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Who Discovered The Caribbean Islands?

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The Caribbean Islands had been populated since about 5000 BC by two tribes, the Caribs and the Arawaks. When Christopher Columbus, the first European known to have visited the islands arrived, the two tribes had been at war for some time. The Caribs were the more aggressive of the two, relying at least partly on raiding villages for supplies. They were also slave owners, and were skilled weapon makers and potters. The Arawaks were more peaceful, being farmers who traded in their crops and talented weavers. Both tribes relied heavily on produce from the sea.

Four voyages of Christopher Columbus to the CaribbeansThe map above shows the four voyages that Christopher Columbus took to the Caribbeans. The first one was done in 1492.

Columbus’s journey to the west

In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed to the West Indies in search of spices and gold and a sea route to Asia, sponsored by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who were interested in Spanish expansion. He found neither, although it is possible that he believed the island of Hispaniola to be Japan, and the coast of Cuba to be part of the Asian mainland, as shown on the historically important Piri Reis map, based partly on Columbus’ earlier maps charting some of his voyages. Whilst on Hispaniola, Columbus founded the first European colonies in the New World.

Mistreatment of the native people

He saw the potential of the islands as an outpost of the Spanish Empire, and returned the following year with farmers, builders and missionaries ready to bring the word of God to the heathens. Columbus, unfortunately, seems not to have been a good judge of character – many of the men he had brought along were not interested in his higher goal, instead preying on the native islanders; stealing, enslaving and murdering. Within a few years of the Europeans’ arrival, nearly all of the native population were dead, through mistreatment or disease.

Many nation took claim of the Caribbean Islands

The Europeans, having cleared the islands of their native population, constructed a capital, San Domingo. Columbus made four journeys to the Caribbean, opening up a new world to Europeans although he didn’t ever find the riches he was seeking. In the years following Columbus’ “discovery” of the islands, thousands of Spanish settlers, followed by the British, Portuguese, Danish, Dutch and French arrived on the islands, each nation claiming different islands as their own. To this day, the Caribbean Islands are divided by the occurrences of that time – not just politically but in areas such as currency, language, laws, food and culture.

The British and the French

By the end of the 17th Century, the French and British had most of the islands divided between them, both having come out on top of the various conflicts between the European rivals for dominance. During this time, ownership of the islands changed frequently – a hazard for mariners who could not always be certain that they were landing in friendly territory. France and Britain both promoted the region’s developing sugar cane industry, (replacing tobacco) using slaves to work the fields and process the sugar cane. Slaves were locals, African imports or European bond servants (slaves for a contract term). By 1763, Britain emerged from the continuing European wars as the owner of half of the most profitable sugar producing islands. The Caribbean Sea became a hub for sea faring European traders, and piracy became rife in response to the rich cargoes carried through the region. Towards the end of the 18th century declining production, and economic turmoil brought on by the American Revolutionary War and slave dissatisfaction led to a violent uprising.

The Caribbean Islands as of today

Today, the region houses 22 island territories, sharing borders with 12 continental countries. It is a popular tourist destination due to its tropical climate and frequent sunshine. Its population is a mixture of races descended from the various inhabitants of the area through earlier times.

More on the Caribbeans: Facts about Caribbean Islands.