The indigenous peoples of the Caribbean are the forgotten natives of The Americas. The much-documented civilisations of the Inca, Mayans, and the Puebloans dominate the common perception of the New World’s first peoples in a similar way to which the Latino and Afro-Caribbean communities dominate the common perception of today’s inhabitants and culture of the Caribbean islands. Often lost in this paradigm are the diverse peoples who existed on these islands prior to European contact, and who despite conflict, displacement, and disease remain an intrinsic part of Caribbean culture.
The Caribbean natives can very broadly be divided into three groups; The Island Caribs of the Lesser Antilles, the Taino of the upper Lesser Antilles are the majority of the Greater Antilles, and the Guanahatabey of Western Cuba. Each of these groups spoke a distinct language and had distinctive cultures, with sub-cultures existing within each group, particularly the Taino, who were the most widespread of these peoples.
Who are they?
The Island Caribs are the peoples to whom the Caribbean owes its name. Present throughout the Lesser Antilles, their language and culture is thought to have been the result of a successful mainland Carib invasion and cultural domination of a pre-existing peoples, possibly related to the Taino. The Island Caribs are understood to have been a warlike people, sustained by a mastery of boat building. Historical accounts and archaeological evidence suggests that locals participated in ritual cannibalism. This hardiness meant that attempted Spanish settlements were repelled for much of the 16th century, however the outbreak of Eurasian disease such as smallpox, to which the Caribs had no immunity, meant later French and English attempts at settlement in the Lesser Antilles were more successful. This allowed the colonial authorities to tighten their grip on Carib lands, shaping local politics and within it local demographics.
Taino is an umbrella term referring to the diverse array of cultures who were occupying what are today Cuba, Trinidad, Jamaica, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico at the time of initial European contact. Like indigenous Caribbeans in general, the Taino can broadly be divided into three groups. The Western Taino inhabited central and eastern Cuba, Jamaica, and The Bahamas. The Classic Taino inhabited Puerto Rico and Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominica Republic). The Eastern Taino occupied the northern Lesser Antilles, and often clashed with their warlike neighbours the Island Caribs. Taino territories were divided into chiefdoms, sustained by a tribute system.
The Guanahatabey were the original inhabitants of what is now western Cuba. Archeological evidence suggests that theirs was a nomadic hunter-gatherer society. They are thought by anthropologists to be the remnants of an older Caribbean-wide culture, as evidenced by the discovery of sites like theirs across the remainder of the islands. Despite sharing an island with the Taino, there appears to have been little communication between the groups, supported by the fact that that when Columbus attempted to use Taino interpreters in Guanahatabey territory they could not decipher the local language.
What happened to them?
References to the Guanahatabey persist in European documents until the 16th century, at which point it is likely that colonial violence, slavery, and necessitated mixing with the Taino caused the culture to vanish. The Taino were decimated by smallpox, a Eurasian disease to which indigenous Americans had no natural resistance to. Some claim that between 1518 and 1519 90% of the Taino population were killed, and only 500 remained in 1548. Although they are unlikely to have cared, the colonial powers did not actively orchestrate this decimation. The same cannot be said about the Island Caribs, who were subject to a far more calculated attack.
As discussed earlier, the Island Caribs were initially successfully resistant to colonial settlement. This changed following the introduction of Eurasian diseases, and the French and English were able to gain a foothold in the Lesser Antilles by the early 17th century. The Caribs remained suspicious of the foreign presence, and in 1626 a group on the island of St Kitts plotted to attack a European settlement. The Europeans however uncovered the plot, and responded by inviting a number of the unsuspecting conspirators to a gathering, during which they were heavily sedated with alcohol. The Europeans subsequently massacred a number of their guests, and then herded the remaining natives into a region now known as Bloody Point, where they were executed. The event is now known as the Kalinago Genocide, and is a clear indication that the colonial authorities were intent on the eradication of the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean.
Where are they now?
By 1793 the British had occupied all Island Carib territory, save for a 16 square kilometre reserve in north-eastern Dominica. Around 3,000 Caribs remain in this territory, although their language was recorded extinct in 1930. Island Carib culture is also survived by the ‘Black Caribs’ or Garifuna, who are the descendants of escaped African slaves who interbred with indigenous communities. Taino culture has largely been lost, however there has been a recent surge in attempts at revival. Many throughout the Caribbean now claim Taino and Carib heritage.