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10 Facts About the Caribbean You Never Knew

Caribbean map
© Library of Congress, Dataset compiled by Yarimar Bonilla - Rutgers University

Caribbean culture and identity are rich and diverse. There are many factors that contribute to cultural diversity in the Caribbean. Read on to learn 10 fascinating facts about the Caribbean and how it acquired its many different cultures that influenced music, cuisine, dress, language, religion, and more.

Table of Contents:

1. The Caribbean Is Usually Divided Into the Greater and Lesser Antilles

Before delving into Caribbean culture facts, it’s smart to familiarize yourself with a map of the Caribbean so you can better picture all the different islands being discussed. Typically, we divide the Caribbean islands by region into the Greater Antilles and the Lesser Antilles, sometimes with a few other islands grouped into a third category.

Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico comprise the Greater Antilles. The Bahamas, while technically in the Atlantic Ocean and not the Caribbean Sea, are often included with the Lesser Antilles, as they have similar cultural roots.

The Lesser Antilles include multiple smaller islands that are sovereign nations as well as multiple non-sovereign states and territories. These include:

  • Antigua and Barbuda

  • Barbados

  • Dominica

  • Grenada

  • St. Kitts and Nevis

  • St. Lucia

  • St. Vincent and the Grenadines

  • Trinidad and Tobago

  • Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba, Sint Eustatius, and Sint Maarten (the Netherlands)

  • Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, and Montserrat (the UK)

  • Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint Barthélemy, and Saint-Martin (France)

  • The US Virgin Islands

  • Nueva Esparta and Federal Dependencies of Venezuela (Venezuela)

2. Indigenous Caribbean People Were Devastated by the Arrival of White Colonists

Most of the Caribbean was populated with Indigenous people before the arrival of European settlers in the 15th century. Like Native Americans in the US and Indigenous people in Canada, they were nearly entirely wiped out by colonizers from Europe. Land appropriation, the spread of disease, child kidnapping, violence, and slavery saw people like the Arawaks dwindle to nearly nothing.

3. Many Different Nations Participated in the Colonization of the Caribbean

As you may have guessed after reading the list of nations that still have territories in the Caribbean, many countries invaded the Caribbean islands and took the land for their own. Both Spain and the United States claimed Cuba at different points in time. Spain also had the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico on its map in the past.

In addition to Puerto Rico, which is still a commonwealth of the US, America also took the Virgin Islands. The Dutch colonized all the islands listed above as territories of the Netherlands, as did the French with territories that still “belong” to France, splitting St. Martin (aka Sint Maarten) in half with the Dutch.

The United Kingdom at one time claimed many different islands in the Caribbean, including a few that are still under their rule: Bahamas, Jamaica, Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos Islands, Antigua, Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Grenada, Barbados, Virgin Islands, Trinidad and Tobago, Montserrat, Anguilla, St. Kitts and Nevis.

4. Enslaved Africans Were a Major Contributor to Caribbean Culture

Although European culture influenced the Caribbean islands somewhat, a far greater cultural impact came from enslaved Africans who were ripped from their homes in Africa and brought to the New World by force.

The Atlantic slave trade was part of a terrible commerce triangle between Europe, Africa, and the Americas that went on for generations. European ships took people from their countries on the West Coast of Africa and brought them to the Caribbean to sell into slavery, as well as to South America, Central America, and the United States. Raw goods gathered in the New World were then sent back to Europe, where they were turned into finished products to sell in Africa, completing the triangle.

Slaves were subjected to horrible physical cruelty and family separation all along the route to the Americas. Nearly two million African people died before ever reaching the West.

Sugar Was a Primary Industry
Slaves cutting sugar cane on Antigua in 1823 (Photo by British Library on Unsplash)

5. Sugar Was a Primary Industry for Hundreds of Years in the Caribbean

Sugar production in the Caribbean was highly profitable but also very labour-intensive. Slaves were therefore used to perform the work involved in planting, harvesting, and refining sugar, particularly under the British, who achieved great profits from their sugar plantations. Other products frequently produced on the islands of the Caribbean included coffee, cotton, tobacco, and cocoa.

6. Many Caribbean Foods Are Linked to Chattel Slavery

Black Caribbean culture developed over the years as more and more people were brought west from Africa, mingling with the few Indigenous people remaining and the European colonizers. While Caribbean food today is prized for its creativity and nuanced layering of spices, it came with a price. The recipes that many people associate with the Antilles are actually based on African flavours and demonstrate the resourcefulness that slaves — and later poor emancipated slaves — used in creating meals from scraps others wouldn’t eat.

7. Slavery in the Caribbean Was Different Than Slavery in the United States

Slavery was a shameful part of the history of several nations in the Caribbean and the Americas, yet Caribbean slavery was different than slavery in the United States. Some say it was harsher for several reasons: there was more supply and demand, the economics of slavery were managed by foreign entiites not tied to the Caribbean whereas in the US slaves were owned by families and lived on their family land, and the care for slaves was abismal in the Caribbean where it was cheaper to work a slave to death and replace them than to feed them.

One of the positive differences is that cultural diversity in the Caribbean increased following the emancipation of slaves. Many Chinese and Indian workers travelled to the islands to try their hand at plantation running, although many were also coerced into low-level manual labour and domestic jobs. Trinidad and Tobago wins the title of the most racially diverse Caribbean island today.

8. Many World-Famous People Came From the Caribbean

You probably know that musical superstar Rihanna was born in Barbados in the Caribbean and that Bob Marley, who helped popularize reggae music, was Jamaican. But did you know St. Lucia has the most Nobel prize winners per capita? Or are you familiar with these other Caribbean legends?

  • Actor Sidney Poitier (Bahamas)

  • Economist and Nobel laureate Sir William Arthur Lewis (St. Lucia)

  • Poet and Nobel laureate Sir Derek Walcott (St. Lucia)

  • Actress Zoe Saldana (Dominican Republic)

  • Author Jamaica Kincaid (Antigua)

  • Cricketer Sir Garfield Sobers (Barbados)

  • Track athlete and world record holder Usain Bolt (Jamaica)

  • Sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce (Jamaica)

  • Baseball player Pedro Martínez (Dominican Republic)

  • Singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading (St. Kitts and Nevis)

  • Author and Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul (Trinidad)

  • Singer Celia Cruz (Cuba)

9. Education Has Become an Equalizer in the Caribbean

Education is more inclusive and of even quality in the Caribbean than in many other places. People of all races and religions participate together, and school is mostly free, even at higher levels, like university in Trinidad and Tobago. Placement in the best schools is based on merit, not on wealth or racial privilege.

10. The Caribbean Is a Stellar Example of Emancipation

The United States never really finished Reconstruction after the Civil War, and Black people have struggled for true equality and freedom since Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. But in the Caribbean, emancipation occurred more quickly. Unlike in America, where it took nearly 150 years to see a Black president, Black people rose to the roles of prime minister and president nearly right away after slavery was abolished and independence from Britain was achieved.

Freedom from oppression, true cultural diversity, and inclusiveness don’t happen overnight. And as much as we would like them to come from the top down, they usually start at the local level. Are you ready to get to know your Caribbean team members more deeply or have a tough conversation about some of thir personal experiences? Schedule a meeting today to get started.


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