From Terra Nullius to Paradise: Landguaging the Caribbean (by Rhonda Chung)

This post was written on the territory of the Taíno, the Indigenous peoples that Columbus encountered when he landed in the region in 1492. The Taíno have stewarded the islands of the Greater Antilles, now colonially named: Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, and Puerto Rico, and are descended from the Arawaks who live on the mainland of northern Abya Yala (South America) in countries now known as: Guyana, Venezuela, and Colombia. This highly mobile group have given the English language words like: canoe (canoa), hurricane (hurakán), tobacco (tabako), maize (mahis), iguana (iwana), barbecue (barabicu), and hammock (hamacas). As Curet (2010) explains, the Taíno are often contrasted with a rival tribe in the Lesser Antilles: the Kalinago or Caribes, for which the Caribbean is named.

It has been a common belief that Indigenous people in the Caribbean islands either became extinct because of colonial wars and European disease, or were fully assimilated into the population; however, this is untrue. While their numbers are certainly lower than before contact, Indigenous peoples are still very much alive in the Caribbean. For example, the Garifuna are mixed Kalinago-Taíno/West African people living in regions like St. Vincent and Honduras. The Taíno people number 2,000 in the 3 million population of Jamaica, and are currently advocating that their rights and culture be constitutionally protected.

Specifically, I am writing from Grand Cayman, an island found 180 miles to the south of Cuba and 195 miles to the northwest of Jamaica. Known to most as a tax haven for investors, the island, its people, and the land, however, tell a much different story.

Grand Cayman is the largest of the three islands, which include Little Cayman and Cayman Brac. The western region, shaped like a hammer, is the most industrialized area. The East End remains largely undeveloped, and areas of the North Side, specifically the 8,655 acres of Central Mangrove Wetlands, are a protected region.

Images from Cayman Islands National Museum

From Terra Nullius to Paradise

Many historical accounts state that there was no evidence of Indigenous people on the islands, and that Columbus named the territory Las Tortugas after the large population of turtles, which were poached to near extinction by hungry seafarers. However, given the proximity of Jamaica and Cuba, and the known mobility of the canoeing Taíno people, it is unlikely that the Cayman Islands remained uninhabited or unstewarded. Nevertheless, the islands were deemed terra nullius [empty land] by Columbus, a pivotal legal strategy colonizers used to claim ownership over the territories, and subsume them into the Spanish monarchy. The Doctrine of Discovery operationalized terra nullius to claim sovereignty over these supposedly abandoned lands, enabling a wide-scale colonization that became the “legal justification for the dispossession and inhumane treatment of First Nations people” in North, Central, and South America, and other colonized regions in Africa and Australia by the Catholic church. Only recently, in March 2023, did Pope Francis denounce the Doctrine of Discovery. However, the settler colonialism that happened in North America, which aimed to replace Indigenous people, is different from the exploitative colonialism that occurred in the Caribbean, which aimed to extract resources through forced labour (Veracini, 2011).

As a dependency of Jamaica, the Spanish were the first to annex the three islands. In 1670, under the Treaty of Madrid, Britain seized the territories and instituted slavery for 100 years in Grand Cayman alone (Williams, 2011). In 1834, Britain’s Emancipation Proclamation declared that enslaved people be freed, but the apprenticeship and indentureship that replaced slavery retained its racial segregation and ethnocentric hierarchies (Williams, 2013). By 1840, much to the chagrin of the white slaveholders they outnumbered, the freed people were the island’s majority and fully embraced their freedom, refusing to work in the previous planter system and pursuing education in the two schools that had been instituted specifically for the freed Black population. Williams (2013) describes this social move as one where Caymanians “confronted ethnocentrism with a boldness that… [revealed a] desire to fight back” (p. 805). By 1962, when the Federation of the West Indies dissolved, the Cayman islands were no longer a Jamaican dependency, and increased their autonomy; however, they still remain a British overseas territory.

Heritage Culture Learning

To date, more than 40% of Grand Cayman’s population is between the ages of 25-54 years old and of mixed ethnic background. As a descendant of Caribbean-born parents, my ethnic ambiguity goes unnoticed here–in fact, folks who look like myself form the majority. And I watch as people lay about in the sun to achieve the deepening bronze that my skin naturally achieves when I sit in the shade.

Yet despite looking like I belong, I am still very much aware of the generational and cultural gap that inhibits me from feeling like this is a place of belonging. Research involving heritage language speakers describes the linguistic process involved with having knowledge of their parents’ languages, but often not full fluency. However, is there an equivalent term for cultural fluency? How can we describe those of us who have some degree of knowledge of our parents’ culture, but not full fluency? Like my parents and their parents, I am a native speaker of English and am fairly fluent in their diachronic Caribbean expressions, specific to Guyana, but I only have fragmental fluency in their Caribbean culture, since I did not grow up on these lands.

Despite having lived in Canada for over 50 years, my parents still view those first 20 years of life in the Caribbean as defining who they are. When they are in the islands, friends may playfully jest with them when they say or do something “Canadian”, but they are always regarded by others as Caribbean people. This fits well with Kramsch’s (1998) definition of culture, whereby membership within a community is understood as sharing “a common social space and history, and common imaginings. Even when they have left that community, its members may retain, wherever they are, a common system of standards for perceiving, believing, evaluating and acting” (p. 10).

As a grandchild and child of Caribbean people who has travelled to Grand Cayman nearly a dozen times over the past 20 years, there are many customs that I know well. When it comes to interacting with acquaintances, I know enough to always say hello to a local passerby, to address strangers as “sir” or “ma’am”, and to say “one stop” when taking the minibus. In 2011, this cordiality was coined by the tourism board as CaymanKind, but as a person of Caribbean heritage, I understand it as simply respecting your neighbours. In Canada, specifically in Toronto, the few times that I extended a friendly salutation were met with knitted brow or total indifference–there’s no casual chatting to be had in the city.

When it comes to deeper relationships, there is one singular truth: food is by far the love language of Caribbean people. Giving each other fruits is as normal as offering someone a cup of tea, so when you’re gifted many fruits, you know that that friend loves you.

Cooking food for someone takes it to the next level. The more complicated the dish, the deeper the love. To not offer food to someone that you’ve invited into your home is simply unheard of, so when I accept invitations into Toronto or Montreal homes and am offered only  a glass of water, I know this as a Canadian custom.

Whatever advantages I may have in culturally understanding Caribbean culture, however, are immediately checked when I find myself in an actual Caribbean location. For example, every day between the hours of 6 and 7 PM, when the setting sun is painting itself across the sky in pastels, is precisely the time of day when mosquitoes are at their most intense. My continual lack of environmental awareness, while wearing a t-shirt and shorts, makes my exposed arms and legs the perfect meal for hungry insects. Unlike my parents, I can’t easily tell you when the hurricane or the rainy season is, nor what fruits come in and out of season during the year; this is the kind of environmental know-how that I lack as a member of the Caribbean diaspora.

Landguaging the Caribbean

Landguaging is an attempt to be sensitive to the flora and fauna found in a particular environment–a process that entails learning the origins of a particular item and understanding its migration patterns, starting with one’s own self (Chung & Chung Arsenault, 2023). The self-reflective practices of Landguaging help the perceiver to communicate with their environment and, most crucially, to understand their place within nested micro-sized and macro-sized ecosystems. By grounding the practitioner in time and place, they can notice how new humans are to the particular ecosystem, and this supports them in moving away from human-centered understandings of the world. For myself, Landguaging enables me to confront how aspects of my identity have rendered me ignorant, even to places where I have cultural familiarity.

Focusing on the fauna of this territory, Cayman’s blue iguana is not only autochthonous to this region, it is found nowhere else on earth, and is a protected species.

In terms of flora, I’ve grown up hearing stories from my parents about the flavours of sapodilla, soursop, guava, avocado, and papaya, all fruits indigenous to equatorial regions of the Americas. I have also been told that I don’t know what a mango really tastes like. And as it turns out, my folks are right! While planes, trains, and automobiles transport these “exotic” fruits north to Canadian grocery stores, those flavours simply cannot and do not travel well–they are best enjoyed in their place of origin.

Guava, Soursop, and Sapodilla

Unlike our plant friends who photosynthesize in place, as heterotrophs, humans must pursue their food. Trade routes have long been a feature of human activity, with the search for spices and silk being a motivating factor for travel in the first and second century BCE. Cocoa beans, for example, are indigenous to the Amazon, yet traces of chocolate have been found in drinking receptacles in northern regions, like the Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.

By definition, non-native flora and fauna are those introduced by humans. Unlike native plants, which are feasted upon by local fauna, certain non-native species can become invasive because they lack predators in their new environment. These plants then replicate at a faster rate, reducing biodiversity in the region, and creating a monoculture that can result in food deserts for both animals and humans alike. However, not all non-native species are deemed invasive nor do they all harm the environment; some plants thrive and become harmonious with the pre-existing ecosystem. For example, the common dandelion, comestible from flower to root, was a medicinal plant brought over by Europeans in the 1600s; it is now rampant in the Americas, but has not been categorized as invasive, and is consumed by both humans and local fauna.

Perhaps, one of the most iconic symbols of the Caribbean is the coconut palm tree, but it is not indigenous to the Caribbean. Certain varieties of palm trees were introduced into the region by Spanish colonizers (Rivera et al., 2013), but the origin of the coconut tree continues to puzzle researchers:

Proponents of a South American origin must explain why it is not indigenous there and why it shows greatest diversity in southern Asia. Conversely, proponents of an Asian origin must explain why there are no Asian [coconut trees] and why the closest botanical relative…is in South America. Both hypotheses share the common problems of how, when, where and in what directions long-distance dispersal occurred (Harries & Clement, 2014).

Some theorize that the coconut was either transported by hurricanes and tsunamis or simply floated across the vast oceans, taking root in South America & the Caribbean.

In fact, some of the foods most characteristic of Caribbean cuisine are not indigenous to the region at all, and were brought over by colonizers. Mangoes, for example, are indigenous to India and were brought over to the West by the Portuguese in the 1700s, and first planted in Brazil before spreading north to the Caribbean. Breadfruit is indigenous to Southeast Asia, ackee is a West African fruit, and plantain and limes both hail from Asia—regions that many of my ancestors are from. In the same way as we could not imagine the Caribbean without the sound of palm trees swaying in the winds, few could imagine a Caribbean dish without many of these non-native ingredients.

Lime, Ackee, and Breadfruit trees

The imperialism that brought diverse flora, fauna, and bodies to these lands can never be undone. When I reflect on what these thriving non-native plants are teaching me, they remind me that I am made not only of local soursop and avocado, but historically of mango and plantain—they’ve been feeding my ancestors for centuries; my mixed background is as diverse as the fruit trees rooted here. Through Landguaging’s land sensitivity, I focus on non-human accounts of history and weed out the noise of colonizing tactics that try to alter local histories of land by declaring it terra nullius. In doing so, I understand my ancestors as one of the many flora & fauna elements that were purposely uprooted from their homelands and strategically transplanted to the Americas only to survive and thrive—much to the chagrin of their traffickers. I am not in cultural deficit to my Caribbean heritage; rather, I am the embodiment of the imperial processes that occurred on these lands, reflecting the biodiversity of the Caribbean herself.


Chung, R., & Chung Arsenault, W.  (2023). ‘Landguaging’ the L2 classroom: Inclusive pedagogies & land-sensitive curriculum through teacher reflection art. Concordia University Working Papers in Applied Linguistics, 7, 29-54.

Curet, L. A. (2014). The Taíno: Phenomena, concepts, and terms. Ethnohistory, 61(3), 467-495.

Harries, H.C., & Clement C.R. (2014). Long-distance dispersal of the coconut palm by migration within the coral atoll ecosystem. Annals of Botany Journal, 113(4),565-70. doi: 10.1093/aob/mct293.

Kramsch, C. (1998) Language and Culture. Oxford University Press.

Rivera, D., Johnson, D., Delgadillo, J., Carrillo, M. H., Obón, C., Krueger, R., Alcaraz, F., Ríos , F., & Carreño, E. (2013). Historical evidence of the Spanish introduction of date palm (Phoenix dactylifera L., Arecaceae) into the Americas. Genetic resources and crop evolution, 60, 1433-1452.

Veracini, L. (2011). Introducing: Settler colonial studies. Settler Colonial Studies, 1(1), 1-12.

Williams, C. A. (2013). Premature abolition, ethnocentrism, and bold blackness: Race relations in the Cayman Islands, 1834-1840. Historian, 75(4), 781–805.

Williams, C. (2011). Did slavery really matter in the Cayman Islands? The Journal of Caribbean History, 45(2), 159-189.

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