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The history of the Caribbean reveals the significant role the region played in the colonial struggles of the European powers since the 15th century. In the 20th century the Caribbean was again important during World War II, in decolonization wave in the post-war period, and in the tension between Communist Cuba and the United States (US). Genocide, slavery, immigration and rivalry between world powers have given Caribbean history an impact disproportionate to the size of this small region.
The oldest evidence of humans in the Caribbean is the Casirimoid culture in Cuba and Hispaniola which dates back to 4500 BCE and is associated with edge grinders similar to those used in Archaic Age Central America. There is also another series of Archaic Age sites discovered by Christi Torres Trinidad at Banwari Trace where 4000-year-old remains have been found. These sites, which belong to the Archaic (pre-ceramic) age, have been termed Ortoiroid. The earliest evidence of humans in the Lesser Antilles are from 2000 BCE in Antigua. A lack of pre-ceramic sites in the Windward Islands and differences in technology suggest that these Archaic settlers may have Central American origins. Whether an Ortoiroid colonisation of the islands took place is uncertain, but there is little evidence of one.
Between 400 BCE and 200 BCE the first ceramic-using agriculturalists, the Saladoid culture, entered Trinidad from South America. They expanded down the Orinoco River to Trinidad, and then spread rapidly up the islands of the Caribbean. Some time after 250 CE another group, the Barrancoid entered Trinidad. The Barancoid society collapsed along the Orinoco around 650 and another group, the Arauquinoid, expanded into these areas and up the Caribbean chain. Around 1300 a new group, the Mayoid entered Trinidad and remained the dominant culture until Spanish settlement.
At the time of the European discovery of most of the islands of the Caribbean, three major Amerindian indigenous peoples lived on the islands: the Taíno in the Greater Antilles, The Bahamas and the Leeward Islands; the Island Caribs and Galibi in the Windward Islands; and the Ciboney in western Cuba. The Taínos are subdivided into Classic Taínos, who occupied Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, Western Taínos, who occupied Cuba, Jamaica, and the Bahamian archipelago, and the Eastern Taínos, who occupied the Leeward Islands. Trinidad was inhabited by both Carib speaking and Arawak-speaking groups.
New scientific DNA studies have changed some of the traditional beliefs about pre-Columbian indigenous history. Juan Martinez Cruzado, a geneticist from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez designed an island-wide DNA survey of Puerto Rico's people. According to conventional historical belief, Puerto Ricans have mainly Spanish ethnic origins, with some African ancestry, and distant and less significant indigenous ancestry. Cruzado's research revealed surprising results in 2003. It found that, in fact, 61 percent of all Puerto Ricans have Amerindian mitochondrial DNA, 27 percent have African and 12 percent Caucasian. This scientific evidence shows that the official history of Puerto Rico has been incorrect.
Soon after the voyages of Christopher Columbus to the Americas, both Portuguese and Spanish ships began claiming territories in Central and South America. These colonies brought in gold, and other European powers, most specifically England, the Netherlands, and France, hoped to establish profitable colonies of their own. Imperial rivalries made the Caribbean a contested area during European wars for centuries.
During the first voyage of the explorer Christopher Columbus (mandated by the Spanish crown to conquer) contact was made with the Lucayans in the Bahamas and the Taíno in Cuba and the northern coast of Hispaniola, and a few of the native people were taken back to Spain. Small amounts of gold were found in their personal ornaments and other objects such as masks and belts. The Spanish, who came seeking wealth, enslaved the native population and rapidly drove them to near-extinction. To supplement the Amerindian labour, the Spanish imported African slaves. (see also Slavery in the Spanish New World colonies) Although Spain claimed the entire Caribbean, they settled only the larger islands of Hispaniola (1493), Puerto Rico (1508), Jamaica (1509), Cuba (1511), and Trinidad (1530), although the Spanish made an exception in the case of the small 'pearl islands' of Cubagua and Margarita off the Venezuelan coast because of their valuable pearl beds which were worked extensively between 1508 and1530.
The other European powers established a presence in the Caribbean after the Spanish Empire declined, partly due to the reduced native population of the area from European diseases. The Dutch, the French, and the British followed one another to the region and established a long-term presence. They brought with them millions of slaves imported from Africa to support the tropical plantation system that spread through the Caribbean islands.
The development of agriculture in the Caribbean required a large workforce of manual labourers, which the Europeans found by taking advantage of the slave trade in Africa. The Atlantic slave trade brought African slaves to British, Dutch, French, Portuguese and Spanish colonies in the Americas, including the Caribbean. Slaves were brought to the Caribbean from the early 16th century until the end of the 19th century. The majority of slaves were brought to the Caribbean colonies between 1701 and 1810.
The following table lists the number of slaves brought into some of the Caribbean colonies:
|Caribbean colonizer||1450-1700||1701-1810||1811-1870||Total number of slaves imported|
Abolitionists in the Americas and in Europe became vocal opponents of the slave trade throughout the 19th century. The importation of slaves to the colonies was often outlawed years before the end of the institution of slavery itself. It was well into the 19th century before many slaves in the Caribbean were legally free. The trade in slaves was abolished in the British Empire through the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807. Men, women and children who were already enslaved in the British Empire remained slaves, however, until Britain passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. When the Slavery Abolition Act came into force in 1834, roughly 700,000 slaves in the British West Indies immediately became free; other enslaved workers were freed several years later after a period of forced apprenticeship. Slavery was abolished in the Dutch Empire in 1814. Spain abolished slavery in its empire in 1811, with the exceptions of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Santo Domingo; Spain ended the slave trade to these colonies in 1817, after being paid ₤400,000 by Britain. Slavery itself was not abolished in Cuba until 1886. France abolished slavery in its colonies in 1848.
European plantations required laws to regulate the plantation system and the many slaves imported to work on the plantations. This legal control was the most oppressive for slaves inhabiting colonies where they outnumbered their European masters and where rebellion was persistent, such as Jamaica. During the early colonial period, rebellious slaves were harshly punished, with sentences including death by torture; less serious crimes such as assault, theft or persistent escape attempts were commonly punished with mutilations, such as the cutting off of a hand or a foot.
Under British rule, slaves could only be freed with the consent of their master, and therefore freedom for slaves was rare. British colonies were able to establish laws through their own legislatures, and the assent of the local island governor and the Crown. British law considered slaves to be property, and thus did not recognize marriage for slaves, family rights, education for slaves, or the right to religious practises such as holidays. British law denied all rights to freed slaves, with the exception of the right to a jury trial. Otherwise, freed slaves had no right to own property, vote or hold office, or even enter some trades.
The French Empire regulated slaves under the Code Noir (Black Code) which was in force throughout the empire, but which was based upon French practises in the Caribbean colonies. French law recognized slave marriages, but only with the consent of the master. French law, like Spanish law, gave legal recognition to marriages between European men and black or Creole women. French and Spanish laws were also significantly more lenient than British law in recognizing manumission, or the ability of a slave to purchase their freedom and become a "freeman". Under French law, free slaves gained full rights to citizenship. The French also extended limited legal rights to slaves, for example the right to own property, and the right to enter contracts.
The exploitation of the Caribbean landscape dates back to the Spanish conquistadors around 1600 who mined the islands for gold which they brought back to Spain. The more significant development came when Christopher Columbus wrote back to Spain that the islands were made for sugar development. The history of Caribbean agricultural dependency is closely linked with European colonialism which altered the financial potential of the region by introducing a plantation system. Much like the Spanish enslaved indigenous Indians to work in gold mines, the seventeenth century brought a new series of oppressors in the form of the Dutch, the English, and the French. By the middle of the eighteenth century sugar was Britain's largest import which made the Caribbean that much more important as a colony.
Sugar was a luxury in Europe prior to 18th century. It became widely popular in 18th century, then graduated to becoming a necessity in the 19th century. This evolution of taste and demand for sugar as an essential food ingredient unleashed major economic and social changes. Caribbean islands with plentiful sunshine, abundant rainfalls and no extended frosts were well suited for sugarcane agriculture and sugar factories.
Following the emancipation of slaves in 1833 in the United Kingdom, many liberated Africans left their former masters. This created an economic chaos for British owners of Caribbean sugar cane plantations. The hard work in hot, humid farms required a regular, docile and low-waged labour force. The British looked for cheap labour. This they found initially in China and then mostly in India. The British crafted a new legal system of forced labour, which in many ways resembled enslavement. Instead of calling them slaves, they were called indentured labour. Indians and southeast Asians, began to replace Africans previously brought as slaves, under this indentured labour scheme to serve on sugarcane plantations across the British empire. The first ships carrying indentured labourers for sugarcane plantations left India in 1836. Over the next 70 years, numerous more ships brought indentured labourers to the Caribbean, as cheap and docile labor for harsh inhumane work. The slave labor and indentured labor - both in millions of people - were brought into Caribbean, as in other European colonies throughout the world. 
The “New World” plantations were established in order to fulfill the growing needs of the “Old World”. The sugar plantations were built with the intention of exporting the sugar back to Britain which is why the British did not need to stimulate local demand for the sugar with wages. A system of slavery was adapted since it allowed the colonizer to have an abundant work force with little worry about declining demands for sugar. In the 19th century wages were finally introduced with the abolition of slavery. The new system in place however was similar to the previous as it was based on white capital and colored labor. Large numbers of unskilled workers were hired to perform repeated tasks, which made if very difficult for these workers to ever leave and pursue any non farming employment. Unlike other countries, where there was an urban option for finding work, the Caribbean countries had money invested in agriculture and lacked any core industrial base. The cities that did exist offered limited opportunities to citizens and almost none for the unskilled masses who had worked in agriculture their entire lives. The products produced brought in no profits for the countries since they were sold to the colonial occupant buyer who controlled the price the products were sold at. This resulted in extremely low wages with no potential for growth since the occupant nations had no intention of selling the products at a higher price to themselves.
The result of this economic exploitation was a plantation dependence which saw the Caribbean nations possessing a large quantity of unskilled workers capable of performing agricultural tasks and not much else. After many years of colonial rule the nations also saw no profits brought into their country since the sugar production was controlled by the colonial rulers. This left the Caribbean nations with little capital to invest towards enhancing any future industries unlike European nations which were developing rapidly and separating themselves technologically and economically from most impoverished nations of the world.
The Caribbean region was war-torn throughout much of colonial history, but the wars were often based in Europe, with only minor battles fought in the Caribbean. Some wars, however, were borne of political turmoil in the Caribbean itself.
Piracy in the Caribbean was often a tool used by the European empires to wage war unofficially against one another. Gold plundered from Spanish ships and brought to Britain had a pivotal effect on European interest in colonizing the region.
The plantation system and the slave trade that enabled its growth led to regular slave resistance in many Caribbean islands throughout the colonial era. Resistance was made by escaping from the plantations altogether, and seeking refuge in the areas free of European settlement. Communities of escaped slaves, who were known as Maroons, banded together in heavily forested and mountainous areas of the Greater Antilles and some of the islands of the Lesser Antilles. The spread of the plantations and European settlement often meant the end of many Maroon communities, although they survived on Saint Vincent and Dominica, and in the more remote mountainous areas of Jamaica, Hispaniola, Guadeloupe and Cuba.
Violent resistance broke out periodically on the larger Caribbean islands. Many more conspiracies intended to create rebellions were discovered and ended by Europeans before they could materialize. Actual violent uprisings, involving anywhere from dozens to thousands of slaves, were regular events, however. Jamaica and Cuba in particular had many slave uprisings. Such uprisings were brutally crushed by European forces.
The following table lists slave rebellions that resulted in actual violent uprisings:
|Caribbean island||Year of slave uprising|
|Cuba||1713, 1729, 1805, 1809, 1825, 1826, 1830-31, 1833, 1837, 1840, 1841, 1843|
|Dominica||1785-90, 1791, 1795, 1802, 1809-14|
|Guadeloupe||1656, 1737, 1789|
|Jamaica||1673, 1678, 1685, 1690, 1730-40, 1760, 1765, 1766, 1791-92, 1795-96, 1808, 1822-24, 1831-32|
|Martinique||1752, 1789-92, 1822, 1833|
|Saint Vincent||1769-73, 1795-96|
|Tobago||1770, 1771, 1774, 1807|
|Tortola||1790, 1823, 1830|
Haiti the former French colony of Saint-Domingue on Hispaniola, was the first Caribbean nation to gain independence from European powers in 1804. This followed 13 years of warfare which commenced as a slave uprising in 1791 and quickly became the Haitian Revolution under the leadership of Toussaint l'Ouverture, where the former slaves defeated the French army (twice), the Spanish army, and the British army, before becoming the world's first and oldest black republic, and also the second-oldest republic in the Western Hemisphere after the United States. This is additionally notable as being the only successful slave uprising in history. The remaining two-thirds of Hispaniola were conquered by Haitian forces in 1821. In 1844, the newly-formed Dominican Republic declared its independence from Haiti.
The nations bordering the Caribbean in Central America gained independence with the 1821 establishment of the First Mexican Empire - which at that time included the modern states of Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. The nations bordering the Caribbean in South America also gained independence from Spain in 1821 with the establishment of Gran Colombia - which comprised the modern states of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, and Panama.
Cuba and Puerto Rico remained a Spanish colonies until the Spanish American War in 1898, after which Cuba attained its independence in 1902, and Puerto Rico became an unincorporated territory of the United States, being the last of the Greater Antilles under colonial control.
Between 1958 and 1962 most of the British-controlled Caribbean was integrated as the new West Indies Federation in an attempt to create a single unified future independent state - but it failed. The following former British Caribbean island colonies achieved independence in their own right; Jamaica (1962), Trinidad & Tobago (1962), Barbados (1966), Bahamas (1973), Grenada (1974), Dominica (1978), St. Lucia (1979), St. Vincent (1979), Antigua & Barbuda (1981), St. Kitts & Nevis (1983).
In addition British Honduras in Central America became independent as Belize (1981), British Guiana in South America became independent as Guyana (1966), and Dutch Guiana also in South America became independent as Suriname (1975).
It should be noted that as of the early 21st century, not all Caribbean islands have become independent. Several islands continue to have government ties with European countries, or with the United States.
French overseas departments and territories include several Caribbean islands. Guadeloupe and Martinique are French overseas regions, a legal status that they have had since 1946. Their citizens are considered full French citizens with the same legal rights. In 2003, the populations of St. Martin and St. Barthélemy voted in favour of secession from Guadeloupe in order to form separate overseas collectivities of France. After a bill was passed in the French Parliament, the new status took effect on 22 February 2007.
Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are officially insular areas of the United States, but are sometimes referred to as "protectorates" of the United States. They are administered by the Office of Insular Affairs (OIA) within the United States Department of Interior.
British overseas territories in the Caribbean include:
Aruba, Curaçao, and Sint Maarten are all presently separate constituent countries, formerly part of the Netherlands Antilles. Along with Netherlands, they form the four constituent countries of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Citizens of these islands have full Dutch citizenship.
Since the Monroe Doctrine, the United States gained a major influence on most Caribbean nations. In the early part of the twentieth century this influence was extended by participation in The Banana Wars. Areas outside British or French control became known in Europe as "America's tropical empire".
Victory in the Spanish-American war and the signing of the Platt amendment in 1901 ensured that the United States would have the right to interfere in Cuban political and economic affairs, militarily if necessary. After the Cuban revolution of 1959 relations deteriorated rapidly leading to the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis and successive US attempts to destabilise the island. The US invaded and occupied Hispaniola (present day Dominican Republic and Haiti) for 19 years (1915–34), subsequently dominating the Haitian economy through aid and loan repayments. The US invaded Haiti again in 1994 and in 2004 were accused by CARICOM of arranging a coup d'état to remove elected Haitian leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
In 1965, 23,000 US troops were sent to the Dominican Republic to quash a local uprising against military rule. President Lyndon Johnson had ordered the invasion to stem what he claimed to be a "Communist threat", however the mission appeared ambiguous and was roundly condemned throughout the hemisphere as a return to gunboat diplomacy. In 1983 the US invaded Grenada to remove populist left-wing leader Maurice Bishop. The US maintains a naval military base in Cuba at Guantanamo Bay. The base is one of five unified commands whose "area of responsibility" is Latin America and the Caribbean. The command is headquartered in a Miami, Florida office building.
As an arm of the economic and political network of the Americas, the influence of the United States stretches beyond a military context. In economic terms, the United States represents a primary market for the export of Caribbean goods. Notably, this is a recent historical trend. The post-war era reflects a time of transition for the Caribbean basin when, as colonial powers sought to disentangle from the region (as part of a larger trend of decolonization), the US began to expand its hegemony throughout the region. This pattern is confirmed by economic initiatives such as the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI), which sought to congeal alliances with the region in light of a perceived Soviet threat. The CBI marks the emergence of the Caribbean basin as a geopolitical area of strategic interest to the US.
This relationship has carried through to the 21st century, as reflected by the Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act. The Caribbean Basin is also of strategic interest in regards to trade routes; it has been estimated that nearly half of US foreign cargo and crude oil imports are brought via Caribbean seaways. During wartime, these figures only stand to increase. It is important to note that the US is also of strategic interest to the Caribbean. Caribbean foreign policy seeks to strengthen its participation in a global free market economy. As an extension of this, Caribbean states do not wish to be excluded from their primary market in the US, or be bypassed in the creation of “wider hemispheric trading blocs” that stand to drastically alter trade and production in the Caribbean Basin. As such, the US has played an influential role in shaping the Caribbean’s role in this hemispheric market. Likewise, building trade relationships with the US has always figured in strongly with the political goal of economic security in post-independence Caribbean states.
The mainstay of the Caribbean economy, sugar, has declined gradually since the beginning of the 20th century, although it is still a major crop in the region. Caribbean sugar production became relatively expensive in comparison to other parts of the world that developed their own sugar cultivation industries, making it difficult for Caribbean sugar products to compete. Caribbean economic diversification into new activities became essential to the islands.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the Caribbean islands enjoyed greater political stability. Large-scale violence was no longer a threat after the end of slavery in the islands. The British-controlled islands in particular benefited from investments in the infrastructure of colonies. By the beginning of World War I, all British-controlled islands had their own police force, fire department, doctors and at least one hospital. Sewage systems and public water supplies were built, and death rates in the islands dropped sharply. Literacy also increased significantly during this period, as schools were set up for students descended from African slaves. Public libraries were established in large towns and capital cities.
These improvements in the quality of life for the inhabitants also made the islands a much more attractive destination for visitors. Tourists began to visit the Caribbean in larger numbers by the beginning of the 20th century, although there was a tourist presence in the region as early as the 1880s. The United States-owned United Fruit Company operated a fleet of "banana boats" in the region that doubled as tourist transportation. The United Fruit Company also developed hotels for tourist accommodations. It soon became apparent, however, that this industry was much like a new form of colonialism; the hotels operated by the company were fully staffed by Americans, from chefs to waitresses, in addition to being owned by Americans, so that the local populations saw little economic benefit. The company also enforced racial discrimination in many policies for its fleet. Black passengers were assigned to inferior cabins, were sometimes denied bookings, and were expected to eat meals early before white passengers. The most popular early destinations were Jamaica and the Bahamas; the Bahamas remains today the most popular tourist destination in the Caribbean.
Post-independence economic needs, particularly in the aftermath of the end of preferential agricultural trade ties with Europe, led to a boom in the development of the tourism industry in the 1980s and thereafter. Large luxury hotels and resorts have been built by foreign investors in many of the islands. Cruise ships are also regular visitors to the Caribbean.
Some islands have gone against this trend, such as Cuba and Haiti, whose governments chose not to pursue foreign tourism, although Cuba has developed this part of the economy very recently. Other islands lacking sandy beaches, such as Dominica, missed out on the 20th century tourism boom, although they have recently begun to develop eco-tourism businesses, thus diversifying tourism options in the Caribbean.
The development of offshore banking services began during the 1920s. The close proximity of the Caribbean islands to the United States has made them an attractive location for branches of foreign banks. Clients from the United States take advantage of offshore banking services to avoid U.S. taxation. The Bahamas entered the financial services industry first, and continues to be at the forefront of financial services in the region. The Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands, and the Netherlands Antilles have also developed competitive financial services industries.
Ports both large and small were built throughout the Caribbean during the colonial era. The export of sugar on a large scale made the Caribbean one of the world's shipping cornerstones, as it remains today. Many key shipping routes still pass through the region.
The development of large-scale shipping to compete with other ports in Central and South America ran into several obstacles during the 20th century. Economies of scale, high port handling charges, and a reluctance by Caribbean governments to privatize ports put Caribbean shipping at a disadvantage. Many locations in the Caribbean are suitable for the construction of deep water ports for commercial ship container traffic, or to accommodate large cruise ships. The deep water port at Bridgetown, Barbados, was completed by British investors in 1961. A more recent deep water port project was completed by Hong Kong investors in Grand Bahama in the Bahamas.
Some Caribbean islands take advantage of flag of convenience policies followed by foreign merchant fleets, registering the ships in Caribbean ports. The registry of ships at "flag of convenience" ports is protected by the Law of the Sea and other international treaties. These treaties leave the enforcement of labour, tax, health and safety, and environmental laws under the control of the registry, or "flag" country, which in practical terms means that such regulations seldom result in penalties against the merchant ship. The Cayman Islands, Bahamas, Antigua, Bermuda and St. Vincent are among the top 11 flags of convenience in the world. However, the flag of convenience practice has been a disadvantage to Caribbean islands as well, since it also applies to cruise ships, which register outside the Caribbean and thus can evade Caribbean enforcement of the same territorial laws and regulations.