The West Indies - Encyclopedia

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THE WEST INDIES, sometimes called the Antilles, an archipelago stretching in the shape of a rude arc or parabola from Florida in North America and Yucatan in Central America to Venezuela in South America, and enclosing the Caribbean Sea (615,000 sq. m.) and the Gulf of Mexico (750,000 sq. m. in area). The land area of all the islands is nearly 100,000 sq. m., with an estimated population of about 62 millions; that of the British islands about 12,000 sq. m. The islands differ widely one from another in area, population, geographical position, and physical characteristics. They are divided into the Bahamas, the Greater Antilles (Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti and Porto Rico), and the Lesser Antilles (comprising the remainder). The Lesser Antilles are again divided into the Windward Islands and Leeward Islands. Geographically, the Leeward Islands are those to the north of St Lucia, and the Windward, St Lucia and those to the south of it; but for administrative purposes the British islands in the Lesser Antilles are grouped as is shown in the table given later.

Table of contents


The West Indies are the summits of a submerged mountain chain, the continuation of which towards the west must be sought in the mountains of Honduras. In Haiti the chain divides, one branch passing through Jamaica and the other through Cuba, the Cayman Islands and the Misteriosa Bank. In Das Antlitz der Erde, E. Suess divides the Antilles into three zones: (1) The first or interior zone, which is confined to the Lesser Antilles, is entirely of volcanic origin and contains many recent volcanic cones. It forms the inner string of islands which extends from Saba and St Kitts to Grenada and the Grenadines. The western part of the deep-cleft island Guadeloupe belongs to this zone. (2) The second zone consists chiefly of Cretaceous and early Tertiary rocks. In the west it is broad, including the whole of the Greater Antilles, but in the east it is restricted to a narrow belt which comprises the Virgin Islands (except Anegada), Anguilla, St Bartholomew, Antigua, the eastern part of Guadeloupe and part of Barbados. (3) The third and outermost zone is formed of Miocene and later beds, and the islands which compose it are flat and low. Like the second zone it is broad in the west and narrow in the east. It includes the Bahamas, Anegada, Sombrero, Barbuda and part of Barbados. Geologically, Florida and the plain of Yucatan may be looked upon as belonging to this zone. Neither Trinidad nor the islands off the Venezuelan coast can be said to belong to any of these three zones. Geologically they are a part of the mainland itself. They consist of gneisses and schists, supposed to be Archaean, eruptive rocks, Cretaceous, Tertiary and Quaternary deposits; and the strike of the older rocks varies from about W.S.W. to S.W. Geologically, in fact, these islands are much more nearly allied to the Greater Antilles and to Central America than they are to the Lesser Antilles; and there is accordingly some reason to believe that the arc formed by the West Indian Islands is really composite in origin. Although the three zones recognized by Suess are fairly clearly defined, the geological history of the Greater Antilles, with which must be included the Virgin Islands, differs considerably from that of the Lesser. In Cuba and Haiti there are schists which are probably of pre-Cretaceous age, and have, indeed, been referred to the Archaean; but the oldest rocks which have yet been certainly identified in the West Indies belong to the Cretaceous period. Throughout the Greater Antilles the geological succession begins as a rule with volcanic tuffs and conglomerates of hornblende-andesite, &c., in the midst of which are intercalated occasional beds of limestone with Rudistes and other Cretaceous fossils. These are overlaid by sediments of terrigenous origin, and the whole series was folded before the deposition of the next succeeding strata. The nature of these Cretaceous deposits clearly indicates the neighbourhood of an extensive area of land; Bay 'v1 ' ? 0 F l oBimini 1.

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Margarital Tori?a s r l 4 e e r - Tobago (Br,) Cgof Trinidad (Br.) nt s G but during the succeeding Eocene period and the early part of the Oligocene, a profound subsidence led to the deposition of the Globigerina chalks and white Radiolarian earths of Jamaica, Cuba and Haiti. The Greater Antilles must at this time have been almost completely submerged, and the similar deposits of Barbados and Trinidad point to a similar submergence beyond the Windward Islands. In the middle of the Oligocene period a mighty upheaval, accompanied by mountain folding and the intrusion of plutonic rocks, raised the Greater Antilles far above their present level, and united the islands with one another, and perhaps with Florida. A subsequent depression and a series of minor oscillations finally resulted in the production of the present topography.

The geology of the Lesser Antilles is somewhat different. In some of the islands there are old volcanic tuffs which may possibly be the equivalents of the Cretaceous beds of Jamaica, but volcanic activity here continued throughout the Tertiary period and even down to the present day. Another important difference is that except in Trinidad and Barbados, which do not properly belong to the Caribbean chain, no deep-sea deposits have yet been found in the Lesser Antilles and there is no evidence that the area ever sank to abysmal depths.

In the foregoing account the chronology of R. T. Hill has been followed; but there is still considerable difference of opinion as to the ages and correlation of the various Tertiary deposits and consequently as to the dates of the great depression and elevation. J. W. Spencer, for example, places the greatest elevation of the Antilles in the Pliocene and Pleistocene periods. Moreover, chiefly on the evidence of submerged valleys, he concludes that practically the whole of the Caribbean Sea was land and that a complete connexion existed, by way of the West Indian bridge, between North and South America.' The mineral wealth of the islands is not remarkable. Gold, silver, iron, copper, tin, platinum, lead, coal of a poor quality, cobalt, mercury, arsenic, antimony, manganese, and rock salt either have been or are worked. Asphalt is worked to considerable advantage among the pitch lakes of Trinidad. Opal and chalcedony are the principal precious stones.

Climate.-As in most tropical countries where considerable heights are met with-and here over 15,500 sq. m. lie at an elevation of more than 1500 ft. above sea-level-the climate of the West Indies (in so far at least as heat and cold are concerned) varies at different altitudes, and on the higher parts of many of the islands a marked degree of coolness may generally be found. With the exception of part of the Bahamas, all the islands lie between the isotherms of 77° and 82° F. The extreme heat, however, is greatly tempered by the sea breezes, and by long, cool, refreshing nights. Frost is occasionally formed in the cold season when hail falls, but snow is unknown. The seasons may be divided as follows. The short wet season, or spring, begins in April and lasts from two to six weeks, and is succeeded by the short dry season, when the thermometer remains almost stationary at about 80° F. In July the heat increases to an extent well nigh unbearable. No change occurs till after a period varying from the end of July to the beginning of October, when the great rainfall of the year begins, accompanied by tremendous and destructive hurricanes. This season is locally known as the " hurricane months." The annual rainfall averages 63 in. These storms arise in the Atlantic and towards the east. For a day or two they follow a westerly course, inclining, at the same time, one or two points towards the north, the polar tendency becoming gradually more marked as the distance from the equator increases. When the hurricanes reach latitude 25° N., they curve to the north-east, and almost invariably wheel round on arriving at the northern portion of the Gulf of Mexico, after which they follow the coast line of North America. Their rate of speed varies considerably, but may be said to average 300 m. per day among the islands. The usual signs of the approach of the cyclones are an ugly and threatening appearance of the weather, sharp and frequent puffs of wind, increasing in force with each blast, accompanied with a long heavy swell and confused choppy sea, coming from the direction of the approaching storm. December marks the beginning of the long dry season, which, accompanied by fresh winds and occasional hail showers, lasts till April. The average temperature of the air at Barbados, which may be taken as a favourable average, is, throughout the year, 80° F. in the forenoon, and about 82° in the afternoon. The maximum is 87°, and the minimum 75°.

Flora.-The flora of the islands is of great variety and richness, as plants have been introduced from most parts of the globe, and flourish either in a wild state or under cultivation; grain, vegetables, and fruits, generally common in cool climates, may be seen growing in luxuriance within a short distance of like plants which only attain perfection under the influence of extreme heat, nothing being here required for the successful propagation of both but a difference in the height of the lands upon which they grow. The forests, which ' See E. Suess, Das Antlitz der Erde (Wien, 1885; Eng. trans., Oxford, 1904); J. W. Spencer, " Reconstruction of the Antillean Continent," Bull. Geol. Soc. Amer., vol. vi. (1895), p. 103 (Abstract in Geol. Mag., 18 94, PP. 44 8 -45 1): see also a series of papers by J. W. Spencer in Quart. Journ. Geol. Soc., vols. lxvii., lxviii. (1901, 1902); R. T. Hill, " The Geology and Physical Geography of Jamaica," Bull. Illus. Comp. Zool. Harvard, vol. xxxiv. (1899).

XXVIII. 18 are numerous and wide-spreading, produce the most valuable woods and delicious fruits. Palms are in great variety, and there are several species of gum-producing trees. Some locust trees have been estimated to have attained an age of 4000 years, and are of immense height and bulk. Piptadenia, on account of its almost imperishable character when in the ground, is used as a material for housebuilding. Xanthoxylon, the admired and valuable satin-wood of commerce, is common; Sapindus finds a ready market on account of its toughness; crab-wood yields a useful oil and affords reliable timber; and tree ferns of various species are common. Pimento is peculiar to Jamaica. But it is to the agricultural resources of the islands that the greatest importance attaches. For centuries almost the whole care of the planters was bestowed upon the cultivation of the sugar-cane and tobacco plant, but in modern times, as will be seen later, attention has been turned to the production of other and more varying crops. Crops of tobacco, beans, peas, maize, and Guinea corn are popular, and a species of rice, which requires no flooding for its successful propagation, is largely produced. Hymenachne striatum covers many of the plains, and affords food for cattle.

Fauna.-The fauna of the region is Neotropical, belonging to that region which includes South and part of Central America, although great numbers of birds from the North-American portion of the Holarctic realm migrate to the islands. The resident birds, however, eighteen genera of which are certainly Neotropical, show beyond doubt to which faunal region the islands properly belong. Mammals are, as in most island groups, rare. The agouti abounds, and wild pigs and dogs are sufficiently numerous to afford good sport to the hunter, as well as smaller game, in the shape of armadillos, opossums, musk-rats and raccoons. The non-migrating birds include trogons, sugar-birds, chatterers, and many parrots and humming birds. Waterfowl and various kinds of pigeons are in abundance. Reptiles are numerous: snakes-both the boa and adder-are innumerable, while lizards, scorpions, tarantulas and centipedes are everywhere. Insects are in great numbers, and are often annoying. Among domestic animals mules are largely reared, and where the country affords suitable pasture and forage cattle-breeding is practised. Goats abound, and large flocks of sheep are kept for the sake of their flesh alone, as the climate is not adapted for wool-growing.



sq. m.







Bahamas. ... .

5,45 0

43,5 21


Jamaica. .. .




Turks Island




Leeward Islands:

Virgin Islands




St Nevis Kitts. ... .




1 2 ,774

Antigua .




Montserrat .

32 1



Dominica .




Barbados .




Windward Islands :

St Lucia .


3 8 ,55 1


St Vincent .




Grenada .


4 2 ,43 0


Trinidad.. .



Tobago.. .


171 ' 179





. .




182,024 a

St Martin (part)





St Martin (part)




Curacao. .. .




Buen Ayre .



Aruba.. .




St Eustatius .



Saba. .. .




St Thomas .




St John.. .




St Croix. ... .





Porto Rico .





Santo Domingo .




Haiti .




Cuba (and adjacent islands) .




Area and Population.-The following list of the West Indian Islands gives their area and population. Notwithstanding the ' Estimate, 1905.2 Estimate, 1906. s 1905.4 Populations of all Dutch islands are for 1908.

1910. Estimate. 1907. ---- operations of educational institutions and of large numbers of missionaries of various religious denominations, the percentage of illegitimate births among the population of the British West Indian islands remains very high - in Barbados about 54; in Jamaica, 63; in Trinidad, 59% of the general births; and 79% of the East Indian.

The population of the West Indies represents many original stocks, the descendants of which have developed variations of habits and customs in their New World environment. They may be divided into six main classes: (r) Europeans - immigrants (British, French, Spanish and in a lesser degree Dutch, Danish and German) and West Indian born; (2) African negroes - immigrants (a fast vanishing quantity) and West Indian born; (3) a mixture of Europeans and Africans; (4) coolies from India - imported and West Indian born; (5) Chinese; (6) aboriginal Indians of more or less pure descent. Of these, the people of pure African blood are in a large majority, the " coloured " race of mixed European and African blood being next in numerical importance. Under British influence the negroes of the West Indies have become British in thought and habit; and it would seem that the stimulating influence of European direction and encouragement is absolutely necessary for the future development and progress of these islands. In the republics of Santo Domingo and Haiti the negroes are left to drift along, while the French and Danish islands show no great sign of progress.

British Colonies, Government, &c. - The British West India colonies' are either crown colonies - that is to say, their government is absolutely under the control of the British Colonial Office, the official members of their councils predominating, and the unofficial members being nominated by the crown, as in the Windward and Leeward Islands - or they have a measure of representative government, as in the Bahamas, Barbados and Jamaica, in which all or part of the legislatures are elected and are more or less independent of crown control. The laws of the various colonies are English, with local statutes to meet local needs. The governors and high officials are appointed by the crown; other officials are appointed by the governor. Each governor acts under the advice of a privy council. In matters of detail the colonies present a variety of forms of government (for which see the separate articles). Federation has been widely discussed and is held desirable by many, but in view of the insular character of the colonies, the considerable distances separating some of them, and in many instances the lack of common interests (apart from certain broad issues), the project appears to be far from realization.

The only fortified places in the British West Indies are Jamaica, Barbados and St Lucia - all of importance as coaling stations. In many of the islands there are local volunteer forces. The police forces of the colonies are in the main modelled on the Irish constabulary, supplemented by rural constabulary. The force is usually officered by Europeans.

Economic Conditions

The West Indian colonies have suffered from periods of severe economic depression, though from the early years of the 10th century there has been good evidence of recovery and development. An obvious reason for temporary depression is the liability of the islands to earthquakes and hurricanes, in addition to eruptions in the volcanic islands, such as those in St Vincent and Martinique in 1902. For example, the great earthquake of January 1907 in Jamaica may be recalled, and hurricanes caused serious damage in Jamaica in August 1903 and November 1909, and in the Bahamas in September and October 1908. A treasury fund has been established in Jamaica as a provision against the effects of such disasters. It has been stated that the excessive rainfall which accompanies these storms is of great ultimate benefit to the soil.

The British West Indian colonies do not offer opportunities for ordinary labouring immigrants. Barbados is the only island where the land is entirely settled. But the settlement, planting and development of lands elsewhere involve a considerable amount of capital, and manual labour is provided by the natives 1 It is a common practice to include British Guiana with these, but the present article is confined to the insular colonies.

or East Indian coolies. Attempts to settle European labourers have been unsuccessful. The West Indian negro, as a labouring class, has frequently been condemned as averse from regular work, apathetic in regard to both his own and his colony's affairs, immoral and dishonest. In so far as these shortcomings exist, they are due to the tendencies inherited from the period of slavery, to the ease with which a bare livelihood may be obtained, and to other such causes. But for the most part the negroes appreciate their advantages under British government and are quick to assimilate British customs and ideas. Advances in the system of peasant proprietorship have brought beneficial results. The drafting of large numbers of labourers from the West Indies to the Panama canal works early in the 10th century, though causing a shortage of labour and involving legislation in some of the islands, exercised a moral effect on the natives by enlarging their horizon.

The growth of general prosperity in the British West Indies is assigned 2 " to the revival of the sugar industry, to the development of the fruit trade; to the increase in the cultivation of cocoa and cotton; to the volume of tourist travel, which swells year by year; and to such local developments as the boom' in Trinidad oil." It was pointed out in the Report of the Royal Commission on Trade Relations between Canada and the West Indies (Cd. 5369, London, 1910) that " the geographical position of the West Indian Colonies must always tend to throw them under the influence of the fiscal system either of the United States or of the Dominion of Canada. Attempts have been made from time to time to obtain for these Colonies special advantages in the markets of the United States.. .. The Colonial policy of the United States has now finally stopped advance in that direction," and the connexion with the Dominion has therefore become of paramount importance. The Dominion government admitted the West Indies to the British preferential tariff (25% under existing duties) in 1898. The percentage was raised to 3311n 1900. In 1903 the duties imposed on bounty-fed beet sugar in the United States, which had opened the market there to West Indian sugar, were abolished, and a surtax (since removed) was placed on German imports into Canada. Both acts enhanced the value of the Canadian market to the West Indies, while that of the American sugar market was further reduced when in 1901 sugar from Porto Rico began to be admitted thereto free of duty, and when special terms were extended to sugar from the Philippine Islands and Cuba in 1902 and 1903 respectively. The Canadian connexion was thus largely instrumental in saving the sugar industry in the West Indies. from severe depression, if not from the actual extinction foreseen by a Royal Commission in 1897. This commission pointed out, in particular, the danger which threatened those colonies where sugar provided practically the sole industrial and commercial interest. On a recommendation of this commission the Imperial Department of Agriculture was established in 1898, its cost being met from imperial funds. It is under a commissioner with headquarters at Barbados. Its functions are to maintain and supervise botanical and experimental stations, to establish agricultural schools, arrange agricultural teaching in other schools, create scholarships, and issue publications. The department has been largely instrumental in establishing new industries and thus relieving many islands from dependence on the sugar industry alone.

The negotiations for commercial relations between the West Indies and Canada began in 1866; in 1872 proposals for steamship subsidies were accepted. The Commission of 1909 recommended that the governments should continue to subsidize a service, for which they suggested various improvements. In 1901 a line of subsidized steamers had been started between Jamaica and England, but this contract expired, and the mail contract was determined in 1910, and recommendations were put forward for a steamship service between Canadian and West Indian ports with improvements additional to those recommended by the Commission. It may be added that the I In The Times of May 24, 1910, where, in an imperial supplement, a number of articles on the West Indian colonies appear.

Commission also made recommendations for the reduction of the high cable rates between the West Indies and the United Kingdom.

Besides sugar, the principal products of the islands are cocoa, fruits and cotton. Cotton-growing reached importance in a very short time owing largely to the efforts of the Imperial Department of Agriculture, Sea Island seed having been planted in St Vincent only in 1903, and in that island and elsewhere (Antigua, St Kitts, Montserrat) good crops are now obtained. Grenada is almost entirely, and Trinidad, Dominica and St Lucia are largely, dependent upon cocoa. The fruit and spice trade is of growing importance, and there is a demand for bottled fruit in Canada and elsewhere. The variety of fruits grown is great; the bananas and oranges of Jamaica, the limes of Montserrat, Dominica and St Lucia, and the pine-apples of the Bahamas may be mentioned as characteristic. It must be borne in mind, however, that the islands as a whole cannot be said to possess a community of commercial interests. Even the industries already indicated are by no means equally distributed throughout the islands; moreover there are certain local industries of high importance, such as the manufacture of rum in Jamaica, the production of asphalte and the working of the oilfields (the development of which was first seriously undertaken about 1905) in Trinidad, and the production of arrowroot in St Vincent. Sponges are an important product of the Bahamas, and salt of the Turks Islands. Rubber plantation has been successfully exploited in several islands, such as Trinidad, Dominica and St Lucia. (See further articles on the various islands.) Religion. - In all the British colonies there is full religious toleration. The Church of England Province of the West Indies is divided into the following bishoprics: Jamaica, Nassau (i.e. Bahamas), Trinidad, (British) Honduras, Antigua (i.e. Leeward Islands), Barbados, Windward Islands, (British) Guiana. With the exception of Barbados and British Guiana, the Church of England is disestablished, disendowment taking place gradually, the churches thus becoming self-supporting. In Barbados the Church is both established and endowed. In the Bahamas and Jamaica disendowment is gradually taking place; in Trinidad and British Guiana the Church of England receives endowment concurrently with other religious bodies. The Windward Islands, Leeward Islands and British Honduras are totally disendowed. In all the islands, except Trinidad, St Lucia, Grenada and Dominica, the Church of England, though in all cases in a minority when compared with the aggregate of other bodies, is the most numerous of any denomination. There are Roman Catholic bishops at Port-of-Spain (Trinidad), Roseau (Dominica - for the Leeward Islands), Jamaica, British Guiana and Barbados (resident at Georgetown), British Honduras, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Haiti (archbishop and four bishops), Santo Domingo (archbishop), Cuba (archbishop and bishop), Porto Rico and Curacao. Other religious denominations working actively in the West Indies are the Baptists, Wesleyans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Moravians.


The archipelago received the name of the West Indies from Columbus, who hoped that, through the islands, he had found a new route to India. The name of Antilles was derived from the fact that Columbus, on his arrival here, was supposed to have reached the fabled land of Antilia. Columbus first landed on San Salvador, generally identified with Watling Island of the Bahamas, and several voyages to this new land were made in rapid succession by the great discoverer, resulting in the finding of most of the larger islands, and a more intimate knowledge of those already known. The importance of its latest possession was at once recognized by the court of Spain, and, as a first move towards turning the West Indies to profitable account, numbers of the natives, for the most part a harmless and gentle people, were shipped overseas and sold into slavery, others being employed in forced labour in the mines which the Spaniards had opened throughout the archipelago, and from which large returns were expected. Thus early in its history began that traffic in humanity with which the West India plantations are so widely associated, and which endured for so long a time. Goaded to madness by the wrongs inflicted upon them, the aborigines at last took arms against their masters, but with the result which might have been expected - their almost utter extirpation. Many of the survivors sought release from their sufferings in suicide, and numbers of others perished in the mines, so that the native race soon almost ceased to exist. Spain was not long allowed to retain an undisputed hold upon the islands: British and Dutch seamen soon sought the new region, accounts concerning the fabulous wealth and treasure of which stirred all Europe, and a desultory warfare began to be waged amongst the various voyagers who flocked to this El Dorado, in consequence of which the Spaniards found themselves gradually but surely forced from many of their vantage grounds, and compelled very materially to reduce the area over which they had held unchecked sway. The first care of the English settlers was to find out the real agricultural capabilities of the islands, and they diligently set about planting tobacco, cotton and indigo. A French West India Company was incorporated in 1625, and a settlement established on the island of St Christopher, where a small English colony was already engaged in clearing and cultivating the ground; these were driven out by the Spaniards in 1630, but only to return and again assume possession. About this time, also, the celebrated buccaneers, Dutch smugglers, and British and French pirates began to infest the neighbouring seas, doing much damage to legitimate traders, and causing commerce to be carried on only under force of arms, and with much difficulty and danger. Indeed, it was not till the beginning of the 18th century - some time after Spain had, in 1670, given up her claim to the exclusive possession of the archipelago - that these rovers were rendered comparatively harmless; and piracy yet lingered off the coasts down to the early years of the 19th century. In 1640 sugar-cane began to be systematically planted, and the marvellous prosperity of the West Indies began; it was not from the gold and precious stones, to which the Spaniards had looked for wealth and power, but from the cane that the fortunes of the West Indies were to spring. The successful propagation of this plant drew to the islands crowds of adventurers, many of them men of considerable wealth. The West Indies were for many years used by the English government as penal settlements, the prisoners working on the plantations as slaves. In 1655 a British force made an unsuccessful attack on Haiti, but a sudden descent on Jamaica was more fortunate in its result, and that rich and beautiful island has since remained in the possession of Great Britain. The Portuguese were the first to import negroes as slaves, and their example was followed by other nations having West-Indian colonies, the traffic existing for about 300 years. In 1660 a division of the islands was arranged between England and France, the remaining aborigines being driven to specified localities, but this treaty did not produce the benefits expected from it, and as wars raged in Europe the islands (see separate articles) frequently changed hands.


-Sir C. P. Lucas, A Historical Geography of the British Colonies, vol. ii. (Oxford, revision of 1905); C. Washington Eves, C.M.G., The West Indies (4th edition, London, 1897); A. Caldecott, B.D., The Church in the West Indies (Colonial Church Histories, London, 1898); Robert T. Hill, Cuba and Porto Rico, with the other Islands of the West Indies (London, 1898); Amos Kidder Fiske, History of the West Indies (New York, 1899); H. de R. Walker, The West Indies and the British Empire (London, 1901); J. H. Stark, Guides to the West Indies (London, 1898, &c.); A. E. Aspinall, Guide to the West Indies (London, 1907); J. A. Froude, The English in the West Indies (London, 1888); J. Rodway, The West Indies and the Spanish Main (London, 1896); Sir Harry Johnston, The Negro in the New World (London, 1910); J. W. Root, The British West Indies and the Sugar Industry (1899); Colonial Office Reports; Reports of Royal Commissions, 1897 and 1910.

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