A traditional sweep of Caribbean history takes in ‘discovery’ by Columbus, emancipation and decolonization as the key landmarks. Given that these subjects are too huge to handle in a single article, and often took place over a period of years, the following five moments each lend their significance to the overall transformation of the region.
Britain invades Anguilla
Towards the end of the 1960s, the political reorganization of the Caribbean islands saw Anguilla, a British colony, suddenly lumped together with St. Kitts and Nevis, some 100kms away, in an associated state heavily favoring the clout of St. Kitts, the largest island. Understandably, residents of Anguilla were furious, and demanded independence. The British response was to send troops in order to restore order. On March 19, 1969, Operation Sheepskin unleashed British paratroopers onto the beaches of Anguilla, with its population of less than 10,000. Unlike the heavyweight US invasions of Grenada and the Dominican Republic, the British invasion was more farcical than momentous. Dubbed ‘The Bay of Piglets’ and ‘Operation Pig’s Ear’, landing paratroopers were met not with volleys of artillery fire, but rather bemused expressions and eventually fresh rum and cokes.
The 1969 Anguilla revolution marked the final death throes of the colonial experience, which saw islands negotiate full independence or greater autonomy.
St. Eustatius discovers America
Although only the US Virgin islands and Puerto Rico have direct links with the United States, the influence of the US in the Caribbean is palpable, from the current standoff with Cuba to the Americanisation of many islands, such as St. Maarten. However, the Caribbean has played its own part in American history.
The Andrew Doria was a ship belonging to the Continental Congress, which left for St. Eustatius in 1776 to obtain supplies. Arrived on The Golden Rock on November 16, the brig (carrying a copy of the Declaration of Independence which remains missing to this day) fired a 13-gun salute which was reciprocated by the 11-gun salute from the battery at Fort Oranje, courtesy of Governor Johannes de Graff. In doing so, this tiny Dutch island became the first overseas territory to officially recognize the United States. The price was heavy; St. Kitts promptly informed Great Britain who sent a force to ransack St. Eustatius.
To this day, ties between the US and Statia remain strong, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Airport a clear reminder of the gratitude the US shows Statia for its bravery.
Mt. Pelee erupts
On May 8, 1902, Martinique’s Mt. Pelee erupted, killing 30,000 people. The city of St. Pierre, at that point the biggest city on the French island, was annihilated. Famously, the only survivor was a prisoner held in a thick-walled dungeon. The eruption of Mt. Pelee is an early reminder of the power of Mother Nature in the islands. Subsequent volcanic eruptions include Montserrat in 1995, which closed down half of the island, as well as devastating annual hurricanes. Mt. Pelee is a cogent reminder that, since Arawak times, whatever man has chosen to build in the Caribbean, the territory ultimately belongs to nature.
Captain Bligh introduces breadfruit to Caribbean
Compared to volcanoes, wars, and revolutions, the arrival of a side dish might not register too highly on the historical Richter scale, but nevertheless the arrival of the breadfruit in the Caribbean has its place. On January 23, 1793, Captain Bligh (he of Mutiny on the Bounty fame) brought 630 plants from the South Pacific. Today, the ancestor of one of those ‘suckers’ thrives in St. Vincent in the oldest botanical gardens in the western hemisphere. Why is this significant? The Caribbean is a melting pot of cultures, races, languages and cuisines. Similarly, much of what we consume here in the Caribbean started its history somewhere else, from the simple coconut to the delicious Colombo sauce. The breadfruit is one such phenomenon.
Haiti becomes first free republic
On July 7, 1801, Toussaint Louverture declared Haiti the first free republic in the Caribbean, establishing independence from France and the abolition of slavery. There are few more momentous dates in Caribbean history – bear in mind that slavery was not abolished until 1863 in the Dutch islands and that colonial control continues to this day in the French and Dutch islands as well as the British Overseas Territories. Some two hundred years ago, Haiti threw down a bold marker in the colonial struggle, guaranteeing Haiti’s position in the emancipation struggle.