4.2 The Caribbean

The Caribbean Basin is often divided into the Greater Antilles and the Lesser Antilles (the bigger islands and the smaller islands, respectively).

The Greater Antilles includes the four large islands of Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico.

The Lesser Antilles are in the eastern and southern region.

The Bahamas are technically in the Atlantic Ocean, not in the Caribbean Sea, but they are usually associated with the Caribbean region and are often affiliated with the Lesser Antilles.

Many of the Caribbean islands experience the rain shadow effect. Jamaica has as much as a twenty-inch difference in rainfall between the north side and south side of the island because most of the rain falls on the north side, where the prevailing winds hit the island.

Puerto Rico has a tropical rain forest on the northeastern part of the island, which receives a large amount of rainfall. The rain shadow effect creates semidesert conditions on the southwestern side.

Rain forest in Puerto Rico
Rain forest in Puerto Rico

Low elevation islands such as the Bahamas do not receive as much rain because they are not high enough to affect the precipitation patterns of rain clouds.

Notice the low elevation of the islands in this approach to the Bahamas.
Notice the low elevation of the islands in this approach to the Bahamas.

The Spanish were not the only Europeans to take advantage of colonial expansion in the Caribbean: the English, French, Dutch, and other Europeans followed. Most of the European colonial countries were located on the west coast of Europe, which had a seafaring heritage. This included smaller countries such as Denmark, Sweden, and Belgium. The Caribbean Basin became an active region for European ships to enter and vie for possession of each island.

Many of the Caribbean islands changed hands several times before finally being secured as established colonies. The cultural traits of each of the European colonizers were injected into the fabric of the islands they colonized; thus, the languages, religions, and economic activities of the colonized islands reflected those of the European colonizers rather than those of the native people who had inhabited the islands originally.

Spain colonized: Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico
The British colonized: 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
The Dutch colonized: Curacao, Bonaire, Aruba, St. Eustatius, Saba and Sint Maarten (south half)
The French colonized: Haiti, Guadeloupe, Martinique, St. Martin (north half), St. Barthelemy
The U.S. colonized: Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, Cuba

Colonialism drastically altered the ethnic makeup of the Caribbean; Amerindians were virtually eliminated after the arrival of Africans, Europeans, and Asians. Those of European descent are at the top of the pyramid and control a higher percentage of the wealth and power even though they are a minority of the population. In the Caribbean, the middle class includes mulattos, or people with both African and European heritage, many of which include managers, businesspeople, and professionals. In some countries, such as Haiti, the minority mulatto segment of the population makes up the power base and holds political and economic advantage over the rest of the country while the working poor at the bottom of the pyramid make up most of the population. In the Caribbean, the lower economic class contains the highest percentage of people of African heritage.

The largest island in the Greater Antilles is Cuba, which was transformed by the power of colonialism, the transition to plantation agriculture, and a socialist revolution. The island country of Cuba is slightly larger than the US state of Kentucky. Low hills and fertile valleys cover more than half the island. The pristine waters of the Caribbean that surround the island make for some of the most attractive tourism locations in the Caribbean region.

Vox: A brief history of America and Cuba

Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States as a result of the Spanish-American War. Puerto Ricans were granted US citizenship in 1917. Popularly elected governors have served since 1948. In 1952, a constitution was enacted providing for internal self-government. In elections held in 1967, 1993, and 1998, Puerto Rican voters chose to retain the commonwealth status, although they were almost evenly split between total independence and becoming a US state.

Puerto Rico has one of the most dynamic economies in the Caribbean Basin; still, about 60 percent of its population lives below the poverty line. Tourism has traditionally been an important source of income, with estimated arrivals of more than five million tourists a year. San Juan is the number one port for cruise ships in the Caribbean outside Miami. The US government also subsidizes Puerto Rico’s economy with financial aid.

Vox: Why Puerto Rico is not a US state

Sharing the island of Hispaniola are the two countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The island became a possession of Spain under European colonialism after it was visited by Columbus in 1492 and 1493. The Tiano-Arawak people were nonviolent and welcomed the Europeans, who in turn pressed them into servitude and slavery. French buccaneers settled on the western portion of Hispaniola and started growing tobacco and agricultural crops. France and Spain finally agreed to divide the island into two colonies: the western side would be French, and the eastern side would be Spanish.

Vox: Divided island: How Haiti and the DR became two worlds
Note: This video is linked in the weekly schedule, and there are questions for it in the study guide. This is a must-see video, in my opinion.

Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, and many Haitians live in dire poverty with few employment opportunities. An elite upper-class minority controls the bulk of the nation’s wealth. Many people in Haiti have sought comfort in Voodou (Vodoo), a religious practice steeped in African beliefs brought over with the slave trade.

Haitian Voodoo | National Geographic

The tropical island of Jamaica is physically smaller than the US state of Connecticut. In 2010, it had a population of about 2.8 million. Jamaica was settled by the Spanish early in the sixteenth century. The Taino Indians, who had inhabited Jamaica for centuries, were gradually eradicated and replaced by African slaves. When England seized the island from Spain in 1655, it established a plantation economy based on sugar, cocoa, and coffee. Two hundred years later (1834), the abolition of slavery freed a quarter million slaves, many of whom became small farmers. Jamaica gradually obtained independence from Britain, with full independence achieved in 1962. Sugar, cocoa, and coffee production continue on the island, of which more than half is mountainous. The Blue Mountains of eastern Jamaica are known for their Blue Mountain coffee production.

Hellshire Beach in Jamaica with the Blue Mountains in the background
Hellshire Beach in Jamaica with the Blue Mountains in the background

The physical geography of the Caribbean region makes it a prime location for tourism. Its beautiful coastal waters and warm tropical climate draw in tourists from all over North America and the world.

St. George's, Grenada, West Indies
St. George’s, Grenada, West Indies

Agricultural products have been traditionally a large part of the economic activity of the islands of the Lesser Antilles. Grenada, for example, is known for its nutmeg and other spices.

A nutmeg fruit split open
A nutmeg fruit split open

Bananas, sugar, and other fruit and food crops have also been export products. The problem has been that the profit margins on the products are low and prices are subject to international markets, which fluctuate widely. With an increasing population and few opportunities or advantages, countries such as Haiti suffer from poverty and unemployment. Being an island, there are few methods of expanding the economy. People often try to migrate to another county in search of employment and a more hopeful future.

Other methods of gaining wealth in the Caribbean include offshore banking and financial services. Various islands have established themselves as banking centers where one can set up financial accounts that are outside the jurisdiction of other countries. These offshore accounts provide tax havens for individuals or corporations that wish to evade taxes in their home countries.

The Caribbean culture includes many varieties of music that have developed on several islands. The region is a breeding ground for innovative music and rhythms that emulate the cultural traditions and attitudes of the people. Some examples are meringue music from the Dominican Republic, bouyon from Dominica, rara music from Haiti, salsa music from Cuba, calypso from Trinidad, and reggae from Jamaica. Check the weekly schedule links for examples of some Carribean styles of music!

Herve Cohen: Rara Haiti

Caribbean cuisine is a fusion of many different cultures such as African, Creole, Cajun, Amerindian, European, and Latin American. Ingredients that are common in most islands’ dishes are rice, plantains, beans, cassava, culantro, bell peppers, chickpeas, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, coconut, and any of various meats that are locally available like beef, poultry, pork or fish.

The Puerto Rican dis of mofongo has fried plantains as a main ingredient with bits of bacon or pork cracklings inside.
Breadfruit is eaten on St. Kitts and Nevis.
Rice with chicken is a Cuban dish.
Rice with chicken is a Cuban dish.
A Jamaican breakfast
A Jamaican breakfast of saltfish, callaloo (greens), fry dumplin, and fruit.

Key Takeaways:

✎ The Caribbean Basin is often divided into the Greater Antilles and the Lesser Antilles.
✎ Colonialism created a high level of ethnic, linguistic, and economic diversity in the Caribbean. The main shifts were the demise of indigenous groups and the introduction of African slaves.
✎ There was once hosility between Cuba and the U.S.
✎ Puerto Ricans were granted US citizenship but Puerto Rico is not a U.S. state.
✎ Haiti and the Dominican Republic share an island but are quite different from each other.
✎ Sugar, cocoa, and coffee are produced on Jamaica.
✎ The Caribbean is a prime location for tourism and also has a rich musical heritage.

Next: 4.3 Central America

We want to know what you thought of what you just read and watched! Leave us a comment! Please also let us know if a link or video isn’t working. 🙂

Image and additional information credits:

Greater and Lesser Antilles
Puerto Rico rainforest (edited by Jennifer Guest)
By 3tvakil – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61323908
By cogdogblog – https://www.flickr.com/photos/cogdog/3426269196/, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57019544
Hellshire Beach, Jamaica
By Op. Deo at English Wikipedia – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19513590
St. George’s, Grenada, West Indies
By Vkap at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16483872
By Slashme – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47139889
Caribbean cuisine info
By Jason Lam – https://www.flickr.com/photos/mesohungry/4850224357/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=83391380
Arroz con Pollo
By Kobako – photo taken by Kobako, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=745203
By US Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center – US Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center (http://pbarc.ars.usda.gov/pages/research/tpgrmu/Hart-49.jpg; http://pbarc.ars.usda.gov/pages/research/tpgrmu/HART49.shtml; http://pbarc.ars.usda.gov/pages/research/tpgrmu/artocarpus.shtml), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=131476
Jamaican breakfast
By Karolyn – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8837741

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