The islands of the Caribbean were colonized by the Spanish, the Dutch, the English, the French, each colonial power claiming for themselves a piece of azure-skied paradise with crystalline waters, and an economically viable colony in the glory days of the sugar industry. Of course, the glory days of the sugar industry relied on slave labour, and slaves were accordingly imported from Africa by the boatload. There was also, at the time of the Columbus' "discovery," an indigenous population in the Caribbean, which no longer exists today as a cohesive whole, although many people claim descent.
The mixed nationalities, cultures and situations of the current rainbow of inhabitants of the Caribbean can be a cause of friction, of levels of classification that would dizzy us Westerners with our black and white thinking, but also of joyous celebration and the development of a new, blended, living and breathing Caribbean culture.
In the history of Haiti, the most African of the Caribbean islands, and the only one claiming to be a black republic, exists generations of struggle between the overwhelmingly black population descended from slaves, and a whiter mulatto elite. Haiti was the first island to abolish the slave trade and in recent years has enthusiastically embraced its African roots and traditions, with murals in the capital, Port-au-Prince, and Creole, an Africanized form of French, proudly spoken by the majority of the population.
Multiculturalism is more problematic in the Dominican Republic, which shares an island with Haiti and is home to millions of legal and illegal Haitian immigrants. The Dominican Republic sees itself as white, although the vast majority of its citizens would not be considered so in North America, and are not considered so when they come. Those with the darkest skin often self-identify as "Indian," rather than "black," a label that is considered derogatory and which is often reserved for the Haitians.
In Cuba, the last island of the Caribbean to abolish slavery, in 1898, there seem to be few tensions between those with Latin and African roots. Indeed, the people, as on so much of the Caribbean, is inextricably linked, with young men as dark as ebony explaining to tourists that their grandmother was the colour of milk. It is, however, interesting to note that almost all of the television presenters are lighter skinned with Latin features. Another wave of immigration brought the Chinese to Cuba, and Havana features a Chinatown, staffed by people with only the faintest traces of Chinese heritage on their faces.
Much of the charm of the Caribbean comes from its blend of an almost inexhaustible list of cultures, as in Derek Walcott's poem Omeros, which adapts the Iliad to the lives of black fishermen in St. Lucia, or in the existence of a thriving Carnival tradition in Trinidad, where cricket matches are also watched. On the island of Martinique, people breakfast on croissants, Paris-style, yet the bars play the Creole zouk music.
With all this intermixing, both historical and current in the Caribbean, and while there are still winners and losers from past and present systems, friction is inevitable in this sunny corner of the world. But it is also true that the potential for great music, food, literature and also great people, is correspondingly great.