Caribbean History

From the second millennium BC a group of hunter-gatherers, known as the Ciboney, made their way from South America along the chain of islands enclosing the Caribbean Sea. A few hundred years BC, the Tainos, also called Arawaks, began populating the region, first settling in the Windwards and Leewards and eventually inhabiting the Greater Antilles and the Bahamas, pushing the Ciboney ahead of them as they moved north. From about AD 1000 another group, called the Caribs, came from Venezuela and South America and started to force the Tainos off the islands.

The Caribs were more primitive and ferocious than the Tainos and expanded their territory by ruthless warfare. When they defeated their neighbors, their custom was to marry the woman and eat the men. Tainos called them canibas, their own version of the word Caribs. When Christopher Columbus reached the Bahamas and the Greater Antilles in 1492, the northern islands were occupied by the Tainos, with only a few pockets of Ciboney surviving. The smaller islands of the Lesser Antilles were by then largely populated by the Caribs.

The Spaniards were alarmed and fascinated by the man-eating canibas and news of them, which spread rapidly in Europe, resulted in a new word - cannibal. Columbus first reached an island in the Bahamas that he named San Salvador, after Jesus the Savior. Although the Spaniards were not the first Europeans to reach the American continent, they were the first to record their achievement. Columbus, who believed he had reached the East Indies, called the inhabitants of San Salvador Indians. This inaccurate name has remained attached to the indigenous people of the whole American continent and because of it the region became known to Europeans as the West Indies.

The most important landfall of Columbus's expedition was the large island of Cuba, while the next significant one was an island Columbus named after Spain, or Hispaniola, later known as the Dominican Republic and Haiti. The Spaniards eradicated the Tainos in less than fifty years during their plunder for gold in the sixteenth century, sending many of them to South Africa to work in the gold mines and pearl beds, but many people from the tribes committed suicide to escape enslavement.

During the sixteenth century, the islands of the Caribbean remained an exclusively Spanish preserve, but they were too numerous to control. During the seventeenth century, the English and the French settled on islands on the periphery. Some islands changed hands over twenty times during the Caribbean wars, as the European imperialists waged war among themselves as well as with the Carib Indians. During the eighteenth century, there was an ongoing conflict between France and Britain over islands in the region, which peaked in the 1790s with the French Revolutionary wars.

In addition, pirate ships pervaded the region at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Their home base was the island of Tortuga off the north coast of Haiti, from where they pirated the high seas and attacked vessels as far away as the Indian Ocean. In the eighteenth century, slavery was brought to the Caribbean islands and slaves were used to cultivate sugar. After the Tainos were wiped out, plantation owners relied on slaves from Africa. At first, it was mainly the Dutch who imported slaves, but later the English dominated the trade, with Jamaica, in English hands from 1655, becoming the major slave market in the region.

After the Emancipation Act of 1834 ended slavery and Europe no longer relied on the region for sugar production, the Caribbean islands became less of a fighting prize. Cuba continued to import slaves until 1864 and slavery was not officially abolished until 1888. The French possessions freed their slaves in 1848 and were followed by the Dutch in 1863 and Puerto Rico in 1873.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Cuba and Puerto Rico were ceded to the United States and Cuba gained its independence in 1901. In 1962, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago became independent states within the British Commonwealth, while Barbados gained its independence four years later. The next islands to become independent were Antigua, Barbuda, Redonda, Anguilla, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, and Dominica. The French possessions in the region remain departments of France. Almost no indigenous Caribbean Indians have survived. The lasting legacy of their history is in Tainos features that can be found in the faces of some Dominicans and Cubans.

Caribbean History: Selected full-text books and articles

Hispaniola: Caribbean Chiefdoms in the Age of Columbus By Samuel M. Wilson University of Alabama Press, 1990
Economy and Environment in the Caribbean: Barbados and the Windwards in the Late 1800s By Bonham C. Richardson The Press University of The West Indies, 1997
FREE! Caribbean Interests of the United States By Chester Lloyd Jones D. Appleton, 1916
The Indigenous People of the Caribbean By Samuel M. Wilson University Press of Florida, 1997
The Modern Caribbean By Franklin W. Knight; Colin A. Palmer University of North Carolina Press, 1989
Amerindians, Africans, Americans: Three Papers in Caribbean History : Presented at the 24th Annual Conference of the Association of Caribbean Historians, Nassau, the Bahamas By Association of Caribbean Historians; University of the West Indies (Mona, Jamaica) Canoe Press/University of West Indies Press, 1996
First Encounters: Spanish Explorations in the Caribbean and the United States, 1492-1570 By Jerald T. Milanich; Susan Milbrath University of Florida Press, 1989
Colonial Subjects: Puerto Ricans in a Global Perspective By Ramón Grosfoguel University of California Press, 2003
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