"The Caribbean became the focal point of rivalry between Europeans, a place where imperial contests were held."
Carla Gardina Pestana, author ofThe English Conquest of Jamaica: Oliver Cromwell's Quest for Empire(Belknap Harvard, 2017).
The Caribbean ushered in the modern world. Most notoriously, it was the site of widespread racial slavery – a horrific institution based on the commercialization of human beings as objects of exploitation. As well as being European, African and Native American, the Caribbean population was home to a wide variety from Europe itself. All the groups that crossed the Atlantic from Europe came to the West Indies and established rival colonial outposts, but also settled in specific colonies together and achieved a level of diversity found only in the polyglot cities of Europe.
The Caribbean became the focus of rivalry among Europeans, a place where imperial contests were fought. The value placed on the region favored these power struggles. The Caribbean's high value stemmed from two facts that also signaled its centrality to modernity. It was a gateway for the silver mined from the Americas that funded the worldwide Habsburg Empire and paved the way for a burgeoning global economy into the modern age. And (along with Brazil) it was the site of the creation of plantation economies based on racial slavery. This plantation economy was central to the creation of the factory model of economic exploitation that made plantation colonies the most prized possessions of European colonizers, including both French Saint-Domingue and British Jamaica, in the 18th century. Sugar and silver also had devastating effects on the environment, another precursor to modern sweatshop economies.
All these elements - racial slavery, diversity, imperialist violence to achieve superiority, oppressive economic exploitation on a large scale and the dizzying profits that result - heralded the emergence of the modern, interconnected, global reality of inequality, mass consumption and disregard for the environment . Only by understanding the central role of the Caribbean in this experience can we confront the legacy we still struggle with today.
"The Caribbean was the birthplace of modern anti-colonialism"
Marlene Daut, Professor of African Diaspora Studies at the University of Virginia
The Caribbean was the birthplace of modern anti-colonialism. Since 5,000 BC Renamed La Española by the Spanish in the 15th century, the human-inhabited island of Ayiti was the first scene of conflict between Spanish colonizers and the region's existing residents. The 19th century Haitian writer and politician Baron de Vastey laid the blueprint for Haiti's eventual independence in the "First Haitian" Resistance.
After Columbus' appearance on Ayiti in 1492, the execution of Anacaona, queen of Xaragua (one of the five principal principalities of Ayiti), was among the worst atrocities committed by his men in the name of acquiring the island's native gold. In 1504, Anacaona, along with 300 Xaraguanes, was forced to participate in a festival organized by the Spanish governor Nicolás de Ovando. She was arrested, charged with treason and then hanged. Their execution was followed by a war in which the Spanish massacred almost the entire population of Xaragua. Anacaona's husband Caonabo had died eight years earlier on the ship that was supposed to take him to Spain.
Orphaned by the war, Anacaona and Caonabo's great-grandson Enrique were forced into servitude in a monastery, where he learned to admire the Spanish doctor Bartolomé de las Casas. However, in 1519 Enrique rebelled after being mistreated in the absence of his patron. After acquiring weapons, he convinced hundreds of other Ayitians, as well as enslaved Africans, to join him in a 14-year rebellion against the Spanish in the Bahoruco Mountains (now the Dominican Republic). In 1533, a new Spanish governor had to recognize Enrique's autonomy in the first Maroon Treaty.
The Haitian revolutionaries assumed the mantle of anti-colonialism when, in their 1804 declaration of independence, they rejected the name Saint-Domingue given to the western part of the island by the French in 1697, declaring that Haiti honored a history shared by Ayitians and Africans . would be permanently free from slavery. Their actions served as inspiration for many anti-colonialists in the 20th century, such as Aimé Césaire, who declared: "Haiti is where Négritude first rose up and proclaimed that they believed in their own humanity."
"The Caribbean is important because of slavery and its legacy"
Stephen Wilkinson, Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Buckingham
If you were to ask historians for a date when modernity began, October 12, 1492 would be a good candidate. Because the day the Arawaks "discovered" Columbus on their beach, the story of "the West," the frontier, and the Atlantic began. Columbus' voyage was more significant than his arrival. Because it not only disproved the notion that the world is flat, he and his crew also proved the possibility of sailing across an ocean out of sight of land. The Age of Discovery began before Columbus set sail, but with that voyage he ushered in the European Seafaring Age and the transoceanic maritime empire.
Columbus also created something else. On his second voyage he sailed with both African slaves and sugar cane crops on board. The voyage was thus the prototype for the hundreds of thousands that followed, and became the source of an accumulation of capital that was to dominate the transatlantic world for the next 350 years. The Caribbean is important because of slavery and its legacy. The plantation system, the mercantilist moment, colonialism, the industrial revolution, consumerism and everything we associate with the modern world, including notions of citizenship, individual freedom, anti-colonialism and nation-building, can all be traced back to the Caribbean. As the recent controversy surrounding the slave trader statues has shown, looking at the Caribbean through history means considering who we are, what we believe, and how we got here.
Let's take Haiti. In 1804, Haitians led the first successful slave revolt in history, becoming the first and only country to self-identify as "black." with the world's first constitution that recognizes the rights of all citizens regardless of skin color. Because people like C.L.R. James and Lillian Guerra have pointed out that Haiti changed history by overturning what almost everyone in the Atlantic world took for granted. It is a strange quirk that the struggle for freedom from colonialism and racism won its first victory 60 years before the United States proclaimed Emancipation on the same Caribbean island where Columbus began it all.
"At the beginning of the 20th century, the Caribbean came under the rule of the United States."
Ada Ferrer, Julius Silver Professor of History and Latin American Studies at New York University
An archipelago of novelty, the Caribbean has a rich history. It was the first site of European colonialism with its cavalcade of violent conquest, disease, possession, possession and genocide. It later served as the birthplace of modern racial slavery. Of the more than ten million African captives brought to the New World, nearly half ended up in the Caribbean, mostly to work in the sugar industry. The system created enormous wealth for those who claimed ownership and for the nations that ruled the islands.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Caribbean came under the rule of a newer imperialist power, the United States. Military intervention became routine; Jobs sometimes lasted for decades. They protected massive investments in agriculture, mining and more. Mid-century interventions and other more subtle forms of pressure also protected America's superpower status. The most dramatic confrontation over Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba took place in the Caribbean. Although an episode of the Cold War, it arose and unfolded as it did because of older conflicts over imperial dominance and self-determination that stretched back to the days of slavery.
The Caribbean was also home to the first challenges to slavery and colonialism. The Haitian Revolution was the second anti-colonial revolution in the world. But it was the first to be based on anti-slavery and anti-racism, as its black leaders proclaimed to the world that human rights were their rights too. It also led to the world's first modern slave emancipation, which was initially forced upon colonial authorities by the actions of the enslaved. Subsequent revolutions in Cuba—those against Spain in the 19th century and the one in 1959—shared some, if not all, of his principles.
The Caribbean is crucial because it contains precursors to the patterns of exploitation that continue to shape our world, as illustrated by recent projects tracing the profits of slavery to the present day. This is also crucial because it launched some of the most consequential attempts to undo these structures and their legacy. Finally, it shows that these experiments in themselves can produce new forms of dominance. The intertwined histories of colonialism and slavery and struggles against them have endless, ever-evolving afterlives.