The Caribbean is one of the most beautiful regions of the world and also one of the most ethnically diverse. It is home to different races, religions, and languages that emerged from its rich history.
The Caribbean’s story begins with the Amerindians who left Mongolia in Asia over 40,000 years ago. They passed through Alaska and South America before settling in the Caribbean. The Amerindians include the Tainos who went to areas like Hispaniola and the Kalinagos (Caribs) who settled mainly in the Lesser Antilles. Other groups like the Mayans settled in mainland territories like Guatemala and Belize. In 1492, the first Spanish colonisers headed by Italian explorer, Christopher Columbus, arrived in the region. This marked the beginning of European colonisation in the Caribbean.
The Spanish who sought wealth and power abused and overworked the Natives which led to their decline. The first group of African slaves were brought from Spain to replace the declining numbers of Amerindians. The large numbers of slaves started to arrive in the 17th century to work on plantations. The slaves who were brought to the Caribbean since the arrival of the Europeans would forever alter the demographics of the region. Today, the Garifuna or Black Caribs which are descendants of Caribs and African slaves can be found in St.Vincent and Belize. They are the last representations of Amerindians in the Caribbean.
European colonisation made the Caribbean into a globalised space and initiated the interconnectivity among the economies, cultures, and populations between the ‘New World’ and ‘Old World’. The Spanish who were the first colonisers to the region settled in areas like Hispaniola, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica. They brought foods such as oranges and animals like horses. They also introduced the Roman Catholic Church to their colonies. The Spanish created a powerful empire in the Caribbean and the Americas until the 17th century when they were challenged by the French, British, Dutch and Danish who also wanted to profit from the region’s resources. The Spanish eventually lost its dominance in the region and by the beginning of the 19th century, they were left with only Cuba and Puerto Rico.
The British and the French colonised the region at a similar period and competed for territories in the Leeward and Windward islands. The French or Francophone Caribbean refers to areas like Martinique and Guadeloupe. During the early days of colonialism, the French had settled in other areas like St. Kitts and St. Lucia until they were eventually taken over by the British. St. Domingue was an important French colony until the Haitian Revolution. The Haitian Revolution refers to the period 1791-1804 where several events led to the transformation of the French colony of St. Domingue to the independent nation of Haiti in 1804. After the Haitian revolution, Britain became the major imperial power in the region. Initially, Britain was one of Spain’s biggest rivals in the region as seen in 1655 where Britain captured Jamaica from the Spanish. The British Caribbean includes islands like Jamaica, the Bahamas, and Trinidad as well as mainland territories like Belize and British Guiana (present-day Guyana). The British brought the Anglican Church to the region as well as elements of their cuisine like puddings and tea.
The Dutch Caribbean refers to countries like Aruba and Curacao. Suriname is also a major Dutch territory in the region, but like Guyana, it is located in South America. The early Dutch colonisers in the Caribbean during the 17th century were more interested in trade and created commercial bases to trade with other European settlers in the region. Another group of colonists was the Danish who colonised areas like St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John which are today known as the US Virgin Islands. The Danish settlers occupied these regions starting in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries where they were involved mostly in trading but St. Croix was used to develop sugar plantations.
Slavery and the plantation economy are significant aspects of Caribbean history. Thousands of African slaves were brought across the Atlantic to work on sugar, coffee and cotton plantations across the different territories. Some successful sugar-producing colonies included Barbados which was one of the earliest territories to develop a successful sugar industry. Cuba’s sugar industry also thrived where it became the most successful sugar-producing Caribbean territory during the 19th century.
The enslaved people came from the West African coast and were forced to work without pay under harsh conditions. They staged rebellions as seen with the Sam Sharpe rebellion of 1831 and the 1791 slave rebellion in St. Domingue. Some slaves also ran away from estates and settled in the interior of the colonies. The Jamaica Maroons are descendants of runaway slaves who defied the harsh nature of slavery and established their own villages. The runaway slaves who lived in the wet marshes and thick jungles of Suriname are called Bush Negroes.
In most colonies, the plantation sector came to a decline in the 19th century and the slaves became emancipated. Slaves in the British Caribbean received full emancipation in 1838, while Cuba was one of the last colonies to emancipate its slaves in 1886. After slavery ended, indentured labourers came from Madeira to work on the estates in the British, French and Dutch Caribbean for small wages. Significant numbers of labourers also came from China and India to the British and French Caribbean. Today, large numbers of Indians and Chinese can be found in Jamaica, Trinidad, and Guyana. Some Chinese labourers also settled in Cuba. The Javanese labourers who came to the region went specifically to Suriname.
The 19th and 20th centuries involved the dismantling of colonial rule. Spain lost its hold on its territories and the United States became a dominant power in the Spanish islands. This is seen where Puerto Rico was sold to the US in 1898 and Cuba’s political and economic structures were significantly influenced by the United States after the introduction of the Platt Amendment in 1901 which was later removed from the Cuban constitution in 1934. The US lost its dominance in Cuba after the Cuban Revolution of 1959 led by Fidel Castro. The French Caribbean and Dutch Caribbean are still heavily influenced by the European metropole. This is seen where Martinique and Guadeloupe became overseas departments of France in 1946 and in 1954 the Dutch Islands became the Netherlands Antilles and became a constituent country of the Kingdom of Netherlands until 2010. Most territories in the British Caribbean gained Independence from Britain in the latter part of the 20th century.
Danish Colonisation came to an end in the early 20th century after the Danish islands were sold to the US for 25 million dollars on March 31, 1917. They have since been referred to as the US Virgin Islands. The early 20th century is also significant as it involved many attempts by Caribbean nationals like Marcus Garvey to promote Black Nationalism and pride.
Today the Caribbean is characterised by a melting pot of skin tones, musical genres, and dishes which underscore multiculturalism. The Caribbean boasts an interesting story which validates our identity and reminds us that we are rooted in greatness.