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Origins

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Caribbean Peoples/Frances Henry

Migrants to Canada from the Caribbean region come from one of the most complex areas of the world. The region has for long been known as the West Indies, a term that derives from the mistaken belief of Columbus who in the late fifteenth century, during his search for the East Indies, found himself in the “West.” In an effort to overcome this centuries-old mistaken Eurocentric notion, it seems preferable to replace the terms West Indies and West Indians with the geographic designations Caribbean region and Caribbean peoples.

The Caribbean region includes some fifty distinct territories. Although most are islands, some are located along the coastal regions of mainland Central and South America. Today, most countries in the region are politically independent, but a few remain dependencies of Great Britain, the United States, the Netherlands, and France. Many of these territories originally were inhabited by Amerindian peoples, but beginning in the sixteenth century the entire region became home to people of European, African, and Asian origin. Currently, the inhabitants of the Caribbean region are primarily of African and mixed racial origin. Asian Indians, brought as indentured labourers in the nineteenth century, are found in significant numbers in Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana. Chinese, Portuguese, and Syrians are among the others who make up the diverse population of the region.

Throughout the Caribbean, there are some important cultural distinctions. This is most immediately evident in the different languages spoken and used for cultural purposes that reflect the influence of former colonizing countries – Great Britain, France, Spain, and the Netherlands. Nonetheless, the region as a whole shows a high degree of cultural similarity. Cultural parallels are particularly evident among societies that had once been part of the British West Indies, French West Indies, and Netherlands Antilles. Although geographically part of the Caribbean, the peoples from island countries originally colonized by Spain (Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico) as well as from Haiti, which effectively achieved independence from France in the late eighteenth century, all show a more marked cultural divergence from the rest of the region. (SeeHAITIANS HAITIANS.) This entry focuses on the largest component of the Caribbean migration to Canada – peoples of African, or Afro-Caribbean, origin from the English-speaking countries of Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago. Hence, the term Caribbean region in the remainder of this entry will refer primarily to former British colonies. (See also GUYANESE; INDO-CARIBBEANS; JAMAICANS; TRINIDADIANS).

The socio-cultural, economic, and political complexities of the Caribbean region today cannot be understood without reference to its history of exploitation, slavery, colonialism, and continued economic dependence on European and North American countries. Despite its relatively small size, the Caribbean region played a crucial role in the struggles of European countries to gain a foothold in the New World. In the course of his four voyages between 1492 and 1504, Columbus “discovered” for Spain most of the islands, which were already inhabited by native Caribs and Arawaks. These peoples quickly succumbed to both disease and enforced servitude and were gradually decimated. Spain was followed by other countries, and it was not long before the political struggles between Britain, France, Spain, and the Netherlands transformed the islands and coastal areas into little more than pawns to be traded back and forth as the result of wars and treaties among the European countries during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. At the same time, the islands were settled as European powers began to see their value as a source of agricultural commodities. It was the European demand for sugar in particular that led to the development of a plantation-based economy founded on that crop. Since the growing and processing of sugar required substantial numbers of labourers, millions of people from the African continent were imported. Consequently, the two forces of sugar and slavery were to shape the history of the Caribbean region and leave indelible marks on all aspects of its socio-economic and cultural development.

During the colonial period, the Caribbean was also settled by Europeans of many nationalities. Since white planters were in short supply and the plantation economy was growing rapidly, Europeans of any nationality were welcome. Aside from plantation owners, indentured servants, yeoman farmers, and a variety of poor Europeans settled in the region. Many of the planters eventually returned home, but those who remained (including their offspring born in the region), together with the successive generations of locally born slaves, came to be known as creoles.

Conditions for slaves were harsh throughout the Caribbean region. Brutal work conditions, malnourishment, and frequent punishment took their toll. Slaves were not allowed to speak their languages, practice their religions, or legally marry. Relationships between men and women were encouraged, however, because the anticipated offspring would assure a new generation of workers. Since European whites were increasingly outnumbered, they developed ever more stringent methods of social control. The fear of rebellion – justified by the many that took place over the years – led to progressively harsher forms of repression.

Sexual liaisons between white planters and managers and black slave women produced a growing number of mixed-race mulattos. Children of such unions were sometimes manumitted on the death of their white fathers. Increasingly, therefore, a middle group of brown-skinned, largely free mulattos developed as a buffer group between the whites and their black slaves. Occasionally, hardworking and productive slaves could purchase their freedom and among these were both blacks and individuals with lighter skin colour. Hence, by the eighteenth century, the Caribbean structure consisted of European whites, brown-skinned mulattos, and black African slaves. This white-brown-black stratification pattern has continued to influence the social structure of the region until the present.

By the late eighteenth century, the profitability of sugar had begun to decline and the Caribbean region increasingly became an economic drain on European colonizers. At the same time, the movement towards abolition was gaining momentum in Europe. The result was that, between 1791 and 1863, all slaves in the Caribbean region were freed, with abolition in the British West Indies occurring in 1834. Although some former slaves continued to work the plantations, most did not, and the labour shortage that resulted prompted the importation of indentured workers from India and other parts of South Asia. The substantial numbers of Asian Indians in the populations of Trinidad and Guyana today are the descendants of these indentured labourers.

The colonizing Europeans brought their social and political institutions with them. The economy was dominated by the theory and practice of capitalism, and political institutions that excluded the participation of slaves were created. Christianity became the dominant religion and a variety of social and cultural features of European origin determined social interaction. Although the slaves and their descendants lost for the most part their African cultural, linguistic, and political traditions, there were nevertheless aspects of African-ness that survived and merged with European customs and institutions. The result was the development of a creole cultural pattern in which European institutional structures were merged with day-to-day habits, customs, and forms of social interaction – formulated largely by peoples of African origin – to create a Caribbean culture that was neither European, African, or New World but rather a unique combination of all three.

Most of the English-speaking islands and mainland territories along the Caribbean coast remained British colonies until the second half of the twentieth century. The statehood that was achieved beginning in the early 1960s brought political but not economic independence. The economies of the Caribbean region have remained weak and dependent on a mixture of agriculture and tourism, although some attempts at modernization have brought industry and manufacturing into the area. There is considerable poverty, and unemployment as well as underemployment rates remain high. The rigidity of the stratification system varies from country to country; however, it essentially consists of three strata based on economic and social factors but still heavily influenced by skin colour.