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...

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

By Ida Altman,

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.

The books I picked & why

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The Worlds of Christopher Columbus

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

Book cover of The Worlds of Christopher Columbus

Why 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. 


Hispaniola: Caribbean Chiefdoms in the Age of Columbus

By Samuel M. Wilson,

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

Why 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.


Of Cannibals and Kings: Primal Anthropology in the Americas

By Neil L. Whitehead,

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

Why 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.  


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

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

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

Why 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.


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

By Stuart B. Schwartz (editor),

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

Why 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.


5 book lists we think you will like!

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