Among the various regions of the new world probably none carries more continued interest than that surrounding the Caribbean Sea. Off its northern border lies the first land seen by Columbus on his voyage of discovery, and within it is all he ever saw of the new world. In little more than a generation following his death occurred the spectacular spread of Spanish exploration and colonization which brought to Europeans a superficial knowledge of all of the Caribbean region and made it the starting point for expeditions which reached farther north than the site of St. Louis, Missouri, and farther south than that of Santiago, Chile.
In this same short period gold and silver began to find their way back by the Caribbean from Mexico and Peru and to make themselves a doubtful blessing in the mother country, a great stimulus to the commerce of more industrially developed nations, and a potent influence in turning attention from possible development of the Caribbean region itself to the farther territories which offered quicker returns to the adventurous.
Through the waters crossed by the first discoverers soon sailed the Spanish treasure fleets convoyed by warships to protect them from capture by the forces of the countries of northern Europe. On them came to be fought out the long struggle by which these latter sought to break down the Spanish trade monopoly and to secure footholds in the islands and on the coasts for colonies of their own.
For a hundred years Spain had a free hand in the Caribbean. Expeditions by her enemies made scattered attacks on silver fleets, but a century of American history closed without the establishment in the region of a single colony under other than Spanish authority. The following century, 1600 to 1700, brought still greater efforts by three north European nations—the English, the French, and the Dutch—to share in the American trade and to establish colonies in the lands lying across the gateway to the more prized Spanish possessions.
In point of time the English were the first rivals to attempt to occupy lands in the Spanish main. Here was, with the exception of Newfoundland, their first center of economic interest in the new world, and in time they not only took more extensive territories from the nominal original possessor, but to a large degree became the heirs of the other north European claimants. Outposts for preying on Spanish commerce, bases for contraband trade, and lands on which plantations for tropical agriculture could be developed were the prizes sought. These, as the French and Dutch were soon finding in the same period, were easiest to secure and hold in the islands, especially the undefended smaller islands, and on the Guiana coast, regions in which Spain took little interest because of their lack of the precious metals—gold and silver.
Even before the end of the fifteen hundreds, Sir Walter Raleigh had twice led expeditions against Guiana, the first serious attempt by northern Europeans to break down Spanish control in South America. In 1605 the English took possession of Barbados and in the years following seized others of the smaller islands. English colonial activity in the Caribbean was thus contemporaneous with the founding of the first colonies in New England. The middle of the century had hardly passed when Jamaica fell into English hands ( 1655). Its capture was, up to that time, the greatest break in the Spanish control of the American tropics.
In the sixteen hundreds France also set up colonial establishments in the Caribbean. They included claims on the Guiana coast and in a dozen of the Antilles from Granada, on the south, to Santo Domingo, on the northwest. These were settlements of varying character. Some were started by unrecognized outcasts like the buccaneers on Tortuga off the northwest coast of what is now Haiti; others were efforts with more direct support of the government intended to exploit the raising of tobacco and sugar, tropical agricultural products which would find a ready sale on the other side of the Atlantic.
The Dutch, likewise having won their independence from Spain, succeeded in establishing control over a portion of the new American territories. The first efforts in Guiana were almost contemporaneous with the settlements there by France. By the middle of the century their possessions had spread into the lesser Antilles and they had seized the small but strategic group of islands of which Curaçao is the most important. These, like the French colonies, were to exploit tropical agriculture. They were to be outposts for the slave trade and bases for attacking Spanish commerce. 1627 saw the Dutch capture of the silver fleet on its way eastward from New Spain, the greatest of their exploits against the former mother country and an incentive for future similar attacks.
Until 1670, Spain refused to recognize that any of these holdings established by other nations gave them legal title. She punished the invasions when she could, but by the end of the century it was evident that her pretense to exclusive control was becoming more and more a fiction. The northern powers held mainland colonies in Guiana, and they had taken practically all of the smaller Antilles. The English held Jamaica and the Bahamas. French settlements were firmly established in Tortuga and Santo Domingo and at the close of the century, in 1697, Spain was forced to recognize the French claim to the western part of the latter island by the treaty of Ryswick.
Even on the isthmian coasts Spain could no longer make her control unquestioned. Henry Morgan and his buccaneers had landed there in 1671 and captured the treasure which was being held at Puerto Bello for shipment to Seville. 1 English traders and logwood cutters had established themselves in Central America. An attempt had been made, unsuccessful it is true, to establish an English-Scotch colony at Darien.
The long established monopoly of trade and territory had broken down. The "foreigners" were already in control of the islands fringing the eastern Caribbean. They already held one of its larger islands and part of another. Smuggling trade with the colonies was already prosperous for the north Europeans and was becoming more and more general.
The period between 1700 and 1800 was one in which the superficial position of Spain in the Caribbean showed but little change. Four general European wars occurred in the first two-thirds of the century. They were conflicts which on the whole worked to the advantage of England. Fighting occurred in the Caribbean as on other American frontiers, but the Spanish losses of territory there were not of great extent. English claims were strengthened on the Nicaraguan coast and in the region which later became British Honduras. An English fleet with colonial troops from New England captured Havana in August, 1762, but surrendered it again in July of the following year to a new Spanish governor. Judged only from the maps Spain seemed almost as strong in the Caribbean at the end of the century as at its beginning.