When European explorers first traveled to the New World, there were primarily two indigenous races living in the Caribbean: the Tainos (or Arawaks), who originally settled in the Windwards and Leewards and eventually inhabited the Greater Antilles and the Bahamas; and the Caribs who came from Venezuela in South America and lived throughout the Lesser Antilles.

The Tainos (which translates to “peace”) began populating the region around a few hundred years BC. They were mainly hunter/gatherers, but a few crops like cassava and maize were cultivated. Although the more aggressive Carib tribesmen began systematically forcing the Tainos off the islands, it was the Spanish explorers who ultimately exterminated the Tainos. During their quest for gold, the Spaniards eradicated the tribe in fewer than fifty years. A warrior tribe, the Caribs wore their dark, black hair oiled and long. Their native dress consisted of parrot feathers, necklaces made of victims’ teeth, and red body paint. The Carib people cultivated foods such as “yuca” and sweet potatoes. The Caribs were also said to be an expert and aggressive hunting tribe; the men were excellent shots with bows and arrows but their rapid-fire hunting was not limited to the land. With 100-men “piragua” canoes they would attack vessels on ocean waters. Almost no indigenous Caribbean Indians survive today. However, there is a lasting legacy of their history in the Arawak features found in the faces of some modern-day ancestors.

The Rise Of The Mayas In Mexico

The Maya Empire, centered in the tropical lowlands of what is now Mexico and Guatemala, reached the peak of its power and influence around the sixth century AD. The Maya excelled at agriculture, pottery, hieroglyph writing, calendar-making and mathematics, and left behind an astonishing amount of impressive architecture and symbolic artwork. The Classic Period, which began around 250AD, was the golden age of the Maya Empire. The Classic Maya civilization grew to some 40 cities, including Tikal, Copan, Bonampak, Calakmul, Palenque, Uxmal and Chichen Itza. Each city held a population of between 5,000 and 50,000 people and at its peak, the Maya population may have reached 2,000,000. From the late eighth through the end of the ninth century, something unknown happened to shake the Maya civilization to its foundations. One by one, the Classic cities in the southern lowlands were abandoned, and by 900AD, Maya civilization in that region had collapsed.

The reason for this mysterious decline is unknown, though scholars have developed several competing theories. Some believe that by the ninth century, the Maya had exhausted the environment around them to the point that it could no longer sustain a very large population. Other Maya scholars argue that constant warfare among competing city-states led to a breakdown. Finally, some catastrophic environmental change – like an extremely long, intense period of drought – may have wiped out the Classic Maya civilization.

Europe And The Age Of Discovery

On August 3rd, 1492, Christopher Columbus set sail from the Spanish port of Palos de la Frontera on a mission to discover an ocean route to China and the East. He was spurred on by tales from Marco Polo’s travels to the East of the great palaces and huge amounts of gold to be found there. When he did make landfall on October 12th, 1492, he was in for a shock for instead of reaching lands of Oriental splendor, he had encountered the islands of the Caribbean. Columbus called this island, believed to be in the Bahamas or Turks and Caicos islands, San Salvador, but exactly which island this was is unknown. Confused, he continued to Cuba and what is modern-day Haiti before heading home on January 15th, 1493. The countries ‘discovered’ by Columbus in the Caribbean would go on to generate enormous wealth and power for the Spanish empire, which would enjoy overseas supremacy until the late sixteenth century. Although Columbus had intended to locate a new route to the Far East, his discovery of a “new world” sparked a new phase in world history. European exploration, starting with Spain and Portugal, would continue to increase in size and strength over the course of the following centuries.

Colonization in the Caribbean became an extremely lucrative endeavor well into the eighteenth century. The production of sugar provided European states with incredible wealth, which allowed them to continue to build their global empires. Imperial presence in the Caribbean and the Americas also led to the transatlantic slave trade and the massive enslavement of Africans in order to accommodate the growing demand for luxury goods – such as sugar, coffee, rum and chocolate.

Pirates, Privateers And Buccaneers

News of Spain’s great discoveries spread fast and the region soon attracted interest from England, France and Holland who were also encouraged by reports of the great silver and gold wealth of the Mayas, Aztecs and Incas. In the sixteenth century, because England, Holland and France were latecomers to empire-building, the best they could hope for was to plunder gold and silver from Spanish and Portuguese ships and settlements in the Caribbean. Raids against the Spanish escalated between 1568 and 1603. This conflict had a distinctly sectarian flavor as English, Dutch and French protestants waged officially-sanctioned piracy against the papist Spanish. The most famous of these English sea dogs was Francis Drake who led several piratical expeditions to the West Indies between 1570 and 1572 (acquiring a small fortune for himself in the process). Regarded as a “heretic” by the Spanish, Drake was a hero back home and Queen Elizabeth I knighted him in 1581.

A Caribbean Stronghold

From the 17th century, English Harbour in Antigua quickly became a strategic focal point as a naval base. Positioned on the south side of the island, the harbor was a natural haven to protect ships and cargo from storms and hurricanes and ideally positioned to monitor the neighboring French island of Guadeloupe. By the beginning of the 18th century, the harbour was in regular use by British naval ships and Fort Berkeley was built on a spit of land across the harbor to protect it. In 1723, the harbor’s reputation was confirmed when a hurricane swept ashore. 35 ships anchored in other ports around Antigua, while HMS Hector and HMS Winchelsea were both moored safely in English Harbour. Known today as Nelson’s Dockyard, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

America And The Caribbean

It is a little known fact, but Barbados played a central role in the life of America’s first president, George Washington. In 1752, Washington made his only overseas trip to the island and this journey marked a dividing line between his intensely provincial youth and a young adulthood characterized by extraordinary energy and ambition. Washington was accompanying his half-brother Lawrence who was recovering from TB in the tropics (this Caribbean vacation was not, however, a tonic for George who succumbed to smallpox while in Barbados). Another notable figure from the birth of America can also trace his roots back to the Caribbean – Alexander Hamilton was born and spent part of his childhood on the island of Nevis.

It was during the War of Independence that the islands were to play the most crucial role in the history of America as the alliance with France meant that the British were forced to keep many men and ships in the Caribbean to protect their interests in the region. So great was the threat from the French that, in 1781, the British were prevented from sending much needed reinforcements to General Cornwallis at Yorktown. Also, these French military resources were used for several temporary deployments to fight in the engagements in the American rebel colonies and adjacent Spanish colonies.

Road To Independence

Some islands changed hands more than twenty times during the Caribbean wars. It wasn’t until the Emancipation Act of 1834 ended slavery, and Europe no longer relied on the islands’ sugar production, that the Caribbean became less of a fighting prize; however, the lasting European influence on the history of the Caribbean was far from over. Cuba and Puerto Rico were ceded to the United States in the late 19th century, and Cuba gained its independence in 1901. Independence for all the island nations of the Caribbean, however, wasn’t a legitimate prospect until the 1960s. The French possessions such as Martinique remain departments of France; citizens of these islands have the same rights and privileges as citizens of Burgundy or Provence. In 1962, Jamaica and Trinidad/Tobago became independent states within the British Commonwealth; Barbados did the same four years later. Next came independence for Antigua, Barbuda, Redonda, Anguilla, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and Dominica.

 

 

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