By Charles Hopkins
Published 06/1/2006 | Travel
For most people, mere mention of the word Caribbean conjures up visions of breathtakingly beautiful sandy beaches, vacation paradise, and basically a lifestyle most can only dream of.
But let's try to put this into perspective. With over 200 island territories, the Caribbean is actually home to millions of people too! And as a traveler, or even simply as an interested observer, it would be extremely beneficial to understand at least a little of the geography, history, diversity, and economy of the region, as well as what it offers the average tourist. This can only enhance your experience as a visitor.
The Caribbean as a region is defined collectively as the Bahamas and the Antilles. The Antilles are further divided into the Greater Antilles, consisting of Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola (Haiti and The Dominican Republic) and Puerto Rico; and the Lesser Antilles - essentially all the other smaller islands. Keep in mind that this region encompasses the area stretching from Barbados in the East, Trinidad and Tobago in the South, to the Bahamas in the North and Cuba in the West and everything in between.
You may, sooner or later be faced with a debate as to whether countries with simply a Caribbean coastline, such as Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico and others in Central America, should be included in the definition. For the purposes of this article, these will be omitted.
Many of the Caribbean islands' earliest inhabitants were members of one or other of the two indigenous tribes - the Caribs and the Arawaks (also known as the Tainos). The Arawaks originally inhabited the Leeward and Windward islands (those islands of the Lesser Antilles that lie between Puerto Rico in the North and South America in the South) but in time spread even as far as the Greater Antilles.
The warlike Caribs originated in the South American mainland, and migrated northward throughout the Lesser Antilles, displacing the more peaceful Arawaks in the process. However, it was not until the appearance of the Spaniards much later that the extinction of the Arawaks was made certain. Their demise was accelerated as a result of battles, forced labor, and ultimately disease. There are very few members of these indigenous tribes surviving today. One such place is Trinidad and Tobago, where the local population of people with direct Carib ancestry is said to number in the thousands.
The Spaniards were the first to colonize the area, following the discovery of the West Indies by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Hot on their heels, though, were other Europeans - the Portuguese, English, French, and Dutch. Throw a good measure of piracy into this mix and you've got a description of the power-players in the region for the next several hundred years.
Power and control changed hands in the various islands over the years, depending on the desirability of the particular location, and a given nation's ability to defend it. But except for the few larger members of the Greater Antilles and much smaller French and Dutch territories, it was the English who endured, and their heritage is seen far and wide, especially in the smaller islands.
A notable exception is the South American mainland territory of Guyana (formerly British Guiana), which has been historically associated with the West Indies; other English-speaking countries with a British Commonwealth heritage.
With the growing realization of the economic value of the region as a whole, and the extremely poor results of the attempts to enslave the local tribes, the Europeans eventually turned to the Slave Trade, and this brought the first Africans to the New World. This is the major factor accounting for the population of the region being predominantly of African descent.
Many years later, after the abolishment of slavery, indentured laborers were attracted by the promise of a better life. These more willing workers came from as far away as India, Syria, Lebanon, China, and even included free Africans. As a result of this indentured laborer program, in some territories the number of persons of East Indian descent are almost as numerous as those of African ancestry.
Of course, the Europeans - the original landowners and government authorities during colonial times - were far fewer in number. But their widespread influence can be seen in the tell-tale names of streets in the various capital cities throughout the islands and territories of the region.
The Caribbean region's economies are as varied as the countries themselves. They range from those largely based on subsistence agriculture, farming and fishing, supplemented by revenue derived from Tourism, to the more fully industrialized nations; those for which Tourism is but a revenue 'bonus'. Regional populations range in size from a high of 11 million plus in Cuba, to tiny islands with populations numbering in the thousands.
Not all territories are independent, and justifiably so. In this age of skyrocketing energy prices and national deficits, full independence is unrealistic for many of the smaller islands. Some benefit immensely and likely would never dream of full independence. Imagine using the Euro in the French island territories of Martinique and Guadeloupe!
For obvious reasons, the smaller the island, the more dependent they are likely to be on Tourism as a significant source of national revenue. Some of the larger islands have also had the benefit of valuable natural resources; most notably Jamaica with Bauxite (used to manufacture Aluminum) and Trinidad and Tobago with significant Natural Gas and Offshore Oil reserves. It is worth noting that Trinidad and Tobago, with a population of just over 1 million manages to supply the United States with some 70 percent of its natural gas requirements!
Cuba can legitimately be viewed as the 'sleeping giant' of the region. What with a well-educated population of over 11 million, it is likely just a matter of time before they take their rightful place at the lead of the pack.
For years Cuba has been operating on the fringe of acceptability in the Western world. However, many countries in the region and elsewhere in the world have gone to great lengths to include in trade and development plans. As a result of the downfall of the Soviet Union, Cuba has been forced to seek foreign currency other than the Communist subsidy. The outcome has been a thriving Tourist industry, with the Europeans being the main beneficiary.
As a visitor, if you're interested in the history of the region, your best bet would be the larger islands or territories; those whose history of European occupation is longest. A good example would be the Dominican Republic, where you can see where Columbus first landed on his maiden voyage to the New World in 1492.
However, sanctions aside, if you can make it to Cuba you will not be disappointed by the Spanish architecture in Old Havana. With the Cubans' understandable economic priorities and pressures, if the ravages of time allow the buildings to survive, this will be a treat for generations of visitors to come.
To be sure, each of the islands and territories has its own place in the history of the region, but simply with a greater or lesser story to tell. The really small islands offer great scenery, mostly great weather in the dry season, and a sheer brilliance in tropical color that is a welcome shock to the senses. And yes, great beaches for you to enjoy. This stuff is so commonplace in the region that local inhabitants take it for granted.
As for nightlife; any resort will necessarily have its fill. However, if you enjoy things 'closer to the edge', the Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago is hard to beat. This occurs officially on the Monday and Tuesday just prior to Ash Wednesday.
But if you truly want to experience the Caribbean and all it has to offer, the absolute best advice is to befriend one or more local families. That is when you will experience true Caribbean hospitality. And a better 'tour guide' you will never find.