Caribbean Islands Table of Contents

European settlements in the Caribbean began with Christopher Columbus. Carrying an elaborate feudal commission that made him perpetual governor of all lands discovered and gave him a percentage of all trade conducted, Columbus set sail in September 1492, determined to find a faster, shorter way to China and Japan. He planned to set up a trading-post empire, modeled after the successful Portuguese venture along the West African coast. His aim was to establish direct commercial relations with the producers of spices and other luxuries of the fabled East, thereby cutting out the Arab middlemen who had monopolized trade since capturing Constantinople in 1453. He also planned to link up with the lost Christians of Abyssinia, who were reputed to have great quantities of gold--a commodity in great demand in Europe. Finally, as a good Christian, Columbus wanted to spread Christianity to new peoples. Columbus, of course, did not find the East. Nevertheless, he called the peoples he met "Indians," and, because he had sailed west, referred to the region he found as the "West Indies."

However, dreams of a trading-post empire collapsed in the face of real Caribbean life. The Indians, although initially hospitable in most cases, simply did not have gold and trade commodities for the European market. In all, Columbus made four voyages of exploration between 1492 and 1502, failing to find great quantities of gold, Christians, or the courts of the fabled khans described by Marco Polo. After 1499, small amounts of tracer gold were discovered on Hispaniola, but by that time local challenges to his governorship were mounting, and his demonstrated lack of administrative skills made matters worse. Even more disappointing, he returned to Spain in 1502 to find that his extensive feudal authority in the New World was rapidly being taken away by his monarchs.

Columbus inadvertently started a small settlement on the north coast of Hispaniola when his flagship, the Santa Maria, wrecked off the Môle St-Nicolas on his first voyage. When he returned a year later, no trace of the settlement appeared--and the former welcome and hospitality of the Indians had changed to suspicion and fear.

The first proper European settlement in the Caribbean began when Nicolás de Ovando, a faithful soldier from western Spain, settled about 2,500 Spanish colonists in eastern Hispaniola in 1502. Unlike Columbus' earlier settlements, this group was an organized cross-section of Spanish society brought with the intention of developing the Indies economically and expanding Spanish political, religious, and administrative influence. In its religious and military motivation, it continued the reconquista (reconquest), which had expelled the Moors from Grenada and the rest of southern Spain.

From this base in Santo Domingo, as the new colony was called, the Spanish quickly fanned out throughout the Caribbean and onto the mainland. Jamaica was settled in 1509 and Trinidad the following year. By 1511 Spanish explorers had established themselves as far as Florida. However, in the eastern Caribbean, the Caribs resisted the penetration of Europeans until well into the seventeenth century and succumbed only in the eighteenth century.

With the conquest of Mexico in 1519 and the subsequent discovery of gold there, interest in working the gold deposits of the islands decreased. Moreover, by that time the Indian population of the Caribbean had dwindled considerably, creating a scarcity of workers for the mines and pearl fisheries. In 1518 the first African slaves, called ladinos because they had lived in Spain and spoke the Castilian language, were introduced to the Caribbean to help mitigate the labor shortage.

The Spanish administrative structure that prevailed for the 132 years of Spanish monopoly in the Caribbean was simple. At the imperial level were two central agencies, the Casa de Contratación, or House of Trade, which licensed all ships sailing to or returning from the Indies and supervised commerce, and the Consejo de Indias, the royal Advisory Council, which attended to imperial legislation. At the local level in the Caribbean were the governors, appointed by the monarchs of Castile, who supervised local municipal councils. The governors were regulated by audiencias, or appellate courts. A parallel structure regulated the religious organizations. Despite the theoretical hierarchy and clear divisions of authority, in practice each agency reported directly to the monarch. As set out in the original instructions to Ovando in 1502, the Spanish New World was to be orthodox and unified under the Roman Catholic religion and Castilian and Spanish in culture and nationality. Moors, Jews, recent converts to Roman Catholicism, Protestants, and gypsies were legally excluded from sailing to the Indies, although this exclusiveness could not be maintained and was frequently violated.

By the early seventeenth century, Spain's European enemies, no longer disunited and internally weak, were beginning to breach the perimeters of Spain's American empire. The French and the English established trading forts along the St. Lawrence and the Hudson Rivers in North America. These were followed by permanent settlements on the mid-Atlantic coast (Jamestown) and in New England (Massachusetts Bay colony).

Between 1595 and 1620, the English, French, and Dutch made many unsuccessful attempts to settle along the Guiana coastlands of South America. The Dutch finally prevailed, with one permanent colony along the Essequibo River in 1616, and another, in 1624, along the neighboring Berbice River. As in North America, initial loss of life in the colonies was discouragingly high. In 1624 the English and French gave up in the Guianas and jointly created a colony on St. Kitts in the northern Leeward Islands. At that time, St. Kitts was occupied only by Caribs. With the Spanish deeply involved in the Thirty Years War in Europe, conditions were propitious for colonial exploits in what until then had been reluctantly conceded to be a Spanish domain.

In 1621, the Dutch began to move aggressively against Spanish territory in the Americas--including Brazil, temporarily under Spanish control between 1580 and 1640. In the Caribbean, they joined the English in settling St. Croix in 1625 and then seized the minuscule, unoccupied islands of Curaçao, St. Eustatius, St. Martin, and Saba, thereby expanding their former holdings in the Guianas, as well as those at Araya and Cumana on the Venezuelan coast.

The English and the French also moved rapidly to take advantage of Spanish weakness in the Americas and overcommitment in Europe. In 1625, the English settled Barbados and tried an unsuccessful settlement on Tobago. They took possession of Nevis in 1628 and Antigua and Montserrat in 1632. They planted a colony on St. Lucia in 1638, but it was destroyed within four years by the Caribs. The French, under the auspices of the Compagnie des Iles d'Amerique, chartered by Cardinal Richelieu in 1635, successfully settled Martinique and Guadeloupe, laying the base for later expansion to St. Bartholomé, St. Martin, Grenada, St. Lucia, and western Hispaniola, which was formally ceded by Spain in 1697 at the Treaty of Ryswick (signed between France and the alliance of Spain, the Netherlands, and England, and ending the War of the Grand Alliance). Meanwhile, an expedition sent out by Oliver Cromwell (Protector of the English Commonwealth, 1649-58) under Admiral William Penn (the father of the founder of Pennsylvania) and General Robert Venables in 1655 seized Jamaica, the first territory captured from the Spanish. (Trinidad, the only other British colony taken from the Spanish, fell in 1797 and was ceded in 1802.) At that time Jamaica had a population of about 3,000, equally divided between Spaniards and their slaves--the Indian population having been eliminated. Although Jamaica was a disappointing consolation for the failure to capture either of the major colonies of Hispaniola or Cuba, the island was retained at the Treaty of Madrid in 1670, thereby more than doubling the land area for potential British colonization in the Caribbean. By 1750 Jamaica was the most important of Britian's Caribbean colonies, having eclipsed Barbados in economic significane.

The first colonists in the Caribbean were trying to recreate their metropolitan European societies in the region. In this respect, the goals and the world view of the early colonists in the Caribbean did not vary significantly from those of the colonists on the North American mainland. "The Caribbee planters," wrote the historian Richard Dunn, "began as peasant farmers not unlike the peasant farmers of Wigston Magna, Leicestershire, or Sudbury, Massachusetts. They cultivated the same staple crop--tobacco--as their cousins in Virginia and Maryland. They brought to the tropics the English common law, English political institutions, the English parish [local administrative unit], and the English church." These institutions survived for a very long time, but the social context in which they were introduced was rapidly altered by time and circumstances. Attempts to recreate microcosms of Europe were slowly abandoned in favor of a series of plantation societies using slave labor to produce large quantities of tropical staples for the European market. In the process of this transformation, complicated by war and trade, much was changed in the Caribbean.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress