West Indies

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 possessions are Aruba and the Netherlands Antilles (Curaçao, Bonaire, Saint Eustatius, Saba, and part of Saint Martin). The French overseas departments and administrative regions are Guadeloupe and its dependencies 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).

West Indies, University of the, autonomous regional institution with main campuses in Jamaica, Trinidad, and Barbados; coeducational; est. 1948 in Mona, Jamaica, as an external university college of the Univ. of London, independent and renamed 1962. The St. Augustine, Trinidad, campus was founded in 1921 for the West Indies Agricultural College, which was renamed the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture in 1924 and incorporated in 1960 into the University College of the West Indies. The Barbados campus was created in 1963 at Bridgetown and moved to Cave Hill. The university, which is supported by 15 West Indian and Central American countries and dependencies, also maintains educational centers in all supporting countries, including a center for hotel and tourism management in the Bahamas.

The Danish West Indies (Danish: Dansk Vestindien or De dansk-vestindiske øer) or "Danish Antilles", were a colony of Denmark-Norway and Denmark in the Caribbean, now known as the United States Virgin Islands. Jomfruøerne ("Virgin Islands") was the Danish geographic name for the Virgin Islands.


The Danish West India and Guinea Company settled on St. Thomas island first in 1672, expanding to St. John in 1683 (a move disputed with the British until 1718), and purchasing St. Croix from the French West Indies Company in 1733. In 1754, the islands were sold to the Danish king, Frederick V of Denmark, becoming royal Danish colonies.

At times during the Napoleonic Wars, the islands were occupied by the British; first from March 1801 to 27 March 1802, and then again from December 1807 to 20 November 1815, when they were returned to Denmark.

Until 1904, there was no official currency for the Danish West Indies, which had led first to the Spanish milled dollar and then the United States dollar being used as the local currency. In 1904, the Danish-West Indian National Bank was established to provide an official currency. Rather than continue with the existing U.S. denominations or introducing the Danish kroner, the bank opted to use the Latin Monetary Union standard with francs and bits.

On January 17 1917, the islands were sold to the United States for $25 million when the United States and Denmark exchanged their respective treaty ratifications. Danish administration ended March 31, 1917, when the United States took formal possession of the territory and renamed it the United States Virgin Islands.

The United States had been interested in the islands for years because of their strategic position near the approach to the Panama Canal and because of the fear that Germany might seize them to use as U-boat bases during World War I.

Postage stamps

Denmark issued stamps for the Danish West Indies from 1856 on; see postage stamps and postal history of the Danish West Indies for more details.

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