West Indies

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West Indies

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 Bahamas; the Greater Antilles (Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico); and the Lesser Antilles (Leeward Islands, Windward Islands, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados) and the islands off the northern coast of Venezuela.

The British dependent territories are the Cayman Islands, the Turks and Caicos Islands, Anguilla, Montserrat, and the British Virgin Islands. The Dutch territories are Aruba, Curaçao, Bonaire, Saint Eustatius, Saba, and part of Saint Martin. The French territories are Guadeloupe and its dependencies, part of Saint Martin, and Martinique. 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. Margarita 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 Columbus 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 Hispaniola. 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 Federation).


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).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

West Indies


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.


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 territoriesPresent statusArea
in sq km
Capital or
administrative center
Antigua...............“State associated with Great Britain”44262,000St. Johns
Bahama Islands...............British possession11,405148,000Nassau
Barbados (Nov. 30, 1966)1...............Independent state430253,000Bridgetown
Bermuda Islands (British)...............British Possession5351,000Hamilton
Cayman Islands...............British Possession2599,000Georgeton
Cuba (May 20, 1902)1...............Independent state114,5258,074,000Havana
Dominica...............“State associated with Great Britain”75172,000Roseau
Dominican Republic (Feb. 27, 1844)1...............Independent state48,7344,029,000Santo Domingo
Dutch West Indies...............Autonomous overseas area   
Aruba............... 18460,000West IndiesWillemstad
Bonaire............... 2907,000 
Curaçao............... 462140,000 
Saba............... 13.21,500 
St. Eustatius............... 30.62,000 
St. Martin (southern portion)............... 45.42,5000 
Grenada...............“State associated with Great Britain”344103,000St. George’s
Guadeloupe...............Overseas department of France1,779318,000Basse-Terre
Haiti (Jan. 1, 1804)1...............Independent state27,7504,674,000Port-au-Prince
Jamaica (Aug. 6, 1962)1...............Independent state10,9621,913,000Kingston
Martinique...............Overseas department of France1,102324,000Fort-de-France
Montserrat...............British possession9815,000Plymouth
Puerto Rico...............“Commonwealth in voluntary association (with the USA)”8,8972,723,000San Juan
St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla...............“State associated with Great Britain”35758,000Basseterre
St. Lucia...............“State associated with Great Britain”616108,000Castries
St. Vincent...............“State associated with Great Britain”38893,000Kingstown
Trinidad and Tobago (Aug. 31, 1962)1...............Independent state5,1281,021,000Port-of-Spain
Turks and Caicos Islands...............British Possession4306,700Grand Turk
Virgin Islands (British)...............British Possession1539,000Road Town
Virgin Islands (USA)...............Possession of USA   
St. Croix............... 207  
St. John............... 52West Indies58,000Charlotte (Amalie)
St. Thomas............... 83  
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.”


Narody Ameriki, vol. 2. Moscow, 1959.
Strany Latinskoi Ameriki v sovremennykh mezhdunarodnykh ot-nosheniiakh. Moscow, 1967. Chapter 9.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

West Indies

an archipelago off Central America, extending over 2400 km (1500 miles) in an arc from the peninsula of Florida to Venezuela, separating the Caribbean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean: consists of the Greater Antilles, the Lesser Antilles, and the Bahamas; largest island is Cuba. Area: over 235 000 sq. km (91 000 sq. miles)
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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