The best books about what happened after Columbus got to the Caribbean

Who am I?

Throughout my career as a historian I’ve been interested in the expansion of the Iberian world and its consequences for societies and cultures in Spain as well as Spanish America, especially Mexico. I knew that the Caribbean, the first site of European activity in the Americas, played an important role in that story, yet paradoxically it didn’t seem to receive much attention from historians, at least in the U.S. When I finally decided to focus my research on the period immediately following Columbus’s first voyages, I entered into a complex and dynamic world of danger, ambition, exploitation, and novelty. I hope to open that world to others in my book.


I wrote...

Book cover of Life and Society in the Early Spanish Caribbean: The Greater Antilles, 1493-1550

What is my book about?

Columbus’s voyages brought enormous demographic, economic, and social changes to the Caribbean. Europeans, Native Americans, and Africans came into extended contact there for the first time in world history. I examine their interactions and the transformation of the islands of the Greater Antilles (Hispaniola, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica), addressing such topics as disease and conflict, the establishment of the Iberian Catholic church and a system of government, and economic enterprises. As a result of the rapid developments of the first half of the sixteenth century, a highly unequal and coercive but dynamic society characterized by the extensive mixing of all ethnic and racial groups came into existence.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Worlds of Christopher Columbus

Ida Altman Why did I love this book?

This lively and accessible book contextualizes Columbus’s complex life and career within the multiple ‘worlds’– Genoa, Portugal, Spain, the Caribbean – that he inhabited and the intellectual and political developments that shaped him. Columbus was controversial in his own lifetime and remains so to the present day. Neither justifying nor condemning him for his role in bringing Europeans to the Americas, these two experienced historians lay to rest the myths and misinformation that have distorted our understanding of this larger-than-life historical figure. This book is always my starting point when I need to know something about Columbus. 

By William D. Phillips Jr., Carla Rahn Phillips,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Worlds of Christopher Columbus as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When Columbus was born in the mid-fifteenth century, Europe was largely isolated from the rest of the Old World - Africa and Asia - and ignorant of the existence of the world of the Western Hemisphere. The voyages of Christopher Columbus opened a period of European exploration and empire building that breached the boundaries of those isolated worlds and changed the course of human history. This book describes the life and times of Christopher Columbus on the 500th aniversary of his first voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492. Since ancient times, Europeans had dreamed of discovering new routes to…


Book cover of Hispaniola: Caribbean Chiefdoms in the Age of Columbus

Ida Altman Why did I love this book?

Using archaeological evidence, Columbus’s Diary, and a few other sources, anthropologist Samuel Wilson constructs a fascinating account of Columbus’s earliest contacts with the Indigenous people of Hispaniola, focusing particularly on his interactions with the caciques (the local rulers). I especially appreciate Wilson’s effort to understand these encounters from the Indians’ perspective and to explain how they might have experienced early contact with Europeans in terms of their culture and worldview. Wilson’s book sheds much-needed light on the crucial but little-known first few years in Hispaniola following Columbus’s arrival there. I learned a great deal from this compact book and have returned to it many times.

By Samuel M. Wilson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Hispaniola as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1492 Hispaniola was inhabited by the Taino, an Indian group whose ancestors had moved into the Caribbean archipelago from lowland South America. This book examines the early years of the contact period in the Caribbean and reconstructs the social and political organization of the Taino.


Book cover of Of Cannibals and Kings: Primal Anthropology in the Americas

Ida Altman Why did I love this book?

This slim volume features six documents relating to the early years following Columbus’s arrival in the Caribbean, including two by Columbus himself. The core of the volume is anthropologist Neil Whitehead’s translation of the account written by Román Pané, the Jeronymite friar sent by Columbus to live among an Indigenous group in the northern part of Hispaniola. There Pané tried, with very limited success, to spread Christianity. He also set down in writing the origin myths and beliefs described by his Native informants, a unique reflection of the Indigenous world that existed when Europeans arrived on the islands. I like this collection both for the range of documents included and Whitehead’s insights from his scholarly and ethnographic work in the Caribbean.  

By Neil L. Whitehead,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Of Cannibals and Kings as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Of Cannibals and Kings collects the very earliest accounts of the native peoples of the Americas, including selections from the descriptions of Columbus's first two voyages; documents reflecting the initial colonial occupation in Haiti, Venezuela, and Guyana; and the first ethnographic account of the Tainos by the missionary Ramon Pane. This primal anthropology directly guided a rapacious discovery of the lands of both wild cannibals and golden kings.


Book cover of An Account, Much Abbreviated, of the Destruction of the Indies With Related Texts

Ida Altman Why did I love this book?

After Columbus Bartolomé de Las Casas probably was the most famous individual in the history of the early Spanish Caribbean. A man of great energy and determination, he wrote lengthy histories of the Caribbean and neighboring mainland as well as this much shorter, highly polemical one. He portrayed the horrors and abuses that the islands’ Indigenous peoples suffered at the hands of Spaniards and was instrumental in persuading the Spanish crown of the necessity of reforms that would offer Indians some protections from the extremes of exploitation. While he might have exaggerated the extent of Spanish cruelty, much of what he recorded can be corroborated. The writings of Las Casas are essential to understanding the Caribbean after Columbus.

By Bartolomé de Las Casas, Andrew Hurley (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked An Account, Much Abbreviated, of the Destruction of the Indies With Related Texts as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Fifty years after the arrival of Columbus, at the height of Spain's conquest of the West Indies, Spanish bishop and colonist BartolomA (c) de Las Casas dedicated his BrevA sima RelaciA(3)n de la DestruiciA(3)n de las Indias to Philip II of Spain. An impassioned plea on behalf of the native peoples of the West Indies, the BrevA sima RelaciA(3)n catalogues in horrific detail atrocities it attributes to the king's colonists in the New World. The result is a withering indictment of the conquerors that has cast a 500-year shadow over the subsequent history of that world and the European colonization…


Book cover of Tropical Babylons: Sugar and the Making of the Atlantic World, 1450-1680

Ida Altman Why did I love this book?

Although not exclusively focused on the Caribbean, the articles in this volume illuminate the long and complex history of sugar production in the early modern Iberian world, beginning with the Iberian Peninsula itself and expanding into the Atlantic island groups and across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and Brazil. The last article focuses on sugar production in seventeenth-century Barbados, underscoring that a long history of sugar cultivation preceded the better-known establishment of sugar production in the English and French islands. Here the reader will learn how sixteenth-century Europeans eagerly incorporated sugar into their cuisines and diet, at times consuming prodigious quantities. Together these articles present a fascinating and often surprising early history of a commodity that has had a huge impact on the world.

By Stuart B. Schwartz (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Tropical Babylons as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The idea that sugar, plantations, slavery, and capitalism were all present at the birth of the Atlantic world has long dominated scholarly thinking. In nine original essays by a multinational group of top scholars, Tropical Babylons re-evaluates this so-called ""sugar revolution,"" presenting a revisionist examination of the origins of society and economy in the Atlantic world. Focusing on areas colonized by Spain and Portugal, these essays show that despite reliance on common knowledge and technology, there were considerable variations in the way sugar was produced. With studies of Iberia, Madeira and the Canary Islands, Hispaniola, Cuba, Brazil, and Barbados, this…


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Holy Food: How Cults, Communes, and Religious Movements Influenced What We Eat - An American History

By Christina Ward,

Book cover of Holy Food: How Cults, Communes, and Religious Movements Influenced What We Eat - An American History

Christina Ward Author Of Holy Food: How Cults, Communes, and Religious Movements Influenced What We Eat - An American History

New book alert!

Who am I?

For me, history is always about individuals; what they think and believe and how those ideas motivate their actions. By relegating our past to official histories or staid academic tellings we deprive ourselves of the humanity of our shared experiences. As a “popular historian” I use food to tell all the many ways we attempt to “be” American. History is for everyone, and my self-appointed mission is to bring more stories to readers! These recommendations are a few stand-out titles from the hundreds of books that inform my current work on how food and religion converge in America. You’ll have to wait for Holy Food to find out what I’ve discovered.

Christina's book list on the hidden history of America

What is my book about?

Does God have a recipe? Independent food historian Christina Ward’s highly anticipated Holy Food explores the influence of mainstream to fringe religious beliefs on modern American food culture.

Author Christina Ward unravels how religious beliefs intersect with politics, economics, and, of course, food to tell a different story of America. It's the story of true believers and charlatans, of idealists and visionaries, and of the everyday people who followed them—often at their peril.

Holy Food explains how faith pioneers used societal woes and cultural trends to create new pathways of belief and reveals the interconnectivity between sects and their leaders.

Holy Food: How Cults, Communes, and Religious Movements Influenced What We Eat - An American History

By Christina Ward,

What is this book about?

Does God have a recipe?

"Holy Food is a titanic feat of research and a fascinating exploration of American faith and culinary rites. Christina Ward is the perfect guide – generous, wise, and ecumenical." — Adam Chandler, author of Drive-Thru Dreams

"Holy Food doesn't just trace the influence that preachers, gurus, and cult leaders have had on American cuisine. It offers a unique look at the ways spirituality—whether in the form of fringe cults or major religions—has shaped our culture. Christina Ward has gone spelunking into some very odd corners of American history to unearth this fascinating collection of stories…


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