A Surprising History of the Caribbean

posted 20 May 2008, updated 20 May 2008

I recently finished reading A Brief History of the Caribbean, apparently one of the definitive works on general Caribbean history (I seem to recall it being a history textbook when I was at school, after I had stopped taking history).

The thing about reading a history of the place where you live is that you discover you don't know the place nearly as well as you thought you did. All sorts of things that you take for granted because you grew up with them actually have strange and convoluted back-stories. Even more interestingly, I discovered that the sketchy history of the region that I had been taught in high school in Trinidad was a sanitized, almost bowdlerized version that exaggerated the role that Trinidad played and downplayed the less savoury aspects of our recent past.

The first genocide: the Amerindians

Even my sanitized high-school history was pretty clear about one point: when Columbus discovered the islands, they were inhabited by natives, and within a very short time they were all dead, of European diseases against which they had no defences. Tragic, obviously, but nobody could have forseen that, right? And there were only a small number of amerindians around to start with. A footnote in history before the real history gets started.

The reality is much worse. There were possibly as many as six million Amerindians living across the Caribbean at the time Europeans became widely aware of the islands*. Within 150 years the vast majority of these were dead, and one of the two amerindian cultures present at the time, the Arawaks, had been completely exterminated. Genocide is the only word for it, and the figure of six million may remind you of another, better-remembered genocide.

And this was no accident of history. The Europeans who arrived on the islands immediately enslaved the indians, without reservation or nobler motive. They interrupted their culture and lifestyle, moving them away from the coasts, denying them fish that were a vital part of their diet, adding malnutrition to the epidemic of European diseases like smallpox and measles that killed indians of every age by their thousands. Attempts at rebellion were cruelly supressed. The whole story is just unbelievably callous.

The second genocide: the Africans

Everyone knows that slavery was horrible, and that a lot of slaves died on the journey across the Atlantic -- something like 20% on every trip initially, although this decreased as sanitation and nutrition improved. But what I hadn't heard was that these deaths were only the tip of the iceberg. Unknown numbers of slaves died on the overland journey to the slaving ports in Africa, and a shocking 1 in 3 slaves died within 2 years of their arrival on the islands -- and all new slaves were young people.

Again, this was only partially out of cruelty -- though there was plenty of that -- and partly out of ignorance. Slaves routinely died of malnutrition as meat was scarce and they were fed only grain. They also died of many of the same diseases such as smallpox that had killed the Amerindians. But the horrifying death rate was uniquely Caribbean. The slaves of North America reproduced naturally, giving birth faster than they died: by 1825, there were 2 million North American slaves even though only 375,000 has been brought from Africa. In the Caribbean, by the same year, nearly 4 million slaves had been brought over, but there were only 2 million left.

Jan Rogozinski, the author of this history, estimates that to bring over the 4m slaves that were in the Caribbean by 1870, 8 million more had died. This is an unbelievably large number of people and I can't believe it's new to me.

Ongoing suicide: the Europeans

On top of the horrors they inflicted first upon the Amerindians and then upon the Africans, the Europeans who settled the islands were also dying in huge numbers. The most severe form of malaria, brought over from Africa with the slaves themselves, killed something like 75% of European adults encountering it for the first time. Yellow fever was similarly deadly, killing 50-75% of the people infected. In Europeans, who had little or no natural immunity to these things, the death rates were insane.

This was particularly obvious in invading soldiers, as they were large groups of non-immune individuals arriving at the same time. To take an utterly typical example: in 1655 the French landed 1500 soldiers on St. Lucia; a few months later, only 89 of them were still alive. And despite repeating this pattern for literally hundreds of years, the Europeans were strangely unable to learn their lesson: in a 4-year occupation of Santo Domingo starting in 1793, Britain lost more than 12,000 of the 20,000 soldiers it sent to disease alone. From 1817 to 1836, Jamaica lost 12% of its white troops every year.

A wealth of surprises

These were only the largest and most surprising of the many things about my own region's history that I didn't know. For instance, with reference to Trinidad in particular, it was a total backwater for literally hundreds of years -- ships didn't visit for 15 and 20 years in a row! -- and there were less than a hundred households on the whole island until well after 1700.

The other fact that was a surprise to me about Trinidad was his description of Eric Williams, Trinidad's first prime minister and widely admired within Trinidad, and especially his description of Trinidad's economy under Williams:

By the early 1980s, the government employed two-thirds of all workers, and it had more control over the economy than in any other Caribbean country except Cuba. ... Trinidad had taken socialism much further than the Manley government in Jamaica[.]

To hear my own country described as the second-most socialist nation in the Caribbean after Cuba is, to put it mildly, surprising to me. I think most Trinidadians now regard themselves as enterprising and independent and fiercely capitalist. There were lots of other little interesting tidbits, and I heartily recommend reading the book (no, that's not an affiliate link).

* Without getting into the debate about whether Columbus "discovered" the islands or not -- he probably wasn't even the first European to make it to the new world. He was just the first one to come back and tell everybody about it.

** Although after flying through 400 years from 1492, it gets rather slow around the 50s and 60s, which I guess is when the author was a young man and closely following the politics.