What Does Caribbean Mean? Decoding the Origins of the Name

... Credit :
Jane Taylor in Viral

17 January 2020, 05:58 GMT

Beyond visions of blockbuster films, sunny beaches, and heat, it can be hard to nail down exactly what the term 'Caribbean' encompasses. As a word, it's decidedly vague.

What does the Caribbean mean? In a basic sense, it describes a region of the world. Even so, the many disparate regions that span The Caribbean Ocean and the islands near its borders defy traditional explanation.

But as we dive deeper into the history of the culture and conflict that's transpired, we'll discover the answer to 'what does the Caribbean mean?' We'll also see how that term has evolved over hundreds of years and what it means today.

What Does Caribbean Mean?

The word 'Caribbean' comes from the name of a warrior tribe that used to live in what the English later called the southern 'West Indies.' This is where St. Lucia, Barbados, Trinidad & Tobago, and Aruba are currently located today. The people who lived here were called the 'Carib' people, or referred to collectively as the 'Caribes.' Christopher Columbus mistakenly referred to them as 'cannibales' when he first happened upon them in the late 15th century.

Originally, they were the more aggressive of two predominant tribes that initially inhabited the southern islands. The Carib people also inhabited parts of the South American mainland and had a reputation for being exceptional hunters. Their northern neighbors, a tribe called the Taínos people, (part of the larger Arawak population, an umbrella tribe), were much more peaceful. We will continue to explore how the different tribes related to each other and how eventually the Spanish would come to possess their own dominance in the region.

Islands Constantly Changing Hands

Because of the geographical nature of islands, there was a natural conflict that arose over resources along with inter-tribal disagreements. This would sometimes lead to segments of tribes leaving and settling other islands. At other times, there was open conflict when there were no other easily accessible islands nearby to go to. The Caribs and the Taínos were often at war, and the Caribs colonized many areas of this hemisphere.

The character of the Caribs

The Carib people were largely non-religious, preferring to prove their worth and find meaning through demonstrations of brute force and dominance. They wore their dark hair in long, oiled columns and would frequently take multiple wives from other tribes following their battles. As for how they dressed, they wore red body paint, the feathers of parrots, and necklaces that strung together the teeth of their previous victims.

In addition to what they hunted through their expert skill with the bow and arrow, they also cultivated sweet potatoes and yucca. Their prowess in battle was not merely landlocked either. They would frequently take on other vessels at sea in 100 men 'destroyer' canoes. Using their finely tuned aim, they would rain down arrows on their enemies and reap the spoils. In their way, you could say they were the region's first 'Pirates of the Caribbean.'

The Fate of the Taínos

An offshoot of the Arawak tribe, the Taínos (which had sub-tribes all across the Caribbean), were more religious, held different types of ceremonies throughout the year, and preferred relaxing in hammocks rather than fighting as a way to pass the time. They'd use carved wooden and stone icons in their religious rites and would often base their beliefs around elements of the natural world, like rain, wind, fire, and hurricanes. Their diet mainly consisted of what they could hunt, fish, and gather from the area around them. They did not take to farming in the same way the other tribes near them did.

Even though they mainly populated the northern Caribbean areas of what is now Jamaica and Cuba, their southern territories eventually came into conflict with the Carib peoples. The Caribs eventually took over the land of the Taínos, pushing them further north and eventually into the hands of the arriving Spanish.

The Emerging Spanish Power

Though Columbus proclaimed ownership of the Caribbean for Spain upon landing, it was far more than his words that would ultimately seal the fate of Spanish influence in the region. In addition to bringing with them incredibly advanced weaponry, tools, and systems of crop cultivation, they also brought diseases that the local indigenous populations had no immunity against. The world had never experienced this kind of rapid cross-continental exchange before.

The Taínos people were subjugated and the ones that survived were thrown into slavery. The Carib people, true to their nature, fought to the death over their native lands but were (for the first time) outmatched. They were treated with no more mercy than they had treated others for a century or more, and the surviving members of their tribe died due to disease. Today, there are almost no people today that are descended from the Carib bloodline. The closest relation you'll find are people that have features similar to some of the other Arawak tribes that quickly fled the area upon contact with the Spanish.


Caribbean Development through the Ages

After the initial contact and subjugation that occurred between the Spanish and the native populations, the region became known for its booming commerce. There were plentiful reserves of gold, the extremely profitable commodity of sugarcane, and the evolving slave trade. The promise of these industries didn't stay a Spanish secret for long. As word spread of the promise of 'The New World,' the answer to 'what does the Caribbean mean?' became clear. It meant money and opportunity. For many of Europe's superpowers, this triggered a Caribbean turf war.

What Were They Fighting Over?

But which islands were fair game? Mainly the ones that had enough landmass to cultivate resources and serve as an outpost for the local controlling military authority. What does the Caribbean mean in terms of the landmass and the ocean surrounding it? The Caribbean sea itself comprises 2,640,000 km² of currents and waves, and there are around 7,000 cays, islands, islets, and reefs contained within this area. But there were some Europeans that did not wish to play by the rules of their parent nation-states.

The Pirates

The images we have of pirates today are perhaps the most extreme examples of how people engaged in 'privateering' back in the early settling of the Caribbean. Those ships or groups of ships and the people on them would have had a very different answer to the question 'what does the Caribbean mean.' To them, it meant private enterprise, capturing other vessels, and taking their resources by any means necessary.

Continuous Conflict

Slavery continued to hold a tremendous amount of influence in the region, and its adoption spread to the North American continent. The next 200 years would see even more wars, slave uprisings, and the emergence of the United States as a superpower. Even as slavery ended, the impact it had would be felt for generations to come. What does the Caribbean mean to the world today? It means seeing what's come from such a rugged and arduous history of both rich cultivation and territorial control. Control of these regions during this time changed with almost as much frequency as the major currents and tides.

The Caribbean Today

Today the question, 'what does the Caribbean mean' may depend on which country's citizen you are. Many of the islands of the Caribbean today are still territories of parent countries or might enjoy limited freedom based on their geopolitical or economic circumstances. For example, if you asked 'what does the Caribbean mean', and you live in St. Martin, you might have a complex answer. On St. Martin particularly, it is interconnected geographically yet separated by sovereignty. In their case, half of the island belongs to the Dutch and the other half to the French.

However, if you're in Jamaica or Cuba, you might say that the Caribbean is a place where you can become a free island if you are lucky. Cuba and Jamaica have enjoyed governing themselves for quite some time now, but it took an incredible amount of boldness and hard-fought victories in the past for them to get there.

Destinations for Travellers and a New Melting Pot

Because of its multi-cultural history and its beautiful scenery, much finding out about 'what does the Caribbean mean today', has yet to be decided. Of course, the best way to get a sense of this is to discover the region yourself. The more the people of the world discover this region, the more cross-cultural exchange can happen in a respectful and meaningful way.


These days, there's never been a better time to go out and find your own answer to 'what does the Caribbean mean.' These are great islands to experience both for yourself and for the people you choose to share your adventures therewith. It's an incredibly welcoming part of the world. And though many of the people there continue to experience strife when nature displays her fury. There's always a celebration that goes with beginning anew and rebuilding. So find your own place among the sand and waves and check out the Caribbean for yourself.

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