The first arrivals

Ciboney Arawak and Caribs: 1500 BC - AD 1500

A string of islands, between Florida and Venezuela, encloses the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. The tightly clustered group at the southern end of this chain provides an easy sequence of stepping stones to the three largest islands - Puerto Rico, Hispaniola and Cuba.

From the second millennium BC humans make their way along this chain from south America. The first to do so are a group of hunter-gatherers known to archaeologists as the Ciboney.

In the early centuries of the Christian era more sophisticated tribes of neolithic farmers, the Arawak, move gradually north through the islands pushing the Ciboney ahead of them. From about1000 a third group, the Caribs, begin to exert the same pressure on the Arawak.

The Caribs, more primitive and ferocious than the Arawak, expand their territory by ruthless warfare. When they defeat their Arawak neighbours, it is their custom to marry the women and eat the men. The Arawak know these people as canibas, their own version of the word Caribs.

The Spaniards, the next group to arrive in the islands, are alarmed and fascinated by the man-eating canibas. News of them spreads rapidly in Europe, resulting in a new word - cannibal.

When Columbus reaches the Bahamas and the Greater Antilles, in 1492, these northern islands are occupied by the Arawak with only a few pockets of Ciponey surviving. The smaller islands of the Lesser Antilles, in the south, are by now largely Carib.

The Spanish

San Salvador Cuba and Hispaniola: AD 1492-1493

Columbus and the Pinzón brothers step ashore on 12 October 1492 on an island in the Bahamas. They plant in the ground the royal banner of Spain, claiming the place for Ferdinand and Isabella. They name it San Salvador, after Jesus the Saviour. (It is not known which island they landed on, though one in the Bahamas now bears the name San Salvador.)

These are not the First europeans to reach the American continent, but they are the first to record their achievement. Columbus believes that he has reached the East Indies. Greeted by friendly inhabitants of San Salvador, he therefore describes them as Indians - an inaccurate name which has remained attached to the aboriginal peoples of the whole American continent. By the same token this region becomes known to Europe as the West Indies.

A few days later the explorers sail on. They pass many more islands, giving each a new Spanish name, until they reach during November the most important landfall of their expedition - the large island of Cuba, which Columbus convinces himself to be Cipango. This is a place of marvels described by Marco polo at the eastern extremity of Asia, usually now assumed to be Japan.

Beyond Cuba the next significant landfall is another large island which Columbus names after Spain itself - Española, or Hispaniola. On its shores the Santa Maria runs aground and is wrecked. Columbus decides to leave here a small colony of some forty men, with food and ammunition for a year, while he sails back to Spain with news of his achievement.

Returning with Vicente Yañez Pinzón in the Niña, Columbus reaches Palos on March 15 (amazingly the Pinta arrives in Palos later on that same day, after losing contact with the Niña a month earlier in an Atlantic storm). Columbus makes his way to the court of Ferdinand and isabella in Barcelona, where he is received with every honour. He presents the monarchs with a few captured natives of the Bahamas and some gold treasure.

This is the high point of Columbus's career. Three more voyages to America lie ahead of him, and great achievements. But from now on misfortune, often deriving from his own inadequacy as a colonial administrator, increasingly blights his endeavours.

The explorer departs on his fourth and final voyage in May 1502. It is an almost unmitigated disaster, of storms, mutinies, rotting ships’ timbers. But somehow he limps home, yet again, to reach Spain in November 1504. Since 1492 he has spent half his time in the transatlantic places he so passionately believed in long before he found his way to them.

Even more significantly, he has made the Atlantic crossing seem just an arduous journey rather than a terrifying step into the unknown. Other navigators, sailing for other monarchs, are fishing now in his waters. It is a measure of this change that Columbus himself crosses the Atlantic successfully no fewer than eight times. In a few short years the New World has become linked to Europe in what is unmistakably a new era.

The three last voyages: AD 1493-1504

Columbus sails west again five months after his audience with Ferdinand and Isabella. This time the expedition is on a much larger scale, with the intention of establishing colonies. Seventeen ships, carrying between them almost 1500 people, leave Cadiz. Their first landfalls yield new discoveries - Guadalupe and Puerto Rico - but on arrival in Hispaniola they find that the garrison left there earlier in the year has been massacred by the natives.

News of this disaster, reaching Spain, raises the first doubt about Columbus's judgement. It will not be the last, as discontent grows among the Spanish colonists in the New World.

Columbus returns to Spain in 1496 to confront his critics at the court, which he does with some success. He is able to sail west again in 1498, on a third voyage, with his position of authority confirmed. But further troubles lead to the arrival in 1500 of a governor sent out by Ferdinand and Isabella with authority over Columbus. On Columbus's refusal to accept the situation, the governor arrests him and has him sent back to Spain in chains.

The king and queen receive him with sympathy. They continue to reward him for his achievements, but they will not allow him to return to the valuable colonies which he has discovered for them. They agree, instead, to a new expedition in which he will search for a further sea passage westwards.

The explorer departs on his fourth and final voyage in May 1502. It is an almost unmitigated disaster, of storms, mutinies, rotting ships’ timbers. But somehow he limps home, yet again, to reach Spain in November 1504. Since 1492 he has spent half his time in the transatlantic places he so passionately believed in long before he found his way to them.

Even more significantly, he has made the Atlantic crossing seem just an arduous journey rather than a terrifying step into the unknown. Other navigators, sailing for other monarchs, are fishing now in his waters. It is a measure of this change that Columbus himself crosses the Atlantic successfully no fewer than eight times. In a few short years the New World has become linked to Europe in what is unmistakably a new era.

Spanish West Indies: 16th century AD

With garrisons established in Puerto Rico (1508), Jamaica (1509) and Cuba (1515), to add to their first secure base in Hispaniola, the Spanish control all the large islands of the Caribbean. The region becomes the springboard from which Mexico and central America are conquered in the 1520s.

During the 16th century Pirate vessels from other European nations (in particular England) prey on rich Spanish fleets in these waters. The islands themselves remain an exclusively Spanish preserve, but they are too numerous for the Spaniards to control them all. During the 17th century the English and the French settle on islands on the periphery.

Colonial hostilities

British and French West Indies: AD 1612-1664

The first English settlement on any island in the west Atlantic is the result of an accident. Castaways from an English vessel, wrecked on its way to Virginia in 1609, find safety on Bermuda. When news of the island reaches England, a party of sixty settlers is sent out (in 1612).

Three decades later, religious friction in the Bermuda community causes a group of dissenters to seek a place of their own. From 1648 they settle in the Bahamas, a chain of uninhabited islands forming the fringe of the northern Caribbean. This is where Columbus made his first landfall in 1492. In the intervening half century the Spanish have shipped the natives (some 40,000 Arawak indians) to work in the mines of Hispaniola.

Meanwhile the eastern fringe of the Caribbean is also unattended by the Spanish, apart from occasional raids in search of slaves. The British are the first to acquire valuable footholds in this region. They establish settlements in St Kitts (1623), Barbados (1627) and Antigua, Nevis and Montserrat (by 1636). The French, hard on their heels, occupy part of St Kitts (1627), Dominica (1632) and Martinique and Guadeloupe (1635).

Later in the 17th century Spain loses two large sections of the central Caribbean to her European enemies. An English fleet invades and captures Jamaica in 1655. In 1664 France's West India Company occupies the western half of Hispaniola (the region now known as Haiti).

Sugar slaves and shipping: 17th - 18th century AD

The first Spanish colonists in the Caribbean, in the 16th century, have hoped primarily to grow rich by finding gold. The natives of the islands are put to work as slaves in the mines.

Thererafter, when the limited supply of gold is exhausted, the Spanish West Indies survive as part of the broader economy of Spanish America. The islands are both gathering point and staging post for the fleets bringing goods from Spain and taking back the wealth of Mexico and Peru.

By contrast the English and French settling on the islands of the eastern Caribbean need to rely on agriculture. At first they grow tobacco in small holdings. But soon it becomes clear that the most profitable produce is sugar, grown on large estates and cultivated by slave labour in gangs.

By this time the original inhabitants of the West Indies have been virtually wiped out by a combination of European diseases and physical exploitation. The plantation owners rely instead on slaves from Africa.

The slaves are at first imported mainly by the Dutch, who have seized many of the Portuguese slaving stations in west Africa, but later the trade is dominated by the English. Jamaica, in English hands from 1655, becomes the major slave market of the region.

The economic importance of the islands, bringing Spanish, French and British fleets into often close proximity, means that the Caribbean is one of Europe's regular theatres of war. The smaller islands frequently change hands between France and Britain during the 18th century, in an ongoing conflict which reaches a peak in the 1790s during the French Revolutionary wars.

The war at sea: AD 1793-1796

The renewal of war between Britain and France in 1793 is a continuation of a century-long conflict between the two most aggressive imperial powers. In recent engagements the results have favoured Britain, particularly in Canada and India during the Seven Years' War.

In the new conflict the first arena of war is another rich colonial region, the West Indies. During 1794 the British seize several of the smaller French islands in the Caribbean, at an extremely heavy cost in terms of troops dying of yellow fever. On 1 June 1794 (the Glorious First of June in British accounts) Richard Howe destroys a French squadron in the Atlantic - but fails in his primary purpose of harming the rich convoy being accompanied on its journey from America to France.

More significant developments result from The dutch and The spanish entering the war on the side of the French in 1795-6. The British take the opportunity of seizing four prizes of great value - from The spanish the islands of Minorca in the Mediterranean and of Trinidad in the Caribbean, and from The dutch Sri lanka and the thriving Cape colony at the southern Tip of africa.

By the time this happens, most of the allies of 1793 have either changed to France's side (the United Provinces and Spain) or lapsed into neutrality (Russia and Prussia).

The greatest damage to French interests in the West Indies is done not by British fleets but by the ideals of the French Revolution.

By far the most profitable French possession in the region, and indeed the most productive of all the Caribbean sugar-producing colonies, is the western half of Hispaniola, under French control from 1664 and known as Saint Domingue. By the late 18th century 90% of the people in the colony (numbering some 520,000 in all) are slaves from Africa. The liberty proclaimed in the French Revolution seems to them an excellent idea. In 1791 they rise in revolt. By 1794, after considerable chaos, a capable leader has emerged and the colony is under black control.

Toussaint L'Ouverture and independent Haiti: AD 1791-1843

Toussaint L'Ouverture is a slave in Saint-Domingue who has served his master as a coachman and has achieved some degree of literacy. He emerges as one of the leaders of the first independence movement in the West Indies.

The rebellion of the slaves against their French masters in 1791 is not fully successful until Toussaint L'Ouverture and others join an army invading Saint-Domingue in 1793 from the Spanish half of the island (Santo Domingo, forming the eastern end of Hispaniola). Thereafter Toussaint steadily establishes himself as the strongest of the various black leaders. By 1800 he is master of French Saint-Domingue. In 1801 he invades Santo Domingo and achieves control over the entire island.

A hero perfectly suited to the Romantic era (a Noble savage winning liberty for his people), Toussaint adjusts with skill to his adopted role as ruler of the island. Continuing to profess allegiance to France, he nevertheless declares himself governor general of the island for life. As such he signs trade agreements with powers such as the United States and Britain.

Toussaint is flexible enough to invite several former French colonists to return to their plantations, and yet strict enough to ensure that their ex-slaves get to work in a disciplined fashion as free labourers.

Toussaint's good fortune is that the war with Britain makes it impossible for France to send out troops to suppress his insurrection. But his luck runs out in 1801, when the two exhausted European enemies agree to the Peace of amiens.

In December 1801 a French army of 25,000 men arrives in Saint Domingue under the command of Napoleon's brother-in-law, Charles Leclerc. The expedition proves a disaster for the French. Within two years most of the soldiers have died of yellow fever. But meanwhile this is a well-armed force too strong for Toussaint and his followers to resist. Early in 1802 they surrender in return for a generous truce offered by Leclerc. In Toussaint's case this trust is betrayed. He is arrested and sent to France, where he dies in prison in 1803.

The renewal of war with Britain in 1803, combined with the ravages of yellow fever, means that France is unable to hold her newly recovered colony. Another black revolution in 1803 proves conclusive. And its leaders are very much more extreme than Toussaint L'Ouverture.

On 1 January 1804 Jean Jacques Dessalines proclaims the independence of Saint Domingue under its old Arawak indian name of Haiti. He massacres those French who still remain on the island and declares himself emperor, as Jacques I. His brutal rule soon provokes unrest and he dies in 1806 when attempting to put down a revolt. His crown is inherited by one of his generals, Henri Christophe, who more modestly calls himself King Henry I.

Haiti achieves some degree of stability under Jean Pierre Boyer, who wins power after the death of Henri Christophe in 1820. Two years later Boyer invades and overwhelms the eastern half of the island, Santo Domingo, where the inhabitants have in 1821 risen in rebellion against Spain.

Boyer rules French-speaking Haiti, and governs Spanish-speaking Santo Domingo as a conquered province, until he is overthrown in a revolution in 1843. The upheaval of that year also gives Santo Domingo the chance to throw off the yoke of Haiti. The eastern half of the island proclaims its independence, as the Dominican Republic, in 1844. Hispaniola, the oldest European colony in the western hemisphere, becomes also the first region to be free.


The Spanish Caribbean: AD 1821-1898

The loss of Santo domingo in 1821 is a particular blow to Spanish pride, since the island of Hispaniola was the first of Columbus' discoveries to be colonized. But it still leaves Spain as the major colonial power in the West Indies.

Of the five largest islands in the Caribbean, all of which were Spanish in the 16th century, Jamaica has been lost to Britain in 1655. Trinidad has been ceded to Britain by the treaty of Amiens in 1802. And both halves of Hispaniola have now claimed their independence. But the largest island of all, Cuba, is Spanish. So is Puerto Rico.

With the Spanish possessions in south and central America all winning their independence during the 1820s, these two large Caribbean islands are now all that remains of the Spanish empire (apart from the Philippines). As a result their form of government becomes a subject of intense debate and struggle throughout the 19th century.

The various solutions range from close links with Spain at certain periods (including even representation for Cuba and Puerto Rico in the cortes in Madrid) to despotic rule by provincial governors at others.

The liberal period, with a role in the cortes, is associated mainly with the early years. At this time Spain, confronted by rebellious colonies throughout south America, is eager to accomodate the two island territories which show an inclination to loyalty. But in Spain's new constitution of 1837 it is declared that the two Caribbean islands are not Spanish provinces in the full sense. Henceforth they are to have no link with the cortes and are to be governed by 'special laws'.

The special laws fail to materialize, leaving full power in the hands of the Spanish governor general of each island. There are bad times and worse times, but in general the system does not meet with much local approval.

Cuban wars: AD 1868-1897

As two slave-owning societies, both Cuba and Puerto Rico are much affected by the great issue of the mid-19th century, the emancipation of the slaves. The decade of the Civil war in the neighbouring great power, the United States, leads to violent times in both islands. There is a liberal revolt in Puerto Rico in 1868. This is soon suppressed. But the same year sees the beginning of an uprising in Cuba which leads to a long and full-scale war.

The Ten Years' War of 1868-78 begins when Carlos Manuel de Céspedes declares Cuban independence and the emancipation of the slaves. His revolutionary government wins considerable support in the eastern half of the island, which becomes the scene of ruthless guerilla warfare between rebels and Spanish troops.

It is calculated that as many as 200,000 Cubans and Spaniards die during the ten years of the war. Eventually, in 1878, peace is restored when the Spanish government promises extensive reforms including the abolition of slavery. This is granted in stages during the 1880s, but other promises are broken.

Discontent mounts again, and becomes intense when the American Slump of 1893 results in a drastic reduction in the export of Cuban sugar. The Cuban leaders from the recent war take up arms again for a renewed attempt at independence. Spain sends an army of 200,000 troops. And this time the brutalities are even more extreme.

The Cubans set about destroying the plantations which are the source of the Spanish revenue from the island. The Spanish governor, Valeriano Weyler, responds with a policy aimed at the civilian population. Rounding up families and enclosing them in hastily constructed and insanitary detention centres, he invents the horrors of the concentration camp (which reappear in the Boer war before their most notorious use in Nazi Germany).

Thousands die in the care of Weyler's guards. An international outcry causes the Spanish government to recall their governor in 1897 and to abandon this particular policy. But the news of his camps is partly responsible for escalating the conflict, to Spain's great disadvantage.

Spanish-American War: AD 1898

The brutal Spanish repression of the Cuban independence movement, including the details of the concentration camps, is vividly reported in the American press. Humanitarian outrage, combined with instinctive sympathy for a colonial people fighting for freedom, leads to popular demand for US intervention. This is resisted by two American presidents, Cleveland and McKinley, but war becomes unavoidable after an incident in February 1898.

The US battleship Maine is in Havana harbour, on standby to protect American citizens and property, when an explosion sinks her with the loss of 260 lives.

It is assumed in the US that a mine of some kind is responsible. The Spanish insist that it was an accident (and indeed a fire in the ship's coal bunkers spreading to the ammunition store could well be the reason), but President McKinley now demands Cuban independence as the price of peace.

Spain cannot yield this much and by the end of April the two nations are formally at war. On May 1 an American squadron steams into the harbour of Manila, in the Philippines, and sinks the Spanish warships riding at anchor. American troops arrive in the Philippines in August in sufficient numbers to occupy the city of Manila.

Meanwhile another Spanish fleet has been destroyed off the shores of Cuba. Some hard fighting brings the Americans into Santiago, after which the Spanish garrison on the island surrenders. At the same time an American force occupies Puerto Rico, which has recently been making its own strenuous efforts to win independence.

In the resulting treaty, signed in Paris in December 1898, Spain cedes to the USA the islands of Puerto Rico, the Philippines (for a payment of $20 million) and Guam in the Marianas. Cuba is 'relinquished' to the USA specifically in trust for its inhabitants, to whose independence America is already committed.

The loss of these territories brings to an effective end the earliest and for many years the most powerful of the European overseas empires. The gradual dismantling of Spanish America, which began with the Independence movements of the early 19th century, is thus complete before the century is out.

Only one colony remains which has been nominally in Spanish hands from before the 19th century. The island of Fernando Po off the west African coast came into Spanish hands, by courtesy of the Portuguese, in 1778. But almost a century passes before Spain shows any interest in the region which later becomes Spanish guinea.

This History is as yet incomplete.

Meanwhile, as Spain enters the 20th century, her only other imperial interests are two territories, both recently acquired, in northwest Africa.

The enclave around Ceuta, on the other side of the straits of Gibraltar, is enlarged by military action from 1860 to become known as Spanish morocco. And the arid Western sahara is declared a Spanish colony in 1884. Both regions eventually become part of Morocco.
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