The Caribbean Islands have a distinctive history. Permanently influenced by the experiences of colonialism and slavery, the Caribbean has produced a group of societies that are markedly different in population composition from those in any other region of the world. Let us try to explore Caribbean history and discuss key historical trends that the Caribbean islands have shared in common from conquest through the early twentieth century. Before the arrival of Christopher Columbus, three groups of inhabitants peopled most of the Caribbean: the Ciboney or Guanahuatebey, the Taino or Arawak, and the Caribs.
The cultural distinctions among the three groups are not great; the single greatest differentiating factor appears to be their respective dates of arrival in the region. The Ciboney seem to have arrived first and were found in parts of Cuba and the Bahamas. They also seem to have had the most elementary forms of social organization. The most numerous groups were the Arawaks, who resided in most of the Greater Antilles – Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola (presently, Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and Puerto Rico.
The smaller eastern island chain was the home of the Caribs, a tropical forest group related to most of the indigenous Indians found in Central and South America. Barbados and a number of smaller islands were not permanently inhabited (Collier 1985). European settlements in the Caribbean began with Christopher Columbus, who set sail in September 1492, determined to find a faster, shorter way to China and Japan. He planned to set up a trading-post empire, modeled after the successful Portuguese venture along the West African coast.
His aim was to establish direct commercial relations with the producers of spices and other luxuries of the fabled East. He also planned to link up with the lost Christians of Abyssinia, who were reputed to have great quantities of gold – a commodity in great demand in Europe. Finally, Columbus wanted to spread Christianity to new peoples. Columbus, of course, did not find the East. Nevertheless, he called the peoples he met “Indians,” and, because he had sailed west, referred to the region he found as the “West Indies.
” (Williams 1970). However, the Indians, although initially hospitable in most cases, simply did not have gold and trade commodities for the European market. The arrival of Christopher Columbus was the beginning of the end of the indigenous people of the Caribbean on the region and beginning of the European domination/conquest. The Caribbean became the most precious jewel on the crown of Spain. The Arawak and Caribs population was vanquished in an undeclared war and decimated by mass murder, epidemics and slavery.
As a direct consequence of the disappearance of the Indians who were not fit technically to fight the European invasion and had no immunological defense against European diseases, the colonial power turned their eyes toward Africa as a source of slave labor (World History Archives 2004). The first proper European settlement in the Caribbean began when Nicolas de Ovando, a faithful soldier from western Spain, settled about 2,500 Spanish colonists in eastern Hispaniola in 1502 (Encyclop? dia Britannica 2004).
Unlike Columbus’ earlier settlements, this group was an organized cross-section of Spanish society brought with the intention of developing the Indies economically and expanding Spanish political, religious, and administrative influence. In its religious and military motivation, it continued the reconquest, which had expelled the Moors from Grenada and the rest of southern Spain. From this base in Santo Domingo, as the new colony was called, the Spanish quickly fanned out throughout the Caribbean and onto the mainland. Jamaica was settled in 1509 and Trinidad the following year.
By 1511 Spanish explorers had established themselves as far as Florida (Country Studies 2003). However, in the eastern Caribbean, the Caribs resisted the penetration of Europeans until well into the seventeenth century and succumbed only in the eighteenth century. El Dorado, a legendary country abounding in gold, was rumored in the 16th and 17th centuries to exist somewhere in South America. The name of the country, which in Spanish means “gilded man,” was derived from its alleged ruler who was so rich that he covered his body with gold dust each day and then washed it off in a lake each evening.
The Spanish discovery of the rich cities of the Aztecs and the Incas helped develop the story of El Dorado into the legend of a whole country filled with treasure. Beginning around 1530, a long series of expeditions was organized by Europeans to search for El Dorado and the fabled cities of Manoa and Omagua. One of the most famous of these was led (1569-72) by Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada, who had conquered the Chibcha and founded the city of Bogota (Whitfield 1977). The search eventually spread from the Bogota highlands into the valleys of the Amazon and Orinoco rivers. Sir Walter Raleigh led two of the last expeditions in 1595 and 1617.
Although the searchers never found El Dorado, their expeditions resulted in the exploration of much of northern South America. With the conquest of Mexico and the subsequent discovery of gold there, interest in working the gold deposits of the islands decreased. Moreover, by that time the Indian population of the Caribbean had dwindled considerably, creating a scarcity of workers for the mines and pearl fisheries. In 1518 the first African slaves, called ladinos because they had lived in Spain and spoke the Castilian language, were introduced to the Caribbean to help mitigate the labor shortage (Encyclop?
dia Britannica 2004). By the early seventeenth century, Spain’s European enemies were beginning to breach the perimeters of Spain’s American empire. The French and the English established trading forts along the St. Lawrence and the Hudson Rivers in North America. These were followed by permanent settlements on the mid-Atlantic coast (Jamestown) and in New England (Massachusetts). Between 1595 and 1620, the English, French, and Dutch made many unsuccessful attempts to settle along the Guiana coastlands of South America.
The Dutch finally prevailed, with one permanent colony along the Essequibo River in 1616, and another, in 1624, along the neighboring Berbice River. As in North America, initial loss of life in the colonies was discouragingly high. In 1624 the English and French gave up in the Guianas and jointly created a colony on St. Kitts in the northern Leeward Islands. At that time, only Caribs occupied St. Kitts. With the Spanish deeply involved in the Thirty Years War in Europe, conditions were propitious for colonial exploits in what until then had been reluctantly conceded to be a Spanish domain (Microsoft Encarta 2004).
In 1621, the Dutch began to move aggressively against Spanish territory in the Americas – including Brazil, temporarily under Spanish control between 1580 and 1640. In the Caribbean, they joined the English in settling St. Croix in 1625 and then seized the minuscule, unoccupied islands of Curacao, St. Eustatius, St. Martin, and Saba, thereby expanding their former holdings in the Guianas, as well as those at Araya and Cumana on the Venezuelan coast (Country Studies 2003). The English and the French also moved rapidly to take advantage of Spanish weakness in the Americas and overcommitment in Europe.
In 1625, the English settled Barbados and tried an unsuccessful settlement on Tobago. They took possession of Nevis in 1628 and Antigua and Montserrat in 1632. They planted a colony on St. Lucia in 1638, but the Caribs destroyed it within four years. The French successfully settled Martinique and Guadeloupe, laying the base for later expansion to St. Bartholomy, St. Martin, Grenada, St. Lucia, and western Hispaniola, which was formally ceded by Spain in 1697 at the Treaty of Ryswick (signed between France and the alliance of Spain, the Netherlands, and England, and ending the War of the Grand Alliance).
Meanwhile, an expedition sent out by Oliver Cromwell in 1655 seized Jamaica, the first territory captured from the Spanish. Trinidad, the only other British colony taken from the Spanish, was ceded in 1802 (Country Studies 2003). At that time Jamaica was equally divided between Spaniards and their slaves – the Indian population having been eliminated. By 1750 Jamaica was the most important of Britian’s Caribbean colonies, having eclipsed Barbados in economic significance. The first colonists in the Caribbean were trying to recreate their metropolitan European societies in the region.
In this respect, the goals and the worldview of the early colonists in the Caribbean did not vary significantly from those of the colonists on the North American mainland. “The Caribbee planters,” wrote the historian Richard Dunn, “began as peasant farmers not unlike the peasant farmers of Wigston Magna, Leicestershire, or Sudbury, Massachusetts. They cultivated the same staple crop – tobacco – as their cousins in Virginia and Maryland. They brought to the tropics the English common law, English political institutions, the English parish, and the English church. ” (Dunn 1972).
These institutions survived for a very long time, but the social context in which they were introduced was rapidly altered by time and circumstances. Attempts to recreate conditions of Europe were slowly abandoned in favor of a series of plantation societies using slave labor to produce large quantities of tropical staples for the European market. In the process of this transformation, complicated by war and trade, much was changed in the Caribbean. Evolution around the middle of the seventeenth century of a sugar plantation society based on slave labor was an important watershed in Caribbean history.
The islands changed from small farms producing cash crops of tobacco and cotton with the labor of a few servants and slaves – often indistinguishable – to large plantations requiring vast expanses of land and enormous capital outlays to create sugarcane fields and factories. Sugar, which had become increasingly popular on the European market throughout the seventeenth century, provided an efficacious balance between bulk and value – a relationship of great importance in the days of relatively small sailing ships and distant sea voyages (Dunn 1972). Hence, the conversion to sugar transformed the landholding pattern of the islands.
The sugar revolutions were both cause and consequence of the demographic revolution. Sugar production required a greater labor supply than was available through the importation of European servants and irregularly supplied African slaves. Up to 1870, the transatlantic slave trade supplied the greatest proportion of the Caribbean population. As sugarcane cultivation increased and spread from island to island – and to the neighboring mainland as well – more Africans were brought to replace those who died rapidly and easily under the rigorous demands of labor on the plantations, in the sugar factories, and in the mines.
Acquiring and transporting Africans to the New World became a big and extremely lucrative business. From a modest trickle in the early sixteenth century, the trade increased to an annual import rate of about 2,000 in 1600, 13,000 in 1700, and 55,000 in 1810. Between 1811 and 1870, about 32,000 slaves per year were imported. Before the slave trade ended, the Caribbean had taken approximately 47 percent of the 10 million African slaves brought to the Americas (Country Studies 2003).
Sugar and slavery gave to the region a predominantly African population. This demographic revolution had important social consequences. Rather than being a relatively homogeneous ethnic group divided into categories based on economic criteria, Caribbean society had complex overlapping divisions of class and caste. The three basic divisions were free white persons, free nonwhite persons, and slaves. Regardless of rank, skin color gave each person of European descent a privileged position within plantation society.
The importance of race and color was a significant variation from the norms of typical European society and accentuated the divergence between the society “at home” and that overseas (Williams 1970). The free nonwhite population faced competition from both ends of the range. At the lower end of the economic scale they had to compete with jobbing slaves, who were often working arduously to get enough money to purchase their freedom and so join the free group. At the upper end they competed with the artisan, commercial, and semi-skilled service sector of the lower orders of whites.
The whites often used their political power – or in some cases their access to political power in Britain – to circumscribe the free nonwhites as much as possible. Laws distinguishing comportment, dress, and residence, denying nonwhites the right to practice certain professions, or limiting the material legacy of individual free nonwhites were common throughout the Caribbean. But at the time of the abolition of slavery, nonwhites were aggressively challenging the political hegemony of the whites, and their successes were very important in the subsequent development of British Caribbean society (Higman 1983).