Regional Overview

Caribbean Islands Table of Contents

THE COMMONWEALTH CARIBBEAN ISLANDS have a distinctive history. Permanently influenced by the experiences of colonialism and slavery, the Caribbean has produced a collection of societies that are markedly different in population composition from those in any other region of the world.

Lying on the sparsely settled periphery of an irregularly populated continent, the region was "discovered" by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Thereafter, it became the springboard for the European invasion and domination of the Americas, a transformation that historian D. W. Meinig has aptly described as the "radical reshaping of America." Beginning with the Spanish and Portuguese and continuing with the arrival more than a century later of other Europeans, the indigenous peoples of the Americas experienced a series of upheavals. The European intrusion abruptly interrupted the pattern of their historical development and linked them inextricably with the world beyond the Atlantic Ocean. It also severely altered their physical environment, introducing both new foods and new epidemic diseases. As a result, the native Indian populations rapidly declined and virtually disappeared from the Caribbean, although they bequeathed to the region a distinct cultural heritage that is still seen and felt.

During the sixteenth century, the Caribbean region was significant to the Spanish empire. In the seventeenth century, the English, Dutch, and French established colonies. By the eighteenth century, the region contained colonies that were vitally important for all of the European powers because the colonies generated great wealth from the production and sale of sugar.

The early English colonies, peopled and controlled by white settlers, were microcosms of English society, with small yeoman farming economies based mainly on tobacco and cotton. A major transformation occurred, however, with the establishment of the sugar plantation system. To meet the system's enormous manpower requirements, vast numbers of black African slaves were imported throughout the eighteenth century, thereby reshaping the region's demographic, social, and cultural profile. Although the white populations maintained their social and political preeminence, they became a numerical minority in all of the islands. Following the abolition of slavery in the mid-nineteenth century, the colonies turned to imported indentured labor from India, China, and the East Indies, further diversifying the region's culture and society. The result of all these immigrations is a remarkable cultural heterogeneity in contemporary Caribbean society.

The abolition of slavery was also a major watershed in Caribbean history in that it initiated the long, slow process of enfranchisement and political control by the nonwhite majorities in the islands. The early colonies enjoyed a relatively great amount of autonomy through the operations of their local representative assemblies. Later, however, for ease of administration and to facilitate control of increasingly assertive colonial representative bodies, the British adopted a system of direct administration known as crown colony government in which Britishappointed governors wielded nearly autocratic power. The history of the colonies from then until 1962 when the first colonies became independent is marked by the rise of popular movements and labor organizations and the emergence of a generation of politicians who assumed positions of leadership when the colonial system in the British Caribbean was dismantled.

Despite shared historical and cultural experiences and geographic, demographic, and economic similarities, the islands of the former British Caribbean empire remain diverse, and attempts at political federation and economic integration both prior to and following independence have foundered. Thus, the region today is characterized by a proliferation of mini-states, all with strong democratic traditions and political systems cast in the Westminster parliamentary mold, but all also with forceful individual identities and interests.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress