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The history of the Caribbean reveals the significant role the region played in the colonial struggles of the European powers since the 15th century. In the 20th century the Caribbean was again important during World War II, in the decolonization wave during the post-war period, and in the tension between Communist Cuba and the United States.
Genocide, slavery, immigration and rivalry between world powers have given Caribbean history an impact disproportionate to the size of this small region.
An Arawak stone carving uncovered in Guadeloupe.
The oldest evidence of human settlement in the Caribbean has been found at Ortoiroid sites on Trinidad dating to the mid-6th millennium BC. They had reached Hispaniola and Cuba by the mid-5th millennium BCE, where their society is also known as the Casirimoid.
The hunter-gatherer Guanahatabey present in western Cuba at the time of Columbus's arrival may have represented a continuation of their culture or more recent arrivals from southern Florida or the Yucatan.
The islands were then repopulated by successive waves of invaders travelling south to north from initial bases in the Orinoco River valley. Between 400 and 200 BC, the Saladoid spread north from Trinidad, introducing agriculture and ceramic pottery. Sometime after AD 250, the Barrancoid followed and replaced them on Trinidad.
This society's settlements in the Orinoco collapsed around 650 and another group, the Arauquinoid (the later "Taíno" or "Arawaks"), expanded into the area and northward along the island chain. Around 1200 or 1300, a fourth group, the Mayoid (the later "Caribs"), entered Trinidad. They remained dominant until the Spanish conquest.
At the time of the European arrival, three major Amerindian indigenous peoples lived on the islands: the Taíno in the Greater Antilles, The Bahamas and the Leeward Islands; the Island Caribs and Galibi in the Windward Islands; and the Ciboney in western Cuba.
The Taínos are subdivided into Classic Taínos, who occupied Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, Western Taínos, who occupied Cuba, Jamaica, and the Bahamian archipelago, and the Eastern Taínos, who occupied the Leeward Islands. Trinidad was inhabited by both Carib speaking and Arawak-speaking groups.
New scientific DNA studies have changed some of the traditional beliefs about pre-Columbian indigenous history. Juan Martinez Cruzado, a geneticist from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez designed an island-wide DNA survey of Puerto Rico's people.
According to conventional historical belief, Puerto Ricans have mainly Spanish ethnic origins, with some African ancestry, and distant and less significant indigenous ancestry. Cruzado's research revealed surprising results in 2003. It found that, in fact, 61 percent of all Puerto Ricans have Amerindian mitochondrial DNA, 27 percent have African and 12 percent Caucasian.
1536 map of the Caribbean
Soon after the voyages of Christopher Columbus to the Americas, both Portuguese and Spanish ships began claiming territories in Central and South America. These colonies brought in gold, and other European powers, most specifically England, the Netherlands, and France, hoped to establish profitable colonies of their own. Imperial rivalries made the Caribbean a contested area during European wars for centuries.
See also: Spanish colonization of the Americas
Spanish Caribbean Islands in the American Viceroyalties 1600.
The Piazza (or main square) in central Havana, Cuba, in 1762, during the Seven Years' War.
During the first voyage of the explorer Christopher Columbus contact was made with the Lucayans in the Bahamas and the Taíno in Cuba and the northern coast of Hispaniola, and a few of the native people were taken back to Spain. Small amounts of gold were found in their personal ornaments and other objects such as masks and belts.
The Spanish, who came seeking wealth, enslaved the native population and rapidly drove them to near-extinction. To supplement the Amerindian labor, the Spanish imported African slaves. (see also Slavery in the Spanish New World colonies) Although Spain claimed the entire Caribbean, they settled only the larger islands of Hispaniola (1493), Puerto Rico (1508), Jamaica (1509), Cuba (1511), and Trinidad (1530), although the Spanish made an exception in the case of the small 'pearl islands' of Cubagua and Margarita off the Venezuelan coast because of their valuable pearl beds which were worked extensively between 1508 and 1530.
Other European powers
The other European powers established a presence in the Caribbean after the Spanish Empire declined, partly due to the reduced native population of the area from European diseases. The Dutch, the French, and the British followed one another to the region and established a long-term presence. They brought with them millions of slaves imported from Africa to support the tropical plantation system that spread through the Caribbean islands.
Francis Drake was an English privateer who attacked many Spanish Spain carib San Juan harbour in 1595. His most celebrated Caribbean exploit was the capture of the Spanish Silver Train at Nombre de Dios in March, 1573.
British colonisation of Bermuda began in 1612. British West Indian colonisation began with St. Kitts in 1623 and Barbados in 1627. The former was used as a base for British colonisation of neighbouring Nevis (1628), Antigua (1632), Montserrat (1632), Anguilla (1650) and Tortola (1672).
French colonisation too began on St. Kitts, the British and the French splitting the island amongst themselves in 1625. It was used as a base to colonise the much larger Guadeloupe (1635) and Martinique (1635), St. Martin (1648), St Barts (1648), and St Croix (1650), but was lost completely to Britain in 1713. From Martinique the French colonised St. Lucia (1643), Grenada (1649), Dominica (1715), and St. Vincent (1719).
The English admiral William Penn seized Jamaica in 1655 and it remained under British rule for over 300 years.
Piracy in the Caribbean was widespread during the early colonial era, especially between 1640 and 1680. The term "buccaneer" is often used to describe a pirate operating in this region.
In 1625 French buccaneers established a settlement on Tortuga, just to the north of Hispaniola, that the Spanish were never able to permanently destroy despite several attempts. The settlement on Tortuga was officially established in 1659 under the commission of King Louis XIV. In 1670 Cap François (later Cap Français, now Cap-Haïtien) was established on the mainland of Hispaniola. Under the 1697 Treaty of Ryswick, Spain officially ceded the western third of Hispaniola to France.
The Dutch took over Saba, Saint Martin, Sint Eustatius, Curaçao, Bonaire, Aruba, Tobago, St. Croix, Tortola, Anegada, Virgin Gorda, Anguilla and a short time Puerto Rico, together called the Dutch West Indies, in the 17th century.
Denmark-Norway first ruled part, then all of the present U.S. Virgin Islands since 1672, Denmark later sold sovereignty over the Danish West Indies in 1917 to the United States which still administers them.
Slaves in the Caribbean
Further information: Afro-Caribbean history
A 19th century lithograph by Theodore Bray showing a sugarcane plantation. On right is "white officer", the European overseer, watching plantation workers. To the left is a flat-bottomed vessel for cane transportation.
The slaves brought to the Caribbean lived in inhumane conditions. Above are examples of slave huts in Bonaire provided by Dutch colonialists. About 5 feet tall and 6 feet wide, between 2 and 3 slaves slept in these after working in nearby salt mines.
The development of agriculture in the Caribbean required a large workforce of manual laborers, which the Europeans found by taking advantage of the slave trade in Africa. The Atlantic slave trade brought African slaves to British, Dutch, French, Portuguese and Spanish colonies in the Americas, including the Caribbean.
Slaves were brought to the Caribbean from the early 16th century until the end of the 19th century. The majority of slaves were brought to the Caribbean colonies between 1701 and 1810. Also in 1816 there was a slave revolution in the colony of Barbados.
The following table lists the number of slaves brought into some of the Caribbean colonies:
Caribbean colonizer 1492–1700 1701–1810 1811–1870 Total number of slaves imported
British Caribbean 263,700 1,401,300 — 1,665,000
Dutch Caribbean 40,000 460,000 — 500,000
French Caribbean 155,800 1,348,400 96,000 1,600,200
Abolitionists in the Americas and in Europe became vocal opponents of the slave trade throughout the 19th century. The importation of slaves to the colonies was often outlawed years before the end of the institution of slavery itself. It was well into the 19th century before many slaves in the Caribbean were legally free. The trade in slaves was abolished in the British Empire through the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807. Men, women and children who were already enslaved in the British Empire remained slaves, however, until Britain passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833.
When the Slavery Abolition Act came into force in 1834, roughly 700,000 slaves in the British West Indies immediately became free; other enslaved workers were freed several years later after a period of forced apprenticeship. Slavery was abolished in the Dutch Empire in 1814. Spain abolished slavery in its empire in 1811, with the exceptions of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Santo Domingo; Spain ended the slave trade to these colonies in 1817, after being paid ₤400,000 by Britain. Slavery itself was not abolished in Cuba until 1886. France abolished slavery in its colonies in 1848.
Marriage, separation, and sale together
"The official plutocratic view of slave marriage sought to deny the slaves any loving bonds or long-standing relationships, thus conveniently rationalizing the indiscriminate separation of close kin through sales."[a] "From the earliest days of slavery, indiscriminate sales and separation severely disrupted the domestic life of individual slaves." Slaves could be sold so that spouses could be sold separately. "Slave couples were sometimes separated by sale .... They lived as single slaves or as part of maternal or extended families but considered themselves 'married.'" Sale of estates with "stock" to pay debts, more common in the late period of slavery, was criticized as separating slave spouses.
William Beck ford argued for "families to be sold together or kept as near as possible in the same neighborhood" and "laws were passed in the late period of slavery to prevent the breakup of slave families by sale, ... [but] these laws were frequently ignored". "Slaves frequently reacted strongly to enforced severance of their emotional bonds", feeling "sorrow and despair", sometimes, according to Thomas Cooper in 1820, resulting in death from distress. John Stewart argued against separation as leading slave buyers to regret it because of "despair[,] ... utter despondency[,] or 'put[ting] period to their lives'". Separated slaves often used free time to travel long distances to reunite for a night and sometimes runaway slaves were married couples.[ However, "sale of slaves and the resulting breakup of families decreased as slave plantations lost prosperity."
European plantations required laws to regulate the plantation system and the many slaves imported to work on the plantations. This legal control was the most oppressive for slaves inhabiting colonies where they outnumbered their European masters and where rebellion was persistent, such as Jamaica. During the early colonial period, rebellious slaves were harshly punished, with sentences including death by torture; less serious crimes such as assault, theft or persistent escape attempts were commonly punished with mutilations, such as the cutting off of a hand or a foot.
Under British rule, slaves could only be freed with the consent of their master, and therefore freedom for slaves was rare. British colonies were able to establish laws through their own legislatures, and the assent of the local island governor and the Crown. British law considered slaves to be property, and thus did not recognize marriage for slaves, family rights, education for slaves, or the right to religious practices such as holidays. British law denied all rights to freed slaves, with the exception of the right to a jury trial. Otherwise, freed slaves had no right to own property, vote or hold office, or even enter some trades.
The French Empire regulated slaves under the Code Noir (Black Code) which was in force throughout the empire, but which was based upon French practices in the Caribbean colonies. French law recognized slave marriages, but only with the consent of the master. French law, like Spanish law, gave legal recognition to marriages between European men and black or Creole women. French and Spanish laws were also significantly more lenient than British law in recognizing manumission, or the ability of a slave to purchase their freedom and become a "freeman". Under French law, free slaves gained full rights to citizenship. The French also extended limited legal rights to slaves, for example the right to own property, and the right to enter contracts.
Impact of colonialism on the Caribbean
A medallion showing the Capture of Trinidad and Tobago by the British in 1797.
Sir Ralph Abercromby, Commander of the British forces that captured Trinidad and Tobago.
The exploitation of the Caribbean landscape dates back to the Spanish conquistadors around 1600 who mined the islands for gold which they brought back to Spain. The more significant development came when Christopher Columbus wrote back to Spain that the islands were made for sugar development. The history of Caribbean agricultural dependency is closely linked with European colonialism which altered the financial potential of the region by introducing a plantation system. Much like the Spanish enslaved indigenous Indians to work in gold mines, the 17th century brought a new series of oppressors in the form of the Dutch, the English, and the French. By the middle of the 18th century sugar was Britain's largest import which made the Caribbean that much more important as a colony.
Sugar was a luxury in Europe prior to the 18th century. It became widely popular in the 18th century, then graduated to becoming a necessity in the 19th century. This evolution of taste and demand for sugar as an essential food ingredient unleashed major economic and social changes. Caribbean islands with plentiful sunshine, abundant rainfalls and no extended frosts were well suited for sugarcane agriculture and sugar factories.
Following the emancipation of slaves in 1833 in the United Kingdom, many liberated Africans left their former masters. This created an economic chaos for British owners of Caribbean sugar cane plantations. The hard work in hot, humid farms required a regular, docile and low-waged labor force. The British looked for cheap labor. This they found initially in China and then mostly in India. The British crafted a new legal system of forced labor, which in many ways resembled enslavement. Instead of calling them slaves, they were called indentured labor. Indians and southeast Asians began to replace Africans previously brought as slaves, under this indentured labor scheme to serve on sugarcane plantations across the British empire. The first ships carrying indentured laborers for sugarcane plantations left India in 1836. Over the next 70 years, numerous more ships brought indentured laborers to the Caribbean, as cheap and docile labor for harsh inhumane work. The slave labor and indentured labor - both in millions of people - were brought into Caribbean, as in other European colonies throughout the world.
Cane cutters in Jamaica, 1880s.
The New World plantations were established in order to fulfill the growing needs of the Old World. The sugar plantations were built with the intention of exporting the sugar back to Britain which is why the British did not need to stimulate local demand for the sugar with wages.[dubious – discuss][further explanation needed] A system of slavery was adapted since it allowed the colonizer to have an abundant work force with little worry about declining demands for sugar. In the 19th century wages were finally introduced with the abolition of slavery. The new system in place however was similar to the previous as it was based on white capital and colored labor. Large numbers of unskilled workers were hired to perform repeated tasks, which made if very difficult for these workers to ever leave and pursue any non farming employment. Unlike other countries, where there was an urban option for finding work, the Caribbean countries had money invested in agriculture and lacked any core industrial base. The cities that did exist offered limited opportunities to citizens and almost none for the unskilled masses who had worked in agriculture their entire lives. The products produced brought in no profits for the countries since they were sold to the colonial occupant buyer who controlled the price the products were sold at. This resulted in extremely low wages with no potential for growth since the occupant nations had no intention of selling the products at a higher price to themselves.
The result of this economic exploitation was a plantation dependence which saw the Caribbean nations possessing a large quantity of unskilled workers capable of performing agricultural tasks and not much else. After many years of colonial rule the nations also saw no profits brought into their country since the sugar production was controlled by the colonial rulers. This left the Caribbean nations with little capital to invest towards enhancing any future industries unlike European nations which were developing rapidly and separating themselves technologically and economically from most impoverished nations of the world.
Battle of the Saints by Thomas Mitchell. This 1782 battle between the British and French navies took place near Guadeloupe.
The Caribbean region was war-torn throughout much of colonial history, but the wars were often based in Europe, with only minor battles fought in the Caribbean. Some wars, however, were borne of political turmoil in the Caribbean itself.
Thirty Years' War between the Netherlands and Spain.
The First, Second, and Third Anglo-Dutch Wars were battles for supremacy.
Nine Years' War between the European powers.
The War of Spanish Succession (European name) or Queen Anne's War (American name) spawned a generation of some of the most infamous pirates.
The War of Jenkins' Ear (American name) or The War of Austrian Succession (European name) Spain and Britain fought over trade rights; Britain invaded Spanish Florida and attacked the citadel of Cartagena de Indias in present-day Colombia.
The Seven Years' War (European name) or the French and Indian War (American name) was the first "world war" between France, her ally Spain, and Britain; France was defeated and was willing to give up all of Canada to keep a few highly profitable sugar-growing islands in the Caribbean. Britain seized Havana toward the end, and traded that single city for all of Florida at the Treaty of Paris in 1763. In addition France ceded Grenada, Dominica, and St.Vincent to Britain.
The American Revolution saw large British and French fleets battling in the Caribbean again. American independence was assured by French naval victories in the Caribbean, but all the British islands that were captured by the French were returned to Britain at the end of the war.
The French Revolutionary War enabled the creation of the newly independent Republic of Haiti. In addition in the Treaty of Amiens in 1802 Spain ceded Trinidad to Britain.
Following the end of the Napoleonic War in 1814 France ceded Saint Lucia to Britain.
The Spanish–American War ended Spanish control of Cuba (which soon became independent) and Puerto Rico (which became a US colony), and heralded the period of American dominance of the islands.
Piracy in the Caribbean was often a tool used by the European empires to wage war unofficially against one another. Gold plundered from Spanish ships and brought to Britain had a pivotal effect on European interest in colonizing the region.
Illustration circa 1815 showing "Incendie du Cap" (Burning of Cape Francais) during the Haitian Revolution. The caption reads: "General revolt of the Blacks. Massacre of the Whites".
The plantation system and the slave trade that enabled its growth led to regular slave resistance in many Caribbean islands throughout the colonial era. Resistance was made by escaping from the plantations altogether, and seeking refuge in the areas free of European settlement. Communities of escaped slaves, who were known as Maroons, banded together in heavily forested and mountainous areas of the Greater Antilles and some of the islands of the Lesser Antilles. The spread of the plantations and European settlement often meant the end of many Maroon communities, although they survived on Saint Vincent and Dominica, and in the more remote mountainous areas of Jamaica, Hispaniola, Guadeloupe and Cuba.
Violent resistance broke out periodically on the larger Caribbean islands. Many more conspiracies intended to create rebellions were discovered and ended by Europeans before they could materialize. Actual violent uprisings, involving anywhere from dozens to thousands of slaves, were regular events, however. Jamaica and Cuba in particular had many slave uprisings. Such uprisings were brutally crushed by European forces.
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