Roger Thayer Stone Center For Latin American Studies

Tulane University

West Indies

The West Indies is an archipelago that extends in an arc from near southern Florida to the coast of Venezuela. The West Indies archipelago, which includes thousands of tiny islands, forms a breakwater 3,200-km (2,000-mi) long against the Atlantic Ocean, separating it from the Caribbean Sea.

The West Indies archipelago is known by a variety of names. The earliest name, and the one most frequently used, is West Indies. European explorer Christopher Columbus gave the region that name in error when he arrived in 1492. He assumed that the islands were near the coast of India.

With the passage of time, other names came into use. Spain and France called the islands the Antilles, named after the mythological Atlantic island of Antilia, or Antilla. 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. The Lesser Antilles were also further 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.

Geographically a part of the Americas, the islands of the West Indies have close 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 began to colonize the West Indies, bringing their culture, language, and social influences to the islands. The majority of the islands remained colonies for a longer period than any other part of the Americas. Most West Indian nations attained independence from the late 19th to the late 20th century.

MSN Encarta: West Indies
Photo by Tulane graduate student Shelby Lloyd, Department of Tropical Medicine

West Indies + People View All
Thomas A. Klingler
Professor - French & Italian
Dave Davis
Professor Emeritus - Director, Institutional Research

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