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Myths and Realities of Caribbean History

Basil A. Reid

Publication Year: 2009

This book seeks to debunk eleven popular and prevalent myths about Caribbean history. Using archaeological evidence, it corrects many previous misconceptions promulgated by history books and oral tradition as they specifically relate to the pre-Colonial and European-contact periods. It informs popular audiences, as well as scholars, about the current state of archaeological/historical research in the Caribbean Basin and asserts the value of that research in fostering a better understanding of the region’s past.
Contrary to popular belief, the history of the Caribbean did not begin with the arrival of Europeans in 1492. It actually started 7,000 years ago with the infusion of Archaic groups from South America and the successive migrations of other peoples from Central America for about 2,000 years thereafter. In addition to discussing this rich cultural diversity of the Antillean past, Myths and Realities of Caribbean History debates the misuse of terms such as “Arawak” and “Ciboneys,” and the validity of Carib cannibalism allegations.

Published by: The University of Alabama Press


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pp. v-vi

List of Illustrations

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pp. vii-ix

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pp. xi-xii

History is alive! It is a subject that is continuously adding new information, new interpretations, and new perspectives on the past. It has also been used to serve political, cultural, and social objectives to the point where many historical treatises are best described as propaganda. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the colonialist efforts to portray the grand heritage of the colonizers and to deny any history to the peoples they subjugated.

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pp. xiii-xiv

This book seeks to correct many of our misconceptions about precolonial and European- contact periods in the Caribbean. It is also intended to inform popular audiences as well as scholars about the current state of archaeological/ historical research in the Caribbean and the value of this research in fostering a better understanding of the region’s past. History is based not only on written records but also on a rich array of archaeological and oral data.

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Myth 1. Caribbean History Started with the Arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492

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pp. 1-10

History is not based only on written records but on all human actions, including those recorded orally and reflected exclusively in the archaeological record. The conventional definition of history says that Caribbean history began with the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean in 1492 (Figure 1.1). However, all events relating to nonliterate societies, whether before or after European contact, are historical by definition.

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Myth 2. The Arawaks and Caribs Were the Two Major Groups in the Precolonial Caribbean

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pp. 11-48

Traditional views of the precontact Caribbean, based in part on mistaken ethnohistoric perspectives, divided the archipelago between only two large and relatively homogenous groups: the Arawaks and the Caribs (Wilson 2007). While some history books (Rogonzinki 2000; Dookhan 2006) continue to refer to the Arawaks and Caribs as the two major Amerindian groups, Caribbean archaeologists have been able to identify multiple cultural groups based on artifact types.

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Myth 3. Columbus Met Arawaks in the Northern Caribbean

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pp. 49-57

It is impossible to write about the past without assigning names to the peoples about whom we write. Over the years a variety of names have been used to designate the precolonial peoples of the Americas. Unfortunately, the names that were selected have in some cases led to confusion regarding cultural heritage and ethnic identity. The name Arawak is one that has resulted in such significant confusion that archaeologists working in the region have now abandoned the name as it specifically relates to the Caribbean.

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Myth 4. The Natives Encountered by Christopher Columbus in the Northern Caribbean Migrated from South America

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pp. 58-74

A number of history books continue to perpetuate the misconception that the native peoples whom Columbus met in the northern Caribbean migrated from South America. For example, “The aborigines, or earliest inhabitants, of Jamaica, of whom we have definite records were the Arawak Indians, also called Tainans. Originating in the region of the Guianas and Venezuela where Arawaks are still to be found, these people at some very distant time sailed ...

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Myth 5. The Arawaks Were the First Potters and Farmers to Have Settled in the Caribbean

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pp. 75-82

The term Arawak is a misnomer for the northern Caribbean and is more applicable for describing certain native groups in South America (see Chapter 3). This dispels any notion that the Arawaks were the first potters and farmers in the Antilles. Until recently, there was general agreement among Caribbean archaeologists (Wilson 1990; Rouse 1992; Keegan 2000) that the Saladoids were the first horticultural, Ceramic- age group. Saladoid sites are found in ...

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Myth 6. The Ciboneys Lived in Western Cuba at the Time of Spanish Contact

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pp. 83-87

Because several history and archaeology books assert that the Ciboneys lived in western Cuba at contact, no wonder teachers and students often accept the notion. A variety of descriptions relating to Ciboney cultural traditions have been advanced (Dacal Moure and Rivero de la Calle 1997). For example, according to Black (1983): “In Haiti, Cuba and possibly Jamaica the Arawaks found an even more primitive tribe than themselves called Siboneys or ‘rockdwellers.’

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Myth 7. The Island-Caribs Were Cannibals

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pp. 88-99

One of the greatest falsehoods still inscribed in our history books is the notion that the Island-Caribs were cannibals (Figure 7.1). The noble, peaceful Greater Antillean Arawak versus the barbaric, savage Lesser Antillean Carib was formalized as early as 1948 in the Handbook of South American Indians. In the first chapter of James Michener’s blockbuster historical novel Caribbean, the Island-Caribs are depicted as fierce, terrible cannibals who fought ...

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Myth 8. All the Amerindians Migrating from South America to the Caribbean Island-Hopped from the Continent to the Lesser and Greater Antilles

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pp. 100-110

For years, it was generally assumed that all the precolonial peoples from South America who had migrated into the Caribbean, island-hopped from the Lesser Antilles to the Greater Antilles. However, archaeological evidence also points to the likelihood of “direct jumps” by Saladoid migrants from South America to the northern Caribbean. It is easy to understand why these early precolonials were engaged in island-hopping.

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Myth 9. The Spanish Introduced Syphilis into the Caribbean and the New World

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pp. 111-116

It is generally accepted that by far the most prevalent cause of Amerindian mortality in the New World were European- introduced diseases such as smallpox, scarlet fever, measles, influenza, typhoid fever, cholera, yellow fever, dengue fever, and amoebic dysentery (Crosby 1986; Bryan 1992). Syphilis, a contagious sexually transmitted disease caused by the spirochete Treponema pallidum (Figure 9.1), has been cited as yet another disease introduced to the New World ...

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Myth 10. Christopher Columbus Wrote the Version of His Diario (Diary) That We Use Today

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pp. 117-120

Columbus’s diario contained the only eyewitness accounts of the Admiral’s first voyage to the Caribbean (Dunn and Kelly 1989). These accounts supposedly described the territorial control of a powerful chief; the use of canoes and other products; trade; the personal adornments of the natives encountered; and environmental conditions that might be used to identify archaeological sites that were occupied at contact (Keegan 1996a).

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Myth 11. The Spanish Colonists Brought “Civilization” to Native Societies in the Caribbean

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pp. 121-128

The word civilization comes from the Latin civis, meaning “citizen” or “townsman.” It has been used in reference to a social process, as well as the quality of excellence in thought, manners, and taste. It is also considered to be a state-level society (Fagan 2002), which is the final stage of development from simple to more complex societies. However, for the purposes of this chapter, civilization is defined as “a society with an advanced state of social, economic, and political development.”

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pp. 129-130

When Christopher Columbus first arrived in the Caribbean in 1492, he did not find timeless, primitive isolates, but rather socially complex Ta


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pp. 131-136

References Cited

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pp. 137-150


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pp. 151-154

E-ISBN-13: 9780817383169
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817355340

Page Count: 168
Publication Year: 2009