What does it mean to be Caribbean?

To be Caribbean doesn’t mean to have skin of a certain color or belong to a certain ethnicity. Nor does it mean that one necessarily lives on an island in the middle of the ocean.

Those who identify as “Caribbean” will tell you that they are part of a “tossed salad” or “melting pot” culture. They’ll explain that their unique history as a colonized people has made them resilient and strong. It has instilled in them a “can do” spirit that is paralleled in few other peoples.

Caribbean History

The Ciboney were most likely the first inhabitants of Antigua and Barbuda.

The history of those who live in Caribbean countries today is incredibly fascinating. The name “Caribbean” comes from “Caribs”, a native group that lived in the region when Europeans first visited it in the 15th century. Long before Christopher Columbus ever set foot in the West Indies, the Ciboney, Arawak, and Carib peoples and others already inhabited the area.

Later on, slavery and expansion brought new cultures to Caribbean countries. While the indigenous peoples retained many of their own customs, they adopted many European, African, and Asian traditions as their own. Today’s Caribbean food and clothing reflects these influences. For centuries, those who call the Caribbean home have been assimilating international customs into their culture, while creating their own.

Caught in a power struggle between European powers in the age of colonialism, the Caribbean went through immense changes during the 15th and 16th centuries. Widespread slavery took its toll on the islands. Thousands upon thousands of people were forced to work in the sugar cane plantations and salt mines.

Caribbean people today

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Nevertheless, the shared history of many Caribbean nations due to colonialism and slavery is a strong uniting force today. While many Caribbeans identify primarily with their home country, they also proudly wear the “Caribbean” moniker.

Even though they may not speak the same language from one island to another, Caribbean countries share much of the same music, food, clothing, and history. In general, culture is cherished and holidays are happily observed.

“The Caribbean identity lies with its indigenous people who once roamed freely from island to island. Easier movement between islands needs to be facilitated. The islands share more in common than they share differences.”               

—Sharon, Dominica (BBC)

To be Caribbean is…

To be Caribbean is to be proud of one’s heritage and history, as an inhabitant of one of the world’s most beautiful regions. It is to wake up to the sound of crashing ocean waves and a seagull’s call, or to the far-away caw of a jungle parrot or tiny coqui.

To be Caribbean is to savor the taste of a fresh mango or banana not bought in a supermarket. It is to sway to the sounds of calypso, soca, salsa, and carnival. It is to cherish what is distinctly Caribbean, while embracing and appreciating what is is African, Dutch, Asian, French, Spanish, or English.

To be Caribbean is to live freely and fully.

“Our identity for me is tied to our approach to life – we live!! We get joy out of the simplicities of life – a little dominoes here – carnival there – cricket match there – we live, we laugh!”               

-Jeanelle, St. Lucia (BBC)

Main image credit: AFS-USA

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