Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943


Carolyn Arena

Carolyn Arena

NEH Postdoctoral Fellow (2017–2019)

Carolyn Arena is a historian of the Atlantic World, focusing on histories of native peoples in the Americas and slavery. Dr. Arena is the 2017–2019 National Endowment of the Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. Prior to joining the Omohundro Institute, she completed her PhD at Columbia University with funding from Foreign Language and Area Studies, Fulbright, the London School of Economics, and the Folger Shakespeare Library Seminars.

While at the OI, Dr. Arena will continue researching and writing her book manuscript, “Caribana: Indian Autonomy, Indian Slavery.” Dr. Arena’s book will elaborate on the concept of “Caribana,” which sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English and Dutch cartographers labeled inside the Caribbean coastline of South America. To these Europeans, Caribana denoted a region of indigenous power that already successfully resisted Spanish colonization. These merchants and colonists hoped it would be a region of alliance, but feared violence from rumored cannibals and fierce warriors. Dr. Arena explores Caribana beyond the European imagination. She shows how it was created, originally, as an indigenous network of trade, culture, and captive exchanges. Caribbean natives defended Caribana throughout the period of European exploration and plantation development. Their refusal to submit as subjects, however, made them targets for enslavement. Thus, Europeans faced a more extensive and resilient Caribana, stretching from Guiana to the Lesser Antilles, than they had previously imagined. Dutch and English colonists did find limited success in forging tenuous trade alliances, and isolating and enslaving individual Indians. As resistors and trade partners, these indigenous people helped to corral and shape colonial patterns; as slaves, they helped to build the plantation societies and influenced the slave codes that governed the early modern Caribbean.

Dr. Arena’s research draws on early modern literature, ethnographies, and maps as well as traditional archival sources like government records, deeds, and tax rolls. While at the OI, she will be creating original maps of Caribana with GIS technology, uniting both indigenous and European markers of the space. She also plans to research French archival sources to compliment her previous research in Dutch and English archives.

Examples of her work can be found in the following publications:

  • “Indian Slaves from Guiana in Seventeenth-Century Barbados,” Ethnohistory 64, vol 1 (January 2017): 65-90.
  • “Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, Indian Slavery, and the Anglo-Dutch Wars,” in The Torrid Zone: Caribbean Colonization and Cultural Interaction in the Long Seventeenth-Century. Edited by L.H. Roper. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, forthcoming 2018.