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The Caribbean Sea is a suboceanic basin in the western Atlantic Ocean. The sea covers just over 1 million square miles (2.6 million square km) and contains numerous islands. The islands, which vary greatly in size, cover some 91,000 square mi (235,688 square km). Cuba is by far the largest at 44,000 square mi (113,959 square km). In contrast, Anguilla has a mere 100 square mi (259 square km).
The islands can be divided into four groups. First are the Bahamas, consisting of more than 700 small islands. Second are the Greater Antilles, made up of Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica and comprising more than 80 percent of the total land area of the Caribbean. Third are the Lesser Antilles, comprising two arcs of islands. An inner arc is made up of volcanic islands, while an outer arc is made of coral limestone islands. Fourth are the South American offshore islands of Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Trinidad, and Tobago.
Several geographic characteristics define the Caribbean. One is the insular nature of the region. The fact that the region is made up of many small islands has shaped the Caribbean’s history. The small size of the islands made it virtually impossible for the native inhabitants to resist European attacks, enslavement, and disease. The large number of islands allowed several European powers to colonize the region beginning in the late 1400s. The presence of various European countries has contributed to the cultural diversity of the Caribbean Sea. Furthermore, because of the fragmentation of the region, there was historically more interaction and contact between the islands and the metropolitan powers than among the islands.
The small size of the islands is a second important feature. While the islands are small, many of them have relatively large populations, making them some of the most densely populated areas of the Western Hemisphere. The small size of Caribbean nations has led to numerous problems. Land is often scarce and internal markets are small, forcing countries to rely on imports. Per capita government spending in areas such as education, healthcare, and welfare is all extremely high in the Caribbean.
A third defining characteristic is the Caribbean’s location in a maritime tropical air mass. Average temperatures in the region are high at around 80 degrees Fahrenheit. There is little seasonal change throughout the Caribbean. Precipitation in the region varies from island to island. Low-lying islands receive very little rainfall, while those with higher volcanic peaks receive more. Precipitation even varies on each island, as the northeastern sides tend to be wetter than the southern sides.
Hurricanes are a fourth characteristic of the Caribbean. They are a regular occurrence in the region, arriving between June and November of each year. The hurricanes form in the eastern Atlantic Ocean and follow the trade winds to the Caribbean, where an average of eight strike each year. Hurricanes are often destructive, damaging property and crops. In 1963, Hurricane Flora took more than 7,000 lives in the Caribbean.
A fifth characteristic is environmental degradation. The introduction of export agriculture in the form of sugarcane production ushered in environmental problems in the Caribbean. As European plantation owners put their African slaves to work clearing forests, native flora and fauna often disappeared. Such deforestation led to problems such as increased risk of erosion and drought. Fertile soil was quickly exhausted. By the 20th century, poverty and tourism both contributed to these environmental problems in the Caribbean.
A sixth feature of the Caribbean is its strategic location. It serves as a link between Europe and Latin America. The Spanish used the Caribbean as a base to conquer the mainland areas of the Americas. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, the United States began to become involved in the Caribbean because of its strategic importance. After the opening of the Panama Canal in the early 20th century, the region’s strategic significance for military and economic matters greatly increased.
The history of the Caribbean gives the diverse region a sense of common identity. The islands share a common history of conquest, colonization, slavery, and sugar plantation agriculture. Before the arrival of Europeans in 1492, there were a series of cultural waves from the mainland of the Western Hemisphere to the islands of the Caribbean. Two major indigenous groups populated the region. First were the Arawaks, a largely peaceful group who inhabited the larger islands. Second were the more warlike Caribs, who concentrated on smaller islands.
The period from 1492 until the mid-1600s was one of European conquest and colonization. The Spanish were the first Europeans to settle the Caribbean, concentrating on the island of Hispaniola. They then moved on to other islands such as Jamaica, Cuba, and Puerto Rico in search of gold and slaves. The native population of the Caribbean was unable to withstand this Spanish conquest. Both gold and slaves were quickly exhausted and the Spanish turned to the conquest of the mainland.
By the mid-17th century, other European powers such as the British, French, and Dutch became increasingly involved in the Caribbean. It was in this period that sugar and slavery came to dominate the Caribbean. At this time, the Caribbean more fully became part of the Atlantic economy. British and French colonies such as Barbados, Jamaica, and Saint Domingue became major sugar producers. Large plantations came to dominate the Caribbean landscape. Increasingly, Europeans turned to African slave labor to work these plantations. Of the approximately 10 million African slaves forcibly transported across the Atlantic Ocean between the 15th and 19th centuries, about half went to the Caribbean.
A number of trends have marked Caribbean history since the 1800s. A modern plantation system replaced the slave-based one. Most islands achieved political independence. Many Caribbean nations have since attempted to diversify their economies through industrialization. Since World War II, tourism has come to dominate the region.
Overall, the Caribbean economy is small, dependent on trade, and not very diversified. In general, the region produces a limited number of primary products, while importing most of its manufactured goods. Due to its dependence on international trade, the Caribbean often suffers through periods of boom and bust. Unemployment is a major problem that plagues many islands. Much of the region’s export earnings must go to service debt, limiting economic growth. Furthermore, the Caribbean is largely dependent on North American and Europe for markets, technology, investment, and credit. Agriculture in the Caribbean is still important, although it is declining. Soil exhaustion, the high cost of fertilizers and pesticides, and international competition harm the region’s agricultural industry. Large plantations produce cash crops for export on many islands. There are also a large number of peasants who produce for local consumption. Caribbean agriculture is often supported through preferential trade agreements, especially with former colonial powers. Sugar remains the key crop in the Caribbean, although its importance is declining as a result of high production costs and world competition. Bananas are another important crop, as they receive preference in many European countries over cheaper Central American bananas. Tobacco and coffee are other significant agricultural products grown in the Caribbean.
The illegal drug trade plays an important role in the Caribbean. Some islands such as Jamaica are important producers of marijuana. Furthermore, narcotics traffickers often ship drugs such as cocaine and heroin through the Caribbean on the way to the United States.
Mineral resources are important on a number of islands. Cuba and the Dominican Republic produce significant amounts of nickel. Bauxite, needed for the production of aluminum, traditionally was an important raw material in Jamaica, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Trinidad possesses important oil and gas reserves.
There have been some attempts to industrialize in the Caribbean. Some countries have implemented import substitution industrialization policies in order to produce goods that were once imported. Others have emphasized export-oriented industrialization in order to attract foreign companies. There are numerous small plants in the Caribbean, such as breweries and cement works. Some islands also have important refineries for bauxite, sugarcane, and petroleum.
Since the 1960s, there have been attempts to integrate the economies of the Caribbean. In 1973, 13 former British colonies created the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) to improve international bargaining power. Other countries later joined. Overall, CARICOM has had only limited success, although it has established the Caribbean Food Corporation and the West Indies Shipping Company.
Because of its sunny climate and recreational opportunities, tourism has become a major industry throughout the Caribbean. The region has become a popular winter vacation spot for tourists from the United States, Canada, and Europe. At about twothirds of the total travelers, the United States sends the most tourists to the Caribbean, in large part because of the geographic proximity of the region. Ironically, transportation and communication between the Caribbean and the tourists’ home countries is better than that among the Caribbean islands.
Before World War II, few U.S. tourists frequented the Bahamas and Cuba. Large-scale tourism in the region began in the 1960s. The governments of most Caribbean islands actively promote tourism, presenting their countries as island paradises. The tourist industry creates jobs and helps the balance of trade in the small Caribbean nations.
There are a number of important problems with the Caribbean tourist industry. Tourism relies heavily on other countries. Difficult economic times in the United States, for example, negatively affect tourism. Bad weather can also adversely influence the industry. While tourism does create jobs, the jobs are generally low-paying ones. Foreign companies, such as cruise lines, often benefit more than the local economy. Large-scale tourism can also harm the environment, straining the water supply and leading to problems of garbage disposal.
Peter Bakewell, A History of Latin America (Blackwell Publishing, 2003); Brian Blouet and Olwyn Blouet, Latin America: A Systematic and Regional Survey (Wiley, 2004); Bonham C. Richardson, The Caribbean in the Wider World, 1492–1992: A Regional Geography (Cambridge University Press, 1992).
GEORGIA SOUTHERN UNIVERSITY