Timeline Historical Dictionary
First posted on June 18th 2004

Narratives : History of the Caribbean

For the Spanish, the Caribbean islands served as a forward basis, from where the Conquistadores moved on to conquer the prizes the Spanish really looked for, the Aztec and Inca Empires, Chibcha Colombia. During the conquest period the Spanish acted with brutality; the Taino culture disappeared within a century. The Spanish established haziendas (estates) worked for by the native Taino population, which, due to the treatment given to them and to infectious diseases, declined rapidly. The Spanish responded by rounding up the entire population of outlying islands, bringing them over to work their plantations, only to face the same situation later on.
Most of the Caribbean islands were left alone by the Spanish, who concentrated on the larger islands - Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Trinidad.
On some uninhabited islands the Spanish introduced goats, pigs, cattle; these islands provided a supply of meat and leather which did not require men to guard them.
Most of the lesser Antilles were inhabited by the fierce Caribs, cannibals who stubbornly resisted attempts by the Spanish to settle. They foiled the first attempts by the Spanish to settle on Trinidad; only in 1592 did the Spanish succeed to do so.

Spain and Portugal regarded the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) as legal. France, England and later the Dutch Republic did not. In 1538 Havana on Cuba suffered the first pirate raid; another would follow in 1555. The English, French governments soon provided their captains with Letters of Marque, legalizing piracy outside of European waters (except against ships from their respective countries). The French established settlements in Florida (Fort Caroline, est.1564, destroyed by the Spanish 1565) and at Guanabara Bay (Fort Coligny, est. 1555, expelled by the Portuguese 1567). In 1589-1597 the Spanish constructed the Castillo del Moro, to guard the port of Havana against unwelcome visitors.
In 1612 the English settled on Bermuda, in 1623 on St.Kitts. The settlers on St.Kitts feared the Spanish, and therefore welcomed the arrival of French settlers the following year, agreeing the partitioning of the island (1627); together they stood a better chance defending themselves against the Spanish. The Spanish established a settlement on Guadeloupe in 1626, as a basis against English, French, Dutch activities, and in 1629 raided both settlements on St. Kitts, without being able to permanently expel the settlers.
More importantly, the settlers succeeded in selling their first tobacco harvests at a good price. The colonization being an economical success, more attempts of colonization were made, focussing on the lesser Antilles hitherto neglected by the Spanish. In 1624-1625 the English settled on Barbados, in 1628 on Nevis, in 1629 the French on St. Martin, in 1631 the Dutch on the same island they called St. Maarten, in 1632 the English on Antigua, the French on Dominica, in 1634 the Dutch on Curaçao. In 1635 French privateer Pierre Belain d'Esnambuc took the Spanish settlement on Guadeloupe, banning the danger of Spanish retaliation. The French settled Guadeloupe and Martinique that year.

The English attempted to cultivate Barbados and St. Kitts with a population of white settlers. Barbados especially soon acquired a reputation as the 'white man's graveyard', the settlers being unaccustomed to the climate and diing of tropical diseases. The tobacco prices dropped significantly; conflicts between original settlers and later arrivals over land worsened the situation.
The French, on Guadeloupe, Martinique etc., still had to fight the Caribs. For them, a major function of the islands seem to have been as bases for piracy. Many of the Frenchmen engaged in these colonial adventures were Huguenots.
When the Dutch arrived in the Caribbean, their prime interest lay in salt production; Sint Maarten and Curaçao provide over excellent saltpans (the Dutch, for their Herring fishery in the North Sea, depended on salt, which they used to buy from Spain). For plantations, Dutch Brazil was much better suited - but the Dutch W.I.C. lost Brazil in 1654. This caused a problem for Portuguese Jews, which prior to the Dutch conquest, under pressure, had converted to Catholicism, and during Dutch rule had reverted to practicing Jewish religion. Under Portuguese law, this was punishable by death. Many of these Portuguese were owners of sugar plantations. In 1654 they left Brazil and moved onto Caribbean islands ruled by the English, French or Dutch, bringing with them the knowhow of how to run a sugar plantation. Barbados, Guadeloupe, Martinique became major sugar producers; with the Caribbean islands becoming highly profitable, the English took Jamaica from Spain in 1655, the French established themselves on Tortuga in 1659, from there expanding into western Hispaniola, which was ceded to them by Spain in 1697. Haiti was to become the world's leading producer of sugar, and of another plantation crop introduced by the French, coffee.
The profitable plantation industry had brought new colonial powers onto the scene, the Courlanders established a settlement on Tobago in 1658, the Danes settled on St. Thomas in 1665.
Especially the sugar plantations were labour intensive; as whites had proven unsuitable due to the climate, the Transatlantic Slave Trade, going on since the early 16th century, grew in size to become a massive operation. The various colonial enterprises operated forts in Africa where the slaves were purchased, and plantation islands in the Caribbean. The demographics of the Caribbean plantation islands changed, as the native Amerindian population became extinct, the white population stagnated or shrunk, the population of African slaves and their descendants grew.

The European colonial companies were interested in producing crops desired on the European market and generating profits; they were little concerned about the needs of the slave population. Whenever Europe was at war, the Caribbean was affected; many islands experienced temporary occupation, some were ceded by one colonial power to another. During these wars, one European power might ally with the native Carib population of an island ruled by her enemy, or with Maroons resisting the administration of her enemy.
St. Vincent had long escaped the fate of the other islands. The Caribs had kept intruders out, except for Afrian slaves who survived a shipwreck and established a community on the island, assimilating into the Carib culture (Black Caribs). Only in 1763 did the British settle on the island; following a Carib revolt supported by the French, the entire Carib population was deported to Honduras.

Early in the 18th century the European powers agreed on the suppression of piracy, and in the 1720es it ended in the Caribbean. Trade now was safer; Danish St. Thomas developed into a Caribbean trading hub. In 1756, St. Eustasius was declared a Free Port. In the late 18th century, the sugar plantation economy began a slow decline.

While France went through the French Revolution, Saint Domingue (Haiti) went through her own; the slaves took up arms, massacred the white population, expelled British and Spanish invaders. In 1804, Haiti declared independence; her plantation industry was destroyed.
Denmark abolished slave trade in 1803, the U.K. in 1807. More importantly, during the Continental Blockade (1806-1813) sugar exports to continental Europe were interrupted. Worse, a beet sugar industry developed. After the Vienna Congress, the Caribbean plantation industry never fully recovered. Slavery was abolished - by the U.K. as early as 1834, by (Spanish) Cuba as late as 1886.

Except for Spanish Haiti (declared independence in 1821; again, as Dominican Republic in 1844 and 1865), the Spanish had been able to hold on to their colonies in the Caribbean - Cuba and Puerto Rico. Rebellions in Puerto Rico 1868, in Cuba 1868-1878 were put down, as was a Cuban rebellion 1895-1898; here the Spanish introduced Concentration Camps.
In the Spanish-American War 1898, the Spanish, after 400 years, were ousted from the Caribbean; Cuba became independent (1903), Puerto Rico a U.S. territory. The U.S. purchased the Danish West Indies in 1917 (hence the U.S. Virgin Islands) and became the dominant force in the region (occupying Haiti 1915-1934, Dominican Republic 1916-1924).

The British, French, Dutch held on to their possessions in the Caribbean until many of the islands were released into independence in the 1960es to 1980es. France still holds on to Guadeloupe and Martinique, the Netherlands to the Netherlands' Antilles, the U.K. to the Cayman Islands, the Turks & Caicos Islands, Anguilla, Montserrat and Bermuda. The island communities benefit from the status of being overseas dependencies or departments, in form of subsidies etc.

The Caribbean island nations lack profitable export products and are poor (many also have a high birth rate). During the years of independence, Haiti and the Dominican Republic have seen erratic dictators with little regard for human rights, Duvalier father and son respectively Rafael Leonida Trujillo. In Cuba, the Batista dictatorship (1952-1959) was replaced by that of Fidel Castro, who turned Cuba into a People's Republic, which provided the Cubans with a socialist welfare state, the envy of much of Central and Latin America, but which also restricted personal freedom. It was heavily subsidized by the USSR and, since the demise of the latter, Cuba has impoverished. Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic (presently the most successful economy among these, with an expanding tourism sector) experience emigration.

Since the discovery by Columbus, the Caribbean has been an experimental laboratory for European adventurers and politicians; her demography has been changed more drastically than that of any other region on the planet, her economy dominated by outside forces.
Culturally, the Caribbean has developed an identity of her own, the Haitian version of Voodoo religion, Jamaican Rastafari, then Calypso and Reggae music. Another area Caribbeans excelled in is sports; sprinters from the Antilles, Cuban boxers, high jumpers and the Cuban baseball team have won Olympic medals.

REFERENCE Jan Rogozinski, A Brief History of the Caribbean: From the Arawak and Carib to the Present, Harmondsworth : Meridian 1992 [G]
Mordechai Arbell, The Jewish Nation of the Caribbean: The Spanish-Portuguese Jewish Settlements in the Caribbean and the Guianas, Jerusalem : Gefen 2002 [G]
Frank Moya Pons, The Dominican Republic: A National History, Princeton : Markus Wiener 1998 [G]

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