Caribbean 1492-1750

by Chris Rae

What were the causes and consequences of significant historical changes in the Caribbean between 1492-1750?

Commerce, conquest, and migrations were both the causes and consequences of significant historical changes in the Caribbean between 1492 and 1750. In addition, commerce, conquest, and migrations facilitated the transition from a fragmented to a connected Colonial Atlantic World.

Initial Contact

The Spanish Empire's contact and subsequent conquest of the Caribbean in the early 1500's caused immediate significant historical change. Prior to the arrival of the Spanish Empire, millions of independent and autonomous Native Americans lived on the Caribbean Islands. In order for the Spanish to institute their European Model, wealth, security, and war, they conquered native peoples and attempted to set up mission towns where they would collect taxes and tribute. However, Native American contact with the Spanish caused widespread epidemics of small pox, chicken pox, flue, measles, and mumps that wiped out over half of the Native American population alone. In addition, the rest of the Native American population in the Caribbean was either killed in wars with the Spanish or fled for other islands and the mainland. In merely twenty-some years after the Spanish Empire first made contact with the Caribbean they caused significant historical change by depopulating the entire Caribbean of Native American life and made the first steps in transitional the Colonial Atlantic World from fragmented to connected.

Caribbean Conquest

With the conquest of the Caribbean complete, the Spanish Empire attempted to set up cash-crop plantations, mainly sugar, to increase commerce and support their European Model in the early 1600's. However, cash-crop plantations required slave labor due to the extremely difficult conditions and likely-hood of death. Unfortunately for the Spanish, a significant portion of slaves brought into the Caribbean to work the plantations became Maroons, runaways. The Maroons often attacked plantations in order to get the necessary supplies for their survival and, in turn, freed more slaves to join them. The number of Maroons grew and they continually attacked plantations, which made it hard for the Spanish to establish and maintain plantations as a significant source of commerce. The Spanish migrated many Africans to the Caribbean in their early attempts to establish plantations but this was only the beginning of forced migrations.

The Followers

The success of the Spanish in the America's to produce significant sources of wealth increased the presence of other European Empires (French, Dutch and, English) in the Caribbean. In addition, their own attempts to follow the European Model created an even greater threat than Maroons, Pirates. The Pirates, originally commissioned by the other European Empires during war time, were hired to continually attack the Spanish wealth supply in an attempt to stop them from funding wars in Europe. However, when war with the Spanish ceased, the Pirates did not. They seceded from their respective nations and formed their own independent society so they would could continue to raid and keep everything for themselves. So the Pirates continued to raid Spanish ships with goods on them to and from Europe and the Pirates captured slaves from ships along the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. The presence of Pirates in the Caribbean made it hard for the Spanish to establish and maintain plantations as a significant source of commerce.

Around 1650 the English, Dutch, and French developed an increased interest in the Caribbean, moved into area, and conquered a significant portion of the Caribbean Islands in order to further support their European Model. Now that the other European Empires controlled their own islands, they needed to find a way to maximize profits. Further support of piracy would only generate so much revenue that could be sent back to Europe to fund wars. There were no native peoples to collect taxes and tribute from because the Spanish already dealt with them. Therefore, the English, Dutch, and French needed to establish and maintain cash-crop plantations in order to reap the true benefits of owning islands in the Caribbean. This created an increase in slave migrations to the Caribbean but more importantly it brought more attention to the Maroons and Pirates. The further involvement of European Empires further facilitated the transition to a more connected Colonial Atlantic World.

Establishing Caribbean

Although most of the major European Empires controlled islands in the Caribbean, Maroon and Pirate presences still existed and would need to be dealt with before plantations could be established and maintained to create a significant for of commerce. To overcome the Pirate issue, the English appointed the Pirate King, Sir Henry Morgan, as the Governor of Jamaica. This gave the English immunity from the Pirates but more importantly it set up the Pirates for their eventual downfall. In the Pirate capital city of Port Royal, an act of Mother Nature brought the Pirate issue to an end in the Caribbean when an earthquake struck the city and wiped out over half the population. The remaining Pirates did not have the numbers to continue to play a significant role in the Caribbean and they slowly dwindled off over time. The Maroon issue would not be so easily resolved. Originally the European Empires tried attacking the Maroons in an attempt to eliminate them by conquest. However, conquest proved unsuccessful as Maroons defended themselves well in the mountainous regions they've lived in their entire lives. Eventually negotiations would be needed to deal with the Maroons. The two sides agreed they would leave each other alone. In addition the Maroons would return runaway slaves to the European Empires in order to earn a source of income

The Consequences

The resolution of the Maroon and Pirate issues by the early 1700's paved the way for plantation expansion and an extreme increase in Trans-Atlantic slave trade which caused significant forced migrations from Africa to the Caribbean. In order to maximize production of cash-crops, the European Empires needed slaves to work the hard and taxing manual labor of plantations. Slave trade was ubiquitous and could be found anywhere but for the mass amount of slaves needed for plantations in the Caribbean, the Europeans turned to Africa for their forced labor. As plantation expansion continued, more slaves were taken from Africa and brought to the Caribbean. Slave labor was extremely dangerous and most slaves would die after only a few years of work. Therefore, the slave trade needed to increase its deliver system even more. The vicious cycle continued up until 1750 and during this time, over five million slaves forcefully migrated from Africa to the Caribbean, work on the plantations as long as they possibly could, and then die.