The contemporary Caribbean comprises a fascinating variety of peoples, cultures, customs, and political systems. It has been fashioned from the legacies of an indigenous Caribbean culture, centuries of European colonialism, and the indelible experiences of African slavery and the plantation system with its horrible history of the exploitation of various peoples in various forms of servitude. Yet, in many ways, the history of any part of the Americas cannot be written without the history of the Caribbean.
If not geographically and geologically, surely historically the Caribbean represents the proscenium of modern American history. In history and culture, one can almost truly say, “America began there! ” The Caribbean islands were colonized about 6,000 years ago and since then have experienced several large migrations of people from the surrounding mainlands. There has also been considerable movement and interaction among peoples within the archipelago. The earliest evidence of human colonization of the Caribbean is found in Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, where sites have been dated to around 3500-4000 B.
C. The flaked-stone tools at these early sites are similar to those from sites on the Yucatan peninsula, which suggests that the earliest migrants may have come from the west across the Yucatan Channel or via other routes from Central America. These people hunted, fished, and gathered the wild plants and animals of the sea and island interiors. (Samuel M. Wilson, 1997). As far as is known, they did not cultivate food crops. People moving from the mainland to the Antilles had to make substantial changes in their ways of getting food.
As in most island settings, these islands’ plants and animals were different from those of the mainland. In particular, there were fewer large land mammals. To survive in the new environments, each group of immigrants who came into the Antilles had to adapt their economy to the island ecosystems. (Samuel M. Wilson, 1997). By around 2000 B. C. a number of regional archaeological variants–distinguished by their different kinds of stone tools and other artifacts–had developed in Cuba and Hispaniola, a process that also occurred later in Puerto Rico.
The economy of these descendants of the earliest immigrants was still based on hunting, fishing, and collecting wild resources. The elaborate ground-stone artifacts they made included decorated bowls, pendants, axes, and other objects. Another group of nonhorticultural migrants moved into the Caribbean sometime before 2000 B. C. , this time from the northeast coast of South America. They moved through the Lesser Antilles, occupying many of the islands, and into Puerto Rico; traces of their small settlements are scattered today throughout many of the Lesser Antilles.
Some of the raw material they used in making their articles, such as chert or flint, are distributed widely in the Caribbean, a fact demonstrating that these islanders were competent ocean travelers. The population size of these preceramic mi- grants was never very large, but they may have persisted until the Lesser Antilles were colonized anew by migrants from South America. All of the nonagricultural people lived in the Antilles for thousands of years–much longer, in fact, than the village-dwelling farmers who arrived later or the African, Asian, and European people who succeeded them.
Unfortunately the attention they receive in this volume is not proportional to their long history of living in the Caribbean. (Samuel M. Wilson, 1997). Always a region of sharp contrasts, the Caribbean can conjure images of opulent wealth, attractive luxury hotels with seductively manicured landscapes set against magnificent sun-splashed beaches with sugar-fine sands, or congested, pulsating cities scarred by dismal poverty. Exotic images of rum-blended drinks, steel-band orchestras, reggae, calypso, and meringue music mask a reality that is complex and often confusing.
In the Caribbean the life can be easy but the living can be hard. Not surprisingly, then, the Caribbean often means different things to different people. Before the doom-burdened year of 1492, the archipelago of islands and surrounding tropical mainland was the contested domain of three groups of people: the Guanahuatebeys or Ciboneys, the Tainos or Arawaks, and the Caribs. The information on the Guanahuatebeys is not abundant, but it is likely that they arrived no earlier than 100 A. D. They are the oldest residents to have entered the region.
The other two are definitely tropical forest people who came from South and Central America and were reshaping the ecology and societies of the islands when they were overtaken by events beyond their comprehension. The Taino/Arawaks were largely sedentary agriculturists and occupied the larger Antilles–Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and Puerto Rico. The more recently arrived, and more pugilistic, Caribs controlled the lesser Antilles from St. Thomas to Trinidad.
Together these three groups might have comprised approximately one million people, the majority of whom lived on Hispaniola in 1492. Beginning with Christopher Columbus the earliest Europeans described the Arawaks as peaceful and repeated the Arawakan depiction of Caribs as cannibalistic. Indeed, the very word cannibal is a corruption of the original word for those peoples. And while substantial circumstantial evidence of cannibalism exists, it is difficult to determine whether the ritual practice exceeded the dietary demands of the time.
With the coming of the Europeans the Caribbean experienced its first revolution, and since then revolution has been virtually the order of the day. The indigenous populations were decimated although not entirely eliminated. The cohesion of Arawak culture was permanently shattered, and within a hundred years they were no longer a recognizable society, culture, or community, but remained as a significant ethnic and demographic component of the emerging European empires.
The Caribs resisted fiercely, and in some cases, successfully, but in the end they too paid a heavy price in cultural modifications that–like the maroons later–were to leave their societies distorted and exotic variants of their former communities. (Wright, Ronald, 1993). Yet, The Caribbean experience was also catalytic for Europeans. In changing the Caribbean, the Europeans were also changed by their Caribbean experience. It changed their language, altering it, expanding it, and enriching it in ways that still continue to this day.
When we use dozens of everyday words in English–chocolate, canoe, barbecue. , hammock, carib, cassava, tobacco, tomato–or in Spanish-bohio, cacique, guagua, guerrilla, yucca– we unconsciously acknowledge the legacy of the Caribbean indigenous past. After all, much of the novelty, notwithstanding the arrogant practice of Mr. Columbus in sometimes giving it a new name, had names in Indian languages that had to be taken along with whatever thing the Europeans appropriated. But European words also underwent a metamorphosis.
Simple concepts like plantation, colony, servant, slave, and negro were to lose their original connotations and become forever Caribbeanized. Plantation no longer referred to a settlement, but an organized agricultural construct. Colony referred less to an organization of political community than to an economic community. Servant and slave, long synonymous and ethnically undifferentiated, assumed clear distinctions by the end of the seventeenth century, with slave being a synonym for African throughout the region.
Negro, an adjective borrowed from the Portuguese and the Spanish, became a noun denoting African slave, free African, or any free descendant of an African. No longer a color, the word became a damnable and damning condemnation. Other words, too, underwent an interesting semantic transformation. Words like creole, maroon, mestizo, and mulatto all referred exclusively to animal husbandry (or more accurately the lack of husbandry, since the notion pertained to the unrestrained province of nature).
In the Caribbean experience these words eventually all came to refer to people, not animals– although occasionally, then as now, it was hard to make the distinction. (DEAN NEU and RICHARD THERRIEN, 2003) Drawn and redrawn within competing European empires after 1492, the Caribbean region remains a melange of cultural and political structures, forged in close association with its tumultuous history. Spain monopolized the region until 1625 when the other Europeans, beginning with the English, started to establish colonial footholds on the smaller, easterly islands.
But the Spanish Caribbean was more an interrupted, erratic set of enclaves and fortified sites than any coordinated, contiguous, establishment such as the reconquista had produced on the Iberian peninsula. Nevertheless, in the Caribbean the patterns of overseas empire and long distance imperial administration took forms that were later extended to the mainland. Spain, through trial and error, struggled to create a just system of laws that would encompass a plural empire of indigenous peoples, European immigrants, and the mixed progeny they created prolifically in diverse locales.
Indeed, the structure of Spanish Caribbean colonial society was that of a plural society with significant participation in the economy by the non-European element, especially at the level of occupations.
DEAN NEU and RICHARD THERRIEN, 2003. Accounting for Genocide. Canada’s Bureaucratic Assault on Aboriginal People. Black Point, NS: Fernwood Publishing Samuel M. Wilson, 1997. The Indigenous People of the Caribbean; University Press of Florida Wright, Ronald, 1993. Stolen Continents: The “New World” Through Indian Eyes. Penguin Books