The Caribs are a group of native peoples in the Lesser Antilles, after whom the Caribbean Sea was named. They are thought to have originated in the Orinoco River Basin of Venezuela and spread northward into the Antillean chain of islands. They spoke languages in the Carib family indigenous to South America, which are now widespread across northern South America from the mouth of the Amazon River to the Colombian Andes. The 29 living Carib languages are divided into a northern branch (21 languages) and a southern branch (8 languages). Some common words used in English were borrowed from the Carib language, such as hammock, iguana, and hurricane (after the Carib god of evil).
Archaeology suggests that pottery-making horticulturalists of South American origin spread from the mainland into the Lesser Antilles around 500 BC. These early Caribbean peoples are known from their distinctive Saladoid pottery, named after the Saladero site in Venezuela, some of which is intricately designed and decorated. They also brought with them crops for cultivation; the primary crop was cassava (also known as tapioca or manioc), a major staple for Amerindian groups, and various animals such as the dog, hutia, and the guinea pig (the latter of which is currently known only from Puerto Rico). These early settlements consisted of smaller villages and were largely focused on the coastlines. Research indicates that native groups incorporated both marine (for example, shellfish, turtle, fish) and terrestrial (for example, lizards, land crabs, birds) foods into the diet. Carib-speaking peoples continued to occupy the Lesser Antilles up until European contact and, according to some historical accounts, apparently killed, displaced, or forcibly assimilated with the Arawakan peoples who inhabited islands in the northern Caribbean, but who also originated from South America.
According to some of these same European accounts, the Caribs were aggressive, warlike, and cannibalistic. In fact, the English word cannibal comes from the Spanish canxbalis, which was recorded by Christopher Columbus from the earlier Carib word karibna, meaning “person.” Although some Native Americans and other peoples around the world were known to practice cannibalism, Columbus’s characterization of the Carib as eaters of human flesh probably reflected his and general European desire to represent them as savages: In 1503, Queen Isabella of Spain ruled that only cannibals could be legally taken as slaves, which encouraged Europeans to identify various Native American groups as cannibals.
The 1748 Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, between Britain and France, settled on control of the Lesser Antilles. Because of the formidable resistance mounted by the indigenous Caribs on the islands of Dominica and St. Vincent, they were left as “neutral” islands. This treaty was violated first by the French and later by the British, who obtained possession in 1783 and drove the existing Carib population to the mountains and Atlantic coasts.
In 1797, almost the entire population of 5,000 or more Caribs on St. Vincent were forcibly removed from the island by British troops and banished to Roatan Island, off the coast of Honduras. The Garifunas of Belize are their direct descendants today. The remaining Caribs on St. Vincent were allocated 233 acres by the British government for their subsistence. In Dominica, the Caribs lost control of their lands but were not forced to migrate. By 1764, the Caribs had jurisdiction over just 232 acres, in a remote area called Salybia on the east coast of Dominica.
In 1903, the British government, on recommendation of the British administrator, Sir Heskeith Bell, expanded the Carib reservation to 3,700 acres in northeast Dominica and officially called it the Carib Reserve. This was a paltry gesture by the government, considering that it amounted to only about 2% of the Caribs’ original land on the island. The declaration that established the reserve officially recognized the authority of the Carib chief, but he was not given actual control of the area. Today, the Carib Reserve in Dominica is the only one of its kind in the Caribbean and has a population of around 2,700 people. Although it has helped the Carib community to maintain its own identity, the loss of language, cultural traditions, and lifeways as a result of European domination has severely impacted the Carib peoples.
- Farnsworth, P. (Ed.). (2001). Island lives: Historical archaeologies of the Caribbean. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.
- Hulme, P., & Whitehead, N. L. (Eds.). (1992). Wild majesty: Encounters with Caribs from Columbus to the present day: An anthology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Wilson, S. M. (Ed.). (1997). The indigenous people of the Caribbean. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.