views updated May 23 2018


The term "Carib" was used by Europeans for political purposes rather than to identify ethnic groups in the Caribbean. Three groups of people have been called Caribs: Island Caribs, Main-land Caribs, and Black Caribs. The Caribbean contained many distinct ethnic groups, but after 1492 Europeans distinguished simply between the "peaceful Arawak" of the Greater Antilles and the "warlike Carib" of the Lesser Antilles, although the former resisted conquest and the latter spoke an Arawakan language, distinct from the Cariban languages spoken by people on the mainland of what is now Venezuela, Guyana, Surinam, and French Guiana. The Spanish called those who attacked them Caribs and extended the category conveniently in order to enslave people because Caribs were excluded from the Spanish law forbidding the enslavement of Indians. For example, they declared the people of Trinidad to be Carib in 1511, declassified them in 1518, and declared them Carib again in 1530, to meet Spanish labor requirements.


The nature of the migration patterns, interactions, and relationships between the island and mainland Caribs remains controversial, but it is generally thought that Caribs originated on the mainland and migrated northward to the Guianas and the Lesser Antilles. At the time of conquest and colonization there were no firm ethnic boundaries between Amerindian people, and no clear Carib ethnic identity existed. Carib society was largely coastal and seafaring, based on its lowland, rain forest environment. Its economy was based on slash-and-burn agriculture, the chief crops being manioc, maize, beans, and squashes, supplemented by hunting and fishing. Caribs had a tradition of raiding, using clubs and poisoned arrows for economic as well as political reasons, and had an extensive trading system by river and sea, using dugout canoes. War leaders obtained influence over several related villages. Men moved into villages where their wives lived and each village contained four hundred or more persons. With considerable local variations, the colonization of the Caribs took about 300 years, partly because Europeans (Spanish, Dutch, French, and British) committed fewer resources to their region than others and partly because Carib resistance, which depended on a network of village alliances, was decentralized and hard to defeat decisively. When European merchants provided various groups with arms to fight or enslave members of other groups, some became known as Dutch and others as Spanish Caribs. Any potential Carib unity was shattered when rival leaders engaged in alliances with different Europeans, but the consolidation of a Carib identity emerged partly through their resistance to the European impact.

Prior to contact with Europeans there were more than one hundred thousand Caribs on the mainland, about twenty-five thousand in Trinidad, and several thousand on the other islands. The European impact on Carib societies was devastating. The combination of military campaigns, enslavement, and diseases from which Caribs lacked immunities reduced their mainland population by about 80 percent in the eighteenth century. The efforts of missionaries added to this impact. When peaceful persuasion failed to convert Caribs, violent means were used to capture, resettle, and "convert" them. In the early nineteenth century the Carib population was about ten thousand on the mainland; less than one thousand in Trinidad; and smaller numbers in Dominica, Martinique and St. Vincent.


Estimates of the present population vary greatly according to who is classified as Carib, as there has been a great deal of genetic and cultural mixing. Many Caribs of the mainland, who have still not recovered to their pre-conquest population levels, live in relatively remote areas. In the early twenty-first century, all the Amerindians of Venezuela and Guyana, not all of whom are Caribs, are only about 7 percent and 4 percent, respectively, of the populations. In the Caribbean islands, where few Amerindians survive, their culture persists in some place names and vocabulary (including the words hurricane, tobacco, hammock, and canoe) and in subsistence practices, diet, and technology, especially as associated with cassava production. However, Amerindian culture influenced the Africans who largely replaced them in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. On Dominica fewer than three thousand persons, constituting the largest Carib community of the islands, live in eight villages in a designated Carib Territory of less than 4,000 acres, which are communally owned. They live mostly by agriculture, especially through cultivating bananas as a cash crop, and by selling craft items to visitors. Their housing and recreational activities, however, differ little from those of other rural communities on Dominica. Although the assimilation process persists, there has been a cultural revival that includes a concern for the need to recognize their distinct history and an effort to develop a greater sense of identity.


In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Caribs of the Lesser Antilles, more properly called Kalinago, raided European settlements and sometimes took enslaved Africans back home, where they became incorporated into Carib society. Other Africans were shipwrecked or escaped and joined Carib communities. Most of these Africans may have been men, and the children they had with Carib women were raised largely in their mothers' culture. By the seventeenth century these people were called "Black Caribs" to distinguish them from those that Europeans called "Red" or "Yellow." Physically and culturally distinct because of their mixed ancestral origins, they became a new ethnic group whose members prefer to be called Garifuna, the term for their own language. On St. Vincent, between 7,000 and 8,000 Garifuna, who outnumbered the surviving Caribs, engaged in protracted resistance against French and British colonizers. In 1795 a full-scale war broke out between the British and Garifuna, who were supported by some Carib, African, and French people. Britain almost lost control of the island, but in 1796 thousands of British troops destroyed Carib and Garifuna villages, canoes, and provision grounds, and many rebels surrendered. More than of half the captive Garifuna died. Of the survivors, 2,248 were separated from Caribs and former slaves and transported in 1797 to the island of Roatan in the Bay of Honduras. Many did not survive the journey, but the population of scarcely 2,000 grew after settling on the mainland. They flourished through a combination of subsistence farming, fishing, trade, and wage work and a strong historical consciousness of their unique origins and identity. In the early twenty-first century more than 200,000 Garifuna live in more than seventy communities along the Caribbean coast of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, and many thousands live in the United States.

The Garifuna maintain distinctive cultural traditions and consider themselves an indigenous Caribbean people. Their language is essentially Arawakan, influenced by Carib and the European languages they have encountered. Central to their culture are music; oral literature; cuisine, in which cassava is prominent; and religious traditions, including an ancestral ritual called dugu in which their epic journey and resettlement is reenacted. Through these traditional rituals and activities they maintain their historical consciousness and identity by communicating with their ancestors and each other. In 1966 three St. Vincent Caribs visited the principal Garifuna community in Belize, at the invitation of Belizeans, to celebrate Garifuna Settlement Day and reestablish their ancestral connections. As the Garifuna continue to migrate, however, often living in poor and culturally heterogeneous urban conditions, their village-based traditions are hard to maintain, so their distinct culture and identity is increasingly threatened. Garifuna intellectuals have organized revivals of their traditions, and they undertook an initiative that resulted in UNESCO proclaiming Garifuna culture a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001.

See alsoBelize; Dominica; Indigenous Peoples; Martinique and Guadeloupe; Saint Vincent; Suriname and the Dutch in the Caribbean; Trinidad and Tobago.


Basso, Ellen B., ed. Carib-Speaking Indians: Culture, Society, and Language. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1977.

Gonzalez, Nancie L. Sojourners of the Caribbean: Ethnogenesis and Ethnohistory of the Garifuna. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Palacio, Joseph O., ed. The Garifuna: A Nation across Borders: Essays in Social Anthropology. Benque Viejo del Carmen, Belize: Cubola Productions, 2005.

Whitehead, Neil L. Lords of the Tiger Spirit: A History of the Caribs in Colonial Venezuela and Guyana, 1498–1820. Providence, RI: Foris Publications, 1988.

Wilson, Samuel M., ed. The Indigenous People of the Caribbean. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997.

                                 O. Nigel Bolland


views updated May 29 2018

Car·ib / ˈkarib/ • n. 1. a member of an indigenous South American people living mainly in coastal regions of French Guiana, Suriname, Guyana, and Venezuela.2. the Cariban language of this people. Also called Galibi. • adj. of or relating to the Caribs or their language. ∎  of or relating to Island Carib or Black Carib.


views updated May 14 2018

Carib Major language group and Native American tribe. They entered the Caribbean region from ne South America. About 500 Caribs still live on the island of Dominica; 5000 migrated to the e coast of Central America, notably around Honduras, where their descendants still live.


views updated May 23 2018

Carib name of (i) a race of the West Indies, (ii) a group of West Indian languages. XVI. — Sp. caribe; formerly often synon. with CANNIBAL.

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