The story of the virtual disappearance of the people after whom the Caribbean Sea is named.
Caribs and Arawaks
The Caribbean Sea took its name from the people who occupied the islands that fringe the sea; or at least, the people who lived there at the time when the region was discovered by European explorers towards the end of the 15th century. However, one would be hard pressed to find any ethnically pure Caribs there today. So what happened to them?
At the time when Christopher Columbus made landfall in 1492 on the islands that he firmly believed lay off the coast of India, hence the name West Indies, they were peopled by two groups of natives, the Arawaks and the Caribs. Both peoples originated in South America and they had made their way along the island chain that sweeps north and then west.
The Arawaks had started their journey some centuries before the Caribs and had reached the larger islands (the “Greater Antilles”) of Cuba and Hispaniola (which today is split between Haiti and the Dominican Republic). It was the Arawaks with whom Columbus first made contact and who told him about the fierce Caribs who had displaced the Arawaks on the smaller islands to the south (the “Lesser Antilles”).
The Spanish explorers found it relatively easy to trick the Arawaks into working for them for no pay, in other words forcing them into slavery, but the Caribs proved to be harder nuts to crack. It was not until the 17th and 18th centuries that later settlers, from England and France, were able to get the better of the Caribs on the southern islands and treat them as badly as the Arawaks had been treated further north.
As might have been expected, the Caribs fell victim not only to diseases from which they had no natural protection but also to the firearms with which the colonisers put down any resistance to their rule. Another threat to their racial survival was the influx of African slaves that the settlers introduced in vast numbers from the 16th to 19th centuries.
“Black” and “Pure” Caribs
One group of Caribs, on the island of St Vincent, became known as the “Black Caribs” because of their descent from mixed race ancestors who had interbred with African slaves. A rebellion in 1795 led to their wholesale deportation to Roatan Island off the coast of Honduras. Their descendants live there to this day, being known locally as the Garifuna. These Carib descendants have also spread to the coastal regions of mainland Central America and probably number around half a million people.
Pure-bred Caribs are much harder to find, and they would probably have disappeared altogether had not the British government established a “Carib Reserve” on the island of Dominica in 1903. This area of less than six square miles is home to about 3,000 people today who constitute the only community of any size in the Caribbean region who can realistically claim to be true Caribs and do their best to maintain a traditional way of life.
The fate of the Caribs is yet another example of what happens when, out of greed and the desire to dominate, powerful people from another continent seek to impose their will on native populations who do not have the means to protect their lands from conquest. The legacy of European colonialism and empire building has been a lamentable catalogue of destruction across the world, and the demise of native peoples of whom the Caribs are only one example among many.
© John Welford