History & Culture
In the great historical sweep of exploration and migration of the past 500 years, the Caribbean played a central role in proving beyond doubt Christopher Columbus' theory that the world was round. That fact triggered an explosion of trade that changed the economic and political structures of the world.
A history built on courage and fortitude has created a Caribbean community of peoples who welcome and respect visitors from all over the world.
The diverse history of the Caribbean has left a legacy of different languages, people, food and traditions which have all played their role in shaping the Caribbean culture. Little remains of the Carib and Arawak Indians who originally inhabited the Caribbean islands, but the spirit of the European explorers who discovered and fought over these countries hundreds of years ago lives on. The English, French, Spanish and Dutch made the most impact here, though in latter years the American influence has become more prevalent. But it is easy to identify – mainly through the language and the architecture – which individual islands align their heritage to.
Take the Spanish Caribbean countries like Cuba and Puerto Rico where the traditional Spanish buildings and Latin tempo contrast greatly with the ornate architecture, café culture and gourmet cuisine found on the French islands of Martinique or Saint-Martin.
Then there are the Dutch Caribbean islands of Curaçao and St. Eustatius, with their gingerbread-style houses that wouldn’t look out of place along the canals of Amsterdam. There’s even the island of Saint Martin/St. Maarten which is half French and half Dutch – with two distinct cultures to match.
It’s the English-speaking Caribbean that accounts for most islands and it’s here that visitors will find plenty of links to remind them of home. From traditional stone-built churches and Georgian architecture to red telephone boxes and, of course, the fact that everyone speaks English and drives on the left! There are even familiar-sounding places such as Brighton or Worthing in Barbados, Falmouth in Antigua, Portsmouth in Dominica or Richmond in St. Vincent.
But the African roots of the islanders – many of them descendants of slaves brought across the Atlantic to work the sugar plantations – are evident in the traditions and carnival celebrations woven into everyday life. Ruined sugar mills, fortresses and plantation houses also stand as testament to the region’s varied past, with some becoming tourist attractions and the most notable sites and structures gaining invaluable UNESCO World Heritage Site status. These include the Brimstone Hill Fortress and National Park on St. Kitts; the twin Pitons on Saint Lucia; and the Morne Trois Pitons National Park on Dominica.
Older civilizations of the Americas, from the Carib Indians who gave our region its name to the Mayans of the American mainland, had already been attracted by the physical beauty, fertile soil and mineral wealth of our islands and have left astonishing reminders of their time
The men, women and children who arrived here from Europe, Africa and Asia have also contributed to the creation of humanity’s richest melting pot. The renowned Caribbean culture of peace and aversion to war is the result of our mutual understanding of others' beliefs and lifestyles, and our own ability to adapt. The Caribbean today is one of the few places free from internal aggression. The results of this unique melt of history and culture can be seen in our faces, our buildings, our languages, our food, our museums and our monuments.
At the highest levels of achievement, there are Nobel prize winners for literature – Derek Walcott and Sir Arthur Lewis of Saint Lucia; and Sir V. S. Naipaul of Trinidad.
Travellers to the Caribbean have become part of our history by finding inspiration and insight here. Famous incomers include Gauguin, Hemingway, Graham Greene and Nöel Coward – and you can visit the Caribbean retreats where they lived and worked today.
Wherever you are in the Caribbean you are likely to find something or somewhere that will remind you of your homeland – and always something more to expand your horizons.
MuseumsAdd to Trip Planner
The rainbow culture of the Caribbean has its clearest reflection in museums recording, researching and cataloguing our long, complex and fascinating contribution to human and natural history.
Migration, exploration, imprisonment, slavery, colonialism, imperialism, war and piracy have all left their marks on us and our homelands, producing a treasury of evidence of all that is best and, sadly, worst in human beings. The evidence is recorded in large, national museums, tiny one-room museums and specialist, internationally-renowned collections.
You'll also find unique centres devoted to the famous people who have influenced – and been influenced by – the Caribbean, such as Gauguin, Hemingway, Nelson and Noel Coward. Across the region you'll be awed by the Caribbean's United Nations-designated world heritage sites.
Traces of ancient times can be seen in archaeological digs on the islands uncovering the history of the Tainos, Caribs and Arawaks, and in the spectacular ruins of Mayan civilization on the mainland. More recent influences are clear in our architecture, reflecting styles and fashions from all over the world.
The Caribbean is also a living museum, rich with flora and fauna on land, under the sea and in the air. Some of the world’s most exotic and most ancient animals, birds and sea creatures live here, or stop off to breed or to find a rest point on long migratory trails.
Our lands are, perhaps, one of the last places on earth where you can understand the true magnificence and variety of life forms on the planet.
MonumentsAdd to Trip Planner
The nations of the Caribbean are proud of their history and have gone to great lengths to protect the most treasured monuments of their multi-cultural heritage.
Nelson's Dockyard national park is at the centre of English Harbour in Antigua. Developed as a base for the British Navy in the age of sail, it was abandoned and closed in 1889. Today, it has been restored as the only Georgian dockyard in the world. Overlooking the harbour is Clarence House, a residence built for Britain’s future King William IV when he served under Lord Nelson as captain of the HMS Pegasus.
The immense fortress of Brimstone Hill on St Kitts, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, stood as the Gibraltar of the West Indies. On neighbouring Nevis, young Horatio Nelson, still known today as Britian’s greatest naval hero, courted and married Fanny Nisbet. The island still bears traces of the young captain's presence.
St Vincent's Botanic Gardens, the oldest in the western hemisphere, was where Captain Bligh introduced the breadfruit tree from Tahiti to provide food for slaves.
Martinique is at the heart of the French Caribbean. Just across the bay from the capital, Fort-de-France, the Musée de la Pagerie recounts the adventures of Napoleon's Empress Josephine, who was born there.
The Dutch have left a lasting mark on a number of islands, notably Curaçao, with exquisite 17th and 18th Century Dutch colonial buildings. Fans of 16th and 17th century Spanish colonial architecture should visit the old walled city of San Juan in Puerto Rico.
Other imposing sights include the great mansions of Jamaica, each with its own haunting tale, and Pedro St James in Grand Cayman, an early 19th century great house, while Cuba contains a treasury of period buildings, from entire colonial cities to mid-20th Century modern.
Indeed, all our countries have monuments to the cultures that have influenced them. From Mayan and Carib ruins to astonishing modern architecture, the remembrance in our physical structures of Caribbean times past and present will leave you with memories that last forever.
UNESCO World Heritage SitesAdd to Trip Planner
Usually associated with white sand beaches and turquoise sea, it’s a revelation to many visitors that the Caribbean is home to no fewer than 20 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Barbados’s capital, Bridgetown, and its military Garrison and Curaçao’s historic area of Willemstad have also attracted recognition.
Cuba which has eight cultural and historical sites including the colonial cities of Havana and Trinidad, as well as the Vinales Valley, an outstanding landscape of karst eroded limestone mountains called mogotes. Here traditional methods of agriculture, notably tobacco growing, have survived unchanged for centuries. Old Havana is a legacy of history, culture and traditions and amongst the oldest and best-preserved urban space in the Americas. In Trinidad de Cuba two sites have been declared UNESCO World Heritage sites, its historic cobbled street centre and Monaca Iznaga in the Valle de los Ingenios, the site of the most prosperous sugar refineries of the 19th century. Santiago de Cuba is another site renowned for the ruins of San Pedro de la Roca Castle and what’s left of the first French coffee plantations at La Gran Piedra. Others are Desembarco del Granma National Park, Alejandro de Humboldt National Park in Baracoa, which forms the Heart of the Cuchillas Del Toa Biosphere Reserve, the historic centre of Camaguey and the urban historic centre of Cienfuegos.
Over on Saint Lucia, The Pitons make up one of the most dramatic UNESCO World Heritage sites in the world. Petit Piton and Gros Piton are two volcanic plugs in the south of the island.
Other incredible UNESCO sites across the Caribbean include Belize’s Barrier Reef (the longest in the Americas, the Morne Trois Pitons National Park in Dominica, Blue and John Crow Mountains in Jamaica, St Kitts Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park, Curaçao’s historic area of Willemstad, inner city and harbour; and Canaima National Park in Venezuela.
Haiti has its National History Park with the ruins of The Citadel, Sans-Souci and Ramiers, all monuments to independence.