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GLI GLI Leeward Island Expedtion
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The Caribs of the Islands by Neil Whitehead

Words of Support by Dr. Maximilian C. Forte


The Island Caribs are famous as one of the first peoples encountered by Columbus, but their own history stretches back at least another 500 years to the time when various divisions in native society and culture were becoming more apparent throughout the Caribbean.
In this process the Caribs were distinguished from the societies of the Greater Antilles by their emphasis on the extended family and its obligations to others of the same village or island, their seamanship and fearlessness in war, and the alliances they had with other Carib groups on the South American continent.

Everyone things they know at least one thing about the Caribs: that they were cannibals! But in fact this is a mistake. The first Europeans who came to the Caribbean confused rituals for the dead and to celebrate success in war, with the habit of eating human flesh for food. The Caribs were certainly fearsome warriors and in the past had grim ceremonies - but so did the Europeans!

Another often quoted idea about the Caribs is that they had a deep dislike of the Arawaks, who were their neighbors both to the north, the Tainos of the Greater Antilles and to the sound, the Lokono of Guyana and Surinam. In fact the Island Caribs also had an Arawak language and again it has been the confusion of the Europeans that has caused this common mistake. It is certainly true that the Island Caribs, although born speaking their own Arawak language, had close political relations with the Caribs on the mainland, like the Karinya in Venezuela. As a result they leant many words and phrases, which the men then used at home in the islands as a way of keeping their affairs secret from their women-folk and children.

Still the traditional enemies of the Caribs were the Taino and Lokono, but warfare was not meant to completely destroy the enemy, only to take revenge and prove that your own group was no less fierce than others. But when the Europeans arrived they exploited these differences, and so made the conflicts between Caribs and Arawaks much more deadly, since they passed out guns to both sides.

Even though the Europeans had the metal to make guns and other useful things like machetes, cooking pots and so on, which the Caribs were eager to trade for as they only used precious metals like gold - the Europeans could not better the Carib canoe. For a people living on islands the practical importance of a canoe is obvious, but the Caribs did much more than simply visit among the islands, they also went on long journeys to South America, even reaching and settling near the mouth of the Amazon. They may have also travelled to Florida and the Bahamas but their connections with Venezuela and the Guianas were far stronger.

As a result of the practical importance of canoes for both daily life and connections to South America, it is not surprising that the symbol of the canoe and particularly the relationships of the men who sailed them were among the most important in Carib culture. For example, the crew of a Carib canoe each had designated roles and titles - such as Tiouboutouli Canaoa, or Nhalene, which meant "Captain of a vessel" and "Admiral of a fleet" respectively.

Unfortunately we have few visual records of the design and construction of Carib canoes but they were certainly very much like the large 60 foot canoes that are still made by the Warao and Ye'cuana in Venezuela. It also seems likely that the Caribs, as good practical seafarers, adopted some ideas from European shipping. Perhaps instances of using sails or using planks in the construction of canoes, rather than using a large log to create a dug-out, are a reflection of this borrowing of ideas.

Although the Caribs have at least a 1000 year history in the Caribbean, the arrival of the Europeans in the fifteenth century signalled a period of difficulty and disaster, in which the Caribs nearly disappeared from the islands. But their traditions of cooperation with each other, and the resistance to the outsiders, has meant that they still endure to this day and that their canoes still proudly ply the azure waters of the Caribbean.

Neil L. Whitehead
Author of Wild Majesty
Department of Anthropology, UW - Madison

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