West Indies

West Indies, an archipelago, or group of islands, that extends in an arc from near southern Florida to the coast of Venezuela...



West Indies, an archipelago, or group of islands, that extends in an arc from near southern Florida to the coast of Venezuela. The West Indies archipelago, which includes thousands of tiny islands, forms a breakwater 3,200-km (2,000-mi) long against the Atlantic Ocean, separating it from the Caribbean Sea.

The West Indies archipelago is known by a variety of names. The earliest name, and the one most frequently used, is West Indies. European explorer Christopher Columbus gave the region that name in error when he arrived in 1492. He assumed that the islands were near the coast of India.

With the passage of time, other names came into use. Spain and France called the islands the Antilles, named after the mythological Atlantic island of Antilia, or Antilla. The larger islands (Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico) came to be known as the Greater Antilles, while the remaining smaller islands were called the Lesser Antilles.

The Lesser Antilles were also further divided into the Windward Islands and Leeward Islands, names referring to the position of the islands relative to the trade winds that blow steadily from the northeast. The Spanish originally called most of the small eastern islands the Windward Islands and reserved the name leeward, meaning 'away from the wind,' for the islands close to the northern coast of South America. The British reversed these names and called the eastern group the Leeward Islands and the southern group the Windward Islands. This British terminology is generally accepted today. The principal islands of the Windward group are Dominica, Grenada, Martinique, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent; the main islands of the Leeward group are Antigua, Guadeloupe, Montserrat, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and the Virgin Islands.

Geographically a part of the Americas, the islands of the West Indies have close cultural and historical ties with Europe, Africa, and Asia. No other region in the Americas exhibits such a diverse range of cultural patterns and social and political institutions. Beginning in the 15th century, European nations began to colonize the West Indies, bringing their culture, language, and social influences to the islands. The majority of the islands remained colonies for a longer period than any other part of the Americas. Most West Indian nations attained independence from the late 19th to the late 20th century.

During the 19th century, the United States began to extend its influence into the West Indies, at first through business ventures on a number of the islands, but later through direct military intervention. As a result of the Spanish-American War (1898), the United States occupied Spain’s two remaining colonies in the region, Cuba and Puerto Rico. While Cuba became independent shortly afterward, Puerto Rico eventually became a U.S. commonwealth. The United States intervened militarily in Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and other Caribbean nations throughout the 20th century.

Political Structure

The West Indies is a region of ministates, partly due to the area’s colonial history and partly due to the area’s thousands of tiny islands. The basic unit in the West Indies is the island, but there is no main island that holds the rest together. Furthermore, the separateness imposed by geography has been accentuated by the political fragmentation resulting from the region’s colonial past. Consequently, when people say they are Jamaicans or Barbadians, they are most likely expressing their broadest allegiance.

Politically the islands of the West Indies comprise 13 independent nations and a number of colonial dependencies, territories, and possessions. The Republic of Cuba, consisting of the island of Cuba and several nearby islands, is the largest West Indian nation. Haiti and the Dominican Republic, two other independent nations, occupy Hispaniola, the second largest island in the archipelago. Jamaica, Barbados, The Bahamas, Trinidad and Tobago, Dominica, Grenada, the Federation of Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Antigua and Barbuda are the other sovereign nations.

Sovereignty over nearly all the other West Indies islands is distributed among the United States, France, The Netherlands, Venezuela, and the United Kingdom. Puerto Rico, the fourth largest island of the archipelago, is a U.S. commonwealth and several of the Virgin Islands are United States territories (see Virgin Islands of the United States). The French West Indies includes Martinique, Guadeloupe, and a number of smaller dependencies of Guadeloupe. Martinique and Guadeloupe and its dependencies are overseas departments of France. The Dutch possessions consist of the Netherlands Antilles (Curaçao and Bonaire), Aruba, and smaller Lesser Antilles islands. Venezuela controls about 70 Lesser Antilles islands, including Margarita Island. Dependencies of the United Kingdom are Anguilla, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat, Turks and Caicos Islands, and some of the Virgin Islands (see Virgin Islands, British).

Land and Resources

The West Indies archipelago consists of four island chains: The Bahamas, the Greater Antilles, and the eastern and southern islands of the Lesser Antilles. Together, these islands cover more than 236,000 sq km (91,000 sq mi) of land area.

The northernmost island chain is The Bahamas. The Bahamas include 29 inhabited islands and nearly 3,000 islets stretching southeastward from Florida. Most of them are flat islands formed from coral and limestone.

The Greater Antilles is the largest and westernmost chain. It includes Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. The four main islands comprise nine-tenths of the entire land area of the West Indies. Cuba alone has almost half this area. The main island of Cuba covers 105,006 sq km (40,543 sq mi).

Much of the landmass of the Greater Antilles is formed by a partially submerged mountain range. These mountains form the Sierra Maestras and Sierra de Nipe on Cuba, the Blue Mountains on Jamaica, the Cordillera Central on Hispaniola, and the mountainous core of Puerto Rico farther to the east. The highest peak in the Caribbean, Pico Duarte (3,175 m/10,417 ft), is found on Hispaniola in the Dominican Republic. Unlike the other islands of the Greater Antilles, this mountainous core occupies only a small part of Cuba. The western three-fourths of the island is a vast limestone platform structurally related to the limestone platforms of Florida and Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.

The third island chain includes the eastern islands of the Lesser Antilles, which curve north from the coast of Venezuela toward Puerto Rico. The islands along this arc fall into two distinct geographic groups. Some islands formed as a result of volcanic activity, while others emerged from the ocean as low-lying coral islands. Saint Vincent, Saint Lucia, Martinique, Dominica, the western half of Guadeloupe, Montserrat, Nevis, Saint Kitts, and the Virgin Islands are mountainous with rims of coastal plain. There are many active volcanoes in the West Indies, including Montagne Pelée in Martinique and Soufrière in Saint Vincent. The Soufriere Hills volcano on Montserrat erupted during the mid-1990s, destroying the island’s capital of Plymouth.

The islands of Barbados, Antigua, Barbuda, Anguilla, and the eastern half of Guadeloupe generally have low elevations and more level terrain. With the exception of Antigua, all are coral islands. Antigua’s origins are more complex, and this small island has three distinct geologic divisions—an ancient volcanic mountain range, a lowland formed from clay sediments, and a highly eroded limestone upland.

The fourth island chain, the southern islands of the Lesser Antilles, follows the coast of Venezuela, from Lake Maracaibo to the mouth of the Orinoco River. These islands are extreme northeastern extensions of the Andes Mountains and have complex geologic structures. They include Aruba, Curaçao, Bonaire, Margarita, and Trinidad and Tobago.

The smaller islands of the Lesser Antilles vary in size from Guadeloupe and its dependencies at 1,780 sq km (687 sq mi) to slivers of coral such as Anguilla at 96 sq km (37 sq mi). One of the smallest inhabited islands is Saba, part of the Netherlands Antilles. A volcanic cone, Saba towers 870 m (2,854 ft) above the ocean. Its capital, The Bottom, is built at the bottom of the extinct crater—the only patch of level land on the island. Many smaller uninhabited coral islets are found in the region.


Except for the northern half of The Bahamas, the islands of the West Indies are all in the tropics, the warm climate zone between latitudes 10° and 23°27’ north. In these latitudes the sun is high overhead all year, so there is little variation from day to day between the times of sunrise and sunset.

The sun's heat is moderated by the cool temperatures of the Atlantic Ocean and by the trade winds, which blow from the northeast throughout the year. These winds blow more strongly from January to April, bringing cooler temperatures and showers from far out in the Atlantic.

The trade winds have been a dominant influence in West Indian history. The captains of sailing ships followed the pathway they dictated, entering the Caribbean from the east and leaving it through the Gulf of Mexico or other passages leading north between the islands. From there, winds known as the westerlies blew from the southwest. These winds helped propel the sailing ships across the Atlantic from The Bahamas to western Europe.

From Trinidad to Cuba it is possible to see on the windward coasts the influence of the trade winds: beaches piled high with sand, coconut palms leaning inland away from the wind, and long Atlantic waves breaking against dark gray cliffs. The only safe harbors on the windward coasts are almost landlocked, such as San Juan in Puerto Rico and Havana in Cuba. Away from the wind, the leeward sides of the islands have tranquil waters and many harbors: Port Royal in Jamaica, Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, Castries in Saint Lucia, Fort-de-France in Martinique, and Port-of-Spain in Trinidad.

Temperatures vary little between winter and summer in the West Indies. Average January temperatures range between 22°C to 25°C (71°F to 77°F), and average July temperatures range from 25°C to 29°C (77°F to 84°F). There are no sharply marked changes in the seasons.

The major variations in climate in the West Indies involve seasonal changes in precipitation and the onset of the hurricane season in the summer months. Most of the islands have two rainy seasons, usually from May through June and from September through November. Dry seasons occur from January to March and in midsummer. The windward sides of the islands get much heavier rain than the leeward sides.

There are variations from island to island in the wet and dry seasons and in the amount of rainfall. Except for Trinidad, the southern islands of the Lesser Antilles are shielded from the moist Atlantic air by the eastern islands of the Lesser Antilles and have hot, dry climates. Trinidad has one long wet season from May to November, although it is usually broken by a short dry season of a couple of weeks in September or October. Farther north, thickly forested Dominica gets more than 5,100 mm (200 in) of rain due to the effects of its mountainous terrain; the Dominicans divide their seasons into wet and wetter. Neighboring Barbados and Antigua, both low-lying islands, get much less rain. Antigua has no more than 1,100 mm (45 in) a year and Barbados about 1,500 mm (60 in).

Climatic conditions can often vary considerably even on one island. This is especially true on the larger islands of the Greater Antilles, where the mountains have a strong effect on weather patterns. Temperatures can be much lower in the highlands. On Hispaniola, for example, pine, which grows in temperate forests, is found at the upper elevations of the Cordillera Central. The mountains also influence the distribution of precipitation, with the northeastern slopes receiving much more precipitation from the trade winds than the southwestern slopes, which are shielded from the rain. On Puerto Rico for example, the northeastern shore near the capital city of San Juan is well watered and green with vegetation, while on the southwestern coast near Ponce, cacti and thorn forests thrive in the semiarid climate.

Hurricanes are part of West Indian life through the summer and autumn months. On average an island is hit infrequently, but these storms, which can bring high winds and torrential rains, leave a lasting impact on inhabitants. Islanders often fix dates by the year in which a particular hurricane struck their island.

Plant and Animal Life

The ecology of the islands of the West Indies is typical of other island ecosystems. The variety of native animals is relatively limited. Only a handful of mammal and amphibious species are indigenous. Native species include iguanas, green turtles, hawkbill turtles, and agoutis, rodents which can be destructive to farm crops. The number and diversity of bird and saltwater aquatic species, however, is greater than that of the native animals.

Unique bird species are found on some of the islands. These include the Grenada dove, the Guadeloupe woodpecker, and the yellow-billed parrot in Jamaica. The world’s largest flamingo colony is found in the eastern edge of The Bahamas; another major colony is located on Bonaire in the southwestern Caribbean. An immense variety of aquatic species occur in the region’s waters. The most common fish species include the grunt, butterfly, soldier, squirrel, and angelfish. Over 50 species of hard coral, varying widely in shape and color, are found in the islands’ offshore waters.

Humans have severely affected the plants and animals of the West Indies. While indigenous peoples undoubtedly modified the natural vegetation and animal life of the islands, the arrival of Europeans greatly accelerated the process. The deforestation of islands occurred early in the colonial period, as construction needs, agriculture, and charcoal production each took its toll. Severely deforested and highly eroded, Haiti is an extreme example of this type of environmental degradation.

The introduction of imported plant and animal species transformed the islands. Sugarcane is a prime example. Europeans transported sugarcane from the eastern Mediterranean to the Atlantic islands off the coast of Africa and then to the tropical regions of the Americas. There it was grown as an export crop, thus integrating the islands in the world trade system. Sugarcane was cultivated on large plantations, which over time became increasingly dependent on slave labor. A large number of African slaves were brought to the West Indies to cultivate sugarcane.

Most other crops and plants that visitors associate with the islands are actually introduced species—bananas, rice, citrus fruits, mangos, breadfruit, and coffee. All draft and farm animals were also introduced. Two introduced species, the rat and the mongoose, have been especially damaging to the native ecology.


The economy of the West Indies depends largely on agriculture and tourism. A few islands have mineral deposits, and many of the island nations have tried to encourage manufacturing with varying success. Per capita income varies from island to island. By 2003 The Bahamas had the highest annual per capita income in the region, $16,730, largely a result of tourism, which attracted 1.6 million visitors in 2005. In Puerto Rico per capita income was $17,680; in Barbados, $11,465.30; and in Trinidad and Tobago, $11,000.40. Haiti has the region’s lowest per capita income, $500.50 annually.


Farming is an important economic endeavor in many West Indian countries. On the larger islands—Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Trinidad—one-sixth to one-quarter of the land is farmland. On some of the smaller islands, such as Antigua, Barbados, Grenada, Saint Kitts, Nevis, Anguilla, and Saint Vincent, at least half of the total land area is cultivated.

Most of the islands produce similar crops because their climate and land formations are comparable. On the tiny plots of land that dot the steep mountain slopes of the smaller islands, farmers grow sweet potatoes; cassava, or manioc; beans; corn, or maize; and sometimes tobacco. These crops are all indigenous to the region. In addition imported plants flourish, such as sugarcane, yams, bananas, citrus fruits, and coffee.

Some islands have specialized crops: Grenada has nutmeg; Saint Vincent, arrowroot; Dominica, vanilla; Montserrat and Antigua, sea island cotton; and Trinidad, cacao. Jamaica has pimento, also known as allspice, whose leaves and berries yield the aroma and taste of all the spices.

Typically, large plantations produce one or two crops for export. The typical crop is sugarcane, which was introduced first in Barbados in the mid-17th century and later spread to other islands. Although its importance is declining, sugarcane is still an important crop in Barbados, Cuba, Hispaniola, Saint Kitts, Puerto Rico, and several other islands. Sugar processing, including the making of rum and molasses, is important on several islands, notably Barbados.

Economic Diversification

Until the 1950s most West Indian islands depended almost wholly on agriculture. During the last half of the 20th century, improved health care, rising birth rates, and increased longevity led to a population increase that agriculture could not support. Few Caribbean countries have an adequate land area to support their current populations. Cuba, with a large percentage of flat, agriculturally rich land, is an exception.

It became apparent that islanders had to develop other sources of income. A few islands possess some mineral wealth. In Trinidad, petroleum and asphalt resources formed the backbone of the island’s economy until the early 1980s, when production of both began a steady decline. Oil refining is still important on Curaçao and Aruba. Jamaica is among the world's leading producers of bauxite, an aluminum ore. The nation currently refines about half of its bauxite for the aluminum market. Cuba exploits nickel, chrome, and cobalt. Mining has stimulated mineral processing industries on a few islands.

Many islands have tried to encourage manufacturing by giving temporary income-tax exemptions to certain industries and by permitting tax-free imports of manufacturing machinery and certain raw materials. Articles for domestic consumption—such as food products, furniture, cement, glass, textiles, and soap—are manufactured in the Dominican Republic, Trinidad, Jamaica, Guadeloupe, and other islands. Some islands have industrial specializations that contribute significantly to the local economy. In Puerto Rico the specialization is pharmaceuticals, and in Aruba it is petroleum refining. In Trinidad and Tobago, petroleum products and refining are important. The principal industry in the Dominican Republic and Haiti is clothing assembly.

Puerto Rico is the most industrialized of the islands. Its industrialization is closely linked to its status as a U.S. commonwealth territory. The Puerto Rican government implemented a sweeping program to promote industrialization beginning in the early 1950s. Known as Operation Bootstrap, this program provided a range of generous incentives to U.S. firms to locate on the island. These included tax breaks, the training of workers at government expense, and low-interest loans for machinery. The program contributed to an impressive transformation of the island’s agrarian economy, and over 1,000 manufacturing plants opened from the early 1950s to 1965. The U.S. government provided additional tax reductions on corporate profits that helped underwrite the program’s success. Today, Puerto Rico boasts a modern industrial sector consisting of light and heavy manufacturing.

During the early 1980s the United States enacted the Caribbean Basin Economic Recovery Act (CBERA), a broad package of legislation designed to promote industrialization and economic diversification in Caribbean countries. The package provided tax incentives to U.S. investors and preferential trade terms for Caribbean exports to the United States. Despite the legislation’s positive rhetoric, the Congress of the United States hedged on removing or significantly reducing many import duties. As a result, U.S. businesses made only modest new investments in the region. After the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA) was implemented between the United States, Mexico, and Canada in January 1994, imports to the United States under the program declined, since many of the same products could be imported more easily and less expensively from Mexico.

Tourism has fueled economic growth in many islands since the late 1970s. A significant byproduct of the growing tourism industry has been a closer dependence on the United States, the source of most of the tourists and much of the investment in tourist facilities.

For some islands, money sent from West Indians working in foreign countries—mostly on the more prosperous West Indian islands, North America, or Britain—constitutes an important source of income. By the mid-1990s the Jamaican government estimated that the amount of money sent to the country by overseas workers was greater than that earned from tourism.


The people of the islands are largely descendants of emigrants who arrived from other regions of the world, mainly from Africa. In 2000 an estimated 34.5 million people lived in the West Indies. Population density varies greatly throughout the region. Many of the smaller islands, such as Grenada and Barbados, face acute crowding, and population densities are extremely high. Crowding on the region’s larger islands, such as Cuba and the Dominican Republic, is much less severe.


The first immigrants came to the West Indies after Spain claimed ownership of the Caribbean region and began to colonize the islands near the end of the 15th century. Land was abundant, but labor was scarce. The Spaniards made slaves of the indigenous people—the Taíno in the Greater Antilles and the Carib in the Lesser Antilles—forcing them to labor in mines and on agricultural estates. The population of Native Americans declined rapidly in the primary Spanish colony on Hispaniola as a result of harsh treatment and disease. The Spanish then sent slaving expeditions to the Bahamas, the coast of Central America, and Trinidad to enslave more indigenous people.

Soon the Taíno mostly died out. The Carib lasted longer. They put up a fierce resistance to European settlers, but in the end most of them also perished. About 3,000 Carib descendants remain on Dominica. In 1796 the British deported a group of Carib to coastal Central America, where their descendents still survive today, mostly in Guatemala. Traces of indigenous cultures remain in food crops, in place names, in craft techniques such as the making of dugout canoes and hammocks, and in the ancestry of some people in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba.

The roots of the vast majority of West Indian people can be traced to Europe, Africa, and Asia. During the 17th century the English, Dutch, and French joined the Spanish in settling and exploring the West Indies. At first, the English and French met their needs for labor by bringing Europeans to the islands as indentured servants, individuals who agreed to work for a specific number of years in exchange for passage to the colonies, food, and shelter. Eventually, all the colonizing countries imported slaves from Africa to provide labor. The number of slaves brought to the West Indies increased dramatically after the sugar plantations were established in the 17th century, making slavery the dominant economic institution on many islands (see Atlantic Slave Trade).

The number of slaves imported into the West Indies was large, estimated at about 4 million people. About 40 percent of the 10 million slaves imported to the Americas went to the Caribbean, a higher percentage than any other region in the Western Hemisphere. Africans soon became the majority on most of the islands. Asians joined the population in the 19th century, when Chinese workers arrived in Cuba and Jamaica and indentured workers from India came to the Lesser Antilles.

An estimated 70 percent of the people of the West Indies are of African descent or mulatto (mixed African and European descent), 25 percent European descent, and 5 percent Asian descent. The racial composition of individual islands, however, differs widely. Most of the whites are of Spanish descent and live in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. Most of the Asians live in Trinidad. The inhabitants of the other islands and the third of Hispaniola occupied by Haiti are overwhelmingly of African descent. Jamaica is typical of the older plantation islands, with 76 percent of its population of African descent, 15 percent mulatto, 1 percent of European descent, and 8 percent of Chinese, Indian, or other heritage.

Population Growth and Density

The West Indies population has grown rapidly since the 1960s as the mortality rate—especially the rate of infant deaths—fell and the birth rate remained high. Mortality rates fell as improved public health measures led to better sanitation, sewerage systems, and safer water supplies. The greater availability of medical care as well as vaccines and antibiotics also contributed significantly to a general lowering of the death rate throughout most of the region.

In Jamaica the infant mortality rate dropped from 43.2 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1970 to 15.7 per 1,000 live births in 2007. In Barbados, it declined from 38.2 deaths per 1,000 live births to 11.6 per 1,000 between 1970 and 2007. And in Haiti, the hemisphere's poorest country, it dropped from 141 per 1,000 live births in 1970 to 63.8 per 1,000 in 2007. Life expectancy at birth in Jamaica increased from 67.7 years in 1970 to 73.1 years in 2007; in Barbados from 68.7 years to 73 years; and in Haiti from 47.6 years to 57 years.

In the West Indies, population density has also increased rapidly in recent years. Cuba had an estimated 11.4 million people in 2007 and a population density of 103 persons per sq km (267 per sq mi). At the other extreme, Barbados accommodates an average of 653 persons per sq km (1,692 per sq mi). Haiti, the second most densely populated country in the West Indies, had 8.7 million people in an area of 27,750 sq km (10,714 sq mi), for an average of 316 persons per sq km (818 per sq mi).

Migration eased population pressures for a time. People from some of the small eastern islands migrated to other islands, such as Curaçao and Trinidad, where the petroleum industries provided jobs. However, employment opportunities for migrants became scarce after petroleum production and refining began to decline in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Numbers of people moved from the English-speaking islands to Britain after World War II (1939-1945). In Saint Kitts, emigration cut the rate of growth by half, and in Jamaica, Barbados, and Antigua it did so by more than a third. In 1962 Britain began to limit West Indian immigration.

The principal destination for the region’s inhabitants during the second half of the 20th century was the United States. A substantial number of Puerto Ricans moved to the U.S. mainland after World War II. A flood of Cubans left for the United States beginning in 1959, following the Cuban Revolution. Most of them disagreed with the policies of Cuba’s new leader, Fidel Castro, who established a Communist government. By the late 1990s almost one million Cubans had moved to the United States. Dominicans, Haitians, and Jamaicans have also come to the United States in significant numbers. In 1965 the United States for the first time set limits on immigration from the Western Hemisphere.

Government-backed family-planning programs reduced birth rates and thus slowed natural increase on some islands. Barbados, one of the hemisphere's most densely populated countries, established one of the world's first official family planning programs in the 1950s. In 2007 its annual population growth rate was estimated at 0.37 percent. Its birth rate dropped from about 30 live births per 1,000 inhabitants in the early 1960s to 13 per 1,000 by 2007. Cuba has also established a successful family planning program.

Birth rates also dropped in Puerto Rico after the government sponsored Operation Bootstrap from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s. Living standards improved, changing lifestyles and social values. One result was that most families had fewer children.

Language and Religion

The region’s colonial past has left a lasting impact on its languages and religious practices. In strictly numerical terms, Spanish is the region’s dominant language, spoken by nearly two-thirds of its population. However, only Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico are Spanish-speaking. French- and English-speakers account for the balance of the region’s population and divide the remaining one-third of the population equally. On most French- and English-speaking islands much of the population normally speaks a Creole or patois dialect of the language. Dutch is spoken on a few islands—Aruba, Curaçao, Bonaire, and the southern portion of Saint Martin—but the total number of speakers is very small. Hindi and Urdu are spoken by some on Trinidad and Tobago, but the use of these languages is generally declining.

Religious practices reflect a more diverse heritage, although colonial influences are clearly evident. Roman Catholicism dominates in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, but less so in Cuba, where the influence of the Cuban Revolution and Communist ideology have reduced its influence since 1960. Catholicism also dominates in Haiti and other French-speaking islands. Protestant denominations, especially Anglican, generally predominate on former English colonies. African religious influences are also important on many islands where slaves and then later their descendants managed to preserve them for hundreds of years. Vodun (also spelled Vodou or voodoo) in Haiti, Santería in Cuba, and Obeah in the former British colonies are characteristic of these African religious influences. On Trinidad and Tobago, Hinduism and Islam are practiced.

Arts and Education

In the 1950s and 1960s a number of novelists, poets, sculptors, choreographers, painters, and musicians emerged in the West Indies. The more prominent among them include novelist V. S. Naipaul of Trinidad, musician Bob Marley of Jamaica, and poet and playwright Derek Walcott of Saint Lucia. Walcott, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1992, is well known as a playwright, most notably for his collection Dream on Monkey Mountain, and Other Plays (1970). Earl Lovelace, from Trinidad, focused on themes such as education, poverty, and village life in his novels, which include The Schoolmaster (1968), The Dragon Can’t Dance (1979), and Salt (1996). Maryse Condé of Guadeloupe is considered a significant voice among female writers. Nancy Morejón of Cuba is recognized as a leading poetic voice in the West Indies. Her collection Cuaderno de Granada (1984; Grenada Notebook, 1984) honors those who participated in Grenada’s revolution in 1983. Writers of Caribbean ancestry living outside the Caribbean also received international recognition, including Jamaica Kincaid of Antigua, Julia Alvarez of the Dominican Republic, and Edwidge Danticat of Haiti. In 1979 Sir Arthur Lewis from Saint Lucia won the Nobel Prize for economics.

Educational attainment in the Caribbean is high relative to many other developing regions. The extended colonial relationship many countries had with European powers helped raise education levels and ensure a reasonable educational infrastructure. However, educational levels vary throughout the West Indies. Cuba has a high level of educational attainment. The Cuban Revolution emphasized literacy as a key goal, and the country has continued this emphasis despite very difficult economic times. In contrast, only 55 percent of Haiti’s adults are literate.

In 1948 the University of the West Indies (UWI) was established in Jamaica to serve all English-speaking countries. It stimulated West Indian intellectual activity by providing a center for scholarship and a point of contact with the larger academic community of the Americas. UWI branch campuses subsequently opened in Barbados and Trinidad.


When Europeans first came to the islands of the West Indies in the 15th century, the islands were occupied by three distinct groups of indigenous peoples: the Ciboney, the Taíno, and the Carib. All had migrated into the West Indies from northern South America at different times.

The Ciboney came first. Their economy was based on hunting and gathering and depended heavily on marine resources. They used simple tools and weapons and built rock shelters and semipermanent villages. At the time the Spaniards arrived in the West Indies in the late 15th century, the Ciboney occupied only two areas—a small section of the western portion of Hispaniola and a small territory in western Cuba. They had been driven west by another indigenous group, the Taíno, who entered the West Indies from Venezuela and moved gradually north and west along the islands.

The Taíno displaced the Ciboney over large areas and settled in most of the Greater Antilles. The Taíno practiced a highly productive form of agriculture and had a more advanced social structure and material culture than the Ciboney. The Taíno lived in thatched houses in social groups governed by caciques (chiefs). They fished and collectively farmed plots of land.

The Carib, who were also agriculturalists, came to the West Indies after the Ciboney and the Taíno, perhaps no more than 100 years before the arrival of the Spanish. By 1500 the Carib had displaced the Taíno in the eastern Caribbean and had effectively occupied all of the Lesser Antilles. Estimates of total indigenous population at this time vary considerably, ranging from as few as 200,000 to several million for all three indigenous groups.

After the European settlers arrived, the indigenous population dropped dramatically. The settlers forced the indigenous peoples to labor under brutal conditions on agricultural estates. Many Native Americans also died from newly introduced European diseases to which they had no immunity. The Ciboney and the Taíno mostly died out on the islands by the end of the 16th century. Only small pockets of the Carib population survived.


The Spanish were the first Europeans to explore and colonize the West Indies. They began to settle the Greater Antilles soon after Christopher Columbus landed in The Bahamas in 1492. They made no serious effort to colonize the Lesser Antilles, which were small and not strategically important. The Spanish had abundant opportunities on the Greater Antilles and later on the mainland of North and South America.

Spanish control of the region was not undisputed, and other European colonial powers constantly challenged it. The British, French, and Dutch encouraged and at times even licensed their citizens to attack Spanish merchant ships, fleets, and ports. They harassed the Spaniards with some success for nearly 200 years, most intensively between the mid-1500s and mid-1600s.

Despite their small size, the islands of the Lesser Antilles eventually proved attractive to the English, French, and Dutch. A group of Englishmen, led by ship captain Thomas Warner, settled in Saint Kitts in 1623 and set about planting tobacco, one of the most profitable crops of that period. Another English party settled in Barbados in 1627. Others established outposts in Nevis, Antigua, Montserrat, and Saint Croix in the Virgin Islands. The Dutch took Curaçao, Saba, and Saint Eustatius in the 1630s, and the French colonized Martinique and Guadeloupe during the same period.

During the early years of settlement, the English and the French colonies consisted mainly of settlers who worked relatively small plots of land. European indentured servants provided the labor. They grew tobacco and indigo and cut wood for export. By the 1650s the British, French, and Dutch had substantially diminished the Spanish monopoly in the Caribbean. In 1655 the English took Jamaica by force from Spain. French adventurers gradually occupied the western third of Hispaniola, which Spain officially ceded to France in 1697.

Sugar Plantations and Slave Labor

It was in the non-Hispanic settlements of the eastern Caribbean that Europeans introduced the slave-plantation system that was to become the dominant social and economic pattern of the West Indies. The development of slave plantations was directly tied to the cultivation of sugarcane. European demand for sugar encouraged the cultivation of any land that could produce this valuable crop. The introduction of sugarcane brought the first West Indian social and economic revolution.

Barbados was the first major sugar-producing island. The early settlers in Barbados grew tobacco, the production of which did not require large expenditures. They could raise the crops on small patches of land. Processing tobacco for sale required skill, not costly equipment. In the 1640s Virginia tobacco, better in grade and more abundant, swept Barbados tobacco out of the market. Faced with bankruptcy, Barbados sought a profitable new crop and found it in sugarcane. Dutch sugarcane planters recently expelled from Portuguese territories in northeastern Brazil provided expertise and capital.

The system of producing sugar was very different. Sugarcane must be processed in a grinding mill within 48 hours of harvest or the sugar in the stalk ferments. Therefore, plantation owners had to build costly processing factories close to the fields. To make these expensive facilities worthwhile, they had to plant sugarcane in large units, in plantations rather than patches. Plantation owners needed large gangs of laborers to plant and weed the fields, to cut and transport the cane, to man the grinding and processing equipment, and to transport the sugar to the wharf. African slaves provided the labor for these plantations.

As sugar planting spread, the number of white laborers declined and the number of African slaves increased. In 1640 there were a few hundred African slaves in Barbados. By 1645 there were 6,000 Africans and about 40,000 Europeans. In 1685 there were 46,000 Africans and 20,000 Europeans.

Slowly this system of sugar production moved through the islands of the West Indies. In each island the cycle was the same. In the beginning the land was fertile and gave high yields. Profits flowed into the pockets of a relatively small number of European owners, and the number of slaves increased rapidly. The sugar plantations flourished. Then the land began to lose its fertility, yields fell, the owners borrowed money beyond their means, and the industry became overextended. Another island, with ample reserves of unused land, became the new top producer.

Barbados was the preeminent sugar-producing island in the second half of the 17th century but lost first place in production when Jamaica began planting sugarcane in the closing years of the century. Jamaica had its golden age in the first half of the 18th century, when the West Indian lobby exercised greater power in the British Parliament than any North American interest. Parliament responded to the lobby because Jamaica’s sugar was very valuable and produced great wealth for Britain.

A change took place in the racial composition of the population that paralleled what had taken place in Barbados. In 1658, three years after the English had taken the island from Spain, the population consisted of 4,500 Europeans and 1,400 Africans. In 1673 there were 8,600 Europeans and 9,500 Africans. Then sugar took hold, and by 1754 there were 12,000 Europeans and 86,500 Africans. Jamaica, like Barbados, had become, in terms of numbers, an African island.

In the mid-18th century the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) on Hispaniola became the world's leading sugar producer. It remained so until the Haitian Slave Revolt broke out in 1791. The colony of Saint-Domingue became independent as Haiti in 1804, and the Haitians became the first community of African people in the Americas to win independence.

The sugar-and-slave plantation tide flowed on to Puerto Rico and Cuba, and they became the major sugar producers in the 19th century. Trinidad also joined the list of sugar islands. When the British abolished slavery in their colonies in 1834, sugar producers in Trinidad turned to indentured servants from India for labor on their estates.

Separate Roads

Despite their common heritage of slavery and sugar, the West Indian islands have followed different routes in their attempts to modernize their economies and social structures. Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba, situated on the two largest islands of the West Indies, were the earliest to achieve independence in the region. The other islands of the West Indies—the Netherlands Antilles, the French West Indies, Puerto Rico, and the English-speaking islands—each took a different course. The islands of the Netherlands Antilles opted for political status that granted them self-government in all matters except foreign affairs and defense. The French West Indies chose political integration with France. Puerto Rico became a U.S. commonwealth territory. With the exception of a handful of very small islands and island groups, the former British colonies in the Caribbean overwhelmingly chose full independence from Britain.


Independence from colonial control came first on the island of Hispaniola. There, black slaves in a French colony, known then as Saint-Domingue and today as Haiti, revolted against the French in 1791. After years of conflict, Haiti became an independent nation in 1804, but independence failed to bring either peace or prosperity to the new nation.

The early decades of Haitian independence were characterized by violent internal strife and armed conflict with its neighbor (now the Dominican Republic). The result was the destruction of its economy. In many respects Haiti has never recovered from this legacy. At the end of the 20th century, its natural resources were severely degraded, population growth rates were high, poverty was widespread and deeply ingrained, and democratic traditions were fragile at best.

Dominican Republic

The postcolonial history of the Dominican Republic is closely tied to that of Haiti. Spain ceded what is now the Dominican Republic to the French in 1795. The success of the Haitian revolutionaries inspired the Dominicans to rebel and declare their independence in 1821. This independence was short-lived, however, as Haitian armies occupied the country in 1822 and remained there until 1844 when Dominican resistance finally forced them out.

A tumultuous period, which included additional Haitian incursions, a short period of renewed Spanish colonial rule, revolutions and coups, and eventually the country’s occupation by U.S. troops from 1916 to 1924, characterized much of the next 100 years. The country modernized, and since 1930 its economy has grown considerably. For much of that period, the country was run by a ruthless military dictator, Rafael Trujillo, and later his protégé, Joaquín Balaguer.


Despite violent revolutionary movements, Cuba remained a Spanish colony until 1898, when a U.S. invasion ended Spain’s control (see Spanish-American War). Independence did not come immediately, and when it came, it was not complete. The U.S. military occupied and governed Cuba until 1902, when the United States granted it independence. Until 1930 the United States retained the right to intervene militarily and to establish military installations on the island. The United States continues to maintain a naval base on Guantánamo Bay. Economically, the United States played a defining role in Cuba, and in many ways the island functioned much like an economic appendage of the United States until the late 1950s.

Fidel Castro’s successful revolution in 1959 effectively ended the U.S. role in Cuba. Castro established a Communist government and aligned his nation with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the world’s leading Communist nation. In 1960 the United States imposed a heavy embargo on imports of Cuban products. For decades the USSR provided Cuba with vital economic support. When the USSR began to dissolve in the late 1980s, Cuba lost critical economic support, but it has tenaciously maintained its Communist regime.

The Netherlands Antilles

The Spanish took possession of what is now the Netherlands Antilles in 1527. The Dutch took control of the area in 1634 and have ruled it without interruption since the early 19th century. Once known as the Dutch West Indies, these islands were a colony of The Netherlands until 1954, when they were made an integral part of the kingdom of The Netherlands.

Until 1986 the Netherlands Antilles consisted of two groups of islands. Curaçao, Aruba, and Bonaire made up one group, and Saba, Saint Eustatius, and part of Saint Martin made up the other group. In 1986 Aruba withdrew from the Netherlands Antilles and became an internally self-governing region of The Netherlands. Both the Netherlands Antilles and Aruba have resisted full independence and have chosen instead to be internally self-governing states that depend on the Dutch government for foreign affairs and defense.

Until the 1980s oil-refining industries were the economic mainstay of Aruba and Curaçao, the two most important Dutch possessions in the Caribbean. In 1985 the Royal Dutch Shell petroleum company pulled out of Curaçao, and the government purchased the refining facilities and leased them to the Venezuelan government. Also in 1985 the Exxon petroleum company closed its refinery in Aruba. The refinery employed about 8,000 people. In 1989 Coastal Oil of Texas signed an agreement with the government, reopening part of the refinery. In the meantime, both islands began to emphasize the tourism industry. Tourism replaced oil-refining in Aruba as the cornerstone of the economy.

The French West Indies

During the 17th century the French, in competition with the Spanish, English, Dutch, and Danes, colonized several of the West Indian islands, including Saint Kitts, Saint Eustatius, Grenada, Dominica, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Saint-Barthélemy, Saint Martin, and Hispaniola. Only Martinique, Guadeloupe, and nearby small islands, settled in 1635, survived as the French West Indies. In 1775 they were established as separate colonies. In 1946 Guadeloupe plus its dependencies and Martinique were established as separate overseas departments of the Fourth French Republic. The two departments retained this status following the establishment of the Fifth French Republic late in 1958.

As departments, they possess full political rights within France, and each sends elected representatives to the French Senate and the National Assembly. The residents are citizens of France, and there are no legal barriers to migration from the islands to the French mainland. Local government is structured just as it is in the departments of mainland France.

Political integration into France has brought considerable financial benefits to the islands. The French government is the principal employer, and government spending is estimated to account for more than half of the money in the island’s economy. This has included substantial public expenditures on roads, schools, health-care infrastructure, and other public services. The standard of living is high by West Indian standards. Nonetheless unemployment is high, and many islanders have moved to France. While a majority of the populations of Martinique and Guadeloupe support their departmental status as part of France, a vocal and active minority favors independence.

Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico found a formula that allowed it a measure of self-government, while at the same time preserving its relationship with the colonial power, in this case the United States. With the leadership of the charismatic and visionary politician, Luis Muñoz Marín, of the Popular Democratic Party, Puerto Rico became a commonwealth in association with the United States in 1952.

This arrangement permitted the popular election of the executive and legislative branches of government and removed Puerto Rico from direct administration by the U.S. federal government. It also permitted Puerto Rico to fashion its own laws and administrative systems as long as they comply with the Constitution of the United States and the U.S. legal codes. The island, however, has only observer status in the U.S. Congress and cannot participate in U.S. presidential elections.

In the 1950s an aggressive program to encourage industrial development in Puerto Rico was launched. It was coupled with favorable tax laws in Puerto Rico and the United States and transformed the island’s economy. Employment in manufacturing rose from about 9 percent of the labor force in the 1940s to 20 percent in the 1980s. During the same period, agricultural employment fell from over 33 percent of the labor force to just 5 percent. Living standards improved. The total amount of money in the Puerto Rican economy increased substantially, rising from barely $150 per person in 1940 to almost $5,000 at the end of the 1980s. Land reform in the agricultural sector and the aggressive promotion of tourism also contributed to this transformation.

Even though their legislature has wide powers over internal matters, many Puerto Ricans question the continuance of what is in fact a colonial relationship. As the main supporter of commonwealth status, the Popular Democratic Party dominated politics in Puerto Rico during the 1950s and early 1960s, but since 1968 it has lost a number of elections to the New Progressive Party, a proponent of statehood for Puerto Rico. Public opinion on this issue remains almost evenly divided. In a 1993 referendum on the status question, 48.4 percent of the voters favored the commonwealth, 46.2 percent supported statehood, and the remainder chose independence. Another referendum was held in 1998, and the voters again rejected statehood.

The Former British Colonies

The British colonies in the West Indies chose either internal self-government or independence. After riots in several islands in the 1930s, a British royal commission recommended major political changes, including extension of the vote, more self-government, and the federation of the islands into larger units. After World War II (1939-1945), the British government implemented the recommendations, with notable success, except in the matter of federation. The extension of the vote to all adults and self-government in local affairs came gradually to island after island during the 1940s and 1950s.

Between 1962 and 1966 Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Barbados became independent states. The Bahamas became internally self-governing in 1964 and independent in 1973. In 1967 and 1969, six other islands or groups, each with fewer than 100,000 people, became states associated with Britain, self-governing in all matters except foreign affairs and defense. In 1974 the associated state of Grenada chose full independence. Dominica followed suit in 1978, Saint Lucia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines in 1979, Antigua and Barbuda in 1981, and Saint Kitts and Nevis in 1983. Smaller islands, such as Montserrat, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, the Turks and Caicos Islands, and Anguilla have remained dependencies.

Efforts Toward Cooperation

In 1958 the British established the Federation of the West Indies, to unite ten of its colonies into a single political group. Despite common cultural and political bonds, the federation failed. It was dissolved in 1962 before Britain granted independence, largely because of regional differences.

Smaller federations came into being, including Trinidad and Tobago as well as the Federation of Saint Kitts and Nevis, but attempts to politically unify groups of islands often met with resistance from less populous islands that feared domination by larger neighbors. Sporadic but unsuccessful attempts at political union continued, notably among the smaller islands of the eastern Caribbean.

What developed in place of political union was cooperation in international trade and in the use of regional resources for the common good. In the late 1960s and early 1970s a number of nations formed regional associations to promote trade and economic cooperation.

The Caribbean Free Trade Area (CARIFTA) was established in 1968 by former and current British colonies to increase trade among its members and to establish a common policy on taxing imports from non-CARIFTA nations. The Caribbean Regional Development Bank, an international financial organization modeled on the World Bank, was established in 1969. It makes loans to encourage regional economic development.

In 1973 four CARIFTA members (Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago) formed the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM), a customs union that eliminated import taxes among members and set common import rates on goods produced outside the union. By 1975 all CARIFTA members had joined CARICOM. CARICOM has promoted a regional vision among its members, but the export economies of its member states still depend almost exclusively on exports to nonmember states.

In the 1990s the emphasis remained on economic integration. In 1994 the United States hosted the Summit of the Americas in Miami, Florida, where it proposed the establishment of a hemispheric trading bloc called the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). The summit, attended by all of the Western Hemisphere’s independent nations except Cuba, adopted the proposal. Subsequent ministerial-level meetings took place in 1995 and 1996 to flesh out the proposal, but progress on its implementation slowed.

Social Change and Nationalist Movements

In the 1940s movements demanding national autonomy emerged in many West Indian societies. Autonomy was seen as the only way to shift decision-making power in economic as well as political matters from the colonial power to the West Indian people. Demands for autonomy also had to do with race and color, which had been central issues in the Caribbean for nearly five centuries, ever since the beginning of the African slave trade in the early 1500s.

West Indian society inherited a social structure based on slavery, the plantation, and colonial rule. That structure had a small white elite at the top; a small middle class of white and a few black people; and a large black base occupying the lowest economic class. Most whites were well off, socially secure, and educated, while most blacks were poor, often semiliterate, and underprivileged.

Traces of the old social structure remained strongest in the French West Indies. In Martinique a small elite of local white families kept great economic power in their hands. There also the color divisions were obvious, with a white upper class, a middle class divided of many races, and a large mass of black Martinicans.

In Haiti, too, class divisions were based on race. Nearly two centuries after it achieved independence, Haiti’s society still had sharp racial, cultural, and linguistic divisions. One percent of the population—largely a mulatto elite—controlled 40 percent of Haiti’s wealth. The majority of Haitians were poor black agricultural workers. They were largely illiterate and spoke only Creole, a mixture of French and African languages. French was spoken by the wealthy upper classes.

National movements under leaders such as Luis Muñoz Marín in Puerto Rico, Alexander Bustamante and Norman Manley in Jamaica, Eric Williams in Trinidad, Grantley Adams in Barbados, and Fidel Castro in Cuba have modernized and transformed the islands. Puerto Rico’s status as a commonwealth rather than a colony, as well as its evolution from an agricultural to an industrial and service economy, was due in large part to the political efforts of Luis Muñoz Marín, the island’s first elected governor. In the British island colonies, leaders like Bustamante, Manley, Williams, and Adams led successful and peaceful independence movements, leading to full emancipation from British control.

In Cuba Fidel Castro led the successful revolution that brought the downfall of the dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. Castro and his followers transformed Cuba by imposing a socialist system on the island nation. The government nationalized foreign properties, broke up immense plantations, and distributed land to peasant farmers. It also established long-term programs to improve basic health conditions and the educational system. However, the revolution also instituted a Communist political system that stifled any dissent and restricted freedom of expression.

The effect of nationalist movements was evident not only in the political and economic activity of the islands, but also in the spread of intellectual activity. During the social and political revolution that occurred in the English-speaking West Indies in the 1950s and 1960s, novelists, poets, sculptors, painters, choreographers, and musicians emerged. Among the more prominent were novelist V. S. Naipaul of Trinidad, musician Bob Marley of Jamaica, poet and playwright Derek Walcott of Saint Lucia, and writer Jamaica Kincaid of Antigua.

United States Influence

The United States has been a powerful presence in the economy of the West Indies since the mid-1800s, when it became a major trading partner in the region. Direct U.S. military and political influence in the region began in 1898 with the Spanish-American War. After the war, the United States occupied Cuba and Puerto Rico.

The military occupation of these islands established a pattern of intervention by the United States in the region’s political affairs. United States influence increased dramatically during the 20th century. The U.S. military intervened in the internal affairs of, invaded, and even occupied some islands—Cuba from 1898 to 1902, Puerto Rico from 1898 to 1917, the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1922 and again in 1965, Haiti from 1915 to 1935, and Grenada in 1983.

Beginning in the mid-19th century, U.S. investment poured into the region, initially in sugarcane production but later in mining, petroleum extraction and refining, tourism, and other sectors. This influx of money brought prosperity to many islands, but not all residents shared in the benefits. Investors and politicians in the United States usually supported the ruling classes in the islands as a means of keeping West Indian society stable and ensuring the security of U.S. investments.

Many less affluent West Indians came to resent U.S. economic and political influence in their region. Resistance to U.S. influence provided the impetus for a number of left-wing political movements in the region, including the socialist revolution in Cuba in 1959, the socialist programs of Jamaican prime minister Michael Manley in the 1970s, and Grenada’s socialist government under Maurice Bishop in the early 1980s.

The U.S. economic presence increased in the late 20th century with an influx of U.S. tourists to the region and the growth of U.S. investments in the West Indies. However, interactions between the West Indies and North America encompass much more than politics and economics. Personal and cultural contacts have also expanded tremendously as improved transportation has made travel between the regions easier and economic necessity has encouraged many islanders to look elsewhere for their livelihoods.

For instance, West Indian immigration to the United States has grown dramatically since 1960. Millions of Cubans and Puerto Ricans and hundreds of thousands of Dominicans, Haitians, and Jamaicans now reside in the United States. Sun-seeking North American tourists have affected not only the economic landscape of many islands but also their cultural and social values.

Contemporary Issues

At the beginning of the 21st century, the West Indies faced a range of problems, from population pressure to environmental degradation. Deforestation, soil erosion, and the depletion of soil fertility are problems on many islands. Haiti was perhaps the most extreme example. Many of the region’s difficulties resulted from a lack of economic opportunities. The physical constraints imposed by geography limit development on many islands. They are too small and have too few resources to offer many opportunities.

Most island economies still depended on one major trading partner–either Britain, France, The Netherlands, or the United States. Interregional trade was not significant. Furthermore, many island economies were highly dependent on one or two exports for most of their foreign-exchange earnings, making them susceptible to fluctuations in world markets. Examples included petroleum in Trinidad, bauxite in Jamaica, and sugarcane in Cuba. Tourism offered some economic diversification, but it also depended on world economic conditions and required foreign investment.

As island populations grew, West Indians increasingly sought work elsewhere. At the beginning of the 20th century islanders immigrated to Central America to build railroads, work on banana plantations, and construct the Panama Canal. A century later, islanders still immigrated in large numbers, but often to major urban centers like Miami, New York, London, or Paris.

A number of political issues presented challenges to the region. While democratic institutions were well established on islands such as Jamaica, others were less stable. The political future of some of the region’s larger islands, such as Cuba and Puerto Rico, was far from clear. Increasing disparity in incomes and living standards between the wealthy and the poor on many islands, as well as racial discrimination and tension, provided ample fuel for social and economic conflict in many island societies.

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