When people think of the Caribbean, they almost immediately think of palm trees, white sandy beaches and sipping cocktails by the pool – and in many ways they are right. The Caribbean is made up of thousands of tropical islands surrounded by ocean blue water and often coral reefs– and most tourists on holiday will be heading to one of the many beach resorts that are located along the coastlines of the islands in the Caribbean.
The northern side of the islands facing the Atlantic generally have waves for surfing, while the southern sides have quieter waters, with few or even no significant waves at all.
There are roughly 7000 islands that make up the area defined as the Caribbean Islands and there are about 28 island nation countries and Territories located here. The islands form an archipelago or chain of islands facing the Atlantic Ocean on their northern side and the Caribbean Sea on their southern side. The islands are grouped together as the Greater Antilles Islands and the Lesser Antilles with all of the islands strung out between the Venezuela and Colombian coastlines in South America to their southern side, the state of Florida to the northern side and Mexico and Central America to the west.
There are around forty million people living on the Caribbean islands, the most populated of these islands being Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic – which each have around 10 to 11 million people, with Jamaica having a population of around 2.7 million and Trinidad and Tobago a population of just over 1.7 million. The other island nations and territories all have much smaller populations – the biggest of these being Guadeloupe, Martinique, Bahamas, Barbados – with populations of 300,000 to 400,000, while some of the smallest islands have a population of less than 5000 people.
What makes the Caribbean such an exciting and popular holiday destination is undoubtedly the sun, clear tropical waters, fish, beaches, mountains, national parks, water sports, golf, resort hotels and cruises – but there is also the history, heritage, culture, language, music, festivals, food – with some countries and islands speaking English, others French, Spanish, Creole, Dutch – languages and traditions that relate back to the days of Empire, Pirates, Privateers, Africa and Slavery.
A LITTLE HISTORY –
The original island inhabitants were Lucayan, Arawak, Taíno and Carib tribal clans headed by Chiefs that originally came from the mainland of South America, but it was the voyages of discovery by Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) between 1492 up to the time of his death in 1506 that led to the Caribbean Islands and mainlands of the Americas being 'discovered' by the Spanish conquistadors and others who would follow. While Columbus was born in the Republic of Genoa, Italy, he went to sea at an early age, and between 1477 and 1485 he was largely based in Lisbon in Portugal, though he also had a small stone house in Vila Baleira on Porto Santo Island in Madeira where he and his wife lived.
In 1485 following the death of his wife, he lobbied King John II of Portugal to fund a plan voyage of discovery to find Asia, but this plan was rejected. He then also sought funding in Genoa and Venice, and his brother also lobbied Henry VII in England too without success.
Success would come however from the Spanish court of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile in 1492. Under the terms of the Agreement that was struck, Columbus would be made Admiral of the Ocean Sea and become Governor of all new lands claimed in the name of Spain. He would also be able to claim 10% of all revenues derived in perpetuity from such discoveries. This 'deal' however was over turned in 1500 by the Spanish Court, and Columbus arrested that year too. For many years to follow Columbus and his sons fought to recover what they perceived as their rightful claim to the original Agreement.
It is interesting to contemplate how different the history of the 'New World' would have been if Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I had not supported the voyages of Columbus, and it had been the Portuguese or English Kings or even Venetians that did so.
As a broad sweep of history – 'trade' being an exchange of goods and services, has existed in all societies and civilisations for thousands of years and certainly since the times of the ancient Egyptian, Syrian, Greek, Roman, Ottoman, Han, Chinese, Japanese, Mongol, Aztec, Incan, Mayan and other civilisations and Empires. While the most traded commodity has always been food, 'traders' also have always sought to find goods that would be prized and valuable and the rarer the goods, in many cases the more tradable value they had.
From the earliest days of trade, Traders became travellers and the routes they travelled in some instances became trade routes or roads, with stops along the trading routes becoming trading centres that could also provide provisions, shelter, food and safety.
Trade however, then as now, is not without its perils, and traders carrying goods of great value also became targets of thieves, vagabonds and others who sought to steal goods by force, find the source of the goods themselves or kill the traders passing through their lands.
In Europe, the City of Byzantium (Constantinople/ Istanbul) said to be the bridge between Asia and Europe and Venice in Italy became powerful trading cities – with Arab Trade Caravans crossing the Sahara and traders such as the Venetian trader, Marco Polo (1254-1324) crossing over what became known as the 'Silk Road' that led to China and the fabled east.
With trade came wealth and with wealth came power. (Read the Venice, Italy section on this website)
Curiosity has always been a powerful motivator in many people, a desire to know and learn more, and with fables and stories of adventure, gold, silver, emeralds, rubies and fabulous wealth to be had in the mystical lands in the far-east, it is little wonder that Kings, Queens, Courtiers, merchants and adventurers in Europe were lured into the dream of fabulous wealth to be had, if only they could find it first and get their hands on it, or survive the perils and dangers of venturing into foreign and often hostile lands.
With roads being mainly just tracks, traders to the east and into Africa relied on horses, donkeys, camels and camel trains to transport their goods, as well as small Galleys, Dhows and barges powered initially by oarsmen and then by one or two sails using winds to move the boat forward.
In 1451 the Portuguese designed and developed the 'Caravel' and 'Nau' sailing ships using up to three and even four masts, using square rigged sails for power and speed and Lateen triangular shaped sails, first developed by Arabic sailors for greater manoeuvrability and directional control.
The great Portuguese Explorers, Vasco da Gama (1469-1524) and Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521) sailed 'Caravels' while the main ship of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) on his first of four voyages in 1492, the Santa Maria de la Immaculada Concepción was a 'Nau', built and first launched in the shipyard in Pontevedra, North West Spain in 1460. Pontevedra is to the north of Porto in Portugal, north over the Atlantic Ocean border in Spain. The other two ships sailed on this first voyage by Columbus, the Pinto and Santa Clara (Niño) were Caravels.
The development of bigger ocean going sailing ships enabled the Portuguese and Spanish explorers to sail further and on longer journeys than ever before, but it was also not without its perils too. The Explorer, Bartolomeu Dias (1450-1500) was the first to round the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, but died there; Vasco da Gama and his ships made it to India, where he also died; Ferdinand Magellan and his ships were the first to circumnavigate the world on his voyage in 1519-1522, but he was killed in the Philippines; while Christopher Columbus died in Spain just a couple of years after his 4th voyage to the Caribbean.
These great voyages were the prelude to massive movements of people, land and sea exploration and the development of a number of European Colonial Empires – involving principally the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French and British, but also involving the Danes and Swedish and later the United States.
While these Colonial Powers wrestled for power and control over many foreign lands in what they called the 'East Indies, the 'Far East' and the 'New World' 'West Indies', their impact directly affected millions of people in the 'New World', with local indigenous populations succumbing to European diseases for which they had no immunity and the transport of millions of African Slaves to work in mines and developing sugar and later cotton and tobacco Plantations in South, Central and North America and in the Caribbean Islands. While estimates vary as to the number of Africans who were transported as slaves to the New World from around 1525 to 1866, it is estimated that around 12.5 million Africans were transported. Of these, close to 2 million died prior to the journey or during the voyages, with the biggest number of Africans, close to 5 million ending up in Brazil – brought to Brazil by the Portuguese. Brazil only ended slavery in 1853, while it was banned in Britain in 1807, and the Dutch banned slavery in 1863.
The Africans were transported from many areas of West Africa – most coming from the countries now known as Congo and Angola, but also from Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Benin, Mozambique and other regions of Africa. While it would be easy to assume that they all spoke the same language and had the same cultural and religious beliefs, this was certainly not the case.
In the Caribbean, the initial slaves put to work by the Spanish in the early 1500's were the local indigenous Taíno Indians who Columbus had first encountered, with the first African slaves being transported here in 1820 to the island of Hispaniola (today's Haiti and Dominican Republic). At a later stage, some slaves who worked in the plantations in the Caribbean would also be taken to the United States to be sold in slave markets there.
Columbus first 'New World Discovery' voyage expedition was in 1492, and when the Santa Maria was wrecked, he used the timbers to build a small fort and some of the crew were left to establish a small settlement called La Navidad in a Taíno Village. The fort and most of the crew left behind did not survive, but the glowing reports of Columbus about the islands – the friendly Taíno people, the safe harbours, rivers, farms and fields, aroused great interest in the Spanish Court of King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I and no doubt the small gold that he brought back with him too.
Columbus when he was on the island had unfurled the Standard Flag of King Ferdinand II of Spain and made a public proclamation claiming ownership over all the lands and islands in the name of the King and as there was no resistance to this proclamation, no doubt read out in Spanish, the lands that Columbus had discovered therefore became Spanish Territory.
In 1502 some 30 Spanish ships carrying around 2500 Spanish Colonists sailed to Hispaniola to establish the first European Settlement in the Caribbean, and only the second in the Americas – the first one being 'Anse aux Meadows' in Newfoundland, Canada in the 11th Century. (See Canada section on this website)
Nicolás de Ovando (1460-1511) was also appointed as the first Spanish Governor of Hispaniola, becoming Governor from 1502-1509, with the settlement named as Santo Domingo – a city that still exists with history dating back to this time of settlement.
Under the Nicolás de Ovando Governorship, the Taíno people were forced to work for the Spanish, and many thousands died from the harsh conditions and from European diseases to which they had no resistance.
Spanish interests lay in both finding treasure and wealth – particularly gold and silver for coinage, but also in finding goods for trading, preaching the Catholic Religion and converting those non-Catholic people they found to become Catholics as well.
Hispaniola then became a base for the Spanish to establish further settlements in the Caribbean and also to explore the coasts and lands around the Caribbean – Central and South America and also Florida. Two of the first of these settlements was San Juan in Puerto Rica, with Governor Juan Ponce de Leon appointed as the island's first Governor in 1508, and the port town established in 1520 and Havana in Cuba, with some of the Colonists from Hispaniola settling here around 1510 and Havana town formally established in 1515 next to the harbour.
Having a good harbour was hugely important for safe anchorage, as well as for repairing ships before long sea journeys to Spain as well forming protection from enemy ship attack. San Juan, Havana and Santo Domingo thus became the most important ports in the Caribbean.
In 1510 Nombre de Dios on the Panama east coast was established as a Port and town and in 1519 Hernán Cortes (1485-1547) began his conquest of Mexico and the Aztec Empire, and you can imagine the jubilation the Spanish enjoyed in finding silver and gold in abundance. Veracruz on the Mexican Coastline closest to Havana then became a Port City for carrying silver and other goods via Havana, Santo Domingo and/or San Juan and on to Spain. The Franciscan Friars also arrived in Veracruz in 1524 and the first Bishop arrived in San Juan around this time too.
Another port town, Cartagena, was also established in 1533 in Colombia where the Spanish also built a city wall around the town and also Fort San Lorenzo.
The three ports – Nombre de Dios, Veracruz and Cartagena became the three main Spanish ports for trade, with their ships – later Galleons sailing from these ports with silver, gold and other riches to Havana, San Juan and Santo Domingo and then making the long journey to Seville in Spain before returning with goods including settlers, cattle, horses and other manufactured goods, with other ships carrying Canary Islanders and African slaves.
The voyages became known as the 'triangular trade' where vessels loaded with manufactured goods would sail south from Spain to West Africa, sell the goods and buy slaves to transport to the New World where the slaves would be sold and then the ships would pick up silver, sugar, molasses and other goods to return to Spain.
In 1513 Vasco Nunez de Balboa (c.1475-1519) set out to explore inland from the east coast of Panama from a small settlement named Santa Maria la Antigua del Darién and although a difficult expedition with much jubilation he found the Pacific Ocean lay on the other side of the isthmus. Here they established the city of Panama, a city that would remain in Spanish control until 1821.
Another Explorer, Francisco Pizarro (c.1471- 1541) set out from Panama with a band of Conquistadors to explore south into the vast lands of the Inca Empire in 1528. In 1532 in what became known as the Battle of Cajamarca, the Incan Emperor, Atahualpa was captured by Pizarro.
Pizarro demanded a massive ransom be paid for his release – a 'Room full of gold' which was duly paid, but then in 1533, Pizarro changed his mind and had Atahualpa executed then taking control of the Incan Capital of Cuzco. This was the beginning of the end for the Incan Empire with millions of Incans also dying from Smallpox and other diseases and the Spanish taking ownership over the vast wealth in Incan gold, silver and other treasures.
The Mayan gold and silver found in Mexico, and Incan gold and silver found in Peru and Bolivia also led the Spanish to find and establish mines – the Zacatecas mines in Mexico and the Potosi Mines in Bolivia, again adding to their fortunes in silver and gold to transport back to Spain, but this did not go unnoticed by other European powers and individual adventurers – Buccaneers, Privateers and Pirates.
Initial pirate attacks on the Spanish ships happened off the coast of Spain, Madeira and Canary Islands as the ships came closer to the end of their journeys from Havana, and then as it became apparent that the ships carrying gold and silver were coming from the Caribbean, piracy moved to the Caribbean.
An isolated ship heavily loaded with gold and silver was a prized target and the Spanish in 1566, organising armed Convoy escort ships to accompany the 'treasure ships', making it harder but not impossible for pirates to attack the ships. This system using Convoys would last until 1790. The Spanish also imposed a 20% Tax on all ship cargos, and imposed a monopoly, such that only Spanish ships and no foreign ships could trade in the region. This in turn encouraged smuggling and the English, French and Dutch gave them reason to both attack Spanish ships and also make their own claim of ownership over lands.
While the pirates attacked ships, they also attacked some of the Spanish ports too, where Forts were built as a means of protection. Havana was attacked and much of the settlement set alight by the French pirate, Jacques de Sores in 1534, while in 1573 the English Privateer, Francis Drake (1540-1595) (later Sir Francis Drake) attacked Nombre de Dios in Panama and in 1586 he attacked Santo Domingo.
The vast number of Caribbean islands, and many inlets, bays and harbours enabled the pirates to prey on the Spanish Galleons, but equally the weather in the Caribbean, particularly hurricanes, in a few hours could destroy ships through their mountainous seas and high winds. Many Galleons would be wrecked in this way.
Piracy flourished in the 1600's and 1700's, with the Pirate Ports of Port Royal in Jamaica, Tortuga in Haiti and Nassau in the Bahamas becoming their main ports to shelter in. It was not until 1697 that the British and Spanish signed a Treaty that committed both parties to end piracy.
While the Spanish had from the early 1500's onwards colonized and established settlements on the mainlands surrounding the Caribbean, with Brazil colonized by the Portuguese in 1532, it would be another century later that British, French and Dutch would also set out to establish colonies in the 'New World'.
The Dutch established 'Nieuw Hollande' in 1630 in the north of Brazil with the capital being Recife, with this part of Brazil being in Dutch control until 1654 when once again this became Portuguese territory. The Dutch however did however claim ownership over Suriname and six islands in the Caribbean – Aruba, Curacao, Sint Maarten, Bonaire and Sint Eustatius and Saba.
The English in 1607 established their first settlement in Jamestown in Virginia, on the north American east coast, and then in 1612 in Bermuda Island and another in St Christopher (Saint Kitts) in 1624 and the following year claimed ownership over Barbados and in 1655 over Jamaica.
The French had established their first settlement in the Americas called Arcadia in Nova Scotia in 1605 and then Quebec in 1608 (see Canada on this website), but their first settlement in the Caribbean was French Guineas in 1624 and then on the island of Saint Christopher (St Kitts), where the British were also located on the other end of the island and Guadeloupe and Martinique in 1635, St Lucia in 1650 and the vast area of Louisiana in 1699. See New Orleans section on this website.
Trade is always a two way business, and in the East Indies (Spice Islands/Java) – there were spices to purchase and manufactured goods to sell. For the Spanish, finding gold for the taking, and being able to sell manufactured goods, cattle, horses, goats, donkeys, sheep, household and other goods to Colonists was an ideal trade situation.
On the islands however what Taíno, Carib and Arawak gold the Spanish found quickly diminished, and if these colonies were to survive they needed to have something of value to sell too. Sugar and Tobacco became the answer.
The 'Hacienda' system of land ownership was an established Spanish institution where a Patrón landowner had control over a land area and 'encomiendas' workers to tend cattle and grow crops.
It was also an established practice for land grants to be made to successful Conquistadors and Jesuit Orders. Hernán Cortes, for example had been granted a large land grant in Mexico and also given the title of Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca.
While horses and donkeys could provide work-horses on Haciendas, most of the labour needed had to come from manual workers- and if these were cheap and ideally free from having to pay a wage this was the ideal. African Slaves provided the solution.
Growing sugarcane is hard, dirty and difficult work – and while initially the Spanish (and Portuguese, Dutch and British) forcibly used indigenous Taíno or other workers, they turned to buying African slaves when they found the local indigenous people didn't work hard enough.
The slave trade became very profitable for ship owners with the slaves brought to the 'New World' by slave traders and placed for sale for Plantation owners to bid for the slaves they wanted to buy. The highest prices were paid for younger and stronger slaves who the buyers thought could work harder and longer than others.
Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French and British were all involved in the Slave trade. While slave trading dates back centuries, it was always a contentious issue. The Europeans may not have sanctioned the use of slaves in their home countries, treating slaves as 'goods and chattels' to be bought and sold at will, but the 'New World' was a long way away, so it may well have been a question of 'out of sight, out of mind'.
The island of Madeira is located south of Portugal off the coast of Morocco, and it was settled by Portuguese around 1420, where they initially established fishing and grew wheat and then sugarcane. It was here that the first African slaves were used to work the sugar cane fields and refine sugar, and this trade became very profitable during the late 1400's and early 1500's.
It was here on the island of Porto Santo in Madeira that Christopher Columbus married Filipa Moniz Perestrelo (1455-1484), the daughter of a Sugar Plantation owner and their stone house is still to be found in Vila Baleira. Their son, Diego Columbus (1480-1526) would be born in the year following the marriage and following the death of his wife, a second son, Fernando Columbus (1488-1539) was born later in Córdoba, Spain to Christopher Columbus and his then companion, Beatriz Enriquez de Arana.
Christopher Columbus is credited with bringing the first sugarcane plants to Hispaniola and the start of what would become a big industry, and industry that continues to this day. Sugar and molasses were both products that had value and a ready market, but also Rum is made from sugar too, and this also had a ready market and great value too – including Pirates.
During the 1600 and 1700's the Caribbean became almost a chess play by the major European powers with islands and settlements changing hands as wars were fought or declared, treaties made and broken, trade established and colonies gained or relinquished.
While power and authority was in the hands of the Colonial Powers, the number of African slaves quickly outnumbered plantation owners and although rebellions occurred they were always put down, but sometimes runaways were able to escape, and some of these created their own camps in the wilds of the islands, becoming known as 'Maroon' communities. Some of these Maroon Communities became very strong, including in Haiti and also Jamaica.
In Jamaica in 1655, the British had taken the island from the Spanish, allowing many Slaves to run away and join or form Maroon groups in the rugged mountain and cave area they called 'Cockpit Country'. From here the Maroons could hide away, establish their own way of life but also mount random attacks on Plantations – using what today we would call 'guerrilla fighting tactics'.
In the latter 1600's and early 1700's the number of maroons grew as did the number of Maroon communities, and the attacks on plantations.
The British responded in the 1730's by bringing in more troops to search for the Maroon camps and capture or kill Maroon fighters, in what became known as the First Maroon War. Finally a treaty, the 'Cudjoe Treaty' was signed in 1739 to end the hostilities but tensions would continue to simmer.
The Second Maroon War took place in 1795-96 and this time the British brought in more troops and even bloodhound dogs to track down Maroon fighters. Another Treaty was signed in 1796, but this time the main fighting group of 600 Maroons from Trelawny, were forcibly deported and sent from the hot tropical climate in Jamaica to the freezing cold of Nova Scotia in Canada where they were put to work building the 3rd Citadel Fort in Halifax. In 1800 most were enticed to leave from Halifax and take a journey to Freetown in Sierra Leone in Africa. (See Canada/Nova Scotia history on this website), the name Freetown no doubt also being part of the enticement.
In 1789 the French Revolution began in France and the cry of 'Liberté, Equalité, Fraternité' became the National Motto of France and also later the French Colony of Saint Dominique (Haiti).
In Saint Dominique at the time there were around 500,000 slaves and around 30,000 former slaves that had been freed including those of mixed race (Mulattos) and around 30,000 French white Plantation owners, their families and French Colonial staff. While the French Revolution took place principally in Paris in France it also affected French colonies too – including Saint Dominique. The question was - would the slaves rise up against their masters and emulate the uprising that had occurred in France?
The answer was 'Yes'.
The first uprisings in Santa Domingo occurred in 1791 and in 1793 France abolished slavery in Saint Dominique and by 1794 in all its colonies. Many of French plantation, business people and their families fled back to France or to the United States fearing for the future, and in 1802 Napoleon Bonaparte for a short time re-instated Slavery in French colonies, hoping to maintain French control over the island territory.
The Revolution in Haiti that started in 1791 was led by Franҫois Dominique Toussant Louverture (c.1743-1803) a former slave leading his revolutionary forces against French and also at times British and Spanish forces who sought to intervene. The battles would continue until 1802.
Toussant Louverture was however captured in 1803 and taken to France where he died in prison, but the revolution continued and the independent Republic of Haiti was formed on January 1st, 1804.
In the Pantheon in Paris, the Mausoleum that houses exceptional French heroes including Voltaire, Rousseau and Emile Zola, there is a plaque and inscription in recognition of Toussant Louverture and his role in leading the Haitian Revolution.
In many ways history is like a river – sometimes history flows slowly forward, even at a trickle pace, other times as a raging torrent and flood sweeping away everything in its path and sometimes it forms new paths, changing direction or merging with other rivers to form new rivers. Ultimately history it is a story of change.
The American War of Independence often called the 'Revolutionary War' started in 1775 and lasted until 1783. The 'Declaration of Independence' was made on July 4th 1776 and the 13 colonies of America ultimately defeated their British masters in 1783. The 'Treaty of Paris' was then signed in 1783 to officially end the war, with the United States of America gaining control over all of the lands south of British Canada and north of Florida and all territory to the east of the Mississippi River.
From the 1500's to the late 1700's – almost 300 years, the European Colonial powers – Spanish, French, Dutch and British had been the dominant powers in the region, but with the newly independent United States of America now established and owning a vast land territory, there was now a new, ambitious and growing power force in the region. Times were changing.
It was just 6 years later (1789) that another major event would again help shape the future of the New World, when the French Revolution began, overthrowing the French monarchy and creating the French Republic. With this revolution succeeding, the seeds of revolution became firmly planted in people's minds, particularly in Colonies held within the European Empires. In Cuba too, moves to achieve independence had begun as early as 1868 and being put down, but the Spanish-American war of 1898 also led on to Cuba and Puerto Rico being ceded to the United States. Cuba would then become a Republic in 1902, while Puerto Rico has remained a US Commonwealth territory, with its citizens being granted US Citizenship.
The 1800's saw Haiti gain its independence in 1804, and a succession of Spanish Colonies would follow – with Chile declaring its independence in 1810 and gaining it in 1826, Bolivia 1809-1824, Paraguay 1811, Argentina 1818, Colombia 1820, Mexico 1821-1824, Ecuador 1822 and Uruguay 1828. By the end of the 1800's, the vast Spanish Empire was no more, and under another 'Treaty of Paris' in 1898 following the Spanish-American War – Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines all became United States territories.
The American Civil War 1861-1865 fought between the northern and southern states in the USA largely over the issue of slavery had also impacted the Caribbean islands too, and while a few southern Confederate plantation owners moved their operations to Brazil, Cuba and other islands where slavery was still legal, it was only a matter of time before slavery would be banned here too – Puerto Rico in 1873, Cuba in 1886 and Brazil in 1888.
Britain had abolished slavery in the British Empire in 1834, but still needed a workforce to work on sugarcane Plantations in the Caribbean and other island areas like Fiji in the Pacific. They then turned to British India and thousands of Indian workers became indentured workers in plantations in Fiji and also in the British territories in the Caribbean. Between 1838 and 1917 an estimated 500,000 Indian workers would be brought to the Caribbean to work in sugar plantations. Some of the Dutch and French colonies also took up Indian workers too around 1860.
The peoples of the Caribbean therefore have a heritage and ancestry that has mixes of original Taíno, Arawak, Carib tribal groups, Spanish, French, British, Dutch and other European ancestry, American, diverse West African ancestry and Indian backgrounds too. This has in many ways created a distinct Caribbean cultural mix – a rich tapestry of a Colonial past and its legacies of languages, customs, laws, heritage, education and politics mixed with an island Caribbean lifestyle, music and foods.
There are of course great differences between islands too – and people certainly identify as Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Jamaicans, Haitians and their own island nations.
In language terms, the most spoken language is Spanish, but this is because the most populated islands are Cuba, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico which have the biggest populations, while English is the spoken language in Jamaica, Barbados, Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, the Bahamas, Trinidad and Tobago as well as a number of other smaller islands, and French is the language of Haiti, Martinique, Guadeloupe and St Martin. There are also many words and phrases that have merged into each of these languages to create English Creole, French Creole and Spanish Creole. Many people will also speak English, Spanish or French as a second language and Dutch is spoken in Aruba, Curaҫao, Sint Maarten and Sint Eustatius.
In my experience, every city and country in the world has what I call a 'public persona', a street personality and atmosphere that you pick up when you arrive as a tourist and spend time in airports, hotels, taxis, restaurants making contact with local people and getting a feel for your surrounds. There is often also a big difference between a big city experience and that of a village or guesthouse, and in the end you will have established a viewpoint based on what you have seen.
The Caribbean islands all have a different feel and much of this is due to their different colonial past, the language differences and heritage involved. Puerto Rico has a very American feel; in Jamaica they play the very British game of cricket yet there is a real reggae music beat; in the Bahamas there is the sophistication of big resort hotels while in Cuba there is the old Spanish city of Havana dating back to the 1500's and the sight of vintage American cars from the 1950's still on the streets.
Cuba itself is perhaps the most different of all the islands due to its post-Colonial history following Independence in 1902 when it declared itself as a Republic. It was first ceded to the United States in 1898 as part of the treaty with Spain, following the Spanish American war and became a Republic in 1902. It then went through a series of Presidents, coups and guerrilla war actions, with Fidel Castro becoming Prime Minister in 1959. The following year Castro nationalised all US Business in Cuba and instituted Socialist/Communism and not Democracy as its political doctrine, and established trade and political connections with the USSR. In 1961 the USA broke off all diplomatic relations and made a CIA backed invasion in the Bay of Pigs which failed. This was then followed in 1962 by the Cubans setting up USSR Missiles aimed at the United States. President Kennedy was President at the time and the Cuban Missile Crisis was only just averted though the diplomatic actions of President Kennedy and USSR President Nikita Khrushchev with the missiles removed and the threat averted.
The US embargo on trade with Cuba began in 1961 and was only lifted by President Obama in 2015, 54 years later when a US Embassy was once more set up in Cuba.
Cuba in many ways is almost a time capsule and it is now open for travellers from the USA as well as most other countries.
Today, tourism is one of the biggest industries in the Caribbean, with the majority of people coming here to just enjoy the beaches, hotels, food, drinks, swimming pools, golf, fishing and holiday lifestyle. Most will either arrive by cruise ship or fly in to an island and head to a resort. The beauty of the islands is renowned around the world.
The hardest thing you may have to do is simply choosing which of the island destination you want to travel to.
Have a great time.