History of the Caribbean for Kids

The Caribbean is made up of three main island chains. They are called the Lesser and Greater Antilles and the Bahamas. The Lesser Antilles includes a chain of islands that start at Trinidad in the south and end at the three U.S. Virgin Islands in the north. The Greater Antilles is made up of Hispaniola, Cuba, Jamaica and Puerto Rico. The Bahamas are north of Hispaniola and Cuba. 

The first group of people believed to live in the Caribbean islands was the Ciboneys, who came there nearly 4 or 5 thousand years ago. 

Later, the Tainos and the Caribs were two groups of people who lived on the islands. They had come from the Americas thousands of years before. The Caribs were a warrior tribe and wore their hair black and long. They dressed in feathers and necklaces made of their victim’s teeth and painted their bodies red. They fished and hunted to eat and lived in thatched shelters. At one point the Caribs began forcing the Tainos off of the islands.

The Carib people were generally more peaceful and were farmers who cultivated “yucca” and sweet potatoes. They were also excellent hunters using bows and arrows to shoot their prey. 

The Caribbean was discovered by Europeans when Christopher Columbus was in 1492 in search of a new trade route to the east. He landed in the Bahamas and named the island San Salvador. He thought he had found the spice islands of the West Indies and because of his mistake Spain named them as such and they have the same name today. 

When Christopher Columbus landed in the Bahamas the people living there, also called indigenous peoples, he called “Indians.” They were made up of the Caribs and the Tainos (or Arawaks). Queen Isabella of Spain did not allow the enslavement of these some of these people, but it happened anyway. 

The first settlement by Spain was in Hispaniola in 1493. Their main interest in the islands was gold and mining other precious metals, and here the Spanish built fortresses to protect what they considered to be their property. For this reason, other European countries were not able to settle in these areas, but instead took some of the settlements where the Spanish weren’t as strong. For example, the British colonized Barbados and the French took Martinique and Guadeloupe, and the Dutch controlled Aruban, St. Maarten, and a few other islands in the 1600s. Sadly, most of the native people living on these islands were forced into slavery to work for the settlers and eventually died off because of diseases and how they were treated.

Soon it was found that the Caribbean islands were perfect for farming sugar, so sugar plantations began to be very popular. But because the native people had died off, there were no longer slaves to farm the land. For this reason, slavers moved to Africa and started kidnapping the people there and forcing them into slavery in the Caribbean. Over 10 million African slaves were taken by boat to the Caribbean to be slaves on the sugar plantations! They were packed so tightly into the ships often 12 percent of them died along the way. Once arriving on the islands they were auctioned off and traded. Because of how cruelly they were treated, many of these slaves escaped or led revolts and started their own communities away from the plantations. To this day many of the people living on the islands are descendants of these slaves. In the 1800s slavery was also outlawed by the British and eventually the French and Dutch and Spanish. The cost of producing sugar also grew, so there was a decline in production at this time.

In 1789 slaves led by Toussaint Louverture revolted and took control of their own country of Haiti which later became independent of France in 1804. After Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Cuba also became independent along with Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. 

The Caribbean is also known for its history of pirates. In the early 1600s pirates made their homes on many of the islands. Many of them raised cattle and traded them, which is where the name “buccaneers” comes from because they cured the meat in ovens called “boucans.” They lived in small clans and were made up of many different backgrounds. Many found their home base in Tortuga, off the coast of Haiti. From here they ventured out and attacked ships to steal their goods. 

Today, the Caribbean is more civilized and has become a tourist destination for people all over the world. It has large hotels and caters to visitors who want to come to spend time on the beaches, enjoy the warm, crystal blue water, and do other water activities such as snorkeling and scuba diving. The Caribbean is also known as a prime destination for cruise ships that are constantly docking to unload tourists to enjoy the beautiful tropical weather and scenery of the islands.