Life in the region changed forever when, in October, 1492, Christopher Columbus landed on the shores of the Bahamas. He also island-hopped and developed the first European settlement on the island that today is split between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Columbus and his fellow conquistadores recognized the riches in the region and saw money when they gazed upon the bountiful seas and fertile land. They exploited both the natural resources and the native populations, claiming lands as their own and enslaving the people of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and other islands.

The English followed suit in the 17th century, claiming St. Kitts, Barbados, Antigua and other lands, and the French soon followed, claiming Guadeloupe and Martinique. The Dutch also wanted a piece of the Caribbean, settling St. Martin, Saba and Sint Eustatius. For the next two centuries, the Europeans battled for control of the islands, and possession frequently changed hands.

The colonial infighting between European powers created an opportunity for locals to fight for their own independence. Haiti led the way, declaring independence from its colonizer in 1804, and Cuba and the Dominican Republic followed, along with other smaller islands in the region. Some islands, such as Puerto Rico and Guadeloupe, still maintain strong neocolonial relationships with their parent nations.