Caribbean Society

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Caribbean Society

The Conquest and its impact

Post-Conquest history to 1800

Modern history

Typology of Caribbean plantations

Sociology of the plantation system

History and sociology of the yeomanry

Post-emancipation migration

Modern Caribbean society and culture

Kinship, domestic organization, mating forms

Religion and the supernatural


Communities and informal groupings

Politics and nationalism


The Caribbean area comprises the islands extending from Trinidad, Aruba, Margarita, and others off the coast of Venezuela in the south, to Jamaica, Cuba, Hispaniola (formerly, and in Spanish, Espanola, the western third now being the Republic of Haiti and the rest the Dominican Republic), and Puerto Rico (the Greater Antilles) in the north. The main groupings are the four Greater Antilles, the Lesser Antilles (about forty inhabited islands), and Trinidad and Tobago. A few units such as Colombia’s San Andrés y Providencia and Honduras’ Bay Islands, lying outside the 1,800-mile arc stretching from Cuba to Trinidad, are included, though the Bahamas are not.

Modern Caribbean societies are largely the products of nearly five centuries of European colonial policies. First as colonies, again as plantation settlements, they were forcibly modified to satisfy the strategic, political, and economic aims of the mother countries. To a significant extent their populations were imported to fulfill decisions made elsewhere, especially in order to maintain or change the relationship of labor supply to land (Lowenthal 1961).

The islands lie within the zone of coastal subtropical New World lowlands and share important general historical and sociological features: (a) aboriginal populations were either sparse or were destroyed or assimilated soon after 1492; (b) plantation agriculture developed early as an emergent phase of European overseas capitalism; (c) slavery and contract labor were the main means for productively relating the work force to the land; (d) under the plantation system and until about 1835, Africa was the principal source of labor; (e) local cultures often exhibit a substantial (but unevenly distributed and by no means exclusive) African component; and (f) political dependence and European control have persisted with fewer interruptions than elsewhere in the his-tory of the New World.

The Conquest and its impact

The Spanish Conquest transformed Caribbean aboriginal life. In 1492 three major Indian groups were discernible: (a) pioneer fishermen-gatherers, who inhabited transient seaside camps in western Cuba (the Ciboney) and southwestern Hispaniola, where they had apparently been pushed by much larger numbers of (b) Arawakan-speaking horticulturists (the Island-Arawak), invaders who gradually occupied all of the Greater Antilles; and (c) Arawakan-speaking cultivators and fishermen (the Island-Carib), who held the Lesser Antilles.

These three groupings probably entered the islands from mainland South America in the order given above. The first migration began perhaps 4,500 years ago; earliest dates for Greater Antilles occupation are about 4,000 years ago, while Island-Arawak penetration of the big islands began perhaps 2,300 years later. Island-Carib occupation of the Lesser Antilles dates from about a millennium ago, while Island-Carib movement into the Greater Antilles was stopped by the Spanish invasion (Rouse 1964).

Post-Columbian Spanish commentators (Las Casas 1552; 1561; Oviedo 1526; 1535−1557) reported cultural distinctions among the natives corresponding roughly with the archeological record, but almost all that is known of aboriginal social life is based on inference. Especially enigmatic are the nonhorticultural pioneer settlers of Hispaniola and Cuba; the subject of only scanty and uncertain Spanish commentary, they swiftly disappeared. Better known were the Island-Arawak of the Greater Antilles, especially the Taino of Hispaniola.

The Island-Arawak lived in villages and multi-village districts whose leaders directed group economic and religious activities. The people cultivated manioc (Manihot utilissima Pohl), from which they made cassava “bread,” sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas [L.] Poir), maize (Zea mays), tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) for smoking, cotton (Gossypium spp.), from which sleeping hammocks were woven, and other plants, probably by swidden agriculture (Sturtevant 1961). Native and probably uncultivated were fruit trees such as the mammee (Mammea americana L.), jagua (Genipa americana L.), and icaco (Chrysobalanus icaco L.). Fish were caught by hook and line, shellfish were collected, and the sea cow (Tricechus manatus) harpooned. Birds and animals, including the large hutia (Capromys oedium) and iguana (Iguana tuberculata), were hunted. The only domesticated animals were the guinea pig, which was eaten, and the dog, used for hunting.

Island-Arawak village headmen were under district leaders; each highest chief (Spanish cacique, from the Taino term), of whom there were five in Hispaniola, controlled up to 30 subchiefs and 70 to 80 village headmen. Social distinctions between chiefs and “commoners” were reflected in behavior and material culture (ritual deference, chiefly endogamy, and gold-inlaid chiefs’ chairs), and a bottommost serflike group (naborias) also existed. Spanish feudal preconceptions may have influenced these descriptions of a rigidly stratified social system.

Island-Arawak religion centered on supernatural spirits that could move about freely or settle in objects or places; a principal religious aim was their conciliatory lodging in artifacts or special sites. Chiefs’ spirits, especially powerful, sometimes resided in anthropomorphic wooden figures.

By 1492 the Island-Carib, latecomers to the Lesser Antilles, had occupied all the small islands from Tobago to Vieques except Trinidad and Barbados. Though once Cariban-speaking, by 1492 the Island-Carib spoke an Arawakan language, presumably acquired during conquests from the captured Igneri (Lesser Antilles Arawakan-speaking) women. Island-Carib Arawakan was not mutually intelligible with Island-Arawak, and in fact, Island-Carib men and women were said to speak different languages. Available evidence suggests that the main difference between these “languages,” however, was the presence of many Cariban words in men’s speech, supporting the supposition as to how the Island-Carib language took shape (Taylor 1961).

Spanish (and later, other European) settlement of the Lesser Antilles was delayed, both because of the absence of precious ores and because of the Island-Caribs’ fame as fierce fighters and cannibals. Their reputation for bloodthirstiness may have been exaggerated to serve European political ends, however, and to justify enslavement.

The Island-Carib cultivated most of the same crops as the Island-Arawak and fished and hunted. Their villages consisted of single extended families, headed by male leaders with limited authority. Both headmen and war leaders were chosen on grounds of achievement. The social order was democratic, absolute authority being exercised only on war parties.

Island-Carib cosmology included benign and evil spirits; offerings were made to good spirits, who had belonged to various human groupings before becoming supernaturals. Shamanistic specialists warded off malevolent spirits, worked countermagic against sorcerers, and prophesied. The couvade was practiced to protect the health of parents and the newborn (Taylor 1949; 1950).

Between 1492 and about 1622 when serious English and French colonization began in the Lesser Antilles, the Island-Carib were attacked by the Spaniards and seized as slaves, but the islands were uncolonized; the Island-Arawak of the Greater Antilles, however, received the full brunt of Spanish power. Subjugated Indians were used for mining, agriculture, and domestic labor, and Indian women were taken as concubines and occasionally as wives by the Spaniards. Spanish policy after 1512 granted the Indians nominal protection against enslavement (unless they made war, were cannibals, or resisted Spanish dominion), but in fact they were swiftly eliminated by maltreatment, disease, war, and suicide. By 1514 the number of able-bodied adult Island-Arawak in Hispaniola had decreased to 23,344 (Zavala 1935) from an estimated 100,000 or more; much the same occurred in Puerto Rico and Jamaica. In Cuba culturally identifiable Indian communities are believed to have endured until the end of the eighteenth century (Rouse 1948), though much later introductions of Yucatecan Maya laborers may have had an effect on this interpretation.

In the Greater Antilles the Spaniards first imposed the repartimiento (allocation of Indian labor) and encomienda (granting of Indian wards to the crown’s vassals). Aimed at guaranteeing protection and religious guidance to the Indians, these administrative practices merely provided controllable servile labor and the land on which mines and plantations were located. Indian rebellions began in 1504 on Hispaniola and recurred there and elsewhere for half a century, but Spanish arms and superior organization invariably prevailed.

The confrontation of European with Indian was one of the more dramatic moments in modern world history: destruction and genetic assimilation of the Indians were rapid. A Spanish administrative policy advocating humane treatment proved more effective on the mainland; the brilliant appeals of the friars Montesinos and Las Casas (Hanke 1949) on behalf of the Indians created a theological and legal controversy in Spain that thereafter deeply affected European philosophy.

Many aboriginal cultural features (foods, crops, medicinal plants, agricultural techniques, plant and place names, and architectural and craft practices) were transferred to Europe or interwoven with European elements in the islands. Though later migrations swamped aboriginal stocks, the Indian ancestry of modern populations, especially in the Hispanic Caribbean, is still apparent, and the native cultures contributed richly to the Caribbean synthesis.

Post-Conquest history to 1800

From 1492 until about 1800, island history was written chiefly in terms of the struggles of European imperial powers. These three centuries may be summarized under five headings: (a) the Spanish shift to the mainland; (b) the era of piracy, buccaneering, and privateering; (c) north European penetration of the Lesser Antilles; (d) north European seizures in the Greater Antilles; and (e) the beginnings of island autonomy.

Spanish interest in the Caribbean waned after the discovery and conquest of the densely populated and metal-rich highlands of mainland America. Mainland entrepots soon supplanted Havana, San Juan, and other insular centers, and from 1520 until 1790, Spain used her island possessions principally as military bastions and fueling stations. After 1520, the Hispano-Caribbean population fell because of migrations to the mainland. But Spain introduced livestock, European crops (including sugar cane), water power and cattle power, African slaves, and plantation production to the Greater Antilles. With the first generation born of Spanish fathers and aboriginal mothers, “creole culture” emerged, and the distinction between European and creole, thereafter politically and culturally important, was established.

Piracy against Spanish ports and ships began in the sixteenth century and persisted for nearly 200 years; it overtaxed Spanish naval strength and was welcomed by north European monarchs. More important than brigandage, however, was the smuggling trade. The first known exploit, in 1527, exposed colonial needs for goods and slaves, which were inadequately filled by Spain because of restrictive mercantile policies. Such smuggling, mixed with military action unofficially but strongly supported by north European heads of state, created the official piracy called privateering: privateers recruited crews and were outfitted in north European ports; rulers invested in ships and supplies and shared in the spoils. Thus privateering united commerce and plunder while serving the national aims of Spain’s enemies until the mid-seventeenth century.

Buccaneering, a third type of marauding, began early in the seventeenth century and disappeared before 1800. Its original aim was settlement. Many buccaneers were Frenchmen (often religious and political dissenters) who occupied northwestern Hispaniola about 1620, and later, when harassed by the Spaniards, moved off the north coast to lie de la Tortue. As the first non-Spaniards to settle in the Greater Antilles, the buccaneers eventually threatened Spain more than did pirates and privateers. They lived by killing semiferal cattle and selling tallow, hides, and barbecued meat to passing ships. The buccaneers maintained a martial, predatory, and largely womanless form of society by constant recruitment of anti-Spanish volunteers; attacked by the Spaniards, they turned sailors, using small, fast barks to attack Spanish ports and shipping. After 1640 Britain and France dispatched colonial governors to Tortue, thus transforming buccaneering into an arm of official policy. As north European power expanded in the Caribbean, the buccaneers were stamped out or assimilated into colonial officialdom.

North European settlement in the Lesser Antilles began in the seventeenth century through chartered companies, which defied Spanish claims to all the islands. Unable to breach Spanish defenses in the Greater Antilles, the English settled St. Kitts in 1622–1623, Barbados and St. Croix in 1625, Nevis in 1628, San Andrés y Providencia in 1629, and Antigua and Montserrat by 1632. The Dutch had ensconced themselves in Curagao by 1633, when they were driven out by the Spaniards; but they retook the island in 1634, meanwhile garrisoning nearby Bonaire and Aruba. Between 1630 and 1648 they also laid claim to Saba and St. Eustatius, the latter island becoming a major center of non-Spanish trade. The French, together with the English, settled St. Martin in 1635 and began colonizing Martinique and Guadeloupe. Spanish retaliatory expeditions against such settlements were usually successful, but new colonies would spring up again almost immediately. Hence the early decades of the seventeenth century marked the irreversible penetration of north European political and military power into the Caribbean (Newton 1933). By the mid-seventeenth century, these tiny islands became economically vital to the mother countries, and European naval wars for a century thereafter centered on their possession.

North European settlement in the smaller islands was accomplished mainly by indentured servants employed by chartered companies producing tobacco, indigo, ginger, and other commodities for growing European markets. Such laborers worked for a fixed period (usually three to seven years), after which they were granted land in freehold and became yeoman farmers. But the introduction of advanced sugar-making technology by the Dutch soon led to the decline of small-scale farming and its replacement by the plantation system. After 1650 plantations spread through the Lesser Antilles, and except in those islands unfit for the system, yeoman cultivation nearly vanished.

In 1655 Cromwell’s navy attacked Jamaica, and England established de facto control, which was confirmed by treaty in 1670. This first successful territorial seizure in the Greater Antilles was followed in 1697 by the cession of western Hispaniola (Saint-Domingue) to France. Plantation development in these two colonies proceeded rapidly; by the early eighteenth century both were among the richest colonial possessions in the world. They were governed according to the mercantilist policies of their respective metropolises, changing little politically for almost a century.

In 1791, however, trouble began in Saint-Domingue; from a political conflict between two master classes this disturbance was transformed by the slaves into a national revolution. After a long and complex struggle, Haiti gained its independence in 1804, becoming the second free nation in the Western Hemisphere.

The presence of even a weak sovereign state in the islands signified that Caribbean peoples would now have a greater role in making their own history. Slave trade to the other islands was soon made illegal (Denmark, 1802; England, 1808; Sweden, 1813; Holland, 1814; France, 1814; Spain, 1820), though illicit trade remained very important until well into the nineteenth century. Slavery itself, which began to excite opposition near the end of the eighteenth century, ended in the British colonies in 1838, in the French islands in 1848, and in the Dutch islands in 1863; thereafter, only the Hispanic islands had slavery.

Thus the Haitian revolution marked a turning point in Caribbean affairs. Though it led to increasing repression in other colonies, it was exploited politically by European enemies of slavery, the plantation system, and the mercantilist philosophy. Except for the Hispanic islands, the mid-nineteenth century was a time of economic contraction, depression, and growing isolation. In Cuba and Puerto Rico (Spanish Santo Domingo had previously won nominal independence in 1844) the plantation system expanded as the British, Dutch, and French islands deteriorated economically.

Modern history

In the nineteenth century, United States interest in the Caribbean mounted as a geopolitical consequence of growing North American power; toward the close of the century, in 1898, the United States asserted this power militarily, seizing Puerto Rico and Cuba from Spain. Cuba soon received formal independence, while Puerto Rico has remained a United States dependency, long governed through the U.S. Department of the Interior. Both islands became prime centers of United States economic expansion, principally of large-scale sugar interests accompanied by investment in mining, railroads, wharf facilities, and shipping. The United States also occupied Haiti and the Dominican Republic, both of which had been much isolated in the nineteenth century, maintained basic politico–military control in Cuba, and defined the noncolonial Caribbean as essential to its national interest (Munro 1964).

The British, Dutch, and French Antilles changed little until the world depression of the 1930s, when economic decline stimulated political activity; European-trained political leaders hastened the growth of national political parties, often originating in trade union activity. World War II had important consequences for the Caribbean, partly embodied in the pledges of embattled European powers to their long-neglected colonies. Direct steps toward political independence culminated in independence for Jamaica and Trinidad-Tobago in 1962. A decade earlier Puerto Rico established a commonwealth relationship with the United States. The French Antilles became départements of the Republic in 1946, securing direct representation in the French assembly as integral portions of metropolitan France. The Dutch islands, by different legislative arrangements, became limited self-governing parts of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Since the war, political events occurring in the Caribbean include the emergence of a revolutionary socialist state in Cuba, the fall of the dictatorial Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic, and the rise of the Duvalier political monolith in Haiti. Oil and oil refining have brought relative prosperity to Trinidad and the Dutch offshore islands; Puerto Rico’s Operation Bootstrap, lubricated by private and official capital and aided by unimpeded immigration to the United States, has facilitated limited industrialization and brought about a sharp rise in living standards; bauxite mining in Jamaica has improved that country’s economic position; and the growth of the tourist industry has benefited most of the Caribbean except (for political reasons) Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic.

European and North American political and economic interest in the Caribbean continues under significantly changed circumstances. The existence of socialist Cuba and its links to the communist powers of Europe and Asia; the debate over Puerto Rico’s eventual status; the declining influence of the United States; the role of the new island nations, the greatly increased European interest in the economic possibilities of Caribbean trade; and the growing ideological ties among underdeveloped countries everywhere are all part of the new situation.

Any effective pan-Caribbean consciousness is still lacking, in large part because of the traditional cultural links between particular islands and their former or present mother countries. The possible entry of the new nations into the Organization of American States, the growth of important centers of higher education in the islands, and the emerging understanding of collective political influence lead toward pan-Caribbeanism. Though the federation of the West Indies endured for a brief time, from 1958 to 1962, lessening of international tension may produce regional federations of a more substantial character.

Typology of Caribbean plantations

For most of Caribbean history the major basis of colonial economic and social organization was the plantation system. Its nature can be delineated in terms of five major types: (1) the Mediterranean (e.g., Canary Islands) archetype, introduced experimentally by Spain in all the Greater Antilles (c. 1512−1560); (2) an intensified north European variant, developed by the English and French in Barbados, Guadeloupe, and elsewhere (c. 1640–1660); (3) the enlarged north European plantation, launched by these and other powers in both Greater and Lesser Antilles (c. 1655−1790); (4) the modified transfer of the enlarged form to the Hispanic Caribbean (c. 1790−1882); and (5) the corporate land-and-factory combine, pioneered by the United States in Cuba and Puerto Rico and by European powers elsewhere (post 1899).

Beginning about 1512 Spain undertook type 1 experiments in plantation production of sugar and other products in the Greater Antilles. Use of slave labor, also essential in types 3 and 4, was made practical by the plenitude of land relative to the number of freemen to work it. It early became clear that freemen in new colonies preferred agricultural self-employment to plantation labor; without legislative devices to bind them to the soil, plantation labor needs could not be filled. From the Conquest until the mid-nineteenth century, slavery provided the principal basis for such labor; it was not considered morally or politically inadvisable, and the slave trade itself was highly profitable.

Though important in Spanish type 1 plantations, slaves were little used in early British and French colonies in the Lesser Antilles, since indenture systems afforded agricultural capitalists adequate labor supplies for set periods. Indentured laborers could eventually become freeholders, however, and a growing yeoman class appeared early in the seventeenth century in British (e.g., Barbados) and French (e.g., Guadeloupe) colonies.

But expanding plantation production and a declining European labor supply after about 1670 stimulated slave importations; thereafter, throughout the Lesser Antilles, expanding slave-based type 2 plantations displaced yeoman settlements. By 1700 such settlements had vanished, except for a few island interiors and on islets too barren or mountainous to support plantation agriculture. Meanwhile African slave importations climbed sharply.

In the Hispanic Caribbean, type 1 plantations declined after about 1560. The Creoles of Jamaica (until 1655), Hispaniola (until 1697), Puerto Rico, and Cuba sold or traded lard, tallow, leather, and cassava “bread” to passing ships, producing most of their own subsistence as well. The Hispanic insular highlands were internal frontiers, settled by squatter subsistence cultivators living in substantial isolation; merging African, Amerind, and European traditions gradually solidified into Hispano-Caribbean folk cultures. As refuge areas for military deserters, the shipwrecked, and escaped slaves, the Hispanic island interiors facilitated such syntheses. Slavery here had become economically minor; manumission was common; the free population of African origin was large; genetic intermixture of Indian, African, and European stocks occurred freely; and color lines did not sharply divide freemen from slaves or Europeans from non-Europeans.

Type 3 plantations were launched in Jamaica by Britain after 1655, in Martinique and Guadeloupe at about the same time by the French, and in French Saint-Domingue after 1697. By then the lucrativeness of plantations and the slave trade had stimulated other competitors: the Dutch and the Danes sought island colonies; the Swedes obtained a temporary foothold in tiny Saint-Barthelemy; the Knights of Malta briefly claimed parts of the Virgin Islands; even the Duchy of Courland made an abortive attempt to hold Tobago. Only after 1800—by which time the Caribbean economic contribution to the growth of European capitalism had been immense—did this intense European interest wane.

The Haitian revolution actually stimulated plantation production by France’s rivals, but the decline of type 3 plantations soon followed. The perfection of beet-sugar production, growing movements to abolish the slave trade and then slavery itself, and the eventual political triumph of industry-oriented free-trade supporters over agriculture-oriented mercantilists all contributed to this decline (Williams 1944).

Spain, however, now struggling to satisfy the economic ambitions of her remaining New World colonies, strongly supported the growth of type 4 plantations in Cuba and Puerto Rico. This final resurgence of slave-based Caribbean plantations depended on slave smuggling as late as the 1860s; in Puerto Rico, in addition, “vagrancy laws” drove landless white freemen into forced plantation labor. Though seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century Spanish slavery was mild, it has been said that the system began and ended (Puerto Rico in 1873, Cuba in 1882) as the worst in the world.

Plantations operating with free and contract labor remained important in many islands, but the type 5 land-and-factory combine was not launched until nearly 1900. The United States pioneered this modern capitalist variant, especially in Cuba and Puerto Rico; comparable developments occurred in the British and French islands. Heavily capitalized modern plantations using free wage labor and intensive scientific agriculture differed qualitatively from their forerunners and signified the genuine proletarianization of many Caribbean populations (Mintz 1953a; 1953b).

Sociology of the plantation system

The classic plantation was a politico–economic invention, a colonial frontier institution, combining non-European slaves and European capital, technology, and managerial skill with territorial control of free or cheap subtropical lands in the mass, monocrop production of agricultural commodities for European markets. The plantation system shaped Caribbean societies in certain uniform ways: (a) the growth of two social segments, both migrant, one enslaved and numerous, the other free and few in number; (b) settlement on large holdings, the choicest lands (mainly coastal alluvial plains and intermontane valleys) being preempted for plantation production; (c) local political orders excluding the numerically preponderant group from civil participation by force, law, and custom; and (d) a capitalist rationale of production, with the planter a businessman rather than a farmer–colonist, even though the investment of capital in human stock and the code of social relations lent a somewhat noncapitalistic coloration to enterprise.

Almost everywhere slaves were systematically denied political rights, education, most religious instruction, opportunities to accumulate or to invest capital, and the rights to socialize or interbreed with their masters as equals. Hence plantation regions were markedly deficient in democratic political institutions, schools, churches, hospitals, stores, and the professionals, entrepreneurs, artisans, teachers, and service suppliers to staff them. A probable major contemporary consequence of the system is the persisting lack of strong community cohesion in plantation areas.

The plantation system effectively counterposed the two major sectors of each society; especially important in maintaining the division was the attribution of social and intellectual inferiority to certain physical traits. But the fact that masters and slaves were usually of differing physical types is overshadowed by more significant distinctions in behavior patterns, political power, and life chances. Each group, owners and owned, could bring only incomplete and imperfect renderings of its ancestral culture to the islands. The subordinate mass, unable either to maintain their cultural heritages and societal forms or to acquire the masters’ models, eventually contrived very flexible solutions to their personal problems, perforce adapted to a repressive social environment. The masters could hardly maintain genuine continuity with European culture; they rarely came to the islands with the intention of remaining and often lacked European wives; most of them remained Europeans in exile. Hence the cultural and societal accompaniments of the plantation system were simplified, innovative, circumstantial, and dichotomous.

The rigidity and repressiveness of the system varied with time, colonial administration, and level of economic intensity. The formal Spanish slave code was, for most of the time and in most colonies, more liberal than the others. In practice, milder treatment probably originated in a less mature and more irregular capitalistic agriculture, strong metropolitan control of local affairs, the benefits of missionizing Catholicism (slaves in Spanish and French islands were usually baptized and permitted to marry as Catholics), and the relative lack of pure race prejudice.

French Saint-Domingue’s liberal slave code led to the growth of an influential slaveholding free colored class. The Haitian revolution originated in a political struggle between these affranchis and the several classes of French settlers, among whom the least successful aimed to reduce growing affranchi power. In spite of the nominally humane French slave code, however, cruelty was common and notorious in Saint-Domingue.

British and Dutch slave systems provided rather less protection to slaves. In British colonies, where local legislatures were more autonomous than in Spanish and French islands, slaves effectively had no legal personality in spite of the relatively liberal consolidated slave codes enacted after 1800. Though the extreme harshness of British slavery has been attributed to the lack of a slavery tradition and of a missionizing religion, at least as important were the early and rapid development of plantations as the mainstay of British Caribbean life and the great local political power of the planters.

Other qualifications originate in the actual workings of the plantation system itself. The development of small groups of slave artisans and the use of slaves as domestics produced social and economic differentiations recognized in practice by slaves and masters alike. Subsistence agriculture, craft production, and marketing by slaves (where permitted by the masters to reduce operating costs, as in Jamaica) enabled slaves to accumulate some capital and buying power and, rarely, to buy their own freedom. Though female slaves were often sexually defenseless against their masters (probably a basic conditioning aspect of the forms of slave domestic organization and marital patterns), the masters’ illegitimate offspring were sometimes provided educational and economic opportunities. These circumstances led to the growth in most colonies of intermediate “mulatto” groupings, sometimes having substantial economic and political power. In each instance, then, the plantation system differed somewhat from others, both in its operation and in the sort of society it helped to create.

The slaves themselves played important roles in changing their long-term situations by violent and nonviolent resistance. While rebellions were usually short-lived, the successful Haitian revolution strengthened the abolition movement elsewhere and probably encouraged slaves in other colonies to rebel. Slaves engaged in malingering, practiced self-induced abortion and self-mutilation, feigned stupidity, and misused equipment and stock, thus raising production costs and lowering profits. The long-term effects of such sabotage were to hasten the decline of the entire system, even though slave resistance intensified cruelty and led to the claim by proslavery elements that slaves were congeni-tally unfit for freedom. Successful escapes in Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola, and elsewhere led to the establishment of refuge communities and special opportunities for perpetuating parts of the African heritage. Though the most remarkable runaway communities developed in Dutch Guiana and Brazil, the Jamaican maroons successfully resisted the English; Cuban and Puerto Rican runaways established palisaded highland villages; and some Haitian marron bands lasted for fifty years or more. Thus the plantation system did not completely preclude either cultural continuity with the past or the growth of intermediate social segments within island societies, though the development of distinct subcultures had to take place in the interstices of tightly controlled social orders.

Only fragmentary portions of African cultural traditions could be perpetuated. These generally included religious, lexical, musical, folkloric, culinary, agricultural, and craft items and practices. The contention (Herskovits & Herskovits 1947, pp. 6, 303) that the slaves perpetuated what they valued most highly (e.g., religious beliefs and practices) may be correct; more likely, however, the slaves were able to preserve only those items that did not interfere with the plantation regimen. In many cases, moreover, it is not possible to attribute a present-day practice to the African tradition, since it may equally well be of European or American Indian origin. In any case, derivative elements were rewoven into a wholly new synthesis under the conditions of plantation life. Taken in their entirety, New World slavery and the plantation system constituted what may have been one of the most dramatic acculturational phenomena in world history until the twentieth century, a phenomenon that can hardly be matched even by contemporary events.

History and sociology of the yeomanry

From its very inception in Hispaniola less than two decades after the discovery, until the present, the plantation system has been counterposed against small-scale cultivation by freeholders. In almost every regard plantation and yeoman systems are contrastive. Hence the complementary profile of the plantation system’s career (and of the “plantation islands” where it flourished) is that of the independent, small-scale freeholders and squatter farmers who escaped or resisted it.

Early Spanish plantation development limited the growth of a yeomanry in the Greater Antilles. As the plantations declined, squatter cultivators rapidly increased in the Puerto Rican, Cuban, Jamaican, and Hispaniolan interiors. Such growth was halted in Jamaica by English conquest in 1655 and in Saint-Domingue by French occupation in 1697; it continued in the remaining Hispanic pos-sessions until the early nineteenth century. The elimination of the flourishing yeoman settlements that had preceded plantation growth in the Lesser Antilles signified the spread and expansion of populations of African provenience at the cost of those of European background.

In the great plantation colonies of Jamaica and Saint-Domingue, yeoman adaptations evolved under slavery, however, because the slaves usually grew their own foods and sold the surpluses. While still slaves, then, Haiti’s and Jamaica’s peoples acquired yeoman skills. Such developments were contradictory, even while representing savings to the plantations, since they ran counter to the social need under slavery for the total submission of the labor force and enabled the slaves to make individual decisions and to use their intellects productively.

Throughout the non-Hispanic Caribbean, emancipation signified an expansion of small-scale freehold cultivation except on those islands where no land at all could be acquired. Caribbean yeomen maintained the production of such cash export commodities as annatto (Bixa orellana L.), nutmeg (Myristica fragrans Houtt), arrowroot (Maranta arundinacea L.), bananas (Musa paradisiaca subsp. sapientum L.), and coffee (Coffee arabica L.), thus supporting a class of market intermediaries; created or expanded vigorous local exchange systems centering in large market places; and expanded their consumption of imports, only barely possible before emancipation. Mainly confined to upland interiors by continued plantation activity on fertile coastal plains, yeomen engaged in mixed farming to produce subsistence, local exchange items, and exports. Food crops included Amerind cultigens (e.g., sweet potatoes), African (e.g., sorghum, Pennisetum glaucum R. Br.) and Oceanian (e.g., breadfruit, Artocarpus incisa L. f.) transplants, and European vegetables and legumes. Cattle, horses, and donkeys became important, and goats, chickens, and swine served as foods and as means of saving. Cultivation involved no plows, little rotation, terracing, or manuring, and no clean tillage. Variants of swidden agriculture predominated; hilly slopes were planted, and substantial erosion and deforestation have typified Caribbean yeoman land use. But the destructiveness of such practices is attributable in part to the need to work hillsides because of plantation control of the lowlands, as well as to land pressure caused by increasing population and traditions of equal inheritance.

Post-emancipation migration

The growth of Caribbean yeomanries in the nineteenth century coincided with determined efforts by the planter classes to immobilize the labor force. In order to keep labor cheap and readily available, massive contract labor importations were begun. The major sources were India and China, though many workers came from Africa, Java, and southern Europe. Nearly 500,000 Indians (called “East Indians” in the Caribbean, to distinguish them from “West Indians” or “creoles” and from American Indians) entered the islands (and the Guianas) between 1835 and 1928; over 135,000 Chinese reached the British West Indies, Cuba, and Surinam; about 33,000 Javanese came to Surinam between 1891 and 1939. Free Africans were also imported—over 13,000 to British Guiana and many to Trinidad and elsewhere; even a few Annamese reached the French islands. In some islands, such as Jamaica, labor importations were financed by taxes levied on local imports and exports by island legislatures; thus local yeomen were compelled to finance the immigration of their competitors in the labor market.

Under the impact of North American power and with the advent of land-and-factory combines, more recent intraregional movements have occurred. Large numbers of Jamaicans, for instance, migrated to Central America after 1900 to work on banana plantations and on the Panama Canal. Between 1912 and 1924, Cuba received 110,000 Jamaican and 120,000 Haitian laborers. More recently, substantial .numbers of Puerto Ricans have migrated to the U.S. Virgin Islands, as have small numbers of white fishermen from the French islands. With few exceptions (e.g., Japanese and refugee Jewish migration to the Dominican Republic), movement into the Caribbean has been wholly in accord with foreign economic decisions.

Mass emigration has become important only since World War n, as in the flow of Puerto Ricans to the United States mainland, and of British West Indians to the United Kingdom and Canada.

Modern Caribbean society and culture

All Caribbean societies are economically stratified (Simpson 1962a) and racially heterogeneous, and many contain diverse and identifiable ethnic groups. Ethnic and racial succession, fostered particularly by the plantation system, has produced some societies whose ethnic groupings are also largely distinct physically and whose behaviors may differ along ethnic, as well as class, lines. Where behavioral differences in forms of mating and domestic organization, religious persuasion and practice, language or dialect, and values express the presence of different institutional subsystems within a single Caribbean society, some analysts have labeled the society “plural” (M. G. Smith 1955), suggesting societal similarities with such Old World societies as Malaya, Fiji, or Mauritius.

Nearly all Caribbean societies show a dual or bipolar distribution of cultural forms, probably often stemming from (or paralleling) the traditional spheres of the masters and the slaves. Thus the uppermost segments, whose members are usually of European origin, are typified culturally by civil or sacramental marriage and European domestic organization, membership in an established religious body, and the use of a standard dialect of an Indo-European language. The bottommost segments, whose members are usually predominantly of non-European origin, are typified culturally by consensual unions and (often) matrifocal domestic organization, membership in folk religions or cult groups, and the use of Creole languages or nonstandard dialects of Indo-European languages. The total societal structures may be analyzed in class, racial, or ethnic terms and are often best understood when these three (and other) variables are employed (Simpson 1962b).

It is not easy to order Caribbean societies along any continuum of lesser-to-greater pluralism or to generalize in more detail concerning their internal structures. Differing social and political histories, demographic patterns, and cultural origins have endowed each society with a somewhat distinctive character. Variations in economic opportunity and individual mobility and in the social utility of hypergamy have complicated traditional master–slave societies, as has the presence of large new ethnic enclaves in some instances. The following data on mating and kinship, religion, and language illustrate some of these complexities.

Kinship, domestic organization, mating forms

The best analyses of kinship, domestic organization, and mating forms treat rural lower-class populations of African origin, particularly in the British or formerly British islands. While data from Puerto Rico and the French Antilles hint at broad underlying structural similarities, data from the other islands are too sparse for controlled comparison.

Basic studies (e.g., for Jamaica, Davenport 1961) show that kinsmen are reckoned bilaterally; each individual (ego) is the center of a noncorporate assemblage of blood relatives shared only with full siblings; the group usually has little social coherence except with reference to ego. Such assemblages are rarely more than three generations deep, and collateral reckoning of kinsmen does not normally go beyond first cousins; normative taboos on sexual activity and unions usually hold within these groupings. Comparative data suggesting corporateness and patrilaterality cannot be reviewed here; where they occur, land or ritual or both are important (Clarke 1957; Davenport 1961; M. G. Smith 1962).

At the core of the kinship system is the motherchild tie; three linked generations of females are common, such linkages often showing themselves as units of domestic organization. Distinctions between domestic composition and the familial group are essential in analyzing West Indian social structure, since residence patterns vary widely and often do not coincide with lines of kinship (Solien I960; Greenfield 1961). Developmental cycle studies (R. T. Smith 1956; Otterbein 1963; 1965) indicate that apparently alternate modes of domestic organization and mating may really be stages in a single sequence, but whether different sequences may coexist in the same subcultural setting is not wholly clear.

According to some observers, mating systems can be reduced to three predominant forms: sacramental or civil marriage, coresidential consensual unions, and stable but not coresidential consensual unions. In some cases marriage and consensual coresidence appear together as viable alternatives; consensual coresidence and nonresidential consensual unions may or may not. The cultural value put on neolocality, greater female longevity, the male’s defined obligation (in at least some cases) to provide a socially acceptable house for coresidential mating, the chronic economic insecurity of males, and the existing disproportions of females to males because of male emigration influence domestic-unit composition and the establishment of new unions nearly everywhere among lower-class groups.

Explanations for these patterns range from references to the polygynous African past, through concerns with the impact of plantation slavery, to synchronic functional analyses of the demography, race relations, and economic conditions of contemporary Caribbean life. Careful interpretation of the importance of different slave codes and other historical influences has not yet been undertaken. Many more data are needed on cases of seeming patrilateral emphasis or suggesting the presence of patrilineages.

East Indian systems in British Guiana, Trinidad, and elsewhere differ from those of their creole (i.e., of African origin) class equals. Since the socioeconomic position of the East Indians does not diverge enough from that of the Creoles to explain these differences—expressed particularly in the function of first marriage as a means for ritual incorporation in the East Indian subculture—historical factors are probably relevant (Jayawardena 1962). Some observers, however, believe East Indian patterns will be assimilated to those of the Creoles and that wider contemporary influences such as the social importance of physical differences, chronic economic insecurity, and the politics of ethnicity need to be taken into account (R. T. Smith 1956; 1963).

Most outstanding research on these subjects has been done by British-trained social anthropologists; some critics feel the importance of kinship, domestic organization, and mating forms may have been overstressed in Caribbean research. The forms themselves contrast sharply with those reported for many other world areas studied by anthropologists (e.g., Africa), while showing interesting similarities to those for peripherally Westernized areas (e.g., parts of mainland Latin America) and to some urban proletarian subcultures.

Religion and the supernatural

As with social structure most research on religion has been done with rural lower-class groups; and these religious forms differ from the patterns of the Caribbean upper classes as much as those of social structure do.

In the history of the Hispanic Caribbean, natives and African slaves were regularly proselytized; Hispano-Caribbean societies remain predominantly Roman Catholic. But while the elites maintained a formal Catholicism, the rural folk developed a simplified faith involving saints’ cults, elimination of the sacraments except baptism, and intermixture of regional Spanish, African, and possibly Amerind elements.

In the twentieth century Protestant missionaries converted numerous middle-class Catholics in the Hispanic Caribbean. And since World War II, Pentecostal, Church of God, and other revivalist groups have gained many converts in Puerto Rico and Cuba. These faiths employ self-denial, public testimony, and ritual abstention, and their services are marked by trance, possession, and glossolalia.

Catholic influence was strong in the French islands, including Saint-Domingue; here, too, slaves were proselytized. During Haiti’s isolation after 1804, however, vodun, which synthesized Catholic belief with African religious elements, became the popular faith. Vodun ceremonies include possession and the feeding of the gods, who are attached to individuals and to families, reside in the land, and require sustenance and commemoration. Many vodun believers attend Catholic services; Haiti’s elite, while mainly Catholic in faith, is apparently more attracted by the “national” folk religion than is true elsewhere in the Caribbean.

In British or former British islands such as Jamaica, slaves were denied missionization almost until emancipation. Baptist and Methodist proselytization proved very successful, but after 1838 many persons lost their formal church affiliation; cults combining Christian elements with some features of African belief multiplied. Like vodun, these faiths lack any national institutional structure and vary locally; they compete for new adherents, partly by ceremonial innovation, but never entirely lose their Christian elements.

In Puerto Rico, the lower-class movement toward fundamentalist sects is a special aspect of the Americanization process. These sects, unlike the cult groups of the British islands, the “Afro” cults of Cuba, Trinidad, and elsewhere, and Haitian vodun, maintain national affiliations and are bottom rungs in the ladder of Protestantism.

East Indian migrants in Trinidad, British Guiana, and elsewhere often maintain simplified versions of their original Muslim or Hindu faith. However, as with all Caribbean folk religions, significant changes in form and meaning have occurred.

Religious activity has had important political overtones in the Caribbean area. Political organization sometimes has a quasi-religious cast, and, rarely, religious revivals have had racist or nationalistic, as well as millenarian, qualities. In this sphere of life, as in the sphere of social structure, some features are reminiscent of North American lower-class (especially Negro) subcultures.

Throughout the Caribbean area magic has some importance, perhaps particularly among lower-class persons and connected especially with agriculture, fishing, and life crises. Amerind, European, and African origins for particular magical elements have been identified in some cases.


Languages of the Caribbean include dialectal variants of familiar Indo-European tongues, especially Spanish, French, English, and Dutch; intra-insular differences associated with class or regional divisions are common. Many people, however, have a Creole language as their native tongue. Creole languages may have originated in a Portuguese-based pidgin (Taylor 1961); today most of them appear to consist of the combination of IndoEuropean lexicons and non-Indo-European (possibly African) syntactic forms. A lexically French creole is spoken in Haiti, the French Antilles, and several former French islands (e.g., Dominica, St. Lucia); the Dutch Leeward Islands use Papiamento, a creole having Spanish, Portuguese, and English elements but syntactically similar to none of them. The folk of the English islands use non-standard dialects of English, which are not regarded by most scholars as creole languages because they apparently intergrade with standard dialects (Taylor 1961). In Dominica (Arawakan) Island-Carib is no longer spoken by the few surviving Island-Carib; only traces remain of the distinction between men’s and women’s speech. American Indian elements in Caribbean languages are confined to lexical items.

Studies of Caribbean sociolinguistics are but barely begun, though bilingual problems are serious. Thus, for example, while French is Haiti’s official language, only a few Haitians can speak French, while everyone speaks creole. Language is a mark of class; the native use of a substandard dialect or a creole carries pejorative implications and also hampers education, because the student must learn in an essentially foreign tongue.

Communities and informal groupings

The preceding sections demonstrate the social polarity of many Caribbean peoples in terms of several spheres of belief and behavior. But the subordinate or “lower-class” groupings are not themselves culturally or socially homogeneous. Racial, ethnic, occupational, and other bases of difference greatly affect the organization of the masses of Caribbean societies into communities and other social groupings.

Some variants in community type originate from physical and/or ethnic difference, as in East Indian villages in Trinidad (Klass 1961) and British Guiana. Communities of phenotypically white fishermen or yeomen, such as the “Red Legs” of Barbados or the “Parratees” of Jamaica, represent peripheral survivors of early yeomen villages or later experimental settlements of European migrants. In Martinique some highland communities stem from early Negro freedman occupation; in Puerto Rico and Cuba a few isolated villages might have begun in the resettlement of Island-Arawak; in Jamaica several maroon villages still exist, while many highland settlements arose from the land-buying activities of Baptist and Methodist missionaries who resold small plots to their parishioners.

In economic terms the main contemporary community types are plantation settlements, freehold villages, haciendas (large estates, mainly in coffee, often with landless share-tenants and neighboring small-scale yeoman holdings, as in Puerto Rico), fishing villages, and more rarely, cattle-producing and dairy-producing settlements. The complexity and variety of shareholding, tenancy, squatting, and freehold arrangements are notable.

Small-scale agricultural settlement varies from widely dispersed to densely concentrated groupings, partly determined by land pressure and land distribution; in countries such as Haiti and Jamaica, the lack of concentrated communities probably results in the absence of numerous community-level services. Almost everywhere, however, yeoman villages are found in the uplands and plantation communities on the coasts, and the two forms of economy produce divergent patterns of settlement and of social life. Many communities, such as those Jamaican and Puerto Rican hill villages bordering coastal plantations, have populations that straddle both economic forms; men alternately work their own land and for wages. Many fishing villages near plantations show a similar adaptation.

Mineral industries in Jamaica (bauxite) and Cuba (tungsten, nickel) and oil refineries in Trinidad and Aruba have created new sorts of company towns; in Puerto Rico industrialization has produced urban proletarian communities, as well as affecting those outlying towns where factories have been opened. Urban slums are sociologically and politically important in Kingston, Jamaica; Port-au-Prince, Haiti; San Juan, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere; their populations are mainly unskilled, of recent rural origin, irregularly employed, and politically labile.

Most studies of Caribbean rural communities suggest only minor or fragmentary communitywide organization, with few institutional devices or traditions to express group sentiment or community will. Diffuseness of kin ties and looseness of community organization argue for a characterization of rural lower-class island folk as highly individualistic in their life styles. Few studies have taken full account of the importance of informal groupings lacking any institutional articulation. In the absence of either firm or well-developed kin-ship structures or of strong community cohesion, Caribbean societies have proved difficult to analyze sociologically; most social scientists have approached them with the study of one or the other of these bases of social assortment in mind. This may mean that an adequate interpretation of Caribbean rural lower-class subcultures must await greater theoretical exploration of the nature of informal and highly flexible social linkages, especially as expressed in polydyadic units with one individual or family at the core. Psychologically oriented studies in the islands often stress the weakness of familial bases of social affiliation as explanatory for the finding that personality disturbance is common and serious. Such interpretations may fail to cope adequately with the peculiar character of Caribbean social life, measuring behavior by norms largely derived from the study of more developed Western societies on the one hand and of kin-based primitive or non-Western societies on the other.

Politics and nationalism

The Caribbean islands include the hemisphere’s second oldest nation (Haiti), two newly fledged sovereign states (Jamaica and Trinidad-Tobago), and some of the oldest colonies of the Western world. Though land hunger has played a certain part in political struggles (as in Jamaica’s Morant Bay “rebellion” of 1865), and though slavery underlay much basically political disturbance (as in the Haitian revolution, the maroon “wars” of Jamaica, and many lesser conflicts), most political activity has originated in the colonial relationship itself. Colonial legislatures and creole leaders have struggled for total independence (e.g., Martí in Cuba) or for greater autonomy within the metropolitan framework (e.g., Betances and Ruíz Belvis in Puerto Rico) but not always in the context of needed reform within their island societies. In some instances (e.g., nineteenth-century Jamaica) local legislatures proved more conservative politically than the metropolis itself, for extensive reform might have threatened the existing insular structure of wealth and power.

In the twentieth century, rapid proletarianization of Caribbean populations accelerated political activities, often given a nationalistic complexion by the continued exercise of foreign economic and political power. The trade union movement, particularly among plantation workers, has provided a basis for national political organization, and many contemporary leaders began as union officials. Strong nationalist movements have frequently been associated with plantation activity, as in British Guiana and Cuba, though this obvious fact has escaped the attention of many experts. As elsewhere in the underdeveloped world, bourgeois professionals and union leaders have often joined forces in creating political change in the Caribbean.

Caribbean politics has also been marked by color consciousness, stimulated by persisting differences in wealth and power along radial lines and by sharp ethnic and racial differences—for example, as in British Guiana (Despres 1964). Political leadership often has a strong personal cast, the leader’s own views sometimes taking the place of a formal platform. Widespread illiteracy, grinding poverty, rural isolation, and the wealth and power gap between small elites and vast subordinate majorities have delayed political democratization in most islands.

At the same time a brilliant stimulus has been provided to the political movements of other less developed areas by the writings of such Caribbean intellectuals as C. L. R. James, George Padmore, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Fidel Castro and, of a less radical cast, Luis Muñoz Marín and Eric Williams. The association of Caribbean leaders with political struggle is ancient; more than 150 years ago independent Haiti twice gave aid and haven to Simón Bolívar; later, the impact of Cuba’s Martí was felt throughout Latin America; and in recent years, Williams of Trinidad, Munoz of Puerto Rico, and Castro of Cuba have stirred the colonial world. Political action in the Caribbean ranges, it is true, from sheer demagoguery to sophisticated democratic maneuvering within complex power spheres. But the lengthy colonial experience of the area early gave rise to new varieties of political thought and action. In spite of its present “backwardness,” some of the Caribbean area’s leaders today are probably those best prepared within the less developed and dependent world to deal with the political complexities of modern colonialism.

Sidney W. Mintz

[See alsoLand tenure; Peasantry; Plantations; Slavery.]


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