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Origins: European Conquest, Settlement and Demographic Change in the Caribbean

Alan Cobley The University of the West Indies

Introduction: Demographics and Caribbean Identity From the time the canoes of the first Amerindian settlers nosed their way along the island chain several millennia ago, the peoples of the Caribbean have been the product of almost continuous waves of migration and remigration. Some of this migration was peaceful and voluntary; more often it was violent and forced. This dominant fact in Caribbean history has led Professor Rex Nettleford, Vice-Chancellor of The University of the West Indies, to describe the Caribbean as a great ‘crossroads’ of peoples and cultures.1 This long history of migration is combined with the special characteristics of our physical environment - a sub-tropical climate, varied terrain, and limited land spaces, surrounded by the all-embracing sea. Nettleford argues that these peculiar circumstances have resulted in an immensely varied mix of small societies in this region. The consequences of this are two-fold. On the one hand this has placed us at the cutting edge of humanity - all of the complexities of human civilisation and of human interaction are being played out in what he terms the ‘people-sized communities’ of the Caribbean. On the other, it has had ensured that the constituent elements of Caribbean identity have been woven over time into an immensely complex pattern that simultaneously excites the eye and dizzies the brain. In order to begin making sense of that pattern we need to develop some understanding of the historical demography of our region - and any historical discussion of demographics or of identity in the Caribbean must begin with the Amerindians. In traditional chronologies of Caribbean history, the Amerindian populations and their histories are often seen as no more than a prelude to the main events. These are still commonly dated from the incursion of Columbus into the region in 1492. However, as Watson has shown, by the time Europeans began to settle in the region at the end of the fifteenth century, Amerindians had been living in the Caribbean in organised settlements for at least 4,000 years. The growing documentation on these early settlers, compiled mainly from the work of archaeologists and anthropologists will ultimately force a major revision of the way we think about Caribbean history and the identity of Caribbean people. Not least among the problems to be addressed is that of the agency of aspects of the precolonial past in the colonial and post-colonial Caribbean. Recent developments in post-colonial theory posit a critical role for pre-colonial identities, practices and institutions in shaping colonial discourses. Yet historians of the Caribbean are used to thinking of the ‘Columban Revolution’ as a radical break with Amerindian ‘pre-history’ - a period in which pre-colonial patterns (and peoples) were obliterated. As the historiography of the pre-colonial Caribbean develops, this argument - if it ever was acceptable - will become increasingly untenable. Having said this, however, I do not propose to repeat the discussion of Amerindian history in the precolonial period, which is ably covered by Karl Watson in his contribution to this collection. Rather, this paper begins with a discussion of Amerindian peoples at the onset of the colonial era, when the arrival of the first Europeans set in train a process of almost apocalyptic demographic change. 1

Origins: European Conquest, Settlement and Demographic Change in the Caribbean - Alan Cobley

Amerindians in the Colonial Caribbean At the time of the first Columban incursion into the Caribbean in 1492 the Amerindian population consisted of three major population groups. These were:- the Kalinago (‘Caribs’) who were to be found throughout the Lesser Antilles, from Trinidad in the south to the Virgin Islands in the north; the Tainos or ‘Island Arawaks’, with their more complex social organisation, who dominated the larger land masses of the Greater Antilles; and the ‘Ciboney’ who could be found in the Western portions of Hispaniola and Cuba. Estimates for the Amerindian population of the Caribbean Islands in the 1490s vary widely. The earliest census figures available are estimates made by European observers in the wake of the first wave of European invaders, by which time the population was already in dramatic decline. Modern scholars have attempted to put these figures in context by using anthropological, archaeological and ‘biogeographic’ data. (The latter essentially involves a calculation on the carrying capacity of the land.) The resulting figures range from less than 100,000 to over ten million. David Watts suggests that a near contemporary estimate by Bartolomeo de Las Casas for Hispaniola of three to four million in 1492 is probably the most accurate, and on this basis proposes an Amerindian population for the islands as a whole at this date of over six million.2 The largest population densities were located in Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and Jamaica, with much smaller densities in Cuba and the Lesser Antilles. The penetration of the Spanish into the Caribbean from 1492 had almost immediate and catastrophic results for the Amerindian population. The broad reasons for this are set out succinctly by Watts: Islands are peculiarly vulnerable, demographically, to interference from powerful colonising nations, in that the number of refugee areas therein, to which native populations under duress might resort, is extremely restricted, so that both the populations and their cultural and socio-economic bases may come under sufficiently severe stress for their survival to be endangered. This was especially the case in the West Indies of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The major causes of such stress in this region were two-fold, involving partly the meeting of two formerly separated populations, Indian and European, whose understanding of the complex tropical environment, relative tolerance to particular diseases, and overall lifestyles were very different; and partly the forms of , and attitudes towards settlement adopted by the colonisers.3 The Spanish considered the Amerindians to be a lower order of man than themselves - if they considered them at all - and had no hesitation in launching a holocaust against the indigenous people. This holocaust was designed to crush any military resistance, destroy their social organisation and clear the way for the systematic exploitation of the islands by the invaders. The absolute priority was the mining and production of gold, with food production to support the colonists as a distant second. The Amerindians had no role in the new order except as labour, to which they were driven mercilessly until they died. When this policy was combined 2

Origins: European Conquest, Settlement and Demographic Change in the Caribbean - Alan Cobley

with the introduction of diseases such as syphilis against which the local people had little resistance - the result was a population collapse without precedent in human history. According to Las Casas over three million people died in Hispaniola in the period between 1492 and 1508; a census on the island in 1509 found only 60,000 Amerindians who were still alive. Las Casas wrote: Who of those born in future centuries will believe this ? I myself who am writing this and saw it and know most about it can hardly believe that such was possible.4 Another census in 1518 found that the Amerindian population of Hispaniola had dwindled further, to only 11,000. However, this was before the outbreak of a small pox epidemic in that year, which virtually wiped out the remainder. The beginnings of Spanish colonisation of neighbouring islands, as well as slave raids south along the island chain to replenish the labour supply ensured that the contagion was carried to all the other main population centres in the islands, with similarly catastrophic results. B y the middle of the sixteenth century, the Amerindian peoples of the Caribbean islands had been virtually wiped out as a distinct population group, except for small pockets to be found in the Southern Windwards or hidden in the inaccessible interiors of Cuba and Puerto Rico. Notwithstanding the scale of the disaster that befell them in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the survivors continued to resist colonial rule for at least another two hundred years. In the Southern Windwards Amerindian military resistance (centred on their stronghold in Dominica) was a serious brake on colonial development deep into the eighteenth century. Even as the Amerindians continued to decline numerically as a group, their influence continued through the techniques of resistance which they developed, which were copied and adapted by the growing African slave population in the islands. They also left a lasting imprint in the region’s gene pool as a result of intermixing with both black and white populations. Their legacy in terms of their social organisation, material culture and intimate relationship with the environment is only now beginning to be uncovered and understood.

Early European Settlers The adventurers, thieves and vagabonds of the Columbus generation were not equipped ideologically, or in most other ways, to build a lasting presence in the Caribbean. However, they were quickly superceded by a generation of Spanish colonists, mostly from rural Andalusia, who looked to the region not merely for loot, but as a place where they could settle and put down roots. In 1502, ten years after they had first set foot in Hispaniola, there were only about 300 Spanish residents on the island. Many early arrivals had died, while others had returned disappointed to Spain. By 1509 the number had seen an encouraging rise to over 8,000, but the incipient collapse in the Amerindian labour supply had a damaging effect on the economic viability of the young colony and ensured that the number of immigrants from Europe slowed again to a trickle. At around this time the Spanish decided to take possession of some of the neighbouring islands, beginning with Jamaica and Puerto Rico in 1509, and going on to Cuba in 1511. Those few who stayed in these islands after the initial frenzied search for gold did so 3

Origins: European Conquest, Settlement and Demographic Change in the Caribbean - Alan Cobley

mainly as subsistence farmers, growing basic staple crops or raising livestock. Any further significant migration from Europe to the Spanish West Indies was curtailed shortly afterwards when the new, and comparatively wealthy territory of Mexico was opened up for settlement (1518). By the end of the sixteenth century the Spanish population in the region was small and stagnant. Apart from the Spanish, the only other notable European intruders into the Caribbean prior to the seventeenth century were pirates - or ‘privateers’ as they preferred to be known. They used the smaller islands of the northern Caribbean and the Bahamas as bases from which to prey on the supply ships inbound from Europe, and on the treasure ships making the return journey. Although their heyday was in the late sixteenth century, they persisted as a distinctive and disruptive feature of Caribbean life until the early nineteenth century. They gradually merged into a much larger rootless population of every hue and nationality, consisting of adventurers and mercenaries, seafarers and runaway slaves, spies and pickpockets, prostitutes and innkeepers, who could be found scratching a living in ports all over the region by the end of the seventeenth century. They helped to give urban life in the Caribbean a distinctive flavour and character.5

The Northern Europeans The seventeenth century is sometimes referred to in the historiography as the ‘Golden Century’ of Dutch trade. In this period Dutch merchant ships rose to a position of dominance on the international trade routes to the Americas and the East Indies. The cautious Amsterdam Merchants who outfitted these ships were not interested in the administrative expense which went with acquiring and developing extensive colonies - or in the uncertain returns from the privateers; they were much more interested in the regular returns on their investment which would come with well established trade routes and the development of strategic trading ports to service them. Within a decade of the establishment of the Dutch West Indies Company in 1621 Dutch ships had taken control of the bulk of the region’s trade from Cuba in the north to the Guianas in the South. Key ports were established by them to control this trade at St Maarten in 1631, St Eustatius and Tobago in 1632, and Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao in 1634. While the Dutch were interested in the Caribbean primarily as a trading area, so did not establish large settler populations in the region, the British and the French, the emerging superpowers of Northern Europe in the Seventeenth century, were engaged in an increasingly competitive search not only for trading opportunities but for land for settlement. This was driven partly by the need to find an outlet for growing populations at home, and partly by the drive to produce profitable commodities for sale in European markets. The first permanent settlements in the Caribbean by the French and the British were established almost simultaneously in St Kitts in 1624. However, the agreement which was negotiated to share this territory was a model which would not long persist in the history of the Colonial Caribbean as imperial rivalries between the two states grew. Meanwhile, the British quickly established another settlement to the South, at Barbados in 1627.


Origins: European Conquest, Settlement and Demographic Change in the Caribbean - Alan Cobley

Rather than go to the initial expense associated with the establishment, administration and policing of these settlements, the home governments handed out trade preferences and land grants (formally these rights were deemed to belong to the Crown) to a small number of private individuals. These first settlements were therefore essentially ‘private enterprise’ colonies. However, the door was left open for the establishment of more formal colonies, with fully fledged colonial administrations, if the ventures proved successful. The European populations in both St Kitts and Barbados grew steadily over the next two decades, as initial ventures in the growth of commodities such as tobacco, ginger and cotton brought sufficient returns to encourage development. A census in Barbados in 1645 recorded a population of 23,980, of which 11,200 were white landowners, a further 7,100 were white men who did not own land (mostly indentured servants) and 5,680 were slaves ( the latter category consisting mainly of Africans, but with some Amerindians as well). The early successes of the settlements in St Kitts and Barbados were in marked contrast to the experience of the Spanish to the north. However, this early growth was as nothing compared to the boom in population seen in the Leewards and Windwards after the introduction of sugar cane as a major crop in Barbados around 1650. Sugar quickly surpassed all other commodities in terms of scale and value of production; and the plantation system which rapidly evolved to exploit this crop to the maximum extent ushered in a new phase of massive demographic change in the Caribbean. Apart from sponsoring rapid population growth in Barbados and St Kitts, the sugar revolution also sponsored rapid development in other islands in the latter half of the seventeenth century, including Antigua, Trinidad and Jamaica - all of which were developed by the British - and St Domingue, Guadaloupe, Martinique and Grenada - developed by the French. The super-profits generated by sugar stirred imperial rivalries, and both Britain and France moved quickly to consolidate their grip on territories in the region. Inevitably, this led to conflict, with some territories changing hands several times before the balance of power was finally fixed in the early part of the nineteenth century. Barbados was the pre-eminent sugar producer until the early eighteenth century, when it was overtaken by Jamaica. By the late 1760s, Jamaica had been overtaken in turn by St Domingue, a pre-eminence which continued until brought to an end by the Haitian Revolution. Ultimately, even the sleepy, hidebound and chronically inefficient colonial administrations of the old Hispanic Caribbean awakened to the possibilities, so that territories such as Cuba saw a massive expansion in sugar production (and the necessary corollary of massive population growth) in the latter half of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century.

Africans in the Caribbean: The Transatlantic Slave Trade While the Sugar Revolution had the effect of attracting a large new wave of European settlers to the Caribbean, eager to share in the bonanza, by far the larger part of the new arrivals were Africans who were brought to the region by force. They were enslaved on the African continent and brought to the Caribbean in the stinking holds of European slave ships in order to provide a massive pool of cheap and ruthlessly exploitable labour for the plantations. In fact African slaves had been present in the Caribbean since the beginning of the sixteenth century, when Spanish and Portuguese slavers began importing them as a means of supplementing the 5

Origins: European Conquest, Settlement and Demographic Change in the Caribbean - Alan Cobley

dwindling supply of Amerindian labour in Hispaniola and neighbouring islands. But it was only with the widespread introduction of the plantation system - which was highly labour-intensive during the seventeenth century that a comparative trickle of African slaves turned into a flood. The history of the Transatlantic slave trade is deeply grained in the identity of Caribbean people. It represents the second great holocaust to have shaped Caribbean history after the genocide of the Amerindians, and like the history of the Amerindians the precise numbers involved are in dispute. Estimates of the numbers caught up during the 350 years and more in which the Transatlantic Slave trade operated range from around ten million to over a hundred million souls. The calculations are complicated by the huge numbers who are believed to have died enroute to a life of slavery in the Americas, whether they were killed resisting enslavement, perished in the forced marches to the coast, succumbed to ill-treatment, hunger and disease while waiting to be transported in the ‘slave factories’ on the African coast, or died as a result of the horrors of the ‘Middle Passage’ in the crammed holds of slave ships. In addition, the ill-usage, hunger and unremitting toil which characterised plantation slavery throughout the Americas also ensured that mortality rates were always extremely high, so that there was a constant demand for fresh supplies of slaves. Based on figures proposed by P.D. Curtin and David Eltis, a recently published study by Herbert Klein suggests that at least ten million African slaves were landed in the Americas in the period up to the 1860s. Of these at least four million were landed in ports in the Caribbean.6

Estimates of African Slave Arrivals in the Caribbean By Region 1500-1870 British W.I. 1,635,700 French W.I. 1,699,700 Dutch W.I. 437,700 Danish W.I. 47,400 Spanish America* 1,662,400

*Includes Spanish West Indies, Central and South America

Many people of African descent in the modern Americas are anxious to know more about their African heritage. Unfortunately, historians are rarely able to supply specific information on the precise origins of particular populations of African descent because it was in the nature of the Slave trade that each human cargo shipped to the Americas could be drawn from a wide mixture of sources. In any case, such records as do exist on the sources of slave cargoes are both inaccurate and incomplete. When these practical problems are combined with the effects of the systematic efforts of the slave owners to de-acculturate as well as to dehumanise their African slaves, the problem of defining origins becomes peculiarly intractable. Notwithstanding these difficulties, it is possible to find evidence of the presence of a wide range of peoples from West, Central and Southern Africa among the slave populations of the Caribbean. The significance of these various traces for Caribbean identity will be discussed in subsequent contributions to this collection. One demographic feature of the slave population that is worthy of special note is the historic 6

Origins: European Conquest, Settlement and Demographic Change in the Caribbean - Alan Cobley

gender imbalance in the African population landed in the Americas. According to Klein’s figures only about a third of those slaves brought to the ‘so-called’ new world were women - an imbalance that endured throughout virtually the whole history of transatlantic slavery. This circumstance contributed to the inability of slave populations in the Caribbean to reproduce themselves. It also ensured that the family structures and other forms of social and cultural organisation that emerged in Caribbean societies, as well as supporting gender ideologies, were very different from those that operated in Africa or, for that matter, in Europe.7 Of course gender imbalances were also present in the early European settler populations, which were also predominantly male. Sexual exploitation of Amerindian and later African women by Europeans quickly produced a significant mulatto population in slave societies throughout the Caribbean, which in turn made their own unique contributions to the growing discourse on Caribbean identity. Another important demographic feature of Caribbean slave societies, given the factors noted above, was that at any given moment throughout the period of slavery there were significant numbers of African-born, as well as creole slaves present locally. This had important implications for the politics of slave societies, and was a critical feature in several major slave revolts, including the successful Revolution in Haiti at the end of the eighteenth century.

Indians and Chinese: The ‘Other Middle Passage’ During the nineteenth and early twentieth century one other major group of migrants came to the Caribbean who were to have a significant impact on the demographic, social and cultural history of the region. After the official ending of the slave trade by the British in 1807, followed by the eventual abolition of the institution of slavery in the British West Indies in 1834 and the French West Indies (finally) in 1848, Planters were concerned that they would lose their supply of cheap black labour - either through physical desertion, or by irresistible upward pressure on wages. In response to these concerns, governments in several colonies in the British and French West Indies began importing indentured labour from the Indian sub-continent. In the period from 1838, when the first Indian indentured labourers arrived in British Guiana, to 1917, when officially sanctioned importation into the region ended, over 530,000 men and women from the Indian sub-continent had been landed in the Caribbean. The largest contingents were to be found in British Guiana and Trinidad, but there were also significant numbers in Jamaica, Suriname, Guadeloupe and Martinique. 8


Origins: European Conquest, Settlement and Demographic Change in the Caribbean - Alan Cobley

Indian Indentured Workers in the Caribbean, 1838-1917 Colony/Country
Br. Guiana/Guyana Trinidad Guadeloupe Jamaica Dutch Guiana/ Suriname Martinique St Lucia Grenada St Vincent

1838-1917 1845-1917 1854-1885 1854-1885 1873-1916

Indentured Labourers
238,909 143,939 42,326 36,420 34,000

Estimated Indian Population (1980)
424,400 421,000 23,165 50,300 124,900

1854-1889 1858-1895 1856-1885 1861-1880

25,509 4,350 3,200 2,472

16,450 3,700 3,900 5,000

While some of these voluntary migrants returned home at the end of their contracts many more stayed on in the Caribbean, where they became, over time, an integral, if culturally distinctive, part of the indigenous population. To this Indian contingent was added, at the turn of the century, a small but vibrant group of Chinese indentured labourers, who added yet another culturally distinctive component to the complex Caribbean mix.

Outward Migration Before closing this review of the region’s demographic history and its implications for the concept of Caribbean identity, there is one other major factor that must be considered. The major phases of inward migration discussed above were always accompanied by an alternative movement, a counter-current of outward or return migration. Many of the European migrants who came to the Caribbean, for example, were essentially temporary sojourners who returned home after a relatively short stay in the region. For the millions of African slaves brought to the Caribbean a return to the motherland was largely an unfulfilled dream. But throughout the history of slavery there are instances of those who did succeed in making the return trip, either through various forms of marronage, or legally, as free men. Many more sought to make the journey spiritually, rather than physically, by means of African religious and cultural practices. This sentiment would later take a political form in the ‘Back-to-Africa’ movements of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. After the ending of slavery, outward migration became an increasingly important option for members of the poor black population of the Caribbean. According to Elizabeth Thomas-Hope, 8

Origins: European Conquest, Settlement and Demographic Change in the Caribbean - Alan Cobley

migration was more than a symbolic expression of freedom in the years after the ending of slavery; it also ‘formed an important mechanism of adaptation to the constraints of the postEmancipation Caribbean.’9 These constraints included the continuing domination of the old white plantocracy and resulting social and political tensions in the region after 1850. In addition, as the sugar industry declined and economic depression and unemployment became endemic features of Caribbean life, outward migration could provide new economic opportunities and the possibility of higher social status elsewhere for Caribbean people. As had been the case throughout the history of inward migration, the majority of outward labour migrants were male. This had dramatic effects on the sex ratios in many Caribbean territories. In Barbados, for example, the sex ratio by 1921 was 679 males to 1,000 females. This gender imbalance had significant effects on social organisation in the Caribbean, with increasing numbers of families headed by women. During the twentieth century the pressures driving migration mounted and the volume of outward migration increased, with the result that large Caribbean exile communities developed in various parts of the world. The most notable of these were in Britain, France, Holland, Canada and the United States. However, a remarkable feature of this outward migration has been the retention of extensive connections between members of these communities and their Caribbean homelands. No discussion of Caribbean identity or, in political terms, of ‘Caribbean nationhood’ in the present day Caribbean can proceed which does not include the role of these exiles in the discourse.10

Conclusion This brief review of the demographic history of the Caribbean supports Nettleford’s image of the Caribbean as a crossroads of peoples and cultures. Since the time of the Amerindians, the history of this region has been one of migration, mixing and acculturation, of creolisation and cultural hybridity. But where does this leave the question of collective identity in the Caribbean today ? It may be that the struggle to develop a definitive concept of collective identity in such a context is doomed to fail, especially if it is assumed that identity can be fixed or enclosed in time and space. However, if the demographic history of the Caribbean teaches anything it is that identities are always in flux, and subject to constant contestation and renegotiation. Ultimately, therefore, a workable concept of Caribbean identity, Caribbean culture or, for that matter, of ‘Caribbean civilisation’ must be creative, dynamic, multi-layered and multi-faceted. Only then can it hope to reflect the complexity and the beauty of the Caribbean people themselves.

SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING Alan Cobley (ed.), Crossroads of Empire: the Europe-Caribbean Connection (History Department, UWI, Barbados, 1992) 9

Origins: European Conquest, Settlement and Demographic Change in the Caribbean - Alan Cobley

Alan Cobley and Alvin Thompson (eds), The African-Caribbean Connection: Themes and Perspectives (History Department, UWI, Barbados, 1990) D. Dabydeen and B. Samaroo (eds) Across the Dark Waters J.E.Inikori, ‘Africa in World History: the export slave trade from Africa and the emergence of the Atlantic economic order’, Chapter 5 in B.A. Ogot (ed.), The UNESCO General History of Africa Volume 5: Africa from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century (Heinemann, Oxford; University of California Press, Berkeley; UNESCO, Paris, 1992). Herbert S. Klein, The Atlantic Slave Trade (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999) David Watts, The West Indies: Patterns of Development, Culture and Environmental Change Since 1492 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987)


Origins: European Conquest, Settlement and Demographic Change in the Caribbean - Alan Cobley


1. Rex Nettleford, ‘The Caribbean at the Crossroads’, Chapter one in Alan Cobley (ed.), Crossroads of Empire:
the Europe-Caribbean Connection (History Department, UW I, Barbados, 1992).

2. David W atts, The West Indies: Patterns of Development, Culture and Environmental Change Since 1492
(Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987), pp.71-75.

3. D. W atts, The West Indies, pp.78-79. 4. Quoted in D.W atts, The West Indies, p.103. 5.
Linebaugh/Rediker, ‘All the Atlantic Mountains Shook’

6. Herbert S. Klein, The Atlantic Slave Trade (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999), see Appendix
Table A-2. Extensive data on the Transatlantic Slave Trade from various African ports to Caribbean destinations can be found in an on-line data archive, ‘Slave Movement During the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries’ at the following address: http:/

7. H.S. Klein, The Atlantic Slave Trade , pp.166-167. 8. Robin Cohen, Global Diasporas: An Introduction (UCL Press, London, 1997), Chapter Three. 9. E.M. Thomas-Hope, ‘Caribbean Diaspora: The Inheritance of Slavery: Migration from the Commonwealth
Caribbean’, in Colin Brock (ed.), The Caribbean in Europe: Aspects of the West Indian Experience in Britain, France and the Netherlands (London, 1986), p.15.

10. See for example, Mary Chamberlain, Narrative of Exile and Return (London, 1996). ____________