The Caribbean, 1492-1700
Duke University, Fall 2012 


“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” or so the rhyme goes. That simple saying, however, cannot convey the significance of Columbus’s voyage to the region we now call the Caribbean. Columbus’s ships and the flood of Spanish conquistadors that followed him sparked a catastrophic disruption to the flourishing indigenous societies in these islands, began a centuries-long (and for some places, still continuing) colonial relationship between the Americas and Europe, and laid the groundwork for human history’s largest forced migration, the transatlantic slave trade. This course examines how the Caribbean region was wholly transformed by its encounter with European explorers and colonists. Unlike the rest of the Americas, the Caribbean’s indigenous people—the Taino and the Caribs—were almost entirely decimated. As a result, we will be studying two simultaneous but contradictory trends: the quick death of one society and the creation of an entirely new way of life, populated by different peoples, cultures, and practices than the first. Along the way, we will focus on Spanish colonization, competition from Northern Europe, piracy, and the rise of the plantation. We will end in the early eighteenth century right before these colonial societies began to truly flourish.  The slave trade reached its dreadful peak in the 1700s, as did the sugar economies of Saint Domingue and Jamaica, which became the most profitable colonies of the French and British empires respectively by the mid-to-late eighteenth century. Our story, then, is one of encounter and conquest, destruction and creation, as we follow the Caribbean from isolation to decimation to the brink of global economic success.

Select Readings

Susan Dwyer Amussen, Caribbean Exchanges: Slavery and the Transformation of English Society, 1640-1700
Philip Boucher, Cannibal Encounters: Europeans and Island Caribs, 1492-1763
Bartolome de las Casas, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies
Richard S. Dunn, Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies
Peter Earle, The Pirate Wars