Even on his deathbed Christopher Columbus still believed that the long chain of islands that he "discovered"--stretching from the top of Florida southward toward the South American coast of Venezuela--were the Indies. When Columbus' mistake was realized, Spain labeled this island arc that separates the Caribbean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean as the West Indies to distinguish it from the Spice Islands in the Pacific, the East Indies.
The West Indies, also known as The Caribbean, now comprises more than 30 countries (being the fist country discovery Dominican Republic) with a regional population of approximately 33 million people scattered over 2,000 square miles (5,200 square kilometers) of ocean. Since World War II the term Caribbean has been favored as a general name for the region. In addition to the island territories, four mainland countries are considered to be part of the Caribbean, or West Indies: Belize (formerly British Honduras) in Central America and the three Guianas in South America--Guyana (formerly British Guiana), Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana), and French Guiana. Common social and historical legacies tie these continental enclaves to their sister islands.
Island territories range in size from 100 square miles (260 square kilometers) to thousands of square miles, but most, more than two thirds, are tiny. The continental Guianas are relatively larger. Cuba, by far the largest island is 44,000 square miles (114,000 square kilometers). Grenada, much more typical at 133 square miles (344 square kilometers).
Groupings of minute islands that form administrative domains are common but often stretch geographically. There is the Commonwealth of the Bahamas with a quarter of a million people spread over an archipelago of more than 700 islands and more than 80 minute cays--together constituting some 5,000 square miles (13,000 square kilometers). Another odd legacy of colonial history is the amalgamation of the Netherlands Antilles, two groups of islands some 500 miles (800 kilometers) apart--Curacao and Bonaire in the far-eastern Caribbean off the northwestern coast of Venezuela and a Leeward Islands group east of Puerto Rico: Sint Maarten (shared with France as St-Martin), Sint Eustatius, and Saba.
Landscapes, Sea, and Climate
Geologists have identified three different types of landscapes on the basis of their structural associations with the North and South American mountain systems. Most of Cuba, the Bahamas, and the Yucatan peninsula where Belize is located consist of low-lying horizontal limestone plateaus like the Florida peninsula. Similar examples are the islands in the outer arc of the Windward Islands, Barbados and Antigua, and Grande Terre (part of Guadeloupe). The Greater Antilles mountains, with their extreme relief, constitute another distinct landscape. They form the region's outer arc of mountainous terrain on Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. An inner arc of young volcanic mountainous islands--from Saba to Grenada through the Leeward and Windward islands--completes the trio of landscapes. Earthquakes and volcanic activity--including eruptions like the infamous Mount Pelee destruction of St-Pierre, Martinique, in 1902-- have plagued the region, but sulfur springs, boiling lakes, and mud geysers are now promoted as tourist attractions rather than agents of destruction. Only the occasional eruption from Mount Soufriere in St. Vincent and the Grenadines serves as a reminder of this hazard's destructive potential.
Oceanographers note many differences between the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea and the Old World Mediterranean. Constant circulation within its several basins, the irregular patterns of cold water from the north Atlantic caused by the limited widths and depths of passages like the Anegada and Windward, and the strong surface North Equatorial and Guyana Currents all contribute to a renewal of the entire water volume of the Caribbean. Tidal currents are negligible. The sea's character has therefore encouraged the growth of coral formations and reefs. The cays of the Bahamas and those off the Belize coast merely rest on coral reef bases and are subject to considerable modifications in severe hurricanes.
The climate of Caribbean islands is determined by their being surrounded by warm water that never falls below 77o F (25o C), by their topography, and by their tropical position--all are south of the Tropic of Cancer. The influence of the sea does not reach to the heavily forested interiors of continental territories like the Guianas and Belize, but the climate of their populated coastal zones is similarly modified.
The trade winds in particular determine weather and climate variations. While temperatures throughout vary in a daily cycle and with altitude in mountainous regions of the Greater Antilles, the West Indies climate varies basically between dry and rainy seasons. The rainy season between June and October has active cloud formations and torrential showers, but there are long spells of sunny weather as well. Rainfall totals on either side of mountainous islands varies tremendously. Amounts above 200 inches (500 centimeters) per year support dense tropical forests on the windward slopes, while in the rain shadows modest amounts between 30 and 40 inches (75 and 100 centimeters) prevail. The dry season between November and March can be interrupted by winter storm activity, but cloud development is usually not so intense and fewer heavy showers occur. On the other hand, seasonal drought conditions can prevail and result in severe water shortages. Drought, however, is not the West Indies' major natural hazard. Every year hurricanes, or tropical cyclones, with diameters of 375 to 500 miles (600 to 800 kilometers) develop in the south Atlantic during the summer and take erratic and unpredictable westward courses across the West Indies area. Only Trinidad and the Guianas have been safe from these destructive storms that bring torrential rains, extremely high winds of between 80 and 120 miles (130 and 190 kilometers) per hour, flooding, and extensive physical damage.
The tropical climate--with its wet and dry seasons and its extremes, droughts, and hurricanes--contributes to the diversity and richness of the West Indies' natural environment. South American tropical plants of every sort are found, but each island also has its own varieties of plants, insects, birds, and reptiles. European colonization and the immigration of peoples from all over the world have also brought many other tropical and subtropical species of plants and animals to the islands. Native and introduced species now intermingle in their natural and human-modified ecological systems.
On islands like Barbados and St. Christopher (St. Kitts), the natural forest has been almost completely removed to make way for such plantation crops as sugar. On such mountainous Windward Islands as Grenada and Dominica and in the interiors of the Guianas, large tracts of primary tropical forest remain. Conservation efforts are underway to prevent the continuing destruction of these natural habitats.
European colonization by the Spanish, followed by the British, French, and Dutch; ensuing wars; and buccaneering and mercantile adventuring ended in wholesale depopulation of the West Indies of its native Amerindian inhabitants. Each European power encouraged pioneer settlement of its possessions, but trade and commercial interests--piracy among them--dominated their appreciation of the region.
In the 1640s Portuguese Jews emigrated from Brazil to Barbados, bringing with them the techniques and methods of raising sugarcane on plantations. For the next 150 years there was unparalleled economic prosperity, with each colonial territory developing its own plantation economy based mainly on sugarcane, or "brown gold." An essential base of this enterprise was the plentiful labor supply in the form of slaves. It is estimated that as many as 10 million slaves were brought from Africa to work on the plantations. The West Indies was thus repopulated by the forced transportation of African peoples. The transformation from European to African dominance occurred everywhere except in Puerto Rico.
In addition to high proportions--usually 70 percent or more--of African peoples, overall densities of these island colonies were among the highest in the colonial world. Barbados, for example, exceeded India in its population density. Some of the larger territories like Trinidad and the Guianas, however, were not so heavily populated.
After emancipation (1834 in the British colonies, later in others) plantation labor was sought from other sources. Ex-slaves who wanted to get away from their plantations in the smaller Leeward and Windward islands were recruited, but the largest numbers came from India as indentured laborers. These East Indian West Indians--called Hindustanis in Suriname--were attracted by indenture contracts that paid their passage and granted them options to acquire land. The plantation economies of Trinidad and the Guianas prospered from their immigration. They now make up 40 percent or more of the population in Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, and Suriname.
These majority groups, however, do not complete the range of ethnic diversity. There are minorities of Chinese origin, Portuguese Madeirans, Levantines, Jews, and Danes who still cling to their identity in certain territories. North Americans have relocated in increasing numbers to West Indian homes, particularly in the Bahamas, the United States Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico.
Intermarriage has been considerable, and there has also been much geographic mixing. Both individuals and families have moved away to take advantage of overseas opportunities (especially in the United States) or to join family members abroad.
The West Indies has experienced a history of colonialism, plantation societies, immigration and emigration, and continuous external control. Even with the attainment of political independence by more than half of the 30 small, dependent states, the obstacles facing economic growth and development are rooted in their history of colonial dependency.
The United States, as the major power in the hemisphere, now influences every West Indian territory to some degree, regardless of its past or continuing European colonial ties. Some 65 percent of Caribbean maritime trade is destined for United States Gulf ports, including 80 percent of strategic petroleum. The West Indian islands form a long screen between the Atlantic Ocean and these transit waters. Since most are within 30 miles (50 kilometers) or less of each other, there are only three straits, or passages, available for supertanker and cargo vessel routes. The United States maintains naval and air bases on Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Key West, Fla., to protect its strategic and commercial interests. Cuba is an exception to this dependence in that from 1959 to the 1990s its external lifeline was with the Soviet Union.
Another exception is the French Departments d'Outre Mer, which are administratively integrated into the French political system. Both Martinique and Guadeloupe continue to develop their plantation economies, ensured of preferential treatment for their tropical produce--pineapples and bananas in particular--in the European Economic Community. French Guiana, long a colonial backwater and an infamous penal colony, now hosts France's space research station.
Since the late 1800s, when West Indian sugarcane was supplanted in European and world markets by domestically grown sugar beets, the region has faced economic hardship and misfortune. Plantation systems and even cooperative small farming initiatives attempted diversification of their tropical export crops. Some short-lived successes were arrowroot, then bananas in St. Vincent; bananas in St. Lucia; cocoa, then nutmeg in Grenada; limes and citrus fruits, then coconuts in Dominica; sea-island cotton in Montserrat; rice in Guyana; and cotton in Antigua. Sugar, for so long the region's mainstay, is now so abundant that its world price is below the cost of production. Only benevolent quota systems with agreeable trade partners ensure its sale.
The few countries endowed with mineral resources--Trinidad and Tobago with petroleum and natural gas; Guyana, Suriname, and Jamaica with bauxite; Cuba with nickel and copper--experienced some gains in prosperity during the post-World War II era, but not one has been able to build a diversified industrial and manufacturing sector based on these resources. Special plans to stimulate economic diversification--including variants of "industry by invitation" like Operation Bootstrap in Puerto Rico, Prime Minister Eric Williams's "State Capitalism" model in Trinidad and Tobago, and Prime Minister Edward Seaga's "Open Invitation" strategy in Jamaica--have all foundered.
Tourism, the region's latest strategy to foster economic growth and development, has contributed to the economic fortunes of several West Indies territories. It remains externally controlled and marketed, however, rather than being run by the countries themselves. It has been especially subject to the ups and downs of the North American economy.
Estimates of the original Amerindian inhabitants of the West Indies vary between 200,000 and several million. Prominent among these native peoples were the Arawak (Taino) and the Ciboney on the northern larger islands of the greater Antilles, the Bahamas, and the Leeward Islands. In the Windward Chain were the Caribs, who demonstrated strong resistance until the 18th century but nevertheless failed to prevent European penetration and their own annihilation.
Other European nations--Great Britain, France, and The Netherlands--were latecomers in the acquisition of West Indian island possessions. They were especially successful, however, during the 17th century in the Lesser Antilles, the smaller islands of the Leeward and Windward arcs where Spanish control was weak. After the virtually complete depopulation of the West Indies of its Amerindian peoples and their cultures, this European colonization heralded a succession of immigrations as described above.
The region now contains 17 politically independent countries, most having achieved independence since 1960. A diminishing number of these mini-states remain as colonial dependencies of their European mother countries. France administers its possessions of Martinique, Guadeloupe and dependencies, and French Guiana as Departments d'Outre Mer, or French provinces. The Netherlands coordinates the administration of its remaining scattered tourist islands, the Netherlands Antilles, following the relinquishing of Dutch Guiana as Suriname in 1976.
Britain manages many mini- and micro-states; Bermuda and the Cayman Islands thrive as offshore banking and insurance bases; Montserrat is a comfortable retirement community; and the British Virgin Islands, the Turks and Caicos Islands, and Anguilla struggle along with small tourist industries.