Conquest of the Caribbean

Columbus arrived in the Bahamas in 1492
Columbus arrived in the Bahamas in 1492

The Spanish conquest of the islands of the Caribbean region constituted the first stage in a process of conquest and colonization in the Americas that lasted more than 300 years, and whose effects remain readily apparent to the present day.

Prior to the Spanish arrival, the four large and scores of smaller islands of the Caribbean were inhabited by a diversity of ethnolinguistic groups whose total numbers, by the best estimates, ran into the millions.

The Taino (or Arawak) Indians constituted the dominant group in the Greater Antilles—Hispaniola, Cuba, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico—while the Caribs, relative newcomers from the South American mainland, occupied many of the islands of the Lesser Antilles. Other groups inhabited different parts of the region, generating a complex mosaic of ethnolinguistic groups across the Caribbean in the centuries prior to the European arrival.

Population estimates for the preconquest Caribbean vary widely. For Hispaniola, the first large island the Spanish encountered and subdued, scholarly estimates of precontact populations range from a low of 60,000 to a high of 8,000,000.

Most estimates fall between 300,000 and 1,500,000, though it will never be known with any degree of precision how many people inhabited Hispaniola, or the Caribbean, or any other part of the Americas, before the European arrival.

At the same time there is broad scholarly consensus that by the late 1400s the Caribbean, like the Americas as a whole, supported a large and growing indigenous population, a growth that was suddenly and irrevocably reversed by the European invasion.

Genoese sailor Christopher Columbus, patronized by the Crown of Castile and Aragon (Spain), headed the expedition that inaugurated the modern encounter between the Old World and the New.

His first landfall in the New World occurring on October 12, 1492, Columbus went on to skirt the shores of Cuba, Hispaniola, and other islands before beginning the journey back to Spain in mid-January 1493. Before departing he left a contingent of some 40 men on Hispaniola, at a fort called Navidad, to initiate the process of settlement.

Spanish carribbean islands
Spanish Caribbean islands

Convinced he had reached the East Indies, Columbus called the native inhabitants Indians, the name by which the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas have been called ever since. The six Taíno Indians, as well as the finely wrought native gold work, parrots, and other items that he took with him to the Spanish court, which he reached in March 1493, convinced the Crown to finance a second voyage, much larger than the first.

Meanwhile, published versions of Columbus’s report to the Spanish Crown circulated quickly throughout much of Europe, beginning in Italy in April 1493. The effect was electrifying, as early modern Europe became aware of an entire world that hitherto had lain beyond their ken.

The Spanish Crown required and sought the pope’s approval to engage in the process of settling unknown non-Christian lands and converting their non-Christian inhabitants to the Catholic faith.

Pope Alexander VI responded to the Crown’s solicitation by issuing a series of papal bulls, most importantly the 1493 bull Inter Caetera, which divided the lands of the New World between Spain and Portugal. Soon after the Spanish and Portuguese agreed to a modified version of the bull, the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), which became the basis for Spanish and Portuguese claims to the newly discovered lands of the Americas.

Columbus’s second voyage to the Indies was much larger than his first, with 1,200 men (no women) in 17 ships carrying ample weaponry and at least six months’ worth of supplies. Making landfall in November 1493, the expedition claimed several islands in the Lesser Antilles before moving on to claim Puerto Rico (called Boriquén by its inhabitants) and returning to the Natividad garrison on the northern shore of Hispaniola.

To the explorers’s chagrin, the garrison was in ashes and all of the 40 men dead, most probably killed by the island’s Taíno inhabitants. Hispaniola at the time was ruled by a series of chiefdoms ruled by Taíno caciques (chieftains), who had responded violently to the Spaniards’ violent efforts to acquire women for sexual liaisons and to force men to pan for gold in the island’s rivers.

In response, Columbus sailed a few miles east along Hispaniola’s northern shore and established a new outpost called Isabela. Foraging parties into the interior returned with 30,000 ducats worth of gold—the most the island would ever yield. Retaining five ships and a strong contingent to protect the garrison, in February 1494 Columbus sent 12 ships back to Spain with instructions to return with more livestock, arms, medicines, and men.

Leaving his younger brother Diego in charge of Isabela, Columbus sailed west, exploring the southern shore of Cuba, and Jamaica to the south, before returning to Isabela in September 1494. In his absence, the colonists under Diego Columbus had enraged the island’s Taíno inhabitants by their violent efforts to secure their women and labor.

Meanwhile Columbus had settled on the idea of enslaving the Indians, who would pan for gold and other precious metals in the islands and be sold as chattel in European markets. In February 1495, he approved the first shipment of some 500 Taíno to Spain to be sold as slaves.

A month later, in the interior of Hispaniola, there occurred the first large-scale pitched battle between Spanish and Taíno forces. The Battle of Vega Real of March 1495 resulted in the Taínos’ total defeat, their slings and arrows proving no match for the Spaniards’ swords and armor.

One of the defeated caciques, Caonabo, was put in chains and sent to Spain. He died en route and was buried at sea. A statue in his honor can be found in present-day Santo Domingo, where many remember him as the Americas’ first indigenous martyr against the European invasion.

In the next few years, as news of Columbus’s discovery spread and as the Crown determined to subjugate the Indies, ships and men poured into the Caribbean. In 1495–96, the island of Hispaniola was completely subdued and its surviving inhabitants enslaved.

The Crown soon replaced outright enslavement with the institution of encomienda, in which the Crown granted groups of Indians to individual encomenderos, who were said to hold them in encomienda, or “in trust.” The explorations continued through the late 1490s and into the 1500s.

In 1508, the Crown’s attention shifted from Hispaniola to Cuba, where a major expedition of conquest was launched in 1511 under the leadership of Crown-designate Diego Velázquez. The invading Spaniards slaughtered thousands of native Arawak (or Sub-Taíno), Ciboney, and Mayarí. By 1515, the conquest of Cuba was complete.

The conquest of the Caribbean thus took place in piecemeal fashion, with the Spanish “hopping” from one island to the next in their seaward march toward the west. By 1515, the native population of Hispaniola, Cuba, and other Caribbean islands had declined precipitously.

In addition to warfare, violence, and forced labor, the principal cause of Indian deaths was their lack of biological immunity to European diseases, especially smallpox, as well as measles, bubonic plague, typhus, and cholera.

By the 1550s, the indigenous inhabitants of the Caribbean had all but disappeared, only a few thousand surviving; by 1600, virtually all had died. The Caribbean islands, in turn, were used as launching-off points for further conquests in the Americas, beginning with the conquest of Mexico under Hernán Cortés in 1519–21.