The Caribbean islands lie on the northern and eastern sides of the Caribbean Sea, stretching in an elongated S shape from the Bahamas and Cuba in the north and west to Trinidad in the south. The islands are divided into two main groups: the large islands of the Greater Antilles and the smaller islands of the Lesser Antilles. Strong historical connections with the islands mean that the mainland territories of Guyana and Belize are frequently categorized as part of the Caribbean.
THE FIRST INHABITANTS
The Caribbean islands were probably first settled from the South American mainland. When Europeans arrived in the region there were three main groups of people living there. The Ciboney people were found in parts of Hispaniola and Cuba. The Arawak people occupied most of the Greater Antilles, while the Caribs lived throughout the Lesser Antilles. The Caribs were the latest to arrive in the region, migrating northward. As a result of this movement, the peoples of the Caribbean were experiencing change before the arrival of Europeans. However, the arrival of people from the Old World set in motion transformations on a previously unimaginable scale.
THE ARRIVAL OF EUROPEANS
In 1492 the three ships of Christopher Columbus’s Spanish expedition made landfall in the Bahamas, before heading south to Cuba and Hispaniola. Columbus famously thought that he had reached the East Indies and clung to this belief until his death in 1506. On his second voyage to the New World, Columbus brought seventeen ships, over a thousand soldiers, and European plants, horses, and livestock. This expedition explored and named many of the Caribbean islands, landing on Dominica, Guadeloupe, Montserrat, Antigua, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica.
The first Spanish settlements were in the Greater Antilles, the largest being on Hispaniola. The principal aim of Spanish colonization was to find and extract silver and gold, and Spanish settlers established mines as well as breeding horses and livestock. By the early sixteenth century, large deposits of gold and silver had been discovered in the mainland areas of Mexico and Peru. Thereafter, Spanish Caribbean settlements operated as staging posts and recruitment areas for expeditions to these regions.
The Spanish sought to convert the original inhabitants of the region to Christianity, but these efforts met with little success, and relations between the two groups were generally violent and exploitative. The Spaniards conquered the islands by force and gave no quarter when faced with resistance. They coerced native people into working in the mines, and disturbed local patterns of food production, causing many to starve. Furthermore, natives of the islands lacked immunities to European diseases. It is unclear exactly what proportion of them died as a result of illnesses imported from the Old World, but the arrival of Europeans in the region was certainly a social and demographic disaster, and native people were either destroyed or integrated into the Spanish society. The vast majority were wiped out within a few generations, certainly on the larger islands.
Map of the Caribbean, circa 1630s. The Caribbean islands lie on the northern and eastern sides of the Caribbean Sea, stretching in an elongated S shape from the Bahamas and Cuba in the north and west to Trinidad in the south.
THE END OF SPANISH HEGEMONY
Prior to the end of the sixteenth century, Spain was the only colonial power in the Caribbean. However, Spain’s power and influence was declining in Europe and it was increasingly difficult to exclude the English, Dutch, and French from the Caribbean. Initially, the only challenge to Spanish hegemony came from the increasingly common raids on ships and ports by pirates, such as John Hawkins and Francis Drake, who came in search of Spanish gold and silver. Buccaneers (raiders operating from bases in the Caribbean) continued to harass and plunder ships and ports in the region until the eighteenth century.
By the seventeenth century the period of Spanish hegemony was over, and the English, French, and Dutch began to trade and form colonies in the Caribbean. European powers fought to expand their empires and gain dominance of the sea, and because the financial value of Caribbean products and trade was high, competition between the main powers was particularly fierce in the region. The Caribbean became a focal point in the increasingly globalized conflicts between Britain and France during the eighteenth century. At times of war, sea battles were fought and islands were captured and recaptured. Between 1762 and 1814 control of the island of St. Lucia alternated between Britain and France seven times.
SUGAR AND SLAVERY
The expansion of sugar production and slavery helped to ensure that Caribbean colonies were economically and strategically vital to European governments. During the seventeenth century, having experimented with other crops, notably tobacco, northern European settlers began planting sugar, which grew well in tropical conditions and fetched a high price in Europe. Until the mid-eighteenth century, the wealthiest English plantation colony was Barbados, which was then superseded by the larger island of Jamaica, conquered from the Spanish in 1655. The most lucrative sugar colony in the Caribbean was French Saint-Domingue, in the western third of Hispaniola.
Effective sugar production required large holdings of land. This resulted in the creation of plantations that often covered thousands of acres. The cultivation and processing of this crop was also extremely labor-intensive, and, having experimented with indigenous slaves and indentured European labor, Caribbean planters turned to African slaves to meet their labor needs. Slaves imported from the west coast of Africa proved hardier than the indigenous islanders and a more reliable source of labor than European workers. Existing slaving networks in Africa ensured that there was a steady supply of slaves to meet European demand, and because they were treated as items of personal property, enslaved people could be easily bought and sold. The transatlantic slave trade therefore solved the planters’ labor problems and permanently altered all aspects of life in the Caribbean colonies. Over five million Africans arrived in the Caribbean, having endured the horrors of the Middle Passage across the Atlantic.
Sugar plantations and the institution of slavery expanded together and had reached the height of their growth and profitability by the end of the eighteenth century. The precise demographic structure of slave societies differed from place to place, but everywhere in the Caribbean they were characterized by large black majorities, as slaves came to heavily outnumber the white inhabitants of the islands. For example, in 1800 there were about twenty slaves to every white person on the island of Jamaica. Across the region, a class of free colored people also emerged, occupying a social and legal position in between the islands’ enslaved majorities and privileged white minorities.
Several factors discouraged whites from permanently settling in the region. A plethora of highly contagious diseases and the threat of slave uprisings rendered life in the Caribbean uncomfortable and dangerous. Many larger proprietors lived in Europe as absentees, and those whites who remained in the region did not consider the islands to be a permanent home and maintained a close affinity with the colonial metropole. Caribbean slaveholders also relied upon European military support to control their slaves. Such ties of dependency helped to ensure that Caribbean colonists did not follow their mainland Spanish and North American counterparts in demanding independence from European colonial systems.
In all colonies, slaves were worked hard and faced harsh treatment. In spite of this, enslaved people across the region created viable cultures that allowed them to resist the effects of slavery. Afro-Caribbean cultures emerged that reconfigured African beliefs, practices, and traditions in a New World setting. These cultures often merged with European traditions, especially because many slaves were converted to Christianity and most were forced to learn the language of their masters.
Resistance to slavery was a constant feature of life in the colonies. This ranged from day-to-day forms of resistance, such as working slowly, all the way to large-scale rebellions. Many slaves attempted to run away, and on larger islands, such as Jamaica and Hispaniola, some formed semiautonomous “Maroon” communities. While slave rebellions were common in the Caribbean, most ended in failure. In Saint-Domingue, however, unrest caused by the French Revolution resulted in a successful slave uprising—led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, a former slave—which culminated in the creation of the independent state of Haiti in 1804.
THE ENDING OF CARIBBEAN SLAVERY
In 1807 the British abolished the transatlantic slave trade after a popular campaign led mainly by wealthy evangelicals. This came at a time when slave-produced sugar was still profitable. In the British Caribbean, an economic slump followed the ending of the trade, partly as a result of the demographic impact of abolition. In the British Caribbean, slaves eventually gained emancipation in 1838 as the result of continued pressure in Britain and ongoing slave resistance in the Caribbean. In the remaining French territories of Martinique and Guadeloupe, slavery ended in 1848, while slaves in the Dutch Caribbean were freed in 1863.
The abolition of slavery did not end the tensions that characterized societies long based on racialized social and economic divisions. Emancipated slaves sought independence from the sugar estates. Former slaveholders used a range of tactics to try to retain the freed people’s labor, limit their access to land, and prevent their involvement in political life, causing tensions that resulted in protests and riots in British Caribbean territories throughout the postemancipation period. Some planters, especially those in Trinidad and Guyana, responded to their labor problems by importing South and East Asian indentured workers. Many of these laborers settled permanently, contributing to the social and cultural composition of those colonies.
Seventeenth-Century Tilework in the Casa de Obrapia, Havana, Cuba. Tilework depicts of a visit to the Plaza Vieja in Havana, Cuba.
Even as the sugar industry in the British and French Caribbean declined during the nineteenth century, Cuban production rose rapidly. Abundant fertile land, the removal of Spanish trade restrictions, and technological advances meant that the island experienced an economic boom that lasted until the late nineteenth century. Black slaves were used on Cuban plantations along with free workers from Europe, Asia, and Mexico, making the social structure and labor relations in the colony distinct from those in the British and French islands. Slavery survived in Cuba until the 1880s, when the institution was gradually phased out before a complete abolition in 1886.