When Europeans came to the Caribbean, they brought their own religions: The Spanish and French were devout Roman Catholics, while the British were Protestants. Irish migrants from Britain brought Catholicism with them as well, and the Dutch brought both Catholicism and Dutch Reform beliefs.
The region's religions became even more mixed when the islands were claimed by different nations, as they often were throughout the Caribbean's early history. But religious diversity exists even on the islands that rarely or never changed hands. Slavery and indentured servitude brought many people with many different faiths to the islands.
Still, the biggest challenge (and support) to the growth of Christianity was slavery. Slaves from Africa brought their own religious and spiritual practices with them, some of which combined with Catholic practices and became entirely new religions, while some spiritual beliefs simply occurred out of sight of the white masters. Many of the Caribbean-born slaves were indoctrinated into Christianity.
In fact, the end of slavery helped encourage some religious diversity in the islands. East Indian immigrants brought their own beliefs and practices to the region. Almost one quarter of the population of Trinidad and Tobago is Hindu - one of the highest concentrations of Hindu people in the world. Small populations of Jews and Muslims also live in the Caribbean.
In more recent years, Caribbean natives have even formed their own religion. Rastafarianism is Christianity with a distinctly Caribbean style. This pro-African religion uses the Bible as its base text but takes a decidedly different reading than that of more traditional Christian sects. Like many things Jamaican, it also stands out for political and social causes.
Data divides religions out of a total population of 23,809,622 in surveyed Caribbean countries as follows:
|Religion||Total Number||Percent (%)|
These Creole religions were most often practiced on French and Spanish islands where Roman Catholicism was the religion of the whites. The two best-known forms of these Creole religions are Vodou (Voodoo and Vodun are common spellings) and Santería (also called Regla de Ocha).
Although the Creole religion with the most recognizable name is Voodoo, the truth about this belief is somewhat less glamorous than Hollywood would have most believe. Creole religious practices don't typically involve evil spells and dolls stuck with pins.
Creole religions developed on islands where African slaves were indoctrinated into Roman Catholicism. Generally speaking, this was possible because the Catholic practice of saint worship easily lent itself to cultural interpretation. Slaves - usually field workers - who were introduced to Catholicism in a slapdash manner most often developed these new religions.
Owners usually believed religion would take too much time away from field labor, so slaves were given the briefest introduction to Catholic worship and practices. Slaves "creolized" the religion by attributing alternate personalities to the saints - the personalities of African gods and goddesses.
One of the most important aspects of these religious alterations was their ability to remain undetected. On the outside, shrines were dedicated to Catholic saints. However, this dual-personality meant that these saints acted as little more than white masks for their African deities, and the symbols associated with the gods and goddesses were then associated with the saints. However, it's important to remember that both African religions and Catholicism underwent changes during this process.
Religions also differ from island to island as well. The Creole religion created on French-speaking Haiti is called Vodou, while Spanish-speaking Cuba formed Santería. Mysticism and spiritual beliefs common on other islands included Obeah (a belief in witch-doctors and mystic practices) and Espiritismo (a more modern healing and spiritual belief).
Although differences in practices and beliefs abound, similarities are common, too. For example, these religions combine elements of monotheism and polytheism. African religions have one main supreme being but also have many other deities. Roman Catholicism, with its practice of saint worship, is similar because they, too, act as intermediaries between the supreme God and humanity.
Spirits are also important. Both spirits of the ancestors and spirits of other living entities can play a role in the lives of the living. Supernatural power can also be imbued in inanimate objects. Contact between the human world and the spirit world is an important point in Creole religions, and can even be manifested as possessions - or via animal sacrifices.
Spirits and power can become centralized into one human being, a leader who can pass on knowledge to others. These leaders also officiate the rituals that are a part of the religion. Rituals draw heavily on music and dance as forms of contact with the spirit world, sometimes even giving dances or musical pieces to particular deities.
Creole religions have spread to areas where former Caribbean-nationals have moved. People brought their religion from Puerto Rico and Cuba to New York, and Haitians have traveled to the United States as well. However, many regard the practices of the religions as closely guarded secrets and are less than willing to let outsiders join in.
Santería and Vodou are in some ways the most similar of the African Creolized religions - Regla de Palo and the Abakuá Secret Society also share similarities but are less well-known than these other two. Espiritismo combines many elements to become its own belief system as well. Meanwhile, Obeah, Myal, and Quimbois are similar spiritual practices.
Santería is based more explicitly on the practices and beliefs of the West African Yoruba tribes, while Vodou combines Yoruba traditions with other African beliefs. One of the biggest differences - most likely the one that has earned Vodou its reputation - is the practice of magic among Vodou's believers. Santeros believe in possession, but generally not magic or charms.
Regla de Palo, followed by the Congolese on Cuba, combines many of the beliefs of the Santeros with a bit more of the magical. Practices by Paleros are also closely guarded, leading to more speculation about their "witchcraft." The Abakuá Secret Society is unique as the only Creole religion that is exclusively for men.
The religions themselves are based on the African gods and goddesses. However, Espiritismo combines elements of Catholicism with elements of a more recent French "spiritualist" movement and even Taíno beliefs, particularly on Puerto Rico. Santerismo is best defined as a combination of Santería and Espiritismo, and it is being practiced more and more outside the Caribbean.
Obeah, Myal, and Quimbois are Afro-Caribbean Creolized forms of witchcraft and healing practices. Ashanti and other linguistically united tribes were brought to the Caribbean as slaves almost exclusively by the British - the French and Spanish thought these Africans to be more likely to rebel. This means that these spiritual practices were performed almost exclusively on British islands, though Quimbois was a popular practice on Martinique and Guadeloupe.
Practitioners of Obeah, called Obeah-men or Obeah-women, learned a great deal about the plants of the region and used them for healing or for rebellious purposes. In the British islands, Obeah, and all similar practices, were outlawed. Witchcraft was important to all of the spiritual (but not religious) beliefs of the transported Africans, while some focused more on the good, or bad, aspects of their magical abilities as practitioners.
Each Creole religion has its own names for its deities, but these names often represent the same African god and may be represented by the same saints as well. The saints and gods are identified by certain symbols.
Although there is much more to be said about these religions and their gods, a few of the most important Santeria and Voodoo deities are listed below:
|Orisha (Santería)||Lwa (Vodou)||Similar to:||Role||Symbols||Offerings|
|Olorun, Olodumare, Olofi||--||Father, Son, Holy Ghost||Creator, Sky God, God on Earth, and Spirit of God||N/A||N/A|
|--||Gran Met (Haiti)||Essentially monotheistic||Creator God||N/A||N/A|
|Eleguá or Echú Eleguá||--||Christ Child of Atocha; San Antonio de Padua; Anima Sola or devil
Papa Legba or Papa La Bas
|Important to crossroads, thresholds, and luck. Enforces justice. Reports to God about humans. Can alternately be a trickster.||Cement or clay head with cowrie shells, coconut, large stone, the colors red and black, the number three, and Monday||Pastries, sweets, rum, tobacco, rooster, or male goat|
|--||Papa Legba or Papa La Bas||Saint Peter||Intermediary of the gods to people. Guardian of the gates to heaven and the crossroads.||Has a limp, walks with a crutch, often in rags, with a pipe in his mouth.||Left at crossroads|
|Ogún||Papa Ogoun||St. James the Elder (Santiago) and St. Peter||War, iron, minerals, mountains, forge, blacksmith, tools, technology. Responsible for any who use iron or steel often.||Iron objects. Represented by an iron pot. Colors are black and green, numbers are seven and three. Tuesday is his day.||Palm wine, salt, roasted yams, tortoises, and dogs|
|--||Agwé, Agwé-taroyo, or Admiral Agwé||Saint Ulrich||Protector of ships at sea, sea life, and fishermen||Boats with oars painted blue or green; shells; small metal fish; or tridents. Often represented by steamboats or warships.||Take place at seasides or edges of lakes and rivers. Include boats loaded with drinks - usually champagne.|
|Changó||Changó||Santa Bárbara most commonly; also Sts. Patrick, Mark, and George.||Protector of warriors, fishermen, and hunters. God of music, particularly batá drums, thunder, and lightning.||Double-bladed ax or hatchet, thunderstones or flint stones collected after lightning storms, mortar, a castle, the sword and the cup. Colors are red and white, day is Dec. 4 - Santa Bárbara's feast day. Numbers four and six.||Ram, tortoise, okra, bean fritters, and cornmeal with okra|
While some of the more important Santería and Vodou deities are included here, Creole pantheons are large and include many other gods and goddesses. These unique and fascinating practices differ greatly from island to island, and they continue to grow and change as Caribbean practitioners of these religions and spiritual beliefs move around the world.
Catholicism generally evokes images of European cathedrals, not Caribbean beaches. But as history would have it, the Caribbean is dominated by members of the Catholic faith.
The earliest European "discoveries" in the Caribbean were made by men who were Roman Catholic. Since then, Catholicism has been the dominant religion of much of the Caribbean. Both the Spanish and French were Catholic, while many of the British immigrants, usually from Ireland, also followed the faith. Dutch Catholics came to the islands as well.
In modern times, the islands' most recent census data brings to light the following statistics about Roman Catholics in the Caribbean:
|Island Name||Percent (%) of Pop.|
|British Virgin Islands||10|
|Netherlands Antilles (Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba, St. Eustatius, and St. Maarten)||72|
|Trinidad and Tobago||26|
|U.S. Virgin Islands||34|
Most of the islands with the highest percentages of Roman Catholic residents are islands that were, during some point in their history, not claimed by the British empire. British islands are dominated by the Protestant faiths, as this listing demonstrates.
There are, at current count, more than eight archdiocese in the Caribbean islands. Each of these controls a number of diocese and are listed as follows.
|Archdiocese (Country/Island)||Diocese (Country/Island)|
|Archdiocese of San Juan de Puerto Rico (Puerto Rico)||Arecibo
Ponce (Puerto Rico)
|Archdiocese of Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic)||Baní
Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia en Higüey
San Juan de la Maguana
San Pedro de Macorís
|Archdiocese of Santiago de los Caballeros (Dominican Republic)||La Vega
San Francisco de Macorís
|Archdiocese of Port of Spain (Trinidad)||Bridgetown (Barbados)
|Archdiocese of Castries (St. Lucia)||Kingstown (St. Vincent and the Grenadines)
Saint George's (Grenada)
Saint John's-Basseterre (British Virgin Islands)
|Archdiocese of Fort-de-France (e Saint Pierre) (Martinique)||Basse-Terre (et Pointe-à-Pitre) (Guadeloupe)
Cayenne (Cajenna) (French Guiana)
|Archdiocese of Nassau (The Bahamas)||Hamilton (Bermuda)
Turks and Caicos (Mission "Sui Iuris")
|Archdiocese of Kingston (Jamaica)||Belize City - Belmopan (Belize)
Cayman Islands (Mission "Sui Iuris")
Montego Bay (Jamaica)
While some of these were founded very early, like the Archdiocese at San Juan that was founded as a diocese in 1511, others have been more recently constructed - Bermuda's diocese was built in 1953. There are also several archdiocese and diocese in both Cuba and Haiti.
Catholicism was undeniably important to the Caribbean's earliest explorers - Columbus named St. Kitts after his own patron saint, Saint Christopher, while St. Lucia was named for the same saint that is celebrated on the day the island was discovered. But islands aren't the only places in the Caribbean that have patron saints.
Cities, too, have saints. Cities such as San Juan (Saint John, in English) or Santo Domingo (Saint Dominic) also have patron saints. However, even cities that are not directly named after saints can have patrons: Pointe-à-Pitre is dedicated to St. Pierre (Saint Peter). These cities spend time each year in celebration of their patron saints.
Puerto Rico, in particular, is known for its patron saint festivals. Most every city on the island will spend about a week each year celebrating the day associated with its patron saint. Although many share saints, the importance of each saint is not diminished.
Saints play an important role in the lives of Caribbean Catholics in particular, but it's clear to see that Catholicism itself has a strong standing in the Caribbean region. Those visiting the region will likely encounter many aspects of Catholicism on many of the islands - even the British territories.
Cuba is a multiracial society with a population of mainly Spanish and African origins. The largest organized religion is the Roman Catholic Church. Afro-Cuban religions, a blend of native African religions and Roman Catholicism, are widely practiced in Cuba. Officially, Cuba has been an atheist state for most of the Castro era. In 1962, the government of Fidel Castro seized and shut down more than 400 Catholic schools, charging that they spread dangerous beliefs among the people. In 1991, however, the Communist Party lifted its prohibition against religious believers seeking membership, and a year later the constitution was amended to characterize the state as secular instead of atheist.
The Catholic church is the largest independent institution in Cuba today and maintains a good relationship with the Cuban Government.
In November 1996, Pope John Paul II was invited to visit Cuba after an agreement was reached on some of the issues important for the church to carry out its religious activities in Cuba and prepare for the visit. During the Pope's visit, the government permitted four open-air masses, provided media coverage, and assisted with transportation of the public to the masses. In 1997 Christmas was officially recognized as a holiday for the first time since 1969, and the following year was permanently reinstated as a national holiday. While on the island,Pope John Paul II spoke of broadening the space and freedom of action of the Catholic Church and asked Fidel Castro to grant a prisoner amnesty. The Cuban Government responded by freeing at least 300 prisoners, some 70 of which were being held on political charges. The Pope's visit was seen as an important, positive event for bringing a message of hope and reconciliation.
Other Cuban religious groups--including evangelical Christians, whose numbers are growing rapidly--also have benefited from the relative relaxation of official restrictions on religious organizations and activities. Although particularly hard hit by emigration, Cuba's small Jewish community continues to hold services in Havana and has pockets of faithful in Santiago, Camaguey, and other parts of the island. Assistance from Jewish communities abroad, including arranging for visiting rabbis and rabbinical students, helps to keep the Hebrew faith alive in Cuba.