Knowing the history of the Caribbean region goes a long way toward understanding its people. Each island has a unique cultural identity shaped by the European colonialists, the African heritage of slaves, and the enduring legacies of the native Indian tribes. This rich history and its lasting influence is set against a backdrop of crystal clear waters and perpetual sunshine.
Although not largely written about, Caribbean culture has arguably been preserved more by the authentic voices of “intuitive scholars”: artists, farmers, merchants, and traders–educationally deprived, perhaps, but quite learned in the cultural heritage of the island nations. They are the region’s best oral historians and cultural preservationists.
The Caribbean lifestyle is undoubtedly a product of its tropical setting. The music, architecture, attitudes and customs have all, in some way, been shaped by the physical landscape and climate. The cultures of the Caribbean countries are a blend of colonial mainstays and pervasive influences by major ethnic groups of the region such as East Indians and Africans.
Barbados, a former British colony, retains enough British traditions to be called “Little England.” Antigua, while offering a more laid-back attitude, still observes old British customs.
On the other hand, Jamaica retains few of the colonial customs, relies heavily on pre-colonial heritage and is passionately self-sufficient. Jamaica also boasts a successful democracy and maintains a peaceful existence in the Caribbean. Its residents run the gamut from staid English aristocrats to vibrant Rastafarians.
Aruba, once a Dutch possession, only retains slight Dutch influence today. The U.S. Virgin Islands, purchased from the Dutch in 1917, mainly have an American feel with a few lingering elements of Dutch culture.
The Dominican Republic is largely underdeveloped except in the capital of Santo Domingo, a city teeming with two million people. It is a sparsely populated, mountainous country whose past is riddled with political turmoil.
In contrast, nearby Puerto Rico is the most modern island in the Caribbean. Spanish and American influences are apparent throughout this island abounding with high-rises and traffic. Guadeloupe remains a French possession. There are some African influences here, but French customs, culture, and language prevail.
Creole languages are nearly two hundred years old. They came about during the first slavery era in the Caribbean. Creole is a “patois” language that is a varied combination of African syntax and European lexicon, or words. It evolved out of necessity, as slaves had to communicate with the European plantation owners. Derivations include French Creole, with regional dialects in Haiti, Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Lucia, Dominica and French Guyana; Papiamento, a Dutch, Portuguese, English and African blend; and Patwa in Jamaica.
Because the Creole language was associated with the poor labor class, parents would often forbid their children to speak it. In recent times, however, more people are appreciating and recognizing the historical importance of the language, its linguistic appeal, and its significant place in local culture.
Old African culture and customs influence much of the religious worship, artistic expression, rhythmic dancing, singing and even ways of thinking in the Caribbean. Spiritual practices such as Junkanoo in the Bahamas, Santeria in Cuba, Voodun in Haiti, and Rastafari in Jamaica are African-influenced movements that have Caribbean origin but a worldwide following. Reggae music and jerk cooking are also Africa-inspired gifts to the world from the Caribbean. In the Eastern Caribbean Soca Tradition, for example, the limbo dance ritual has its roots on the slave ships that came to the colonies on the horrific “Middle Passage.”
Music and Dance
Music has been central to Caribbean culture since the days of slavery, when it was a mode of mental survival and a form of recreation. Today there is a ubiquitous Caribbean soundtrack; it plays on city streets, in natives’ homes and at special festivals – at Carnival people tirelessly dance for days. It is characterized by a natural, easy rhythm and multiple ethnic influences, particularly the African drum beat.
Dancing everywhere in the Caribbean is an energetic melding of lower-carriage movement, shuffle-stepping, and swaying hips. In Santo Domingo, shoeshine boys may drum their boxes, while working musicians hone new beats all the time. There is a complex cultural blend to be heard in nearly every musical style found in the Caribbean. In Trinidad, Indian sounds round out the melodies of Calypso, while in Cuba and Puerto Rico, the Latin beat feeds the salsa rhythm. The vocal styles of modern rap can be heard throughout Jamaican dance halls.
Most of what we know about the earliest inhabitants of the islands comes via word-of-mouth. Relatively little of their culture was recorded during the settlement period. What we do know from these Spanish records is that the Taínos were perceived to be extremely kind and generous.
Although the Taínos were quickly taken as slaves, they left a number of lingering traits that they transferred to their Spanish oppressors. Taíno heritage can be found in island foods and language, as well as in the smoking of tobacco and even the popularity of the hammock.
Spanish recordings tell us that the Taíno were short people with dark skin and black hair. The Taíno would flatten their children’s’ heads while they were infants by tying boards to them, and this caused their faces to be wide, but it also toughened their bones. Taíno skulls are even reported to have blunted and broken Spanish swords.These precautions and defenses against weapons did not make the Taíno any less friendly to Columbus and his explorers. He even noted the fairness of their trades with the islanders they met on Hispaniola. However, the Taíno attitude toward theft promoted fair trade – thievery was the most heinous of crimes. Thieves were slowly pierced with a pole or pointed stick until they died. While on some islands the Taíno were decorated with gold, Columbus presumed there was far more gold than there was. In fact, much gold was imported from South and Central America as trade items. However, because the native people saw no special importance for the gold, they traded it for beads and other trinkets from the Spanish. Religious prophecies among the Taínos told of a day when strangers would arrive wearing clothing and carrying thunder and lightning, and so they believed that the Spanish were these gods. They themselves did not wear much clothing, and unmarried girls were most often nude. Typical clothing was made from palm leaves, flowers, and short cotton skirts.
Taíno huts were designed with a tall pole in the center and smaller poles around it, and walls were made of wild cane that was tied together, while the roof was a grass and palm leaf thatch. Although these huts may seem frail, they could hold up to hurricane-strength winds, meaning islanders wouldn’t have to replace their homes after a bad storm.Inside these huts, hammocks (called hamacas by the Taíno) served as the main piece of furniture, and wooden stools were another mainstay. Cotton production was just beginning, and Cuba and Hispaniola traded with Jamaica for cotton, sometimes in bright colors, for their hammocks. The Taíno leaders were called “caciques” and they would live in the largest of these huts. Most often a cacique’s hut would be rectangular instead of circular, differentiating this leader’s home from the others.
The Taíno were known to eat lightly, and some wrote that the food the Spanish ate in a day could have sustained the Taíno for a week. However, their foods influenced the meals of the Spanish settlers as well. Seafood – particularly shellfish and fish – cassava, maize, and fruits made up a majority of their diet. Birds, iguanas, and manatees would also have served as meals for the islanders, with salt and pepper as the most important seasonings. Cassava and maize were distilled into potent drinks. The Taíno had specific methods for growing their crops, and each gender and age had his or her own role to play in the growth of these important plants. Children were mainly in charge of keeping birds from taking the crop. Hunting was also important, and the islanders had a number of ways to hunt birds. Waterfowl were entrapped in the most complicated method – hunters would float downstream, hidden, and drown birds in a special sack designed for the purpose. Meanwhile, fishing was often carried out by the help of remora, sucker fish, in a method so effective they could land manatees and sea turtles.
Leisure and Entertainment
A passion for song and dance is just one part of Taíno culture, while sports and even smoking were popular pastimes as well. Interestingly, sports were so popular that we know much of how it was played, and smoking tobacco was, of course, something the Taíno passed down to the Spanish. Taíno gave their song and dance the name areito, though some were done by only women or men, while others were performed with both genders dancing together. Special occasions, such as the marriage of a cacique, were appropriate times for these dances. The game batos was popular among the Taíno and was played, much like soccer, in two teams. The teams would hit the ball with many parts of their body but could not use their hands. Scoring was based on when the ball hit the ground. From time to time, different villages even played against one another in this game. The Taínos also gave us their words “tabaco” and “cohiba,” though the tabaco was the pipe from which they smoked the cohiba (tobacco). The Spanish had never seen tobacco, and at first thought that the Taínos were walking around with small firebrands in their mouths, though it was simply a tightly rolled bunch of tobacco leaves.
The Taíno believed that the Spanish were gods, but the Spanish were not aware of the Taíno religion until much later. Only Hispaniola’s practices were documented, though they seem to have been typical of all of the Caribbean’s Taínos. They did have a creation myth, and a supreme god and goddess, but their primary interaction with the spirit world seems to have been through zemis. The word zemi, however, could refer both to spirits or their carved images – and even certain items believed to have magical powers. However, since they were wood carvings, few zemis still exist. The priests often encouraged the people to believe that some of these zemis could speak, and the zemis were celebrated in festivals. While priests were healers, zemis were often considered to be the cause of many illnesses. In the afterlife, the Taínos believed in a place known as coyaba, where they could live without droughts, hurricanes, or sicknesses and the people spent their time feasting and dancing. It’s easy to see the many ways in which the Taíno influenced the early Spanish settlers, and therefore life in the Caribbean. Their food and words are the most important and lingering influences on Caribbean culture.
The culture of the Caribbean has grown and taken shape because of the people whose voices have been heard throughout generations.