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Caribbean Ethnic Groups

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  • 1:31 Amerindian Ethnicities
  • 2:12 European Ethnicities
  • 3:05 African Ethnicities
  • 3:43 Asian Ethnicities
  • 4:08 Mixed Ethnicities
  • 5:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Caribbean is a broad geographical area, filled with people of many ethnicities. In this lesson, we are going to learn about ethnicity in the Caribbean and see how it impacts the identities of Caribbean peoples.

Caribbean Region Background

What do we know about the Caribbean? We know that practically every travel company in the world offers cruises there. We know that in the past pirates enjoyed it. And we know that it has beaches. But what is the Caribbean, really? Believe it or not, this broad region has no strict definition. The Caribbean is a broad geographic and cultural region, roughly corresponding to the islands of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, as well as various straits in between North, Central, and South America. The Caribbean is a large and diverse area.

Just as the Caribbean is difficult to define, so are its people. On a wide scale, a sense of pan-Caribbean identity unites them all. However, every island contains its own nuances of racial, ethnic, and nationalist distinction. These islands may be famous for their laid-back attitudes, but identity here is no joking matter.

In this lesson, we're going to look at ethnic identities in the Caribbean, but first, a disclaimer: the Caribbean has been home to immigrants from around the world for more than 500 years, bringing dozens of ethnic groups into contact. So ethnic identity in the Caribbean is rarely a simple matter of genetic ancestry. It's a matter of choice. People choose to elevate certain aspects of their ethnic heritage over others, creating complex and often fluid and flexible identities. That being said, let's go over some of the main contributors to ethnic identities in the Caribbean.

Amerindian Ethnicities

The first ethnic populations we'll look at are Amerindians, the ancestrally indigenous peoples of the Caribbean. Originally, members of Carib or Arawak/Taino ethnic groups inhabited most of the Caribbean. However, these people traded with many continental cultures, including the Maya of the Yucatán, and exchanged ideas, cultural products, and genes.

Unfortunately, diseases and enslavement at the hands of early European colonists killed the majority of the Caribbean's Amerindian population. For a long time, groups such as the Taino or Caribs were considered extinct, but in recent years more people are identifying with that part of their ancestry, and cultural revival movements are growing across the islands.

European Ethnicities

In the late 15th century, Christopher Columbus bumped into the Caribbean. Within decades, Europeans of all kinds filled the region. To this day, many islands of the Caribbean identify strongly with the ethnic identity of the colonial nation that maintained the strongest presence there. Martinique and Guadeloupe identify strongly with their French heritage; Aruba and Suriname have strong Dutch ties; and many Jamaicans, Bahamians, and Barbadians identify with at least some English ethnic heritage.

The strongest source of European ethnicity in the Caribbean, however, is Spanish. Roughly 60 percent of the Caribbean speaks Spanish, and Spanish names and customs appear widely throughout the area. In nations such as Cuba and Puerto Rico, Spanish heritage almost entirely dominates ethnic identity. People on these islands tend to identify strongly with their Spanish ancestry and less so with other elements of their heritage.

African Ethnicities

When the Arawak/Taino and Carib populations were decimated, European colonists turned to African slaves for labor. As a result, the Caribbean was filled with people of African ethnicity, most who ancestrally descend from West Africa. Today, African heritage is important in most parts of the Caribbean. Pan-African movements across the Americas have encouraged this, and many nations of the Caribbean now claim African ancestry and customs as a major part of their national cultures. The strongest example of this is in Haiti, a nation formed from a slave rebellion. Haiti maintains a strong pride in African ethnicity to this day.

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