Learn about the Caribbean and West Indies

For your class in the history of the Caribbean and West Indies, consult academic journals, university databases and online for good research paper topics. The region had a rich history before the Europeans arrived and then struggled with disease and slavery afterwards.

A map of the Caribbean and West Indies region. (Credit: Brenda/Flickr)

A map of the Caribbean and West Indies region. (Credit: Brenda/Flickr)

Here are some suggested research topics on the naming of the Caribbean, slavery in the region and the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies.

Caribbean named for the Caribs

The first Europeans to arrive in the region heard rumors of two types of Indians: the peaceful Arawaks who lived in fear of the vicious, warmongering Caribs (also known as Kalina). The Caribs of the Lesser Antilles were said to be so terrifying that they ate their conquered foes. The Caribbean, as well as the word cannibal, is named after the Carib people.

Of course, the Europeans got many facts wrong (including believing that they were in India or Indonesia). According to the article “The story of the Caribs and Arawaks,” posted online at RaceandHistory.com, There has a never been found any archaeological evidence as would indicate widespread and systematic cannibalism, evidence such as scorched human bones, bones with knife or saw cuts or which are unnaturally fractured, bones widely scattered. Nevertheless, such niceties were less than appreciated by the conquistadores who needed slaves.”

In 1503, Queen Isabella of Spain decreed that no Spaniard should harm any Indians… except for those nasty “Cannibales,” who may be taken as slaves and sold. So… “What could be more practical for a Spaniard, then, than to discover as many ‘Canni-bales’ as there were Indians,” observed RaceandHistory.com. Conquistador Rodrigo de Bastidas deliberately misled Isabella about supposed cannibalistic activity to justify its 1504 plunder and slaving of Cumana (Venezuela) and Uraba (Colombia).

Slavery comes to the West Indies

The Atlantic triangular slave trade involved bringing silk, glass, textiles and guns from Europe to Africa; slaves from Africa to the Americas and Caribbean (known as the Middle Passage); and tobacco, sugar cane, rice and cotton from the Americas to Europe. A reported 4 million slaves, or about 36% of the total European/African slave trade, were imported into the West Indies (including British, French, Dutch, and Danish territories), more than imported to any other islands. Along the way, about 50-60 slaves per 1,000 died during the voyage.

Ruth Sawh and Alice M. Scales wrote in the article “Middle Passage and the Triangular Slave Trade: The West Indies,” published in Negro Educational Review, fall 2006: “Slavery became an established form of labour from the 1640s when Dutch merchants from Brazil introduced sugar into Barbados. Sugar farming was physically demanding and it was soon apparent that White indentured servants were not suitable for this form of agriculture. Instead, planters sought cheaper and more robust labourers, and African labourers who were used to tropical climates, diseases and food were considered more suitable.”

The end of slavery in the British West Indies

Slavery throughout the British Empire and its territories ended with the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. One primary reason was the change in economic interests. As reported by The Abolition Project in “Why was Slavery finally abolished in the British Empire?”: “After 1776, when America became independent, Britain’s sugar colonies, such as Jamaica and Barbados, declined as America could trade directly with the French and Dutch in the West Indies.”

Another reason was high-profile slave revolts: “Major slave revolts followed (Barbados 1816, Demerara 1822 and Jamaica 1831-1832); they reduced profitability and gave a strong indication that, regardless of political opinion, the enslaved people were not going to tolerate enslavement.” At the same time, religious and abolitionist groups were launching campaigns, while the pro-slavery West India Lobby lost its political power.

For more information, visit Questia’s Caribbean & West Indian library. 

What other aspects of Caribbean and West Indies history do you think would make good research paper topics? Tell us in the comments.

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