Traditionally, the term Caribbean refers to the thousands of islands that run parallel to Central and South America, stretching almost 2,500 miles. The term, however, also often includes Belize in Central America, as well as Guyana, Suriname, and Guyane on the South American mainland. The Caribbean islands are further divided into three major groups: the Bahamas archipelago, made up of 700 islands and 2,000 rocks; the Greater Antilles (that is, the four larger islands of Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica; as well as the Caiman Islands); and, finally, the Lesser Antilles, which run from the Virgin Islands in the north to Aruba in the south, off the coast of Venezuela.

People of the Caribbean

Indigenous People

Until the end of the fifteenth century, three different people lived in the Caribbean: the Ciboneys, the Taino Arawaks, and the Karibs. It is to the latter that the region owes its name. Estimates concerning the size of the original population vary from 300,000 to 6,000,000. The Arawaks were located primarily in the Greater Antilles, the Bahamas, and some of the Lesser Antilles islands; the Karibs lived in the Lesser Antilles; the Ciboneys had settled in the western part of Cuba and Haiti. The word Antilles itself derives from “Antillia,” the name of an imaginary island that started appearing on maps as early as 1424.

The Arrival of Europeans

The first Europeans, led by Christopher Columbus, set foot in the Caribbean on October 12, 1492, in the Bahamas, on the island of Guanahani, known today as San Salvador. Columbus was then searching for a new route to Asia and incorrectly believed that he had reached its western shores. This mistake led him to call the Caribbean islands the “West Indies,” a name that is still commonly used. Columbus's first voyage was followed by many, and each time he stumbled upon an island, he claimed it as a Spanish possession and renamed it accordingly. Thus, original indigenous names were replaced by Europeans ones, such as Karukera losing its Karib name of “the island with beautiful waters” to become Guadeloupe and Ayiti becoming Hispaniola (literally, “Little Spain”).
The arrival of the Europeans in the Caribbean opened an era of great physical and social violence. It was particularly disastrous for the indigenous people, and almost all of them disappeared in a short period of time. The reasons for their elimination are multiple and range from warfare, European diseases, slavery and overwork to brutal murder and unspeakable cruelties. The Karibs in particular put up a fierce resistance against European assaults, and this caused them to be described by Eurocentric historians as “warlike” and dangerous, with some even tracing the root of the word cannibal to their name, Karib. Of course, the Karibs were simply and quite naturally defending themselves. Many, less biased, historians recognize that the extermination of these indigenous people represents one of the largest genocides of modern history. Today, only in Dominica has a small community of Karibs managed to survive on a reservation where they weave baskets for tourist consumption.
The Spanish claim over the Caribbean was quickly challenged by other Europeans, in particular the French, British, and Dutch, each one wanting to seize Caribbean land. As early as 1538, Spanish ships had to travel under protection due to the constant attacks launched by other Europeans. In 1621, a war broke out between the Dutch and the Spanish, which the latter lost. The Dutch victory led to the creation of the Dutch West India Company that same year, and between 1630 and 1640, the Dutch claimed Curaçao, St. Eustatius, St. Martin, and Saba. The Spanish defeat also facilitated French and British incursions and settlements in the Caribbean, and by the end of the seventeenth century, both European countries had succeeded in firmly entrenching themselves in the region: the British had seized Barbados in 1627, Nevis in 1628, Antigua and Montserrat in 1632, St. Lucia in 1638, Jamaica in 1655, and the Cayman Islands in 1670, while the French had occupied Guadeloupe and Martinique in 1635 and the western part of Hispaniola (now Haiti) in 1665. In 1671, Denmark claimed the Virgin Islands. European conflicts over the control of the Caribbean were constant, and it was not uncommon for a given island to change hands in a short amount of time. Thus, Dominica, for example, changed European hands no less than 17 times.
The first years of the European occupation were a period of social experimentation, with rather small production units devoted to several crops such as cotton, coffee, and more particularly tobacco. In addition, parallel to the vanishing of the indigenous people was the introduction of small numbers of Africans, as well as of Europeans. The former were introduced in the Caribbean as early as 1493, primarily to help the Spanish approach the Karibs; while the latter came as indentured servants. These were socially disenfranchised Europeans, some of them even criminals and prostitutes, in search of a better life. At the end of their indentured service, they often received a plot of land, which they could cultivate, that is, if they were still alive or around. Indeed, many died or chose to return home, due to difficult life conditions.

Conscripted Africans

Starting in the 1660s, however, the cultivation of sugar cane began dominating the Caribbean landscape when cane proved more profitable than other plants such as tobacco. This predilection for sugar cane was pervasive, and it is generally admitted that, in the seventeenth century, the Caribbean underwent what is known as the Sugar Revolution, with sugar being held as “King.” The cultivation of sugar cane requires large areas, as well as an important labor force, and this led to the massive introduction of enslaved Africans in the Caribbean, assorted with a gradual disappearance of white indentured servants for whom there were no more plots available. The result was a drastic alteration of the Caribbean's demographics and racial structure, with the Africans often making up over 90% of the total population.
Most Caribbean people today are descended from those Africans who were brought primarily from West Africa in the dreadful and fetid holds of slave ships. The Caribbean, as a whole, received over 50% of the Africans taken out of Africa during the European slave trade. This represented, by all accounts, the largest forced migration in history. Unsurprisingly, the increase in the African population closely paralleled the increase in sugar production. For example, in Jamaica, the sugar production was 4,782 tons in 1703, with an enslaved African population of 45,000. In 1754, Jamaica's sugar production had jumped to 23,396 tons, obviously produced by 130,000 enslaved Africans.
Life as an enslaved African was horrific. The mortality rate was extremely high due to overwork, depression, disease, malnutrition, and mental and physical torture. On the other hand, the natural reproduction rate was low, thus causing the constant arrival of new captives from Africa to replenish the labor force of European-owned plantations. From a social standpoint, plantation societies were divided along caste lines. Each caste had its own subdivisions. Generally speaking, there were two major castes: the white caste and the caste of the enslaved Africans. With the passage of time, a third significant caste emerged: free people of color, made up of black and mulatto free individuals. Over all, one's race and color determined rather rigidly one's social rank, with darker Africans at the bottom of the social hierarchy, and whites at its top.

Resistance to Slavery

Resistance to slavery and white supremacy was a constant feature of Caribbean societies otherwise ruled by terror. In fact, resistance was as old as slavery itself. It took several forms, such as revolts, maroon communities, poisoning cattle, breaking up equipment, abortions, and slow work. Although maroon communities existed everywhere that slavery prevailed, those in Jamaica and Surinam remained the most famous in the Caribbean. On the other hand, it is in Haiti that the most successful revolt took place between 1791 and 1803. It eventually ended with enslaved Africans' victory over French colonists who were backed by the most powerful army at the time, that of Napoleon Bonaparte. Haiti became the first black republic in 1804.
The African victory in Haiti, then the wealthiest Caribbean colony, dealt a serious blow to slavery in the Caribbean, as well as elsewhere, raising serious doubts about the viability and future of plantation societies. Inspired and ignited by the Haitian example, Africans everywhere in the Caribbean became increasingly and openly adamant about instant freedom. In addition, developments in Europe, in particular a growing industrialization, made labor-intensive industries increasingly obsolete.
There was also in Europe a growing anti-slavery movement. Slave trade was banned in 1808 by the British and in 1814 by the French. A few decades later came the abolition of slavery itself: in 1834 in British colonies, in 1848 in French and Danish colonies, in 1863 in Dutch colonies, in 1873 in Puerto Rico, and, at last, in 1886 in Cuba. The abolition of slavery in Cuba marked the end of legal slavery in the region. Caribbean countries, however, remained colonial properties of Europe. In addition to the traditional European colonial powers, the end of the 19th century marked the beginning of a visible U.S. imperialistic presence in the Caribbean. Invoking the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny, the U.S. gained control of four major islands of the Greater Antilles, namely Haiti, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. This was done through wars, military interventions, and occupations, as well as the imposition of dictators, such as Batista in Cuba or Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. The United States also purchased many of the Virgin Islands from Denmark in 1917 for $25 million.
At the abolition of slavery, payments and reparations were made not to the formerly enslaved Africans who had toiled for free for hundreds of years but to the colonists, whom, it was felt at the time, had lost valuable property and commerce opportunities. To the Africans, nothing was granted. And although slavery had been abolished, for the most part, the haves remained the whites and the have-nots, black. Many Africans engaged in small subsistence farming. With few Africans choosing to continue working on sugar plantations, the white colonists relied on indentured servants from many parts of the world, especially Asia and including Africa, to replace their lost labor force. This marked the beginning of the Indian and, to a lesser degree, Chinese migration to the Caribbean in the second half of the nineteenth century. Between 1838 and 1917, it is estimated that nearly half a million Indians settled in the Caribbean, with Guyana and Trinidad being the two major destinations followed by Guadeloupe and Surinam. Thanks to Asian labor, the sugar industry managed to survive. After 1850, however, the Caribbean sugar industry declined steadily and has become quite limited on many islands today. In the meantime, except in Haiti, the African masses remained excluded from meaningful political participation in their new societies well up to the middle of the twentieth century. This was to change to a certain degree, however, with the achievement of political independence or autonomy in many Caribbean countries.

The Emergence of the Caribbean Nations

It was in the 1960s that most Caribbean nations emerged, for the most part without much bloodshed. As far as British colonies are concerned, Jamaica and Trinidad gained independence in 1962, Barbados and Guyana in 1966, the Bahamas in 1973, Grenada in 1974, Dominica in 1978, St. Lucia and St. Vincent in 1979, Antigua-Barbuda in 1981, and St. Kitts-Nevis in 1983. We must note, however, that many of these countries still recognized the queen of England as their titular head of state. For Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Virgin Islands, the situation was different. Cuba, through a socialist revolution led by Fidel Castro, broke away from international capitalism and successfully put an end to U.S. rule. Puerto Rico became an associate free state in 1952, while the Virgin Islands remained under complete American tutelage. Similarly, France turned its colonies of Guadeloupe and Martinique into “overseas departments” in 1946, making them an administrative and geographical extension of France.
While changes in political status may have engendered a new vision and a sense of hope for a brighter future, as well as facilitating the emergence of a black middle class, it is nonetheless fair to say that, for the most part, Caribbean nations still find themselves economically controlled by outside forces. This is due in part to the fact that, shortly after independence, Caribbean nations had to face a difficult set of economic circumstances, such as rising interest rates, sinking prices for exports, shrinking markets, increasing costs of oil and other imports—all of which precluded sustained industrialization and led to quasiendemic trade deficits, increased unemployment, debt, and poverty. The external debt (primarily to the IMF, World Bank, and Inter-American Development Bank), for example, increased by 100% between 1981 and 1991. Servicing the debt is taking a serious toll on Caribbean economies and people. In the 1980s, countries like Guyana and Jamaica spent nearly 50% of their revenues on foreign debt service payments. Thus, while life expectancy and literacy have generally improved, poverty and suffering are widespread due to structural adjustment reforms. Unemployment rates of from 15% to 25% are common.


It is largely bleak economic prospects that have led large numbers of Caribbean people to leave their native land in search of greater opportunities, primarily in Europe, the United States, and Canada, contributing to the emergence of a sizable AfricanCaribbean diaspora. The largest migration wave to the United States began in 1966, with the passage in 1965 of the McCarran-Walter Act that eliminated the previously established national quota system. Since then, thousands of Caribbean men and women have made the United States their home, in particular New York, where the largest concentration of Caribbean individuals can be found. Most Caribbean immigrants have maintained strong ties with their homeland, however, often supporting Caribbean economies through capital inflows.
While some countries such as Trinidad, Jamaica, and Guyana have been able to rely on some earnings from oil and/or mining (primarily bauxite), for most Caribbean countries, tourism, bananas, and sugar are their major foreign-exchange earners. Nonetheless, due to high costs of production, bananas and sugar depend on preferential marketing arrangements. In terms of services, tourism is the single most significant business sector. In 1993, for instance, it provided 26% of the region's GDP and employment to about 400,000 people. It is the only industry that has shown steady growth over the past 30 years. Because it is largely foreign-controlled and owned, however, tourism has a limited impact on local economies. On the other hand, it is believed to be responsible for significant environmental degradation, as well as cultural and psychological damage. It also suffers from serious fluctuations in visitor volume and spending. Offshore financial services represent a significant sector in Caribbean countries, in particular, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, and the Bahamas. In recent years, the apparel and textile sector has rapidly expanded. In fact, footwear, sewn leather products, apparel, and textiles represent nearly half of all U.S. imports from the region.

A United Caribbean

The Caribbean Community and Common Market

In the face of a common legacy of slavery, colonialism, and shared culture, and a present of economic difficulties, the Caribbean countries attempted to unite. The Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) came into existence on July 4, 1973 and into effect on August 1, 1973. It was signed by the prime ministers of Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, Trinidad, and Tobago at Chaguaramas, Trinidad. Some of the goals of CARICOM were to improve standards of living and work, facilitate full employment, and expand trade and economic relations with third states.

Caribbean Free Trade Association

Another effort at unity is the Caribbean Free Trade Association (CARIFTA). CARIFTA came into existence as a result of the signing of the Treaty of Dickinson Bay in July, 1965 by Antigua, Barbados, and Guyana. Additional countries joined CARIFTA, and, eventually, CARIFTA countries Belize, Dominica, Grenada, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Montserrat joined CARICOM in 1974, followed by Suriname in 1995 and Haiti in 1997.

The Caribbean Basin Initiative

Unfortunately, instead of fostering significant intraCaribbean cooperation, Caribbean leaders increased their reliance—and thus, dependency—on the European Union and the United States, as well as their corporations, as their major commercial partners. This dependency became further entrenched and institutionalized with the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) developed under the Reagan administration in 1984. Its purpose was to provide tariff exemptions or reductions for most products from 24 participating countries in Central America and the Caribbean. In addition to its great economic influence, the U.S. has increased its military presence in the Caribbean with several military bases, the two largest ones being in Puerto Rico. The U.S. penetration into the Caribbean, however, has also been cultural, with American television programs being readily accessible throughout the region, thus disrupting further the local way of life.

The Caribbean Today

Despite this, the Caribbean remains culturally fertile and creative. It continues, for example, to produce important musical genres—reggae, calypso, ska, zouk. On the intellectual and ideological front, the Caribbean has had the distinction of making a major contribution to Pan-Africanism and Black Nationalism, with native giants such as Marcus Garvey, C. L. R. James, George Padmore, Frantz Fanon, Kwame Ture (a.k.a. Stokely Carmichael), and Eric Williams. The Caribbean has also produced important literary figures such as Aimé Césaire, V. S. Naipaul, and George Lamming, to mention only a few.



  • Guyana
  • Jamaica
  • sugar
  • Haiti
  • Guadeloupe
  • islands
  • Barbados


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Further Reading

  • Barry, Tom, Wood, Beth, and Preusch, Deb. (1984). The Other Side of Paradise: Foreign Control in the Caribbean. New York: Grove Press. This is a very insightful study of U.S. and European imperialism in the Caribbean.
  • Bryan, Anthony (Ed.). (1995). The Caribbean: New Dynamics in Trade and Political Economy. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction. This is a useful survey of the major contemporary economic and political challenges facing Caribbean countries.
  • James, C. L. R. (1963). The Black Jacobins. New York: Vintage Books. This book is the classic study of African resistance in the Caribbean during slavery.
  • Knight, Franklin. (1990). The Caribbean: The Genesis of a Fragmented Nationalism. New York: Oxford University Press. Knight's book remains the most comprehensive and authoritative source on Caribbean history.