The History of the Caribbean reveals the significant role the region played in the colonial struggles of the European powers between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the twentieth century the Caribbean was again important during World War II, in the decolonisation wave in the post-war period, and in the tension between Communist Cuba and the United States (US). Genocide, slavery, immigration and rivalry between world powers have given Caribbean history an impact disproportionate to the size of this small region.
The Caribbean before European contact
The oldest evidence of humans in the Caribbean is in southern Trinidad at Banwari Trace where 7000-year-old remains have been found. These pre-ceramic sites have been termed Archaic or Ortoiroid. The earliest archaeological evidence of human settlement in Hispaniola dates to about 3600 BCE, but the reliability of these finds is questioned. Consistent dates of 3100 BCE appear in Cuba. The earliest dates in the Lesser Antilles are from 2000 BCE in Antigua. A lack of pre-ceramic sites in the Windward Islands and differences in technology suggest that these Archaic settlers may have Central American origins. Whether an Ortoiroid colonisation of the islands took place is uncertain, but there is little evidence of one.
Between 400 BCE and 200 BCE the first ceramic-using agriculturalists, the Saladoid culture, entered Trinidad from South America. They expanded up the Orinoco River to Trinidad, and then spread rapidly up the islands of the Caribbean. Some time after 250 CE another group, the Barrancoid entered Trinidad. The Barancoid society collapsed along the Orinoco around 650 and another group, the Arauquinoid, expanded into these areas and up the Caribbean chain. Around 1300 a new group, the Mayoid entered Trinidad and remained the dominant culture until Spanish settlement.
At the time of the European discovery of the islands of the Caribbean, three major Amerindian indigenous peoples lived on the islands: the Taino in the Greater Antilles and The Bahamas, the Island Caribs and Galibi in the Lesser Antilles and the Ciboney in western Cuba. Trinidad was inhabited by both Carib speaking and Arawak-speaking groups.
During the first voyage of the explorer Christopher Columbus (mandated by the Spanish crown to conquer) contact was made with the Lucayans in the Bahamas and the Taíno in Cuba and the northern coast of Hispaniola, and a few of the native people were taken back to Spain. Small amounts of gold were found in their personal ornaments and other objects such as masks and belts. The Spanish, who came seeking wealth, enslaved the native population and rapidly drove them to near-extinction. To supplement the Amerindian labour, the Spanish imported African slaves.
Other European powers
Other European powers such as the French, Dutch and British established a presence in the Caribbean after the Spanish Empire declined, partly due to the reduced native population of the area from European diseases.
- Francis Drake was an English privateer who attacked many Spanish ships and forts in the Caribbean, including San Juan harbor in 1595. His most celebrated Caribbean exploit was the capture of the Spanish Silver Train at Nombre de Dios in March, 1573.
The British admiral William Penn seized Jamaica in 1655, and it remained under British rule for almost 200 years. The English eventually also held Barbados, St. Kitts and Nevis, Antigua, Montserrat, and Bermuda.
- The Caribbean was known for pirates, especially between 1640 and 1680. The term "buccaneer" describes a pirate operating in this region.
- In 1697 the Spanish ceded the western third of Haiti to France. France also had control of Guadeloupe, Hispaniola and Martinique and Tortuga.
- The Dutch took over Saba, Saint Martin, Sint Eustatius, Curaçao, Bonaire, Aruba, Tobago, St. Croix, Tortola, Anegada, Virgin Gorda, Anguilla and a short time Porto Rico, together called the Dutch West Indies, in the 17th century.
- The Danish ruled first part, then all of the present US Virgin Islands since 1672, selling sovereignty over these Danish West Indies in 1916 to the United States which still administers them.
Haiti, the former French colony of Saint-Domingue on Hispaniola was the first Caribbean nation to gain independence from European powers when in 1791, a slave rebellion of the Black Jacobins led by Toussaint l'Ouverture started the Haitian Revolution establishing Haiti as a free, black republic by 1804. Haiti became the world's oldest black republic, and the second-oldest republic in the Western Hemisphere, after the United States. The remaining two-thirds of Hispaniola were conquered by Haitian forces in 1821. In 1844, the newly-formed Dominican Republic declared its independence from Haiti.
Some Caribbean nations gained independence from European powers in the nineteenth century. Some smaller states are still colonies of European powers today. Cuba remained a Spanish colony until the Spanish American War.
Between 1958 and 1962 most of the British-controlled Caribbean became the West Indies Federation before it became many separate nations.
During the American Civil War the Bahamas was a centre of trade between the British and the Confederate south, trading cotton for weapons.
Since the Monroe Doctrine, the United States has intervened several times in Caribbean nations, even in the 20th century, such as in the invasion of Grenada in 1983. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, US ships blockaded Cuba so that the Soviet Union would not be able to deploy nuclear missiles there. The US also maintains bases in the region, such as the one in Cuba at Guantanamo Bay.