West Indies

Today, the West Indies region figures among the world’s most popular vacation destinations. It wasn’t always this way, however. Before the arrival of Christopher Columbus and other Europeans, the region, which is commonly known in modern times as the Caribbean, was home to three native cultures–the Arawaks, the Caribs, and the Ciboney. These cultures were effectively wiped out due to disease, slavery, war, and other reasons, thus paving the way for European colonization.

West Indies history as it relates to European involvement sees the Spanish being the first to claim settlements in the region. In fact, Spain claimed the entire region early on, though this didn’t mean that they settled all of the numerous islands. Instead, only the larger islands were settled, with examples including Hispaniola (1493) and Jamaica (1509).

When the Spanish Empire began its decline in late seventeenth century, other European powers starting moving into the West Indies region and claiming their own island territories. The British began colonizing Bermuda in 1612, for example, and France established a base on St. Kitts in 1625 and branched out from there. In addition to the Spanish, the British, and the French, the West Indies region saw significant settlements being made by the Dutch and the Danish as well. Eventually, the United States also took an interest in establishing themselves in the region, and it still maintains control of several islands, including those of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Alas, many other West Indies islands managed to gain their independence and are now their own entities.

West Indies Map

West Indies Map
West Indies Map

When Christopher Columbus arrived in what is now the West Indies region in the late 1400's, he thought he had reached what was known then as the East Indies region (the west of India and the islands of modern day Indonesia). It was eventually discovered that the famous explorer made a huge error in geographical judgement, and hence the name of the newly discovered region was changed to the West Indies. Today, the West Indies region is broken down into three main subregions, and these include the Bahamas, the Greater Antilles, and the Lesser Antilles. The Bahamas subregion, as the name implies, encompasses the islands of the Bahamas. As for the Greater Antilles region, it includes Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico, while the Lesser Antilles region includes Aruba, Martinique, Grenada, the Virgin Islands, and a host of other islands that stretch down towards the north coast of South America and help form the southeastern boundaries of the larger West Indies region.

British West Indies

British West Indies
British West Indies

The Spanish no longer maintain control over any territories in the West Indies, and the Danish also gave up control of their regional settlements when they sold the former Danish West Indies to the United States in 1916. As for European powers that still maintain control over regional areas, they include the British. Originally, the term British West Indies was used to designated those Caribbean islands that were part of the British Empire, as well as the British territories of British Honduras and British Guiana. In 1912, these territories were divided into eight different colonies, and later on between the years of 1958 to 1962, most of the British West Indies territories became part of what was known as the West Indies Federation. This federation was dissolved due to a number of different reasons, including limited powers, and most of the various British territories that were part of it became independent soon thereafter. Those territories that remain as British overseas territories in the Caribbean include the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat, and the Turks and Caicos.

French West Indies

French West Indies
French West Indies

France, much like Great Britain, and the Netherlands for that matter, doesn’t control as much of the West Indies region as it once did, though it has managed to maintain control of several regional territories. These territories include Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint Martin, Saint Barthelemy, Les Saintes, Marie-Galante, and La Desirade. Former French holdings that were lost in the area include Hispaniola (namely modern day Haiti), Dominica, Tobago, Saint Vincent, Saint Lucia, Saint Kitts, Saint Croix, Grenada, and the Grenadines. Today, it should be noted, the French West Indies is often referred to as the French Antilles.

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