Murder, mayhem and bananas. The history of the Caribbean includes every kind of drama – from warring colonial powers to marauding pirates. The stain of slavery is ever-lasting and almost every aspect of life in the region today is a direct consequence of events through the centuries. Of course where it was once a horrible playground for the ambitious, now it's simply a playground, a definite improvement.
The first Caribbeans arrived on the islands closest to South America around 4000 BC. These nomadic hunter-gatherers were followed by waves of Arawaks (a collective term for the Amerindian people believed to be from the Orinoco River Delta around Venezuela and Guyana) who moved north and west, beginning the great tradition of Caribbean island-hopping. Indeed, one of the Caribbean’s recurrent themes, from pre-Columbian times until right now, has been movement of peoples.
Around AD 1200 the peaceable Arawaks were minding their own business when the Caribs from South America started fanning out over the Caribbean. The Caribs killed the Arawak men and enslaved the women, triggering another wave of migration that sent the Arawaks fleeing as far west as Cuba and as far north as the Bahamas. When the Spanish explorers arrived, they dubbed the warfaring people they encountered ‘cannibals’ (a derivation of the word ‘caribal’ or Carib), for their reputed penchant for eating their victims.
While many traces of the Caribbean's first people, the Arawaks, were gone at the end of the 15th century, there were still Arawak-speaking people living in regions the Caribs had not yet conquered. These included the Taino, the people whom Columbus first encountered and whose legacy lives on today in Puerto Rico.
And while the Arawak people were mostly gone, their way of life persisted, adopted by new arrivals, whether colonists or slaves. Crops and foods including tobacco, cotton, corn, sweet potatoes, pineapples, cassava (also called manioc or yucca) and tapioca are still island staples today.
Christopher Columbus led the European exploration of the region, making landfall at San Salvador in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492 – no matter that he thought he was in Asia. He too island-hopped, establishing the first European settlement in the Americas on Hispaniola, today shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Columbus never fully realized that he hadn't discovered islands off the coast of east Asia (a misconception that lives on when an indigenous person is called an 'Indian'). But in his voyages, he did get around. On his first voyage (1492–93) he visited Hispaniola, Cuba and the Bahamas; on his second voyage (1493–1494) he made it to much of the Eastern Caribbean starting with Dominica. He took hundreds of slaves, most of whom died before reaching Spain. His third voyage (1498) took him to Trinidad followed by Tobago and Grenada (which he considered part of China), and on his fourth voyage, after revisiting many islands, he ended up stranded in Jamaica for a year.
Discovering new lands gives glory, but what Columbus and subsequent explorers wanted was gold. Legions of Europeans prowled the Caribbean searching for treasure, but it turned out be much further west in Mexico.
That’s not to say there weren’t riches: the land was fertile, the seas bountiful and the native population, after initial resistance by the toughest of the remaining Caribs, forcibly pliant. The conquistadores set to exploiting it all, violently. Focusing on the biggest islands promising the highest returns, they grabbed land, pillaged and enslaved, settling towns in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Jamaica.
Except for mineral-rich Trinidad, taken early by the Spanish, the Eastern Caribbean was left largely to its own devices until the English washed up on St Kitts in 1623, sparking domino-effect colonization of Barbados, Nevis, Antigua and Montserrat. Not to be outdone, the French followed, settling Martinique and Guadeloupe, while the Dutch laid claim to Saba, Sint Eustatius and St-Martin/Sint Maarten. Over the next 200 years the Europeans fought like children over these islands, and possession changed hands so often that a sort of hybridized culture developed; some islands, like St-Martin/Sint Maarten and St Kitts, were split between two colonial powers.
Pirates & War
The Caribbean colonial story is largely one of giant agricultural interests – most notably sugar, but also tobacco, cattle and bananas – fueled by greed and slavery that promoted power struggles between landowners, politicians and the pirates who robbed them. The Bahamas, with hundreds of cays, complex shoals and channels, provided the perfect base for pirates such as Henry Jennings and ‘Blackbeard’ (Edward Teach), who ambushed treasure-laden boats headed for Europe. On the home front, Britain, Spain and France were embroiled in tiffs, scuffles and all-out war that allowed colonial holdings to change hands frequently. The English took Jamaica in 1655 and held Cuba momentarily in 1762, while the Spanish and French agreed to divide Hispaniola in 1697, creating today's Dominican Republic and Haiti. The legacies of this period – Santo Domingo’s Fortaleza Ozama, the fortresses of Old San Juan and the vibrant mix of cultures – are among the most captivating attractions for travelers.
Sugar & Slavery
As piracy waned, the European powers looked to other ways to make the Caribbean profitable. Driven by a sweet tooth, they turned much of the region into a giant sugar plantation. And to labour in the fields they used African captives, brought into the Caribbean in terrifying numbers. The Atlantic slave trade had a scale so overwhelming that it depopulated vast tracts of western Africa. From its origins, starting with Portuguese and Spanish colonists in the 1500s, to the final abolition on Cuba in 1886, an estimated 17 million enslaved African people were brought to the Americas.
Upon arrival in the Caribbean, captives were marched to an auction block, exhibited and sold to the highest bidder. On the British and Dutch islands, families were deliberately broken up. Enslaved Africans were forced to learn the language of the plantation owners, but they blended their own use of it into hybrid Creole languages that were liberally spiced with African terms. Slave rebellions were common across the region, but only in Haiti were they ultimately successful, when a 13-year revolution led to the expulsion of the French and the establishment of the world's first black republic in 1804.
Slavery continued in the British empire until 1833, but the practice continued in Cuba until 1886, just 16 years before declaring independence from Spain.
Loosening Colonial Ties
Some islands have opted to maintain strong neo-colonial ties to the parent country, as is the case with the French protectorates of St-Barthélemy, Martinique and Guadeloupe, and the commonwealth situation between Puerto Rico and the US. Independence on the one hand and statehood on the other has always had its champions in Puerto Rico, with statehood narrowly losing plebiscites in 1993 and 1998 but on tap for yet another vote again in the near future.
In the post-WWII period, Britain moved to divest itself of its Caribbean colonies by attempting to create a single federated state that would incorporate all of the British-held Caribbean. One advantage of the federation was that it was expected to provide a mechanism for decolonizing smaller islands that the British felt would otherwise be too small to stand as separate entities.
After a decade of negotiation, Britain convinced its Caribbean colonies – Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and the British Windward and Leeward Islands – to join together as the West Indies Federation. The new association came into effect in 1958, with the intent that the federation work out the intricacies of self-government during a four-year probationary period before the islands emerged as a single new independent nation in 1962.
Although the West Indies Federation represented dozens of islands scattered across some 2000 miles of ocean, the British established Trinidad, at the southernmost end of the chain, to be the governing 'center' of the federation.
For centuries the islanders had related to each other via their British administrators, and the political and economic intercourse between the islands had been quite limited. In the end, the lack of a united identity among the islands, coupled with each island's desire for autonomy, proved much stronger than any perceived advantage in union.
Jamaica was the first to develop a rift with the new association and opted to leave the federation in 1961. Trinidad itself soon followed suit. Both islands were wary of getting stuck having to subsidize the federation's smaller islands, which had a history of being heavily dependent upon British aid. The concept of a smaller federation limped along for a few more years, but after Barbados broke rank and became an independent nation in 1966, the British were forced to go back to the drawing board.
The remaining islands continued to splinter. Dominica and St Lucia gained independence as single-island nations. Antigua, St Vincent, Grenada and St Kitts were each linked with smaller neighboring islands to form new nations.
Anguilla, which was connected with St Kitts and Nevis, rebelled three months after the new state's inauguration in 1967 and negotiated with the British to be reinstated as a Crown Colony. Montserrat also refused to be dispensed with so readily by the British and was allowed to continue as a Crown Colony.
The islands linked to St Vincent and to Grenada also initially grumbled, but they have managed to work out their differences well enough to maintain their unions.
The Dutch, like the British, also hoped to create a single federation of all their Caribbean possessions – Curaçao, Aruba, Bonaire, Sint Maarten, St Eustatius and Saba – collectively known as the Netherlands Antilles. In 1954 a charter was enacted that made these six islands an autonomous part of the Netherlands. Under the charter, island affairs were largely administered by elected officials, although the Dutch continued to hold the purse strings and maintain other controls. The islands were expected to develop the mechanisms for self-rule and move gradually, as a unit, toward full independence from the Netherlands.
But that didn't work out. The islands never considered union as a single nation. Aruba was the first out in 1986 and became a single island state. The remaining five islands each followed over the next 24 years so that today, all six are independent of each other but still linked in some way to the Netherlands.
A Rum-Punch Future
The last 100 years have been a mixed bag for the Caribbean. US intervention in countries seen as geostrategically important, particularly Haiti and Cuba, usually does more harm than good. Furthermore, monocrop agriculture – bananas in Jamaica, nutmeg in Grenada – means the islands are at the mercy of heavy weather and market fluctuations. At the same time, it polarizes societies into the rich who own the land and the poor who work it. The Cuban Revolution was the most enduring result of this. Economic instability, especially, has given rise to dictators such as Rafael Leonidas Trujillo who ruled the Dominican Republic for over thirty years, and the father-son dictators of Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier who plundered Haiti for almost as long.
One thing all the islands have in common is tourism, which began taking hold when other sectors of the islands’ economies began to crumble, particularly agriculture. Much of tourism's foundation was literally laid in WWII.
St-Martin is a good example. In 1930 the population stood at just 2000. But in 1943 the US Navy built large runways on the island to use as a base in the Caribbean. The French capitalized by using the runways to fly in tourists, by the 1950s bringing the population of St-Martin/Sint Maarten up to about 70,000 and making tourism the number one industry on both sides of the island. The US left similar infrastructure – ports and airfields – across the region, which proved useful for the cruise and package-holiday business as it got going in the 1950s.
Crop-leveling hurricanes (eg Gilbert in 1988, Hugo in 1989) spurred some islands to develop tourism industries, while others, such as Hurricane Matthew in 2016, damaged Haiti's nascent tourism industry, a hard blow in a country still recovering from the devasting earthquake six years earlier. Meanwhile, a 1997 World Trade Organization ruling favoring Central American bananas over Caribbean ones forced St Vincent and Martinique to look at diversifying. Unfettered tourism hasn't been wirhout problems – not least in the environment – but overall the perception that tourism is a good source of jobs and revenue is widespread. Polls have shown that people in places as diverse as Trinidad and Barbados overwhelmingly say they not only like tourists but said their presence makes everybody’s life better. Of course these polls may have been taken when Brobdingnagian cruise ships weren’t in port.