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Caribbean Adventure 1

Article written by Rick Archer
August 2010

According to the Travel magazines, the Caribbean is the Number One cruise destination in the world. 

There are 7,000 islands in or around the Caribbean Sea.  The Bahamas, for example, consist of 29 islands, 661 cays, and 2,387 islets.  The biggest Caribbean island is Cuba followed by Haiti, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico.  These are the best known Caribbean Islands.  The next set of islands are smaller in size such as the ABC islands off Venezuela - Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao - plus the Turks and Caicos near the Bahamas. Also don't forget the Caymans in the Western Caribbean.

Next on the list comes the amazing chain of islands that create a huge 2,500 mile arc from Puerto Rico down to South America.  The best known islands in this group are shown on the map to the right.  In addition, there are countless more islands, islets, and small cays that aren't listed.

This arc is paradise for anyone with a yacht or a sailboat.  You can sail from island to island and practically never lose sight of land.  There are many private coves that allow you to hide from the world and skinny dip to your heart's delight.

These islands are lined with perfect beaches, lush foliage, sparkling blue water, and lush tropical vegetation.  Even better, thanks to the Gulf Stream, these islands enjoy year-round balmy weather with temperatures in the 70s. 

There are so many similarities between the islands along the Caribbean arc and the Hawaiian islands that some people consider this area of the world to be Hawaii-East.  This should not come as much of a surprise since both sets of islands are located along the identical latitude known as the Tropic of Cancer

When Marla told me she wanted our next trip to go to the Caribbean, I pulled out my map.  The very first thing I noticed was that Cuba was located directly below Florida.  I am not sure why, but I had always believed that Cuba was directly below Louisiana. Now I realized for the first time it wasn't Cuba, but rather Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula that was directly below New Orleans.  I had just been given my first clue that my Caribbean geography needed some brushing up.

The map also indicated that Florida and Cuba were only 90 miles apart. That's about the same distance from South Houston to College Station.  Now that I could see how close Florida and Cuba were, one of my favorite jokes began to make more sense.

Question: Why has Cuba never won a single Olympic Swimming medal?
Answer:   Because all the good swimmers are already in the USA!

Some people consider the Caribbean to be an American playground.  However, being from Texas, naturally I tend to pay a little more attention to the Gulf of Mexico.  Still, it was embarrassing to realize how ignorant I was about an area of the world I had always assumed I knew like the back of my hand.  So I began to investigate.  As I learned more about the Caribbean, I thought I would have some fun and challenge the SSQQ Travel group on their knowledge of the Caribbean region.

This article should serve as a good refresher on Caribbean geography, history, and culture.  Enjoy!  RA

So How Much Do You Know about the Caribbean Sea?

Let's start off with some fun questions.  No fair looking at a map!!  You can do that later. Just see how much you can get right off the top of your head.

Our Texas "lake" known as the Gulf of Mexico is pretty big. The Gulf turns out to be the ninth largest body of water on the planet.  So, here is your first question:
Which is bigger, the Caribbean Sea or the Gulf of Mexico?  

Here is your second question. 
at separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Caribbean Sea?

Here is your third question:  
What is the worst named body of land in the world? 

And here is your fourth question: What is the SECOND most poorly named body of land in the world and who is responsible for all the untold confusion that resulted?

Now let's answer some of these questions. 

Answer to Question Three:
What is the most poorly named body of land in the world? 

The answer, of course, is Greenland.  What idiot could have possibly looked at the iceberg capital of the Earth and thought of that name?  That idiot would be Erik the Red.  At least he didn't name it "Redland". 

In the 10th Century, Erik the Red and his Dad Thorvald were banished from Norway for some murders.  They settled down in Iceland.  At least they got that name right.  After Erik the Red was involved in more killings, he was told to take another hike. 

There were rumors of land to the west.  Erik the Red decided to take a chance.  Sailing with no assurance of success, he found "Greenland" in 982 and created a settlement.

Another Norseman, Leif Erikson, is credited with finding modern day Canada in 1000.  It turns out that Leif Erikson was the "son of Erik". Yup, his Dad was Erik the Red.  Leif Erikson had one major thing in common with his famous Dad besides the love of exploration - he had trouble naming his discoveries. Leif Erikson called Canada Vinland, short for Land of the Grape Vines.  I don't know what he was drinking, but the Canadian Wine industry hasn't done too well lately.

Actually, Erik and Leif may have gotten a bad rap.

At the time that Greenland was discovered, the Earth was a bit warmer.  The area of southern Greenland where Erik landed actually had green meadows. This area could sustain villages of Norse settlers and their cattle, sheep, goats, and horses. The name was an accurate description of the land at the time.

The same was true for Canada.  It was warm enough to grow grapes, hence the name.

Although you have a right to be skeptical that Greenland was ever green, by coincidence there is a story in the news about a 100 mile iceberg four times bigger than Manhattan that just broke off from Greenland.  It seems likely that global warming is responsible. 

Who knows?  Maybe Greenland will be green again soon enough.  If so, I don't want to think how hot Houston will become.  But on the bright side, maybe we can take a tropical cruise to Greenland.  Wouldn't that be fun!

I suppose you are wondering what Greenland has to do with the Caribbean.  Now that you mention it, probably not much.  I was thinking about the Caribbean and got side-tracked.  No nit-picking, please.  Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.

Christopher C and the New World

What is the SECOND most poorly named body of land in the world and who is responsible for all the untold confusion that resulted?

Answer: The West Indies is the second worst named body of land after Greenland.  Christopher Columbus is the man responsible for the confusion.

The West Indies is a term that refers to the entire Caribbean region.  The region consists of the Antilles, divided into the Greater Antilles which bounds the sea on the north and the Lesser Antilles on the south and east (including the Leeward Antilles), and the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands, which are in fact in the Atlantic Ocean north of Cuba, not in the Caribbean Sea.

Unlike Greenland, climate change was not responsible for the second most poorly named body of land in history.  The responsibility this time laid with some lousy math skills on the part of our friend Christopher Columbus.

When Columbus first landed in the Bahamas in 1492, he was convinced he had found India of all places.  The story of Columbus and his discovery of the New World, i.e. the Caribbean region, is well-known, but if you are like me, you have forgotten most of it. It is a fascinating story, so let's do a recap. 

Of course everyone knows the country of India is located in southern Asia.  Taking its name from the Indus River, India is the dominant country of its region and lends its name to the Indian Ocean

India had been a lucrative trading partner with Europe dating all the way back to the Roman Empire.  Egypt had been India's largest trading partner until Augustus Caesar conquered Egypt.  Now Rome became India's largest trading partner. 

However, the rise of Islam in the 7th Century changed everything.  Now the Europeans were forced to use Arab traders as the middlemen in their dealings with India. The quickest route took traders by sea to Egypt.  Since there was no Suez Canal in those days, camels and carts were used to transport goods across land to the Red Sea, then onto India by sea. Arab merchants made money coming and going.

Unfortunately the rise of Ottoman Empire and those nasty Turks put an end to that arrangement in 1453.  Now what?  Improvements in the way ships were built had opened up the possibility of using ocean travel to reconnect Europe to India.  There was literally a race to see who could find a sea route to India first.

This situation with India is what created the Age of Exploration in Europe.  The Mediterranean Sea was the center of their existence when it came to all things Asia.  The problem for the Europeans is that no one had a clue how Africa was shaped or that the Americas even existed.  For that matter, many Europeans believed the Earth was flat and that explorers would fall off a cliff at some point or be eaten by a sea monster.

Nevertheless, now that they were cut off from India by the Turks, the Europeans were getting desperate.  The Europeans had some knowledge of Africa, so that was the safest place to start looking. Thanks to its proximity to Africa, Portugal had the inside track.  Portugal sent one probing expedition after another down the western coast of Africa (the Atlantic side) to see how it was shaped.  In 1488, Bartholomew Dias discovered the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. He even went far enough around the curve to find the Indian Ocean side of Africa.

Dias was sure this was it. He wanted to continue sailing to India, but was forced to turn back when his crew refused to go further.  Dias returned to Lisbon after an absence of sixteen months.  His return caused quite a stir throughout Europe.  The discovery of the passage around Africa was significant because it confirmed the possibility that Europeans could trade directly with India and the other parts of Asia and bypass the overland route through the Middle East and its expensive middlemen.

Alas, Dias never got another chance.  The honor of being first to reach India from Portugal would go to his fellow countryman Vasco de Gama ten years later in 1498.

When the news of Dias' discovery of the southern tip of Africa arrived, Columbus was sitting idle on retainer in Spain.  Columbus was in the exploration business himself, but could find no one to sponsor him. Nevertheless, Columbus was very interested in the exploits of Portugal's Dias.  His discovery affected Columbus deeply.

Columbus now knew there was probably no way he could beat Portugal to India using the African route.  Portugal had too much inside knowledge about the coast of Africa.  Columbus decided his only chance of beating Portugal was to head west. The western direction was much more intimidating to all Europeans because no ship to their knowledge had ever found land heading in that direction.  Furthermore, many ships had failed to return at all... the myth of sea monsters and a flat earth were blamed.

For that matter, Dias had been gone for 16 months!  During his long absence, everyone assumed that the flat earth or the sea monsters had gotten him too.  Now that Dias had returned, Columbus was encouraged by another discovery. Measurements taken during Dias' long voyage gave further credence to the belief that the Earth was indeed curved!  

Columbus was more certain than ever that the Earth was round.  He was determined to give the western route a try.  However, first he would have to find a sponsor!

Question Five: The discovery of the Caribbean by Columbus in 1492 was rivaled by another major event in Spain in the same year.  Together, these two momentous events would pave the way to make the Spanish Empire the greatest power in the world for nearly two centuries.   Can you name the other major event?

Answer to Question One:
Which is bigger, the Caribbean Sea or the Gulf of Mexico?  

If you said Gulf of Mexico, then you are wrong.  The Caribbean Sea is nearly twice as large as the Gulf.  The Gulf region covers approximately 600,000 square miles while the extent of of the Caribbean is about 1,063,000 square miles. 

So, that leads to our Sixth question: Which is larger, the Caribbean Sea or the Mediterranean Sea?

Head West, Young Man, Head West

The recorded history of the Caribbean literally began with Columbus. Once Columbus gave Spain its foothold, Spain was directly involved with the Caribbean for the next 400 years.  Spain would not permanently leave the Caribbean region until Teddy Roosevelt gave them the boot in the Spanish-American War of 1898. 

However, when the year 1492 began, no one would have predicted Columbus would someday be important.  Columbus was an obscure man without a job or a patron.  Fortunately, something important happened in Spain that opened the door for Columbus.  Can you guess what 1492 event in Spain paved the way for Columbus?

If you don't know, don't feel bad.  Very few people are going to get this one. I certainly had no idea myself until I ran across the story while researching this article.  So if you do actually guess the answer, you really know your history!

1492 was the year that the Reconquest of Spain was completed. 

Most of Spain had been under Muslim control dating back to the 8th Century.  Spain had been dominated by the Moors from Northern Africa for over 700 years! 

Slowly but surely the Christian influence in Spain grew stronger.  Little by little the Moors were pushed back towards southern Spain.  However, in this region the Moors were strong.  They were determined to hang in there.  Finally, in the 1200s, the Christian side got so involved in fighting civil wars between themselves that they decided to let the few remaining Moors be.  An uneasy stalemate broke out that would last 200 years.  

The final Reconquest of Spain began with the marriage in 1469 of royal cousins, Ferdinand of Aragon (1452-1516) and Isabella of Castile (1451-1504).  Both areas were under Christian control. 

Ferdinand was one of the most skillful diplomats in an age of great diplomats. His union with Isabella eventually brought complete stability to the regions of Aragon and Castile.  Spain now became one of the best administered countries in Europe. 

After Ferdinand and Isabella put an end to the civil wars between the Christians that had plagued Spain for centuries, they turned their attention to the Moors.  The King and Queen decided to resume the fight that had been dormant for more than 200 years.

A considerable army was formed to attack Granada (southern Spain). This last remaining pocket of Moors finally surrendered in 1492.  Now Queen Isabella of Castile took control of the area. 

1492 was a huge turning point in Spanish history. Spain was not only completely Catholic again, it was a united country.

Ferdinand and Isabella were quite the dynamic duo.  First they had put an end to all the Spanish civil wars.  Next they conquered the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa.  Then they finished cleaning house by evicting the remaining Moors.  Now they had time to turn their attention to the popular European game of the day: finding a sea route to India. 

For years Christopher Columbus had shopped his idea for a westward mission to India to practically every leader in Europe without much luck.  Although Portugal had not quite made it to India yet, it was getting close.  No one paid much attention to Columbus because it looked like Portugal's African route to India would soon be a sure thing.

The major reason Columbus had trouble finding a sponsor was that no one believed his math. Columbus was convinced the western route to India was actually the shorter path.  Skeptics told Ferdinand and Isabella there was no way the Earth was as small as Columbus claimed it to be.  If the Earth was indeed round, Ferdinand's advisors figured the western route to India was probably twice as long as Columbus believed (and they were correct!). 

Ferdinand and Isabella were unsure what to do. Their closest advisors said Columbus was a fool.  Plus funding Columbus would be very expensive.   Unsure what to do, Isabella and Ferdinand decided to put Columbus on retainer just so he wouldn't take his crazy ideas elsewhere.  This move allowed them to cover their bet and buy time. 

Once the conquest of the Moors was complete, the King and Queen were now free to turn their attention back to exploration.  So in 1492, they gave Christopher Columbus a second interview.  Isabella was still not convinced.  She told Columbus she would not back him.  Despondent, Columbus was literally packing his bags when her husband Ferdinand had a change of heart at the last minute.  Columbus would get his chance. 

The common myth was that the world was flat.  If so, then Columbus was indeed the bravest of the brave for risking his life by challenging that view.  However, that view has been widely discounted in recent times.  A spherical Earth had been the general opinion of Ancient Greek science.  This view continued through the Middle Ages among the educated.

What stopped all other explorers from trying the Western route was not sea monsters or the cliff at the edge of the world myth, but rather Mathematics.  Since their calculations said the western route was an enormous distance, why bother?  In their opinion, the Moon might actually be closer than India if they sailed to the west.

Where Columbus differed from the generally accepted view of his time was his (incorrect) belief in a significantly smaller diameter for the Earth.  Columbus claimed that Asia could be easily reached by sailing west across the Atlantic.  Of course, he may have just said that to get the job.  Those exploring gigs were hard to get. 

As we know today, India is about 800 miles from Portugal as the airplane flies east and about 1600 miles taking the western route of Columbus.  Although it is true that the scholars at the time of Columbus had no idea of the existence of the Americas, their calculations pegged India as begin MUCH FURTHER to the west than to the east. 

Most scholars accepted Ptolemy's correct assessment that the terrestrial landmass (for Europeans of the time, comprising Eurasia and Africa) occupied 180 degrees of the Earth's sphere.  They dismissed Columbus's claim that the Earth was much smaller and therefore Asia was only perhaps a short hop to the west of Europe.

So, basically, Columbus' discovery of the New World was not due to his skill, but rather his ignorance.  The New World had been discovered by one of the most incompetent explorers of the day!   Columbus was literally the only sailor dumb enough to try this route.  Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good. 

When he landed in the Bahamas, Columbus had found the outskirts of North America, not India.  Columbus wasn't sure what to make of his discovery.  Columbus could tell he wasn't in India, but he stuck to his guns and assumed he was at least close to India.  Columbus figured he had arrived in a scattering of islands just to the east of India.  Therefore Columbus decided to name this chain of islands "The West Indies". 

This mistake has doomed every person in America to call our own North American indigenous people "Indians" ever since.  All natives of the West Indies were referred to as "Indians".  Thanks to Columbus and his goofy math skills, wherever you go, there are bound to be Indians of some sort.  Ever since the days of Columbus, everyone from Gandhi to Geronimo and Nehru to Cochise are commonly referred to as "Indians". 

Believe it or not, to the end of his life in 1506 Columbus maintained that he had reached Asia.

Question Seven: Hispaniola was the third island discovered by Columbus in 1492.  Thanks to Columbus, Hispaniola became the richest and most famous island in the Caribbean.  And yet today no cruise ship visits any place called 'Hispaniola'.  Furthermore, you won't find it on any modern day map. 

What made Hispaniola disappear?

The Final Indignity

We can make fun of Columbus, but the fact of the matter is that he did risk his life. Sea exploration was incredibly dangerous.  Many explorers did not fare as well as Columbus.  If a storm or a hidden reef didn't get you, angry natives might do the job instead.

For example, John Cabot who discovered North America in 1497 died at sea on a return voyage in 1498. Bartolomew Dias died in a storm off South Africa in 1500 still trying to make it to India.  Francis Drake, hero of England's battle with the Spanish Armada in 1588, died off the coast of Panama in 1596 of dysentery.

Many explorers were killed fighting with natives.  Thorvald Eriksson, brother of Leif Erikson, died in North America in 1004 during a fight with "Indians" in Canada.  James Cook, discoverer of the Hawaiian Islands, was killed in 1779 by natives in a return trip to Hawaii.  Ferdinand Magellan, quite possibly the greatest explorer of them all, died fighting natives in the Philippines in 1521. 

So for his bravery and daring, Columbus clearly deserved all the credit for his discovery of the New World, accidental or not.  Columbus single-handedly propelled Spain to glory.

Thanks to Columbus, Spain went from a civil war-plagued underachiever to become the greatest European power for the next 200 years.  Spain's dominance of the New World allowed it to exploit all the riches of the Caribbean, Central America, South America, and even the Philippines (Magellan's discovery).  Vast wealth began to flow back to Spain.  This time would become famous as Spain's Golden Age.

You would think Columbus would at least get an island or something important named after him, right?  As it turned out, Columbus paid a terrible price for his continued insistence that he had found Asia. 

Despite making four different trips to the New World, even at his death bed in 1506, Columbus was still convinced that his journeys had been along the east coast of Asia.

Meanwhile, an accountant named Amerigo Vespucci made a visit to the new Portuguese territory of Brazil in 1499.  Vespucci was not a particularly important man, but he was in the right place at the right time. 

The King of Portugal needed a favor. King Manuel wished to know whether this "Brazil place" was merely an island or part of the mysterious lands the Spanish explorers had encountered farther north.  The King knew Vespucci had been to Brazil once before, so the King asked him to take another trip specifically to form an opinion on the subject.

So on the next ship out, Vespucci made a return visit to Brazil in 1501 merely as an observer.  As the ship traveled up and down the east coast of South America, Vespucci became convinced these lands had nothing to do with Asia.  He concluded what he was seeing was rather a complete new land mass, perhaps even a separate continent with a size similar to Africa.  After making his report to the King, Vespucci then listed his idea in a couple of manuscripts that were published. 

Meanwhile, about six years later, up in France a German mapmaker named Martin Waldseemüller was hired to create a theoretical map based on all the new discoveries from "The New World". 

Waldseemüller had never been to the new world.  He was completely dependent on the eyes of others, so he gathered every map and every article he could get his hands on.  One manuscript had been written by some administrator in the court of King Manuel named "Vespucci". Waldseemüller reviewed the document and was impressed.

After comparing all the notes, Waldseemüller thought Vespucci's ideas made more sense than Columbus.  So in his 1507 world map, he included a brand new continent based on the recent discoveries. 

Waldseemüller named this new land "America", a Latin form of "Amerigo".  And that is how the Americas - North, South, and Central - got their name.

The irony is that the lasting credit for one of the greatest discoveries in history went to a nobody.  Thus an entire hemisphere - Half the World - were named for a man who had never risked his life and had done absolutely nothing to discover the lands himself. 

Vespucci's only contribution was to suggest that someone else's discovery might be a little more important than anyone had guessed quite yet.  That makes about as much sense as renaming the Moon for some secretary over at NASA, but that's what happened.

Question Eight: The Caribbean and Mediterranean are the second and third largest seas in the world.  Can you name the largest sea in the world?

I didn't get it right, so I hope you don't either.

Where did Hispaniola disappear to?

"1492.... As children we were taught to memorize this year with pride and joy as the year people began living full and imaginative lives on the continent of North America.

Actually, people had been living full and imaginative lives on the continent of North America for hundreds of years before that.

1492 was simply the year the sea pirates came to rob, cheat, and kill them."

Kurt Vonnegut,
Breakfast of Champions

I bet you have never heard of Hispaniola.  Trust me, I'm not very far ahead of you.

I was 41 when I first heard of the island. It appeared as a question in a crossword puzzle the day my daughter Sam was born in 1991.  My wife was in labor from 10 am till 10 pm.  Twelve hours!  We thought that kid was never coming out!

Bored out of my mind in the waiting room, I picked a paper and started doing puzzles.  I had never solved a complete crossword puzzle in my life.  Too busy.  But not on this day.

Fortunately, the Tuesday crossword wasn't very tough.  I was able to make some good progress.  There was one question that intrigued me.  It said "another name for Hispaniola".  5 letters.  I thought I was better than average at geography, but I was stumped.  I had never heard of the darn place before! 

So I worked the rest of the puzzle trying to get enough letters to figure out the answer.  I eventually guessed right and took great pleasure in my achievement.  Now I was hooked.  From that day on, I have worked the daily crossword puzzle ever since.  My daughter and my crossword hobby just recently turned 19. 

All my knowledge from the Verdi opera "Aida" to the Swiss River named the "Aare" I owe to crossword puzzles.  Now you know the dubious secret of my wisdom.

I am sure you looked at the maps and guessed the answer by now.  Hispaniola was the original name for the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  This is the same island that gave us voodoo.  No surprise there; Hispaniola is definitely the hard luck story of the Caribbean. 

The thing that is really weird is that I could find no explanation for "why" or "when" the term "Hispaniola" stopped being used.  Let's have some fun. Take another look at those maps.  Do you see "Hispaniola" listed?  No, of course not. 

This is just a guess, but I believe the term "Hispaniola" stopped being used when the island divided into two countries.  Here is the story.

Hispaniola was the third island visited by Columbus in 1492.  First came San Salvador, an undetermined island in the Bahamas.  Next came Cuba.  The third stop was Hispaniola.  On Christmas Day no less, the Santa Maria was grounded on a beach on the Haiti side of the island and had to be abandoned.

Forced to stop for a while, Columbus spend some time looking around.  Columbus decided it was time to head home.  Just to mark his spot, he left 39 men and founded the settlement of La Navidad.   Before returning to Spain, Columbus also kidnapped some ten to twenty-five natives and took them back with him. Only seven or eight of the native Indians arrived in Spain alive, but they made quite an impression on Seville.

Believe me, the appearance of Columbus was definitely no Christmas Present for the native people!  Columbus did the native inhabitants no favors. 

One of the things Columbus remarked about in his diary was their lack of modern weaponry. They lacked any metal-forged weapons whatsoever, a major tactical vulnerability.  Columbus commented, "I could easily conquer the whole of them with 50 men, and govern them as I pleased."

And that was the least of the native's problems!

By introducing smallpox, Columbus quickly wiped out half the population.  Then, in short order, the Spaniards who followed him deported the remaining natives into slavery.

Pretty brutal story, but fairly common back then.  If you read the story of the Incans, the Aztecs and the Mayans, the same thing happened to all of them. 

It is estimated that 90% of the natives of this area eventually died thanks to the Spanish.  One of the darkest ironies of the Spanish conquest is that so many of the native people were killed in battle with the Conquistadors or died of European diseases that the Spanish were forced to import slaves from Africa to work the sugarcane fields of the Caribbean islands.  This of course explains how the entire Caribbean region came to be repopulated by Africans.  Misery followed wherever the Spanish visited. 

It's stories like these that makes me wonder if SETI is really such a good idea. SETI, "the ongoing Search for extra-terrestrial intelligence", sends signals like the latest Lady Gaga music into outer space in search for alien life. 

So what happens if some civilization with a dying Sun gets the message and comes to visit?  Then you have the scenario for the movie Independence Day or War of the Worlds.

From my point of view, any civilization that can visit the Earth will have superior technology and superior weaponry... plus their own set of diseases. 

Now, will you explain to me again why we are inviting aliens to come visit Earth?

Part Two of Rick's Caribbean Adventure story covers how the Caribbean got its name, solves the mystery of the disappearing island of Hispaniola, explains why the Caribbean enjoys near-perfect year-round weather (except for hurricanes of course), and answers the question of what parts of our planet are considered the favorite places to cruise.

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