A Brief History of the Caribbean Region

17th century Spanish map of the Caribbean islands

Traces the development of the region from discovery by Christopher Columbus to independence of the nations from Colonial rule. Examines the impact the varying European cultures had on the countries and their resulting culture. Discusses slavery and indentureship and the subsequent make-up of the peoples of the region.

What springs to mind when you hear the words The Caribbean? Turquoise waters gently lapping pristine white sand beaches. Friendly people serving tropical drinks with umbrellas. Pastel colored houses. Lush green tropical rain forests. Calypso and reggae music. Limbo dancing! The Caribbean is all this and so much more.


Three main island chains make up the Caribbean. They are the Lesser and Greater Antilles and the Bahamas. The Lesser Antilles (further subdivided into the Leeward and Windward islands) is a chain of islands starting from Trinidad in the south and ending at the three U.S Virgin Islands in the north. Beyond this is the Greater Antilles: Cuba, Hispaniola (the Dominican Republic and Haiti) Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. The low-lying Bahamian islands are found to the north of Cuba and Hispaniola. Additionally the eastern coasts of some South American countries (Venezuela, Guyana, Belize and Surinam) are considered to be part of the Caribbean Cultural area. In general the climate and vegetation are tropical, but can range from rain forest to semi-arid. The islands are cooled by northeast trade winds, which can also bring heavy rains.


Christopher Columbus first discovered the Caribbean in 1492 while trying to find a new route to China from Spain. He landed on an island in what is now known to be the Bahamas, called Guanahani by the natives living there. He renamed it San Salvador (Holy Saviour). He subsequently went on to Cuba and Hispaniola, returning to Spain in early 1493. He made three subsequent voyages to the Caribbean, believing up to his death that the islands were the spice islands of the East Indies. After realizing his mistake Spain renamed the islands the West Indies and they are now known by that name to the residents.

Indigenous Peoples

Upon arrival Columbus made contact with the indigenous peoples, whom he called Indians. Generally they are said to have been divided into two groups: the Caribs, a fierce and cannibalistic people, and the Arawaks, the peaceful farming people. The truth is that all the people encountered formed one large cultural group, even though they were divided into different groups across the islands and the mainland. The European settlers called them Arawaks when they didnt resist the settlers, and they spoke a language similar to that spoken by the group from the region known as Aruaca. They were called Caribs when they resisted the settlers, and when the settlers wanted to enslave them under the edict given by Queen Isabella. She had outlawed the enslavement of the indigenous people unless they were Caribs. The first people met by the Europeans referred to themselves by completely different names, such as Boricua and Quisqueya, and belonged to the Taino people who lived (and still do) in Puerto Rico and Hispaniola. The ones refered to as Arawaks, called themselves Lokono, and modern day descendants of the Caribs call themselves Kalina or Kalinago.

Settlements, Sugar and Slavery

Columbus established the first settlement in 1493 on Hispaniola, and this expanded to other islands in the early 1500s. Until 1536, the Spanish, whose main interest was gold and other precious metal mining, managed to keep other European nations from trading with the islands by building fortresses in Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and Cuba. Between 1536 and 1609, the French and English successfully raided the smaller Leeward and Windward islands where the Spanish were weak. However most of these islands changed hands several times. The notable exception is Barbados, which was colonized by the British only, and Martinique and Guadeloupe by the French only. The Dutch took control of Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, St. Maarten, St. Eustatius and Saba between 1630 and 1640. In the 1640s Portuguese migrated to Barbados from Brazil, bringing with them their expertise in sugar cultivation. This widespread colonization by Europe resulted in the almost complete depopulation of the indigenous people. Many of them were unsuited to the continuous hard labor imposed upon them, but a large quantity perished from contracting contagious diseases such as measles.

The development of the sugar industry led to the forced transportation of approximately 10 million African slaves to provide the labor for the plantations. Most of the slaves were originally from western African. Not only were the slaves not allowed to retain much of their culture, but they also lived under extremely inhumane conditions, and many of them attempted escape. The successful ones formed communities in the mountains and hinterlands, and were known as Maroons in some islands. The best known and most successful slave revolt was carried out in Haiti (then known as St. Dominique) in 1789 by Toussaint Louverture. He retained control of the island until 1799, and his successors gained independence from France in 1804.

Meanwhile slavery was coming under fire from humanitarians. The rising costs of producing sugar heightened the criticism of the plantocracy, and European nations beginning with Denmark had abolished the slave trade by 1824. Slavery was abolished in the British colonies in 1833-34, in the French colonies in 1838, in the Dutch colonies in 1863 and in the Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico in 1873 and Cuba in 1880. In order to maintain the sugar industry the British colonies such as Trinidad and Guyana offered contracts to indentured servants from Asia (and specifically India).


Following Haiti, the Dominican Republic in 1844 and Cuba in 1898 were the next to gain their independence. Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago were the first British colonies to gain independence in 1962 followed by Guyana and Barbados in 1966, the Bahamas in 1973, Grenada in 1974, Dominica in 1978, St. Lucia and St. Vincent & the Grenadines in 1979, Antigua in 1980, Belize in 1981and St. Kitts & Nevis in 1983. Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, St. Maarten, St. Eustatius and Saba are still dependents of The Netherlands, as are Guadeloupe and Martinique of France, and Montserrat and the British Virgin Islands of Britain.

Given its history the Caribbean is a region of diverse cultures and an eclectic mixture of the old and the new.