Universiteit Leiden

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Research programme

NEXUS 1492. New World Encounters in a Globalising World

What are the immediate and lasting effects of the colonial encounters on indigenous Caribbean cultures and societies and what were the intercultural dynamics that took place during the colonisation processes? How can the study of indigenous Caribbean histories contribute to a more sophisticated awareness and to the design of a heritage programme that will speak to multiple and perhaps competing stakeholders at local, regional, pan-regional, and global scales.

2013 - 2019
Corinne Hofman
ERC Synergy Grant ERC Synergy Grant

University of Konstanz - Algorithmics

VU University Amsterdam - Cluster Geology and Geochemistry

Short Abstract

The ambition of NEXUS1492 is to rewrite a crucial and neglected chapter in global history by focusing on transformations of indigenous, Amerindian cultures and societies across the historical divide of 1492. It investigates the impacts of colonial encounters in the Caribbean, the nexus of the first interactions between the New and the Old World.

Project description

NEXUS1492 investigates the impacts of colonial encounters in the Caribbean, the nexus of the first interactions between the New and the Old World. This Synergy Programme intends to rewrite a crucial and neglected chapter in global history focussing on transformations to indigenous, Amerindian cultures and societies initiated by European colonisation. NEXUS1492 is a uniquely devised trans-disciplinary research programme using multiple temporal and spatial scales in the context of intercultural Amerindian-European-African dynamics at play across the historical divide. The primary temporal focus is the period AD 1000-1800, which encompasses the consolidation of complex indigenous pre-colonial Caribbean societies to the last phase of Amerindian resistance to colonial powers. Despite significant scholarly effort, Amerindian Caribbean histories and legacies are still considerably underrepresented in local and global discourse due to theoretical, methodological, and societal concerns.

NEXUS1492 aims to rectify these imbalances by bringing to light the transformations of Amerindian Caribbean societies as a result of the colonisation processes. The unique synergy of four PIs and their international teams of archaeologists, social, natural and computer scientists, and heritage experts will pioneer new analytical tools, apply multi-disciplinary cutting-edge techniques, theoretical frameworks and skill sets to provide a novel perspective on the New World encounters in a globalising world. The NEXUS1492 Project can be subdivided into four smaller, interlinked projects;

  1. Transformations of indigenous Caribbean and societies across the historical divide.
  2. Human mobility and the circulation of materials and objects.
  3. Reconstructing archaeological networks and their transformations across the historical divide.
  4. A future for diverse Caribbean heritages.

NEXUS1492 will work with local experts to develop sustainable heritage management strategies, creating a future for the past. This past is under threat from natural disasters (e.g., climate change, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions), looting and illegal trade, and large-scale construction development as a result of the growing tourism industry. These natural and human factors are rapidly destroying Caribbean heritage landscapes and erasing indigenous histories. This underlines the urgency of taking this multi-pronged approach to understanding the first truly global interaction that ushered in the modern age. By placing the Caribbean’s indigenous past within a contemporary heritage agenda, NEXUS1492 will elevate the awareness and protection of heritage resources.

The innovative approach and outcomes of NEXUS1492 will be of universal scientific significance and societal relevance through a fundamental reassessment of Caribbean histories and legacies in a global perspective. Short Historical Background: Twenty years ago, the world commemorated the Quincentenary of the ‘discovery of the New World’ by Christopher Columbus. This ‘discovery’ and the subsequent cross-continental spread of people, goods, animals, plants, diseases, and ideas referred to as the ‘Columbian Exchange’ represents a landmark in the history of globalisation (Crosby 1972). The indigenous Caribbean was instantly and dramatically transformed, a process that continued over the ensuing centuries of ongoing colonial encounters.

At the time of European colonisation the Caribbean was inhabited by a multitude of Amerindian societies (commonly known as the Taíno, Carib, Caquetío [Rouse 1992; Wilson 1990]) whose ancestors had entered the archipelago since 5000 BC from different parts of South and Central America. By AD 1000 regionally and culturally diverse societies had developed throughout the Caribbean, and by 1492, a web of interlocking networks traversed the Caribbean Sea, crossing local, regional, and pan-Caribbean boundaries (Curet and Hauser 2011; Hofman and van Duijvenbode 2011). These networks undoubtedly had an effect on the manner in which the Spanish dispersed throughout the region following Columbus’ first landfall on San Salvador in 1492.

The initial European explorations of the Caribbean insular landscapes were followed by the founding of Spanish settlements in the Greater Antilles, marking the beginning of European colonisation of the Americas (Deagan and Cruxent 2002; Delle et al. 2011). Within approximately 20 years many Amerindians were enslaved, converted, and incorporated into the encomienda system, an economic model based on both Amerindian and Castillian socio-political institutions. Initially, in their quest for gold and silver and the labour necessary to acquire these resources, the Spanish enslaved and transported indigenous populations of the Lesser Antilles and Southern Caribbean islands to Hispaniola (Dominican Republic and Haiti) to work as slaves in mines.

The Spanish Crown permitted slave hunting on these smaller islands by issuing the Real Cédula in 1511. Despite the effects of slave raiding, these islands became refuges for indigenous populations who in several instances served as ‘middlemen’ in trade between the Spanish Caribbean and continental South America. European settlement and colonisation in the Caribbean was not a single event but a series of processes with some islands resisting European control until the 17th and 18th centuries (Sued Badillo 2003). Indigenous resistance, European colonisation, and the influx of African slaves beginning in the 16th century led to the mixing of biological ancestries and the formation of new identities and social and material worlds (Deagan 2003).

These processes ultimately contributed to the formation of present-day, multi-ethnic Caribbean society. Besides the rich Amerindian archaeological record, and the fact that Amerindian biological and cultural continuity is evident amongst descendant communities throughout the Caribbean, in contemporary oral traditions, as well as in cultural and religious practices, Amerindian contributions are disregarded in contemporary discourse and global history. Research Problems: The idea that indigenous Caribbean peoples were driven to extinction within a few decades of European presence still dominates popular and scholarly awareness and has led to the existence of a sharp historical divide between pre-colonial and colonial histories (i.e., pre- and post-1492).

Furthermore, a range of theoretical,  methodological, and societal concerns have hampered research into Amerindian Caribbean histories and legacies and have hindered the achievement of appropriate acknowledgement thereof in global studies of colonial encounters. Theoretical and Methodological: The Quincentenary inspired an enormous body of research on colonial encounters worldwide (e.g., Gosden 2004; Lightfoot 1995; Stein 2005). Despite this, the colonial impacts on indigenous Caribbean societies as well as the indigenous perspectives on colonial processes are underrepresented in scholarly and popular culture. In addition, indigenous Caribbean persistence and continuity have been generally overlooked in colonial and post-colonial historiographies as well as in traditional narratives of the colonisation of the Americas.

Lacking indigenous written sources, perceptions of the impacts following 1492 on indigenous populations in the Caribbean have been based on early European accounts. In spite of significant scholarly advances by Caribbean researchers in deconstructing documentary bias and European and colonial preconceptions (e.g., Deagan 2003; Hulme 1986; Keegan 2007; Oliver 2009; Whitehead 1995) the Caribbean Amerindian past and present remains marginalised in local and global discussions and in the discourse on the archaeology of colonial encounters in general (except e.g., Milanich and Milbrath 1989) and its study is fragmented along national boundaries. This is problematic because the Caribbean was the nexus of the first interactions between the New and the Old World, and currently its role is incorrectly represented in this crucial first step in a globalising world.

Opportunities to redress this imbalance have been hindered by lack of:

  1. Focus on Amerindian histories and legacies along a continuum from pre-colonial to colonial times, hereby addressing the problems at the root of the historical divide.
  2. Archaeological research into Amerindian Caribbean sites dating to the contact and colonial eras.
  3. Multi-scalar spatial research which transgresses current national boundaries, in which local, regional, and pan-regional developments and intercultural (Amerindian-African-European) connections are considered (e.g., Armstrong and Hauser 2009).
  4. The development and systematic application of an appropriate set of multi-disciplinary methods and techniques for archaeology.

Societal: Caribbean landscapes with their indigenous histories and legacies, are increasingly threatened by:

  1. Global climate change and natural catastrophes such as earthquakes [Haiti 2010], hurricanes [tropical cyclone Dean 2007], and volcanic eruptions [Montserrat 1997].
  2. Looting and illegal trade [e.g., ICOM Emergency Red List of Haitian cultural objects at risk 2010]
  3. Economic development fuelling explosive growth in tourism, large-scale construction projects (e.g., airfields, mega-resorts, golf courses), and massive re-shaping of the insular environments.
  4. Inadequate heritage legislation or enforcement thereof in many of the island nations, resulting in poor protection of heritage resources (Siegel and Righter 2011).
  5. Insufficient engagement with local communities and weakly enforced regional policies, leading to disjointed perspectives on, and underdeveloped frameworks for, heritage awareness and protection.

In summary, Caribbean indigenous heritage has suffered and continues to suffer from insufficient protection and must now become a top priority to avoid irrevocable loss.

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