We present the first direct comparison and calibration of a downcore foraminiferal Mg/Ca record to historical instrumental sea surface temperature (SST). Mg/Ca measured on the planktic foraminifer Globigerina bulloides from a Cariaco Basin sediment core strongly correlate with spring (March–May) instrumental SSTs between A.D. 1870 and 1990. A Mg/Ca SST equation is derived and a paleo-SST record is presented spanning the last 8 centuries, an interval that includes the end of the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age. The long-term record displays a surprising amount of variability. The temperature swings are not necessarily related to local upwelling variability but instead represent wider conditions in the Caribbean and western tropical Atlantic. The Mg/Ca SST record also captures the decadal and multidecadal variability observed in records of global land and sea surface temperature anomalies and Atlantic tropical storm and hurricane frequency over the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A divergence between the SST proxy record and Atlantic storm frequency around 1970 appears to reflect a fundamental change in Atlantic hurricane behavior noted in historical data. On average, twentieth-century temperatures are not the warmest in the entire record, but they do show the largest increase in magnitude and fastest rate of SST change over the last 800 a.