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West Indies,archipelago, between North and South America, curving c.2,500 mi (4,020 km) from Florida to the coast of Venezuela and separating the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico from the Atlantic Ocean. The archipelago, sometimes called the Antilles, is divided into three groups: the BahamasBahamas, the
, officially Commonwealth of the Bahamas, independent nation (2005 est. pop. 301,800), 4,403 sq mi (11,404 sq km), in the Atlantic Ocean, consisting of some 700 islands and islets and about 2,400 cays, beginning c.50 mi (80 km) off SE Florida and extending c.
..... Click the link for more information. ; the Greater Antilles (CubaCuba
, officially Republic of Cuba, republic (2005 est. pop. 11,347,000), 42,804 sq mi (110,860 sq km), consisting of the island of Cuba and numerous adjacent islands, in the Caribbean Sea. Havana is the capital and largest city.
..... Click the link for more information. , JamaicaJamaica
, independent state within the Commonwealth (2005 est. pop. 2,732,000), 4,232 sq mi (10,962 sq km), coextensive with the island of Jamaica, West Indies, S of Cuba and W of Haiti. Jamaica is the largest island in the Caribbean after Cuba and Hispaniola.
..... Click the link for more information. , HaitiHaiti
, Fr. Haïti , officially Republic of Haiti, republic (2005 est. pop. 8,122,000), 10,700 sq mi (27,713 sq km), West Indies, on the western third of the island of Hispaniola.
..... Click the link for more information. , the Dominican RepublicDominican Republic
, republic (2005 est. pop. 8,950,000), 18,700 sq mi (48,442 sq km), West Indies, on the eastern two thirds of the island of Hispaniola. The capital and largest city is Santo Domingo.
..... Click the link for more information. , and Puerto RicoPuerto Rico
, island (2005 est. pop. 3,917,000), 3,508 sq mi (9,086 sq km), West Indies, c.1,000 mi (1,610 km) SE of Miami, Fla. Officially known as the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (a self-governing entity in association with the United States), it includes the offshore islands
..... Click the link for more information. ); and the Lesser Antilles (Leeward IslandsLeeward Islands
, northern group of the Lesser Antilles in the West Indies, extending SE from Puerto Rico to the Windward Islands. The principal islands are the American Virgin Islands; the French island and overseas dept.
..... Click the link for more information. , Windward IslandsWindward Islands,
southern group of the Lesser Antilles in the West Indies, curving generally southward for c.300 mi (480 km) from the Leeward Islands toward NE Venezuela.
..... Click the link for more information. , Trinidad and TobagoTrinidad and Tobago
, officially Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, republic (2005 est. pop. 1,088,000), 1,980 sq mi (5,129 sq km), West Indies. The capital is Port of Spain.
..... Click the link for more information. , BarbadosBarbados
, island state (2005 est. pop. 279,300), 166 sq mi (430 sq km), in the West Indies. The capital and largest city is Bridgetown. Land, People, and Economy
The island, E of St. Vincent, in the Windward Islands, is the easternmost of the Caribbean islands.
..... Click the link for more information. ) and the islands off the northern coast of Venezuela.
The British dependent territories are the Cayman IslandsCayman Islands
, British dependency (2005 est. pop. 44,300), 100 sq mi (259 sq km), comprising three low-lying islands in the West Indies. George Town, the capital and chief port, is on Grand Cayman; the other islands are Little Cayman and Cayman Brac.
..... Click the link for more information. , the Turks and Caicos IslandsTurks and Caicos Islands
, dependency of Great Britain (2005 est. pop. 20,600), 166 sq mi (430 sq km), West Indies. There are more than 30 cays and islands, of which eight are inhabited. Geographically, the islands are a southeastern continuation of the Bahamas.
..... Click the link for more information. , AnguillaAnguilla
, island and British dependency (2005 est. pop. 13,300) 35 sq mi (91 sq km), West Indies, northernmost of the Leeward Islands. The capital is the town of The Valley. The population, which is mainly of African descent, speaks English, the official language.
..... Click the link for more information. , MontserratMontserrat
, British dependency and island (2011 pop. 4,922), 38 sq mi (98 sq km), West Indies, one of the Leeward Islands. It is a rugged, scenic island of volcanic origin.
..... Click the link for more information. , and the British Virgin IslandsVirgin Islands,
group of about 100 small islands, West Indies, E of Puerto Rico. The islands are divided politically between the United States and Great Britain. Although constituting the westernmost part of the Lesser Antilles, the Virgin Islands form a geological unit with
..... Click the link for more information. . The Dutch territories are ArubaAruba
, island, autonomous part of the Netherlands (2005 est. pop. 71,600), 69 sq mi (179 sq km), in the Lesser Antilles off the coast of Venezuela. Oranjestad is the capital and main port. The population is largely of mixed European and indigenous Caribbean descent.
..... Click the link for more information. , CuraçaoCuraçao
, island (1989 est. pop. 146,100), 178 sq mi (461 sq km), an autonomous country in the Kingdom of the Netherlands, located in the Lesser Antilles off the coast of Venezuela. Curaçao is semiarid; most of the plant life is of desert character.
..... Click the link for more information. , BonaireBonaire
, island (1990 est. pop. 11,000), 112 sq mi (290 sq km), a special municipality of the Netherlands, in the West Indies off the coast of Venezuela. It was formerly part of the Netherlands Antilles. Kralendijk is the chief town.
..... Click the link for more information. , Saint EustatiusSaint Eustatius
, island (1989 pop. 1,861), 8 sq mi (20.7 sq km), a special municipality of the Netherlands, one of the Leeward Islands, West Indies. It was formerly part of the Netherlands Antilles.
..... Click the link for more information. , SabaSaba
, island (1990 est. pop. 1,100), 5 sq mi (13 sq km), a special municipality of the Netherlands, one of the NW Leeward Islands, West Indies. It was formerly part of the Netherlands Antilles. The rugged island is actually the cone of an extinct volcano rising to c.
..... Click the link for more information. , and part of Saint MartinSaint Martin
, Du. Sint Maarten, island, 37 sq mi (96 sq km), West Indies, one of the Leeward Islands. Since its occupation in 1648 by the Dutch and the French, it has been divided. The northern part (1999 pop.
..... Click the link for more information. . The French territories are GuadeloupeGuadeloupe
, overseas department and administrative region of France (2005 est. pop. 449,000), 687 sq mi (1,779 sq km), in the Leeward Islands, West Indies. The department comprises the neighboring islands of Basse-Terre and Grande-Terre (Guadeloupe proper) as well as
..... Click the link for more information. and its dependencies, part of Saint Martin, and MartiniqueMartinique
, overseas department and administrative region of France (2005 est. pop. 433,000), 425 sq mi (1,101 sq km), in the Windward Islands, West Indies. Fort-de-France is the capital. The department and the island of Martinique are coextensive.
..... Click the link for more information. . Puerto Rico is a self-governing commonwealth associated with the United States, and the Virgin Islands of the United States is a U.S. territory. MargaritaMargarita
, island, 444 sq mi (1,150 sq km), in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Venezuela. With many smaller islands it constitutes the Venezuelan state of Nueva Esparta (1990 pop. 263,748).
..... Click the link for more information. belongs to Venezuela.
Many of the islands are mountainous, and some have partly active volcanoes. Hurricanes occur frequently, but the warm climate (tempered by northeast trade winds) and the clear tropical seas have made the West Indies a very popular resort area. Some 34 million people live on the islands, and the majority of inhabitants are of black African descent.
Before European settlement on the islands of the West Indies, they were inhabited by three different peoples: the Arawaks, the Caribs, and the Ciboney. These indigenous tribes were effectively wiped out by European colonists. Christopher ColumbusColumbus, Christopher,
Ital. Cristoforo Colombo , Span. Cristóbal Colón , 1451–1506, European explorer, b. Genoa, Italy. Early Years
..... Click the link for more information. was the first European to visit several of the islands (in 1492). In 1496 the first permanent European settlement was made by the Spanish on HispaniolaHispaniola
, Span. Española , second largest island of the West Indies, 29,530 sq mi (76,483 sq km), between Cuba and Puerto Rico. Haiti occupies the western third of the island and the Dominican Republic the remainder.
..... Click the link for more information. . By the middle 1600s the English, French, and Dutch had established settlements in the area, and in the following century there was constant warfare among the European colonial powers for control of the islands. Some islands flourished as trade centers and became targets for pirates. Large numbers of Africans were imported to provide slave labor for the sugarcane plantations that developed there in the 1600s.
Until the early 20th cent., the islands remained pawns of the imperialistic powers of Europe, mainly Spain, Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands. The United States entered the scene in the late 19th cent. and is the region's dominate economic influence. Spain lost its last possession in the West Indies after the Spanish-American War (1898), and most of the former British possessions gained independence in the 1960s and 70s (see West Indies FederationWest Indies Federation,
former federation of 10 British West Indian territories formed in 1958. Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, and Barbados were the principal members, but the federation included most of the Leeward and Windward islands, then under British control.
..... Click the link for more information. ).
See E. E. Williams, From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean, 1492–1969 (1970); M. M. Horowitz, comp., Peoples and Cultures of the Caribbean: An Anthropological Reader (1971); J. H. Parry and P. M. Sherlock, A Short History of the West Indies (3d ed. 1971); R. C. West and J. P. Augelli, Middle America (2d ed. 1976); D. Watts, The West Indies: Patterns of Development, Culture, and Environmental Change since 1492 (1987).
the general name for the islands in the Atlantic Ocean located between the continents of North and South America, stretching out in the form of an arc approximately 3,500 km in length. Included in the West Indies are the Bahamas, the Greater Antilles, and the Lesser Antilles. The islands belong to North America. Their total area is about 240,000 sq km, and their population is more than 24 million (1968). The topography of the islands is greatly dismembered and primarily mountainous, with elevations as high as 3,175 m (on the island of Haiti). There are many active as well as extinct volcanoes; earthquakes are frequent. There are deposits of manganese, chromite, and iron ores and asphalt, petroleum, bauxites, and phosphorites. The climate is tropical and influenced by the trade winds. In the lowlands the vegetation is primarily cultivated; in the mountains there are laurel and coniferous forests.
Located on the islands of the West Indies are the states of Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Bahamas, and Barbados, as well as a number of possessions of Great Britain, the Netherlands, France, and the USA.
Ethnic composition.The basic mass of the present-day population is made up of Negroes—descendants of the slaves who were imported from Africa during the period from the 16th through the beginning of the 19th centuries (Haiti, more than 90 percent; Barbados, about 89 percent; and Jamaica, about 80 percent), as well as mulattoes (Dominican Republic, about 70 percent, and Puerto Rico, not less than 50 percent). The descendants of Europeans (for the most part, Spaniards) are to be found in considerable number only in Cuba (approximately 50 percent), Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. In the remaining countries the total white population (primarily British) does not exceed a small percentage. A unique ethnic composition is to be found in Trinidad, where about 50 percent of the population is made up of descendants of emigrants from India. In all these countries there are small groups of Chinese and Syrians. The few descendants of the indigenous American Indian population, which was almost entirely exterminated during the period of colonization, are still in existence only on the islands of Dominica, Cuba, and Trinidad. Languages include Spanish, in the former colonies of Spain (Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico); English, in the former British colonies (Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Barbados); and French, in the former and present French colonies (Haiti, Guadeloupe, and Martinique); local dialects are everywhere predominant. In the Dutch colonies, in addition to Dutch and English, the Papiamentoe dialect is widespread. With regard to religion, the inhabitants of the former Spanish and French colonies are Catholics, and the remainder are Protestants of various denominations. The Indians are mostly Hindus. In certain countries there are still vestiges of African faiths.
A. D. DRIDZO
Historical surveyThe majority of the islands of the West Indies, populated by the Arawak and Carib tribes of American Indians, were discovered during the sea voyages of Columbus (1492-1502), who mistakenly thought them to be part of India. To distinguish them from the India in the East (East India), these islands later came to be called the West Indies. The colonization of the West Indies by the Spaniards was accompanied by the allout extermination of the American Indians, and as early as the 16th century the mass importation of slaves from Africa had begun in order to provide labor for the sugar and tobacco plantations, as well as in the mines. With the decline of Spain’s power, the West Indies became the principal object for the rivalry of the European powers in America. In the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, as the result of seizures, wars, and international treaties, Great Britain acquired the islands of St. Christopher (St. Kitts), Barbados, Antigua, Montserrat, Jamaica, Grenada, Dominica, Trinidad, and others; France obtained the islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Haiti; Holland, the islands of Aruba, Curaçao, and Bonaire; and Denmark, the islands of St. John, St. Thomas, and St. Croix from the group known as the Virgin Islands. By the beginning of the 19th century Spain had kept possession of only Puerto Rico and Cuba.
|Table 1. Political divisions of the West Indies|
|States and territories||Present status||Area|
in sq km
|Antigua...............||“State associated with Great Britain”||442||62,000||St. Johns|
|Bahama Islands...............||British possession||11,405||148,000||Nassau|
|Barbados (Nov. 30, 1966)1...............||Independent state||430||253,000||Bridgetown|
|Bermuda Islands (British)...............||British Possession||53||51,000||Hamilton|
|Cayman Islands...............||British Possession||259||9,000||Georgeton|
|Cuba (May 20, 1902)1...............||Independent state||114,525||8,074,000||Havana|
|Dominica...............||“State associated with Great Britain”||751||72,000||Roseau|
|Dominican Republic (Feb. 27, 1844)1...............||Independent state||48,734||4,029,000||Santo Domingo|
|Dutch West Indies...............||Autonomous overseas area|
|St. Martin (southern portion)...............||45.4||2,5000|
|Grenada...............||“State associated with Great Britain”||344||103,000||St. George’s|
|Guadeloupe...............||Overseas department of France||1,779||318,000||Basse-Terre|
|Haiti (Jan. 1, 1804)1...............||Independent state||27,750||4,674,000||Port-au-Prince|
|Jamaica (Aug. 6, 1962)1...............||Independent state||10,962||1,913,000||Kingston|
|Martinique...............||Overseas department of France||1,102||324,000||Fort-de-France|
|Puerto Rico...............||“Commonwealth in voluntary association (with the USA)”||8,897||2,723,000||San Juan|
|St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla...............||“State associated with Great Britain”||357||58,000||Basseterre|
|St. Lucia...............||“State associated with Great Britain”||616||108,000||Castries|
|St. Vincent...............||“State associated with Great Britain”||388||93,000||Kingstown|
|Trinidad and Tobago (Aug. 31, 1962)1...............||Independent state||5,128||1,021,000||Port-of-Spain|
|Turks and Caicos Islands...............||British Possession||430||6,700||Grand Turk|
|Virgin Islands (British)...............||British Possession||153||9,000||Road Town|
|Virgin Islands (USA)...............||Possession of USA|
|St. John...............||52||58,000||Charlotte (Amalie)|
|1 Date of proclamation of independence|
Cruel exploitation on the plantations caused frequent uprisings by the slaves against their oppressors. The most important of these—occurring in Haiti at the end of the 18th century—grew into a war for independence, as a result of which the Republic of Haiti was proclaimed in 1804. In 1844 the Dominican Republic was established in the eastern part of the island of Haiti. The rest of the West Indies remained in colonial dependence as before. Slavery was legally abolished in the British colonies in 1833, the French in 1848, the Dutch in 1863, and the Spanish in 1880.
Beginning in the second half of the 19th century there was an increased penetration of the USA into the West Indies. As a result of the Spanish-American War of 1898, Puerto Rico became a colony of the USA; Cuba was declared an independent republic in 1902, although in fact as early as 1901 it had become a protectorate of the USA. Several times the USA carried out occupations of Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. In 1917 the USA bought the part of the Virgin Islands that belonged to Denmark.
The victory of the Great October Socialist Revolution in Russia had great influence on the development of the anti-imperialist national liberation movement in the West Indies. During the 1920’s, 1930’s, and 1940’s, communist parties sprang up in many countries of the West Indies. In the 1930’s major anti-imperialist and anticolonial outbreaks occurred in Cuba (the revolution of 1933) and in the British West Indies. The first political parties to set forth the slogan of independence arose in the British colonies.
During the period of World War II (1939-45) the USA consolidated its influence in the West Indies. According to an Anglo-American agreement in 1940, the USA obtained the right to build military bases in British possessions in America for a period of 99 years. With the establishment of the Caribbean Commission (1942) the resources of the colonies of the European powers were in fact handed over to the USA. Although they dealt cruelly with the liberation movement in the colonies, which had especially increased after the end of the war (arrests of the movement’s leaders in Jamaica in 1943, military reprisals against strikers on the island of Grenada in 1951, and suppression of an uprising in Puerto Rico in 1950), the ruling circles of the imperialist powers were, nevertheless, compelled to make concessions. They proclaimed a number of political reforms with the purpose of covering up the colonial domination of the countries of the West Indies. With this goal in mind, Martinique and Guadeloupe were declared to be “overseas departments” of France (1946); Puerto Rico, “a commonwealth in voluntary association (with the USA)” (1952); and the Dutch colonies in the West Indies, “a constituent part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands” (1954). In 1958 the British colonies were united into the Federation of the West Indies.
The victory of the Cuban Revolution of 1959 led to the establishment of the first socialist state in America, and it facilitated a new upsurge of the liberation movement in the West Indies. In 1962 the Federation of the West Indies was dissolved, and the independent states of Jamaica (1962), Trinidad and Tobago (1962), and Barbados (1966) were formed. The British colonies of Antigua, Dominica, Grenada, St. Lucia, St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla (1967), and St. Vincent (1969) obtained domestic self-government and were declared to be “states associated with the United Kingdom.”
REFERENCESNarody Ameriki, vol. 2. Moscow, 1959.
Strany Latinskoi Ameriki v sovremennykh mezhdunarodnykh ot-nosheniiakh. Moscow, 1967. Chapter 9.
E. L. ROVINSKAIA