Caribbean History
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Caribbean after 1500

Native woman swimming with two children
Arawak or Carib woman swimming with
her kids ca. 1580 AD

August 2016 - Arawak people had conquered the Caribbean islands about 300 BC, and then about 1200 AD, Carib people started trying to conquer the Arawak. In the middle of this process, with some islands Carib and others still Arawak, the first European invaders showed up to conquer them all. When Christopher Columbus sailed to the Caribbean from Spain in 1492, he was looking for gold, pearls, and a good place to grow cotton and sugar, and he found most of that, so he was pretty happy with his conquest, and so were the rulers of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella.

But Columbus' conquest was nothing but bad news for the Arawak and the Caribs. Columbus and his sailors carried over germs from Europe, and most of the Arawak quickly died of smallpox, measles, malaria, and other European diseases. Columbus and his soldiers also killed a lot of Arawak people by torturing them to force them to produce gold that they didn't have- their gold jewelry all came from Brazil. (Compare how the Jesuits tortured people in Spain at the same time.)

men burning people and tossing a baby
Spanish torturing the Arawak for gold

After most of the Arawak and Caribs in the Caribbean were dead (more survived in Venezuela and Surinam), Spanish and British traders brought over boatloads of enslaved African people to work for them in the Caribbean growing sugar and diving for pearls. The Africans brought up so many thousands of pearls that the pearl oysters almost died out, and after that they mostly focused on sugar. Thousands of Africans died, too, because the Spanish and the British and the French beat them and starved them and made them work too hard. And the Africans brought yellow fever and malaria with them, which killed even more Arawak and Carib people.

black man wearing waistcoat and breeches
Toussaint L'Ouverture

But the Africans and Natives kept trying to get free. In 1791, following the example of the American Revolution and the French Revolution, the Africans on Haiti, led by Toussaint L'Ouverture, seized control of the island from France. Napoleon fought a war with Haiti over it, but with the help of the British, the Haitians kept their independence (but they had to pay France a huge amount of money for it.)

latino man in black beret with beard
Fidel Castro (1950s)

Spain lost control of Cuba and Puerto Rico in 1902. Cuba became independent, but Puerto Rico became a possession of the United States, which it still is today. In the 1950s, Fidel Castro overthrew Cuba's dictator and set up a Communist government there, cancelling debts and redistributing land. Castro got support from the Soviet Union, and the United States still refuses to allow most countries to buy anything from Cuba.

small black girl doing dishes
Enslaved Haitian "restavek"

Some other Caribbean islands also became independent, but Britain, France, and the Netherlands still rule other islands. On most of the Caribbean islands, African-descended people still produce sugar there while most of the profit goes to Europeans or Americans, though tourism is also important. Many Caribbean people still live in slavery, or close to slavery.

South American History

Bibliography and further reading about the history of the Caribbean:

Brazil before 1500
Arawak before 1500 home

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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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  • Carr, K.E. . Study Guides, . Web. 29 March, 2017