The Caribbean Islands are some of the most highly regarded travel destinations in the world, and the appeal is obvious. With beautiful beaches and sunny weather, these islands epitomize the concept of a tropical getaway. But the Caribbean of today is strongly influenced by its past. These islands have a history of colonialism and piracy, and the modern-day Caribbean blends together an intoxicating mix of varied cultural influences. Understanding this history can provide visitors with a richer and more satisfying vacation.
The Pre-colonial Caribbean
Before the arrival of Columbus, the islands were occupied by two groups of native people. The Taino Indians occupied the Greater Antilles and the Bahamas while the Caribs imported the habits and culture of primitive Venezuela to the Lesser Antilles. Both groups occupied the island chains hundreds of years before the Spanish ever arrived. While Spanish colonialism would largely remove the presence of the Taino from the islands, their influence can still be felt in the culture and physical makeup of modern-day Caribbean people.
The Old World Meets the New World
Columbus’ arrival in the late 15th century would fundamentally change life in the Caribbean. The influence Europe had on the indigenous tribes was devastating, but you can’t understand the modern region without looking closely at the influence this conflict of cultures had. The Spanish established their first settlements in Hispaniola in 1492, and the various islands became a point of contention for different European nations in the three following centuries. The French, Spanish, English and Dutch spent this period squabbling over land rights and using the native people as slaves and servants. Many islands changed hands more than 20 times over this span of time, and the cultural impact of these transitions was significant. The religions and cultures of Europe blended with the traditional Latin traditions and influences imported from the arrival of African slaves. Modern-day religion in the Caribbean is primarily Catholic, but imperialism also saw the rise of mixed religions like Santieri that combined European, native and African influences.
The Golden Age of Piracy
When someone mentions the word “pirates,” most people imagine mythical figures like Blackbeard and Calico Jack. The politics of the 17th century created a wild and tumultuous climate that allowed piracy to thrive. The Caribbean colonies were lucrative and often poorly defended. As the European nations squabbled over land rights, enterprising buccaneers took advantage of the opportunity to pillage imperial stores and pursue lives of freedom on the open seas. The influence of these pirates can still be seen on the island of Tortuga, which was once a pirate stronghold, and in imposing and beautiful military forts like Haiti’s Citadelle Laferriere and Cuba’s Morro Castle. Our modern understanding of pirates is dominated by white faces, but the pirating lifestyle included its fair share of escaped slaves and other people of color like Diego Lucifer and Diego Grillo. While the pirating lifestyle afforded some degree of freedom these men would not find on the plantations, it was a far cry from full liberation.
Freedom in the Caribbean
Given the patchwork makeup of the colonial Caribbean, liberation was neither easy nor uniform. Anti-slavery movements in Europe would first rise to prominence in the 1770s, but the transition was slow and heavily mitigated by the lucrative nature of the colonies. Britain finally passed laws banning the transport of slaves in 1807, and the motion pushed many nations to enact similar laws. It wasn’t until the mid-to-late 1800s that slavery in the colonies was formally abolished, and these islands began to realize their struggle for self-actualization. Today, the Caribbean enjoys a sense of democracy and freedom, but the history of struggle with Europe still strongly influences the cultural norms on these tropical islands.
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