The Caribs of lowland South America comprise one of the many indigenous groups on the frontiers of early Latin America who have long deserved greater attention, but whose history suffers from inadequate sources. As they left no written records of their own, the Caribs’ story must be pieced together from self-serving European accounts. Neil Whitehead here compiles, from archival, printed, and ethnographic materials, a surprisingly detailed chronology of three centuries’ protracted violence, gradually spreading disease, proliferating missions, and expanding trade, as the Caribs of the greater Orinoco basin faced the encroaching Spanish, Dutch, English, French, and even Swedes. Sensitive to slanderous charges of Carib savagery, Whitehead strives to reconstruct a balanced view of their experiences during the frontier period of 1498-1700, conquest era of 1700-71, and the final episodes before Venezuelan independence.

Whitehead’s study is particularly critical of both “the uniformly bad treatment” the Spaniards gave the Caribs and “the evil image given to them by the Spanish chroniclers” (p. 3), although it does also consider something of the negative impact of other European colonizers and critiques some of their records. The sources, difficult as they are, might have been mined more for the crucial historical differences between Spanish approaches to Carib and Arawak societies—which Whitehead too easily dismisses—to produce a more even-handed picture of colonization in the region. Ethnohistorical studies of other parts of early Latin America are revealing how the organization of local societies (e.g., sedentary vs. semisedentary) was often as important as various European groups’ goals (e.g., peripheral trade vs. permanent settlement) in determining the various colonial structures that emerged. This question aside, Whitehead’s book makes an admirable stab at capturing an elusive history of a valiant people which should interest historians of indigenous peoples and colonial experiences of the entire hemisphere.