The islands' turbulent past means that every aspect of life is shaped by a fusion of influences, from West African and Latin American to American, British and French. In the old British colonies like Barbados, Anglican churches, Georgian architecture and cricket co-exist with calypso music, whilst in the French Antilles like Martinique, French-Creole cuisine and Napeolonic statues rub shoulders with steel bands. In the Dutch Antilles like Aruba, gabled houses and traditional Dutch foods combine with a strong West African culture and a typically Caribbean love of Carnival.
Generally speaking, the former British colonies are Protestant, whilst the French, Dutch and Spanish islands are Roman Catholic. Many islands also have thriving Rastafarian communities.
Named after the Carib Indians who first inhabited them, everything changed for the Caribbean when Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492. After that, Spanish influence reigned supreme until, in the 1600s, the sugar trade drew in Britain, France and Holland, who shipped millions of West Africans to the archipelago as slave labour for their sugar cane plantations. Spanish influence quickly declined as a result and the islands were increasingly fought over by the occupying colonial powers. By 1850, slavery was abolished and many islands were governed by the US, British and French, until achieving independence in the mid 1900s. Some smaller islands chose to remain as British Colonies, part of the British Commonwealth or as French or Dutch territories.
The Caribbean Islands have a total population of 30 million, the vast majority of who are descendants of the Africans brought as slaves between the 1600s-1800s. However, each island has its own distinct ethnic mix, with many having significant mixed black and European and East Indian populations.