West Indies

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West Indies
Antillas (orthographic projection).svg
Area239,681 km2 (92,541 sq mi)
Population44,182,048 [1] [2]
Population density151.5/km2 (392/sq mi)
Ethnic groups Amerindian, Afro-Caribbean, White Caribbeans, Indo-Caribbean, Latino or Hispanic (Spanish, Portuguese, Mestizo, Mulatto, Pardo, and Zambo), Chinese, Jewish, Arab, Javanese, [3] Hmong, Multiracial
  • 20.6% no religion
  • 2.5% folk religions
  • 2.1% Hinduism
  • 1.3% others [4]
Demonym West Indian, Caribbean
Languages English, French, Spanish, Dutch, French Creoles, English Creoles, Dutch Creoles, Papiamento, Caribbean Hindi, Chinese, Danish and others
Time zones UTC−05:00 to UTC−04:00
Internet TLD Multiple
Calling code Multiple
Largest cities
UN M49 code029Caribbean
419Latin America
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East Indies
Indies (Indian subcontinent and Myanmar)
Western New Guinea
West Indies
Countries sometimes included in West Indies Indies.PNG
  West Indies
  Countries sometimes included in West Indies

The West Indies is a subregion of North America, surrounded by the North Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, which comprises 13 independent island countries and 19 dependencies in three archipelagos: the Greater Antilles, the Lesser Antilles, and the Lucayan Archipelago. [5]


The subregion includes all the islands in the Antilles, plus The Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands, which are in the North Atlantic Ocean. Nowadays, the term West Indies is often interchangeable with the term Caribbean, although the latter may also include some Central and South American mainland nations which have Caribbean coastlines or coastlines close to the Caribbean, such as Belize, French Guiana, Guyana, and Suriname, as well as the Atlantic island nation of Bermuda, all of which are geographically distinct from the three main island groups, but culturally related.

Origin and use of the term

In 1492, Christopher Columbus became the first European to record his arrival at the islands, where he is believed by historians to have first set foot on land in The Bahamas. After the first of the voyages of Christopher Columbus to the Americas, Europeans began to use the term West Indies to distinguish this region from both the original "Indies" (i.e. India) and the East Indies of South Asia and Southeast Asia. [6] [7] [8]

The sport of cricket was popular in most British colonies and during the 1890s, combined West Indies cricket teams began to play international matches. In the 1920s, the West Indies Cricket Board was formed and accorded test status.


Many cultures were indigenous to these islands, with evidence dating some of them back to the mid-6th millennium BCE.

In the late sixteenth century, French, English and Dutch merchants and privateers began operations in the Caribbean Sea, attacking Spanish and Portuguese shipping and coastal areas. They often took refuge and refitted their ships in the areas the Spanish could not conquer, including the islands of the Lesser Antilles, the northern coast of South America, including the mouth of the Orinoco, and the Atlantic Coast of Central America. In the Lesser Antilles, they managed to establish a foothold following the colonisation of St Kitts in 1624 and Barbados in 1626, and when the Sugar Revolution took off in the mid-seventeenth century, they brought in thousands of enslaved Africans to work the fields and mills as labourers. These enslaved Africans wrought a demographic revolution, replacing or joining with either the indigenous Caribs or the European settlers who were there as indentured servants.

The struggle between the northern Europeans and the Spanish spread southward in the mid to late seventeenth century, as English, Dutch, French and Spanish colonists, and in many cases, enslaved Africans first entered and then occupied the coast of The Guianas (which fell to the French, English and Dutch) and the Orinoco valley, which fell to the Spanish. The Dutch, allied with the Caribs of the Orinoco, would eventually carry the struggles deep into South America, first along the Orinoco and then along the northern reaches of the Amazon.

Island groups of the West Indies, in relation to the continental Americas West Indies - Island Groups.svg
Island groups of the West Indies, in relation to the continental Americas

Since no European country had occupied much of Central America, gradually, the English of Jamaica established alliances with the Miskito Kingdom of modern-day Nicaragua and Honduras and then began logging on the coast of modern-day Belize. These interconnected commercial and diplomatic relations comprised the Western Caribbean Zone in place in the early eighteenth century. In the Miskito Kingdom, the rise to power of the Miskito-Zambos, who originated in the survivors of a rebellion aboard a slave ship in the 1640s and the introduction of enslaved Africans by British settlers within the Miskito area and in Belize, also transformed this area into one with a high percentage of persons of African descent as was found in most of the rest of the Caribbean.

From the 17th through the 19th century, the European colonial territories of the West Indies were the French West Indies, British West Indies, the Danish West Indies, the Netherlands Antilles (Dutch West Indies), and the Spanish West Indies.

In 1916, Denmark sold the Danish West Indies to the United States [9] for US$25 million in gold, per the Treaty of the Danish West Indies. The Danish West Indies became an insular area of the U.S., called the United States Virgin Islands.

Between 1958 and 1962, the United Kingdom re-organised all their West Indies island territories (except the British Virgin Islands and the Bahamas) into the West Indies Federation. They hoped that the Federation would coalesce into a single, independent nation. However, the Federation had limited powers, numerous practical problems, and a lack of popular support; consequently, it was dissolved by the British in 1963, with nine provinces eventually becoming independent sovereign states and four becoming current British Overseas Territories.

"West Indies" or "West India" was a part of the names of several companies of the 17th and 18th centuries, including the Danish West India Company, the Dutch West India Company, the French West India Company, and the Swedish West India Company. [10]

West Indian is the official term used by the U.S. government to refer to people of the West Indies. [11]


Caribbean Basin countries Caribe-Politico.svg
Caribbean Basin countries
The subduction of the South American Plate and part of the North American Plate beneath the Caribbean Plate produces both the Puerto Rico Trench, the deepest part of the Atlantic Ocean, as well as the active volcanoes of the Lesser Antilles (bottom left of the image, south of the Virgin Islands) Atlantic-trench.JPG
The subduction of the South American Plate and part of the North American Plate beneath the Caribbean Plate produces both the Puerto Rico Trench, the deepest part of the Atlantic Ocean, as well as the active volcanoes of the Lesser Antilles (bottom left of the image, south of the Virgin Islands)

The West Indies are a geologically complex island system consisting of 7,000 islands and islets stretching over 3,000 km (2000 miles) from the Florida peninsula of North America south-southeast to the northern coast of Venezuela. [12] These islands include active volcanoes, low-lying atolls, raised limestone islands, and large fragments of continental crust containing tall mountains and insular rivers. [13] Each of the three archipelagos of the West Indies has a unique origin and geologic composition.

Greater Antilles

The Greater Antilles is geologically the oldest of the three archipelagos and includes both the largest islands (Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico) and the tallest mountains (Pico Duarte, Blue Mountain, Pic la Selle, Pico Turquino) in the Caribbean. [14] The islands of the Greater Antilles are composed of strata of different geological ages including Precambrian fragmented remains of the North American Plate (older than 539 million years), Jurassic aged limestone (201.3-145 million years ago), as well as island arc deposits and oceanic crust from the Cretaceous (145-66 million years ago). [15]

The Greater Antilles originated near the Isthmian region of present day Central America in the Late Cretaceous (commonly referred to as the Proto-Antilles), then drifted eastward arriving in their current location when colliding with the Bahama Platform of the North American Plate ca. 56 million years ago in the late Paleocene. [16] This collision caused subduction and volcanism in the Proto-Antillean area and likely resulted in continental uplift of the Bahama Platform and changes in sea level. [17] The Greater Antilles have continuously been exposed since the start of the Paleocene or at least since the Middle Eocene (66-40 million years ago), but which areas were above sea level throughout the history of the islands remains unresolved. [18] [16]

The oldest rocks in the Greater Antilles are located in Cuba. They consist of metamorphosed graywacke, argillite, tuff, mafic igneous extrusive flows, and carbonate rock. [19] It is estimated that nearly 70% of Cuba consists of karst limestone. [20] The Blue Mountains of Jamaica are a granite outcrop rising over 2,000 meters (6000'), while the rest of the island to the west consists mainly of karst limestone. [20] Much of Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands were formed by the collision of the Caribbean Plate with the North American Plate and consist of 12 island arc terranes. [21] These terranes consist of oceanic crust, volcanic and plutonic rock. [21]

Lesser Antilles

The Lesser Antilles is a volcanic island arc rising along the leading edge of the Caribbean Plate due to the subduction of the Atlantic seafloor of the North American and South American plates. Major islands of the Lesser Antilles likely emerged less than 20 Ma, during the Miocene. [14] The volcanic activity that formed these islands began in the Paleogene, after a period of volcanism in the Greater Antilles ended, and continues today. [22] The main arc of the Lesser Antilles runs north from the coast of Venezuela to the Anegada Passage, a strait separating them from the Greater Antilles, and includes 19 active volcanoes. [23]

Lucayan Archipelago

The Lucayan Archipelago includes The Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands, a chain of barrier reefs and low islands atop the Bahama Platform. The Bahama Platform is a carbonate block formed of marine sediments and fixed to the North American Plate. [13] The emergent islands of the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos likely formed from accumulated deposits of wind-blown sediments during Pleistocene glacial periods of lower sea level. [13]

Countries and territories by subregion and archipelago

Political map of the West Indies Caribbean general map.png
Political map of the West Indies
Life expectancy map -Caribbean -2019 -with names.png
Life expectancy map -Caribbean -2021 -with names.png
Life expectancy in the West Indies in 2019 and 2021

Caribbean (core area)


Greater Antilles
Lesser Antilles
Leeward Antilles
Leeward Islands
Windward Islands
Isolated islands in the Lesser Antilles

Lucayan Archipelago

Isolated island in the Caribbean

Central America

Northern America

South America

N.B.: Territories in italics are parts of transregional sovereign states or non-sovereign dependencies.

* These three Dutch Caribbean territories form the BES islands.

Physiographically, these are continental islands not part of the volcanic Windward Islands arc. However, based on proximity, these islands are sometimes grouped with the Windward Islands culturally and politically.

~ Disputed territories administered by Colombia.

^ The United Nations geoscheme includes Mexico in Central America. [24]

# Physiographically, Bermuda is an isolated oceanic island in the North Atlantic Ocean, not a part of the Caribbean, West Indies, North American continent or South American continent. Usually grouped with Northern American countries based on proximity; sometimes grouped with the West Indies culturally.

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lesser Antilles</span> Archipelago in the Southeast Caribbean

The Lesser Antilles are a group of islands in the Caribbean Sea. Most of them are part of a long, partially volcanic island arc between the Greater Antilles to the north-west and the continent of South America. The islands of the Lesser Antilles form the eastern boundary of the Caribbean Sea where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. Together, the Lesser Antilles and the Greater Antilles make up the Antilles. The Lesser and Greater Antilles, together with the Lucayan Archipelago, are collectively known as the West Indies.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Antilles</span> Archipelago bordering the north and east of the Caribbean Sea

The Antilles is an archipelago bordered by the Caribbean Sea to the south and west, the Gulf of Mexico to the northwest, and the Atlantic Ocean to the north and east.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Leeward Islands</span> Subgroup of islands in the West Indies

The Leeward Islands are a group of islands situated where the northeastern Caribbean Sea meets the western Atlantic Ocean. Starting with the Virgin Islands east of Puerto Rico, they extend southeast to Guadeloupe and its dependencies. In English, the term Leeward Islands refers to the northern islands of the Lesser Antilles chain. The more southerly part of this chain, starting with Dominica, is called the Windward Islands. Dominica was originally considered a part of the Leeward Islands, but was transferred from the British Leeward Islands to the British Windward Islands in 1940.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">British West Indies</span> British territories in the Caribbean, sometimes including former colonies

The British West Indies (BWI) were colonised British territories in the West Indies: Anguilla, the Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos Islands, Montserrat, the British Virgin Islands, Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, British Guiana and Trinidad and Tobago. Other territories include Bermuda, and the former British Honduras.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Greater Antilles</span> Region of the Caribbean

The Greater Antilles is a grouping of the larger islands in the Caribbean Sea, including Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Navassa Island and the Cayman Islands. Six island states share the region of the Greater Antilles, with Haiti and the Dominican Republic sharing the island of Hispaniola. Together with the Lesser Antilles, they make up the Antilles.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Caribbean Basin</span> Region of North America

In geography, the Caribbean Basin is generally defined as the area running from Florida westward along the Gulf coast, then south along the Mexican coast through Central America and then eastward across the northern coast of South America. This region includes the islands of the archipelago of the West Indies. Bermuda is also included within the region even though it is in the west-central Atlantic, due to its common cultural history created by European colonization of the region, and in most of the region by the presence of a significant group of African descent.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Caribbean Plate</span> A mostly oceanic tectonic plate including part of Central America and the Caribbean Sea

The Caribbean Plate is a mostly oceanic tectonic plate underlying Central America and the Caribbean Sea off the northern coast of South America.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Leeward Antilles</span> Island group in the Caribbean

The Leeward Antilles are a chain of islands in the Caribbean – specifically the southerly islands of the Lesser Antilles along the southeastern fringe of the Caribbean Sea, just north of the Venezuelan coast of the South American mainland. The Leeward Antilles, while among the Lesser Antilles, are not to be confused with the Leeward Islands to the northeast.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Spanish West Indies</span> Spanish possession in the Caribbean between 1492-1898

The Spanish West Indies or the Spanish Antilles were Spanish colonies in the Caribbean. In terms of governance of the Spanish Empire, The Indies was the designation for all its overseas territories and was overseen by the Council of the Indies, founded in 1524 and based in Spain. When the Crown established the Viceroyalty of New Spain in 1535, the islands of the Caribbean came under its jurisdiction.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Pearly-eyed thrasher</span> Species of bird

The pearly-eyed thrasher is a bird in the thrasher family Mimidae. It is found on many Caribbean islands, from the Bahamas in the north to the Grenadines in the south, with an isolated subspecies on Bonaire.

The Caribbean bioregion is a biogeographic region that includes the islands of the Caribbean Sea and nearby Atlantic islands, which share a fauna, flora and mycobiota distinct from surrounding bioregions.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Caribbean</span> Region to the east of Central America

The Caribbean is a subregion of the Americas that includes the Caribbean Sea and its islands, some of which are surrounded by the Caribbean Sea and some of which border both the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean; the nearby coastal areas on the mainland are often also included in the region. The region is southeast of the Gulf of Mexico and the North American mainland, east of Central America, and north of South America.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Territorial evolution of the Caribbean</span>

This is a timeline of the territorial evolution of the Caribbean and nearby areas of North, Central, and South America, listing each change to the internal and external borders of the various countries that make up the region.

A unique and diverse albeit phylogenetically restricted mammal fauna is known from the Caribbean region. The region—specifically, all islands in the Caribbean Sea and the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos Islands, and Barbados, which are not in the Caribbean Sea but biogeographically belong to the same Caribbean bioregion—has been home to several families found nowhere else, but much of this diversity is now extinct.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Languages of the Caribbean</span> Languages of the region

The languages of the Caribbean reflect the region's diverse history and culture. There are six official languages spoken in the Caribbean:

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Latin America and the Caribbean</span> Subregion of the Americas

The term Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) is an English-language acronym referring to the Latin American and the Caribbean region. The term LAC covers an extensive region, extending from The Bahamas and Mexico to Argentina and Chile. The region has over 670,230,000 people as of 2016, and spanned for 21,951,000 square kilometres (8,475,000 sq mi).


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Further reading

21°59′00″N79°02′00″W / 21.9833°N 79.0333°W / 21.9833; -79.0333