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Ahoy Arawaks

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 happily farming, fishing and 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. Since the Arawaks had no written language, little of their culture survived, except – thankfully for weary travelers – the hammock.

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Ahoy Columbus

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. Discovering new lands gives glory, but what Columbus and subsequent explorers wanted was gold. Funny, though: despite four trips during which Columbus named and claimed much of the region for the Spanish crown, from Trinidad in the south to the Virgin Islands in the north, he never found much gold.

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.

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Pirates & forts

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 1731, creating the Dominican Republic and Haiti of today. The legacies of this period – Santo Domingo’s Fortaleza Ozama, the fortresses of Old San Juan and Havana and the vibrant mix of cultures – are among the most captivating attractions for travelers.

Except for the Eastern Caribbean, which has historically been more laid-back and easily controlled by its European overseers, colonial infighting had locals plotting rebellion and independence. Haiti was way in front of the curve in declaring independence in 1804, followed by the Dominican Republic in 1844 and Cuba in 1902. For some smaller islands – such as St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Barbuda and Antigua – the solution has been to band together. Other islands have opted to maintain strong neo­colonial 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.

A different, but tenuous, alternative was forged by the Dutch holdings of Aruba, Curaçao, Bonaire, Sint Maarten, Sint Eustatius and Saba. In 1954 these holdings became an autonomous federation under Dutch rule known as the Netherlands Antilles, though the charter stipulated that each was to eventually become independent. After a long lag since Aruba split first in 1986, the others are doing that now.

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A rum-punch future

The last 100 years have been a mixed bag for the region. 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. This inevitably fosters socialist tendencies, including Fidel Castro, but also Maurice Bishop in Grenada (1979–83). Economic instability, especially, has given rise to dictators such as Rafael Leonidas Trujillo for 31 years in the Dominican Republic and the Duvaliers (Papa and Baby Doc) for 29 years in Haiti.

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. Crop-leveling hurricanes (eg Gilbert in 1988, Hugo in 1989) spurred some islands to develop tourism industries, while the 1997 World Trade Organization ruling favoring Central American bananas over Caribbean ones forced St Vincent and Martinique to look at diversifying. Far from a panacea, unfettered tourism can wreak havoc on the environment or give rise to societal woes like prostitution in Cuba. But overall the perception that tourism is a good source of jobs and revenue is widespread. In a recent poll, people in places as diverse as Trinidad and Barbados overwhelmingly said they not only liked tourists but said their presence made everybody’s life better. Of course that poll may have been taken when Brobdingnagian cruise ships weren’t in port.

But like a sacking of an agrarian village by pirates, this summary makes short work of the Caribbean’s complex story. Each island’s particular history is more complex and nuanced; see individual chapters for the full scoop.

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