Caribbean-American Heritage Month

Celebrating the vibrant culture of people from the Caribbean/West Indies.

A Brief Overview

Caribbean (also known, colloquially, as West Indian) people have long since contributed to global culture, cuisine, and economy. Historically, these islands were inhabited by native people, such as Taino and Kalinago (Carib). During colonization, these tribes were enslaved, killed, exiled, or fled for safety. The growing plantation economy required more labor and with the majority of indigenous people gone, Africans were sold to plantations on the islands via the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. The British, Danish, Dutch, French, Portuguese, and Spanish were the primary enslavers of West African people in the Caribbean.

U.S. Department of the Interior. (n.d.). NPS ethnography: African American Heritage & Ethnography.

National Parks Service.

People from China, India, and Ireland were brought to the Caribbean as indentured servants. They also worked on plantations and were treated unfairly, but unlike enslaved Africans, indentured servants could own land as well as earn their freedom and a small amount of money, upon completion of service. Slavery, in the Caribbean, was a state that a person and their descendants endured for life unless manumitted by slave owners.

It wasn't until Haiti, then known as Saint Domingue, led an uprising to emancipate slaves that the first free Black state was established during this time in history.

The abolition of slavery in the Caribbean began with the British. In 1833, the British declared their slaves freed. The French followed by abolishing slavery in their colonies in 1848. In 1873, the Dutch abolished slavery throughout the Dutch West Indies. Spain eventually emancipated the last of their colonies by abolishing slavery in Cuba in 1883. Within a fifty-year span, the now freed communities were able to cultivate their own lives and traditions on their island homes. Indentured servitude of Indian and Indo-Caribbean people, however, did not end until its abolition in 1920.

In the decades since, a migration emerged from the Caribbean to the United States, many to seize educational or vocational opportunities. As of the June 2023 United States Census, there are over three million non-Hispanic Caribbean-born people in America. The number increases by more than ten million when Hispanic Caribbean-born people are included.

To finally recognize Caribbean people as a distinct community in America, the Institute of Caribbean Studies (ICS) sought to have an official month dedicated to Caribbean-Americans in 1999. In 2004, U.S. Congressman Barbara Lee presented a legislative bill to acknowledge their contribution to the United States by designating a Caribbean-American Heritage Month. The bill was passed in both the House and Senate and on June 6, 2006, President George W. Bush signed the bill into law. June officially became the month in which Caribbean-American Heritage is nationally recognized.

Each island has its own history, traditions, and culture. However, there is also a shared history and culture that represent the African, European, Indian, and Indigenous ancestry of its people. Everything from food and music to personal style and politics have helped carve a large and endearing community of immigrants and Caribbean-American people.

Madras Cloth

Curious about the background image of the title graphic? If so, it has a special meaning connected to Caribbean-American heritage and culture. It is an image of madras cloth.

Madras cloth originated and was named after a city in India now known as Chennai. It is lightweight and its distinct tartan, or plaid, pattern must appear on both sides of the fabric to be considered authentic. Madras cloth also comes in a variety of colors. During the 12th century, West African importers saw the then unstriped cloth as high quality and sold it to be used to create headdresses. Later, due to the presence of Scottish military regiments around India, weavers adapted the tartan pattern and it was exported to British colonies in the Caribbean by the 17th century.

Enslaved women were required to keep their heads covered at all times, a symbol of their enslavement, much like the Tignon Law in the United States. Being lightweight, madras cloth was used for this purpose, as seen in the image below.


A Glimpse of Guatemala - Carib Women (1899)  Alfred Percival Maudslay. Photograph by H. Price, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Worn by the enslaved populations, madras cloth became the main fabric to wear as skirts, shawls, and head scarves in the West Indies. After the end of slavery, people continued to use and wear the fabric. Islands like Saint LuciaJamaicaGuadeloupe, and Dominica adopted different madras patterns into quadrille dresses, guayabera (shirts for men), and wob dwiyets (head pieces), turning something from their oppressed history into one of pride and identity. 

Madras cloth remains a staple in West Indian culture. During carnivals, national observances, and Independence Day events, outfits made with or inspired by madras cloth are worn to celebrate Caribbean heritage. Today, the use of madras is being transformed through modern clothing styles that can be worn for both special occasions and everyday wear. Madras cloth can also be seen in home decor and Caribbean art.


Why is the Caribbean sometimes called the West Indies?

The West Indies encompass the broader areas in the Caribbean known as the Greater Antilles, Lesser Antilles, and Lucayan Archipelago.

When Europeans first arrived, they called the cluster of islands the "West Indies" to distinguish from the "East Indies" that were located in Southeast Asia. These terms were in relation to the "Indies," which is India. Geographically, Caribbean islands are located west of India. Therefore, they were simply referred to as the West Indies.

Today, many use the term interchangeably with Caribbean, which includes several Central and South American countries like French Guiana and Guyana. Some people of Caribbean descent refer to themselves as West Indian as a broader term and their island heritage as a more specific term. (i.e. West Indian - general, and St. Lucian - specific).

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Indigenous People and Garifuna/Garinagu

Indigenous People

Prior to colonization and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, Caribbean islands, parts of Florida and South America were inhabited by indigenous people as early as 7000 BCE. Two groups were Taino and Kalinago. Taino, however, is divided into several subgroups including: Arawak and Igneri, Classic Taino, Eastern Taino, Ciboney, Lucayans, Guanahatabey, Ciguayo, Macorix. The Caribs were of the Kalinago people and where the name "Caribbean" originates.

Europeans came to the Caribbean, by way of Spain, in 1492 with the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Followed by the Irish, French, and British, settlements and colonies sprung up to the detriment of the native people. The population was almost eliminated with the introduction of diseases, starvation, slavery, and wars. It is estimated that by the end of the 1500s, ninety percent of the indigenous population had died.

The remaining population was forced out of their homelands and deported to Honduras. They married into other groups and migrated to other parts of South and Central America but kept their history and culture part of them. The Caribbean Indigenous Legacies Project (CILP) aims to preserve that history and culture. 



Beforevermine, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Garifuna & Garinagu

The Garifuna, also known as Garinagu and Black Caribs, are a people of both indigenous and African ancestry. After near destruction following the colonization of the Caribbean, surviving indigenous people were deported from Saint Vincent by the British and exiled to Honduras. West Africans who had escaped slavery in the West Indies and/or were believed to have survived shipwrecks of two Spanish slave ships in the 1600s had also landed in those countries. These groups married into each other, developing a new community of Afro-indigenous people with a culture that blended both indigenous and African heritage.

November 19th is Garifuna Settlement Day, an observance celebrated in Belize to commemorate the day the first Garifuna arrived in the country in 1832. Today, Garifuna descendants primarily reside in Honduras, Belize, Guatemala, and Nicaragua but also live in the United States.