa and nutmeg in Grenada). Even though some freed slaves stayed on the plantations working for wages, there were not enough labourers to keep up production in the sugar cane fields. So the plantation owners brought indentured labourers from India, Asia, Africa and Europe. Most of these workers signed contracts voluntarily, but were under the control of the plantation owners once they arrived in the Caribbean.
Conditions on the voyages differed little from those on the slave ships. In 1856/7, the average death rate for Indians traveling to the Caribbean was 17%. Working conditions were harsh and wages were low. Those who survived did at least have the option of going home when their contracts expired. Of the 30 million who left India in the century following the official end of slavery, about 24 million returned. The descendants of those who stayed make up a significant proportion of modern-day Indian communities in the Caribbean (Stalker’s Guide to International Migration)
• 2000 B.C. – 1492 A.D.: Columbus wasn’t the first to the Caribbean, but neither were the Taínos
• 1492-1506: Columbus’ travels bring him to a world no European had ever seen
• 1508-1550: Spain grew its territory into lands beyond its earliest claims in the Caribbean
• 1522-1588: Pirates and bold captains change Caribbean history
• 1532-1648: The Netherlands, France, and England focus on expansion and colonization
• 1621-1674: West Indies Companies make a difference in island control
• 1636-1660: The Caribbean colonies have been traded for control, with some fighting
• 1649-1671: The British make moves to advance their interest in the Caribbean
• 1654-1698: Sugar is tied to service, and planters make a profit on cheap labor
• 1657-1671: Pirates find a place in history as protectors in European wars
• 1672-1686: Peace breaks out at the end of the Third Anglo-Dutch War
• 1688-1697: The Nine Years’ War began in Europe but many battles were fought in the Caribbean
• 1690-1788: Learn the history of the free blacks of the Caribbean and their fight for freedom
• 1701 – 1720: The War of the Spanish Succession kept France and Spain apart and ended piracy
• 1712-1777: Slave trade and sugar plantations will always be a part of Caribbean history
• 1735-1835: History is marked by slave rebellions throughout the islands of the Caribbean
• 1739-1748: Conflict over smuggling between Britain and Spain leads to a war
• 1756-1763: The Seven Years’ War led to a historic change in the New World as Britain dominates the Caribbean
• 1764-1789: Spain regains its footing while British colonial rumblings make history
• 1776-1783: North American colonies revolt, but France and Spain continue fighting an older war
• 1788-1801: Social structures crumble as black soldiers fight to preserve their freedom
• 1792-1879: Abolitionists make history by stopping slavery in the Caribbean islands
• 1801-1805: Napoleon makes an attempt to retake the Caribbean, and blacks make history
• 1820-1848: History in the Caribbean is filled with bloodshed and hard times on many islands
• 1849-1882: Changes of power made a difference in the Caribbean, and all slaves were finally freed
• 1882-1901: Cuba finds allies in its quest for independence and island governments change again
• 1900-1945: The Caribbean experiences two World Wars and a Great Depression from a distance
• 1945-1968: Political changes in recent history have created the Caribbean of today
• 1970-Present: Throughout modern history the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Haiti have struggled
• 1971-Present: Many islands focus on building their economy throughout modern history