The History of The Caribbean in the 16th and 17th Century

The New World

“The term “New World” (“Mundus Novus”) was first coined by the Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci, in a letter written to his friend and former patron Lorenzo di Pier Francesco de’ Medici in the Spring of 1503, and published (in Latin) in 1503-04 under the title Mundus Novus. Vespucci’s letter contains arguably the first explicit articulation in print of the hypothesis that the lands discovered by European navigators to the west were not the edges of Asia, as asserted by Christopher Columbus, but rather an entirely different continent, a “New World”.” – Wikipedia

“Columbus Map” drawn in 1490 in his office in Lisbon.

The discovery of the new world in 1492 was monumental to nearly every aspect of European life. New types of food, inventions, and resources were discovered and implemented slowly into European culture. Before the connection was made between North America and Europe, Italy had no tomatoes, Ireland had no potatoes, and Native American Indians had never seen horses. Today, it is hard to picture some of these cultures without some of these identities we have long associated them. Perhaps even more important than food, the transference of disease between two long divided groups had devastating short term consequences but may have helped humanity in the long run. The Caribbean underwent a critical transformation in the 16th and 17th centuries creating a web of variables entangled political and economic progression implemented by European countries. The colonies actions and decisions are often reflected the ideals and struggles of the nations quarreling across the Atlantic.

Columbus predicting a lunar eclipse to the natives surprise. – Wikipedia


The development of the Caribbean by national powers can be explained in two parts. First, the Spanish were the first to storm in and plunder the Caribbean. They established ship routes to promote trade and transportation for investors. The second, northern European nations began to progress into the Caribbean introducing new variables to the equation. Differences between northern European philosophies on imperialism, the presence of privateers, and disease, gave birth to a new shifting political and economical environment strategies in the region.

Why They Went

Contrary to popular belief, these expeditions were not funded to satisfy human appetite for curiosity and discovery. They were funded to exploit any resources they could find in order to benefit Spain. Queen Isabella could care less about scientific discoveries to uncover secrets of the natural world, she gave Columbus Spanish flags and told him to claim anything in which could benefit Spain.

The discovery of the Caribbean sparked an ambition among lower class Spanish citizens and notaries. They recognized they had an opportunity to better themselves in Spanish society by acquiring quick wealth followed by a swift return to Spain. Their ultimate goal was to improve their social and financial status in Spain, not to stay in the Caribbean with hopes of establishing permanent settlements. In order to accomplish their goals, they needed a secure and accessible shipping route from the mainland to the Caribbean to Spain. The primary strategy of the Spanish was to secure these routes to bring new goods into Spain, later to be exported throughout Europe.

Who They Were

The first Spaniards to be attracted to the new world were conquistadors. They were responsible for making this land, people, and resources, exploitable. After they conquered strategic parts of the Caribbean, a Spanish policy for granting land was put into place in 1501, called Encomiendas. This system was severely abused and not taken seriously because the Caribbean, at this time, was somewhat of a wild west on the fringes of civilization. An American proverb accurately reflects Spanglish federal law enforcement at the time: “If death came from Spain, we would all live a long life.” This expresses the delay in communication from the Americas to Europe. It implies the official Spanish viceroyalties ( local government officials) often had the most control, legally allowed to act as a surrogate to the head of the monarch.  The Spaniards, who came to the new world in search of valuables, became heavily dependent on native enslavement and labor to make maximize profits. Most of these profits came from forced labor in silver and gold mines. The work was brutal, as many died in the process.

Another factor in the Spanish conquest was the Catholic Church. They supported the European efforts as long as Christianity was being spread and souls saved. They played a critical role in the influence and justification of events that inhabited the minds of Spanish investors. Without God’s permission, it would be very difficult to justify the cruel punishment and enslavement of native cultures. Bartalome Las Casas provides detailed first hand accounts and descriptions of events so vivid and so shocking; they were powerful enough to draw the attention of high-­‐ranking officials in Spain.

Bartalome de Las Casas – Image From Wikipedia
“Depictions of Spanish atrocities committed in the conquest of Cuba in Las Casas’s “Brevisima relecion de la destruccion de las Indias” The rendering was by Joos van Winghe and Flemish Protestant artist Theodor de Bry” – Wikapedia

Las Casas was affiliated with the Catholic Church but questioned their decisions on what is acceptable and what wasn’t. With the major influence the church held in Europe at the time, if the church condemned the treatment of the natives, it would have altered the approach the Spanish took when structuring the Caribbean islands. In 1542, the New Laws were put in place to protect the rights of the natives, however they were not very effective. Along with the introduction of new products on the trade market, deadly diseases began to spread like malaria and yellow fever in the 1690s. Natives were becoming scarce, putting a stint in Spanish profits. With the great mistreatment and horrible working conditions combined with devastating disease, the Spanish labor force was deteriorating fast and new strategies had to be implemented to keep up with the newly competing northern European countries in the area.

The Spanish responded with investments in sugar production and slaves imported from Africa. Their economic model in the new world eventually recovered but not until later in the 18th century.

Progression in The New World

The situation begins to shift in 1600. The Dutch, French, and English, establishing a foothold and the Caribbean experienced another massive transformation. They positioned themselves geographically away from the Spanish empire and its dense populations. These nations who valued land and instead of enslaving the natives, they traded with them (often times with forced trade). With the implementation of multiple European systems of control, the Caribbean began a new era. The entire region seems to be a unique example of an isolated area completely run by colonial powers. Studying these events is a mere echo of the events happening in Europe at the time. Relations become an extension of the wants and needs of conflicting imperial powers, fighting to get ahead.

The northern European powers had a much different strategy than the previous dominators of the Caribbean – Spain. Instead of using native populations, they were more attracted to the value of land. With a fast expanding lucrative Caribbean, the northern Europeans implied a more long-­‐term investment which proved effective. They established critical trade companies that pumped the blood of commerce and wealth back to their country. Often times these systems of trade undermine the nationalist policies birthing contraband and reducing revenue.

The formation of trading companies was essential to the expansion of the Northwest European presence. The Dutch West India Company, founded in 1621, was the most important, and provided a basis for a golden age of commercial expansion in the first half of the 17th” century.

The primary labor force in this time were indentured servants who composed mostly of political prisoners from the English Civil War, often Catholic Irish, Scottish, and royalist English. In theory, the idea was to put low class people in the position to: 1) Get these people out of their native countries and away from the privileged high class. 2) Provide opportunity for these people to improve their status and to promote growth in the farming industries. In practice, the indentured servants were treated terribly. Over half of the servants who made the trans-­‐ Atlantic trip, died on the voyage. The ones lucky enough to survive were subjected to cruel hostile conditions by their masters. Often times, servants would serve more than their term and were not completely compensated once they were finished.

Needless to say, after a delayed reaction to the imbalanced indentured servant system was revealed in Europe. “After 1660, the scale of European immigration declined markedly as news of the realities of indentured workers in the west indies penetrated Europe”. The northern Europeans had depended on the servants as their main labor force especially used to jump start a much more expensive slave run plantations. The servants served as an intermediate stage in the workforce of the northern Europeans followed by African slaves.

Between 1645 and 1650, the Atlantic slave trade began to emerge, a shift in strategies also occurs. African slaves may have been one of the most important strategies implemented to keep the heart of Caribbean capitalism thriving. This not only opened up new options for labor exploitation, but also stimulated the trade economy in introducing a new valuable commodity.

With these nations in close proximity around the Caribbean, new strategies and tactics emerged between competing factions. The Caribbean became a sort of resupply station for treasure ships before heading back to Europe. This opened some new opportunities for wealth.

The buccaneers and privateers were hired by the crown with very specific goals in mind. They were to deprive the Spanish in any way possible to loosen their grip on the region. This often times meant, stealing riches on trade routes along with harassing and demoralizing the Spanish. With the culmination of Spain’s economic transition, loss of natives, less than enthusiastic citizens, and now threat from privateers, took its toll on the mighty Spanish empire. Privateers roll in Caribbean development should not be taken for granted, they played a huge part in changing the region while instilling fear in the hearts of the Spanish. “It is doubtful if English and French settlements in the Lesser Antilles would have been able to survive without the active naval presence of Dutch privateers.”8


The evolution of the Caribbean is more than just social interactions of cultures. “Christopher Columbus discovering the new world is the single most important event in human history. He reconnected the human species that had been separated for 10,000 years. This not only cultures intersecting, but also biology.” – Dr. Neil Tyson, comments, “it was the first appearance of smallpox in the Americas and syphilis in Europe.” He stresses the importance of this integration by asserting that all of those who died from disease strengthened our species by natural selection. “We have germs living within us right now that would have killed us even 100 years ago.”

The progression of the Caribbean involves the major European imperialist powers of the time, utilizing a new system of resources and lucrative exploitation large enough to fund entire nations. The political and economical ideals are surrogates to the Caribbean through European powers. The area was unique in that it was the first long-­‐range imperial challenge to colonize. Their attributes in: administration, organization, and mobility, were put to the ultimate test. The social structure that emerged was partly a product of European implementation and partly a result of reactions of the populace. An important adaptation of human culture and even biology was accomplished during the evolution of the Caribbean. With slow progressive steps, the diverse and interesting culture that exists today unfolds.


  1. Shmoop Editorial Team. “Spanish Colonization Timeline of Important Dates” Shmoop University, Inc..11 November 2008.­‐colonization/timeline.html (accessed September 29, 2013).
  1. Shmoop Editorial Team. “Politics in Spanish Colonization”
  1. Shmoop Editorial Team. “Spanish Colonization Summary & Analysis”
  1. Nicola Foote. The Caribbean history reader. New York: Routledge, 2013,
  1. Shmoop Editorial Team. “Economy in Spanish Colonization”
  1. Foote, The Caribbean History Reader, 30
  1. Foote, The Caribbean History Reader,
  1. Foote, The Caribbean History Reader,
  1. Neil deGrasse Tyson. Hayden Planetarium, New York City: Youtube

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