The term West Indies refers to what are better known today as the islands of the Caribbean, encompassing three major geographic subdivisions: the Greater Antilles (the large islands of Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico), the Lesser Antilles (a group of much smaller islands including the Virgin Islands, Barbados, Grenada, Anguilla, and others), and the Bahamas (including the Turks and Caicos Islands).
The American Gazetteer, an almanac of American geography published in 1797, explains that the West Indies
were so named at first, on the presumption that they extended so far as to form a connexion with those of the East-Indies. The fallacy of this supposition was soon discovered; the name, however, has been retained, to prevent confusion in the geographical accounts of the islands.
Archaeological evidence points to two major, distinct migrations into the Caribbean, the first of which began around 4000 B.C. and was comprised of natives from the Yucatan Peninsula of Central America who migrated onto Cuba and eventually onto the other islands of the Greater Antilles. This was followed roughly 2,000 years later by a second migration of South American peoples who moved north into the Lesser Antilles. Indigenous Caribbean societies were generally scattered and heterogeneous, but a civilization called the Taíno came to dominate the Greater Antilles through a political network of chiefdoms called cacicazgos.
Europeans arrived beginning with Columbus in 1492, and the Taíno population, estimated to have numbered in the millions, was reduced by disease, warfare, and famine to “a few thousand” by 1514.
As various European powers began to colonize the islands in earnest, their territories were named in association with their countries: the Spanish West Indies, Dutch West Indies, and so on. The British West Indies, comprised of Jamaica, the Bahamas, and about a dozen islands in the Lesser Antilles, were the largest of these groups; the term “British West Indies” is still in regular use today, particularly in reference to islands that remain British Overseas Territories.
British colonists, beginning with those who settled on Barbados in 1624, were drawn by the agricultural and economic opportunities afforded by the islands: “This Island,” wrote settler Henry Whistler in 1655, “is one of the richest Spotes in the wordell and fully inhabited. … It is a most riche soile, all wayes Grone and baring frut, and the Chefest commoditie is sugar, and some Indiggo, and Cottaine.” By beginning of the 18th century, Barbados was inhabited by more than 12,000 British colonists and some 50,000 slaves, with the island divided into more than 1,300 plantations.
The much larger island of Jamaica developed more slowly, but by 1787 was home to approximately 25,000 white settlers and more than 200,000 slaves. Jamaica, writes historian Frank Wesley Pitman, was considered the crown jewel of British holdings in the region:
By far the largest of all the British sugar colonies was Jamaica. It was in this island that the great “frontier” of fresh land lay, and it was to this area that the British sugar consumers of the eighteenth century looked for an increase of production.
The various smaller islands in the Lesser Antilles – including Antigua, St. Christopher, and others – each had populations that numbered in the thousands and were prone to fluctuation throughout the 18th century.
Morse, Jedediah. The American Gazetteer. Boston: S. Hall, Thomas & Andrews, 1797. Print.
Wilson, Samuel M. “The Prehistory and Early History of the Caribbean.” Biogeography of the West Indies: patterns and perspectives. Ed. Charles A. Woods and Florence E. Sergile. Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2001. 519-527. Print.
“West Indies.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., n.d. Web. Accessed 12 March 2013. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/640195/West-Indies/ >
Pitman, Frank Wesley. The Development of the British West Indies, 1700-1763. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1917. Print.