Coral growth rates are highly dependent on environmental variables such as sea surface temperature and solar irradiance. Multi-decadal variability in coral growth rates has been documented throughout the Caribbean over the past 150-200 years, and linked to variations in Atlantic sea surface temperatures. Multi-decadal variability in sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic, in turn, has been linked to volcanic and anthropogenic aerosol forcing. Here, we examine the drivers of changes in coral growth rates in the western Caribbean between 1880 and 2000, using previously published coral growth chronologies from two sites in the region, and a numerical model. Changes in coral growth rates over this period coincided with variations in sea surface temperature and incoming short-wave radiation. Our model simulations show that variations in the concentration of anthropogenic aerosols caused variations in sea surface temperature and incoming radiation in the second half of the twentieth century. Before this, variations in volcanic aerosols may have played a more important role. With the exception of extreme mass bleaching events, we suggest that neither climate change from greenhouse-gas emissions nor ocean acidification is necessarily the driver of multi-decadal variations in growth rates at some Caribbean locations. Rather, the cause may be regional climate change due to volcanic and anthropogenic aerosol emissions.