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THE WEST INDIES - About the Caribbean

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THE WEST INDIES - About the Caribbean

Summary: The West Indies is an archipelago, or group of islands, that extends from the waters off south western Florida to the coast of Venezuela in South America - The Bahamas to Trinidad and Tobago.
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THE WEST INDIES - About the Caribbean

The West Indies archipelago, which includes thousands of tiny islands, forms a massive breakwater 2,000 miles long consisting of islands and reefs, which protects the Caribbean Sea against the Atlantic Ocean. This barriar provides the Caribbean its much touted calm and clear waters.

The West Indies is known by a variety of names. The earliest name, and the one most frequently used, is West Indies.  Christopher Columbus gave the region that name erroneously when he arrived in 1492. He thought that he had circumnavigated the earth and that the islands were off the coast of India.  Over time other names came into use.

Old Caribbean Map
Old Caribbean Map

GEOGRAPHY: Spain and France called the islands the Antilles, after the mythological Atlantic island of Antilia. 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.  Today we break the area into four island chains: The Bahamas, the Greater Antilles, and the eastern and southern islands of the Lesser Antilles. Together, these islands cover more than 91,000 sq. miles of land area.

The Lesser Antilles are 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 Windward Islands consist of the islands close to the northern coast of South America.  The Leeward Islands consist of north eastern group of islands.

- 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.

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.

Geographically the West Indies are part of the Americas, the islands can trace most 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 (primarily Spanish, English, Dutch, and French) began to colonize the West Indies, bringing their culture, language, and social influences to the islands.  The Europeans also brought disease and slavery with them. Because the Islands are small with limited natural resources, the majority of the islands remained colonies much longer than any other part of the Americas.  Under this "colinzation and independat state status" the islands have been able to Most West Indian nations attained independence from the late 19th to the late 20th century.

HISTORICAL OVERVIEW: 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.

COLONIZATION: 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.

TODAY: 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. 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.

CLIMATE: 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.

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