From the peninsula of Florida on the mainland of the United Statesthe islands stretch 1, miles 1, km southeastward, then miles km south, then west along the north coast of Venezuela on the South American mainland. Bermudaalthough physiographically not a part of the West Indies, has common historical and cultural ties with the other islands and is often included in definitions of the region. The shape and alignment of the Greater Antilles are determined by an ancient chain of folded and faulted mountains that in Cretaceous times extended from Central America through the Caribbean.
Duarte Peak, in the Dominican Republic, another component of this range, rises to 10, feet 3, metres and is the highest point in the Caribbean. Besides interior mountain peaks, each Greater Antillean island has an encircling coastal plain. Trending north-south, another mostly submerged chain of mountains forms the double arc of small islands that make up the Lesser Antilles. Stretching from Saint Kitts to Grenada, the mountainous inner arc consists of volcanic cones, some still active.
The outer arc—running from Anguilla to Barbados—is made up of low, flat islands whose limestone surfaces overlie older volcanic or crystalline rocks. The West Indies have a tropical maritime climate. Daily maximum temperatures over most of the region range from the mids F upper 20s C from December to April to the upper 80s F low 30s C from May to November.
Most islands experience a wet and a dry season; annual rainfall totals range from 30 to 80 inches to 2, mm but reach more than inches 5, mm on the highest peaks. Tropical cyclones called hurricanes locally frequently occur between August and October, and relative humidity is high throughout the year. The forests that once covered most of the West Indies were cut down in many areas by sugar - plantation owners for firewood to heat their refining vats.
This practice resulted in soil impoverishment and erosion.
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Destruction of primeval forest has also occurred as a result of slash-and-burn agriculture. Some countries have recognized the importance of the forests, however, and have passed laws to prevent deforestation. Surviving types of forest include mangrove swamps, which thrive along some coasts; semi-deciduous woodland, found in the Leeward Islands the northern group of the Lesser Antilles; the southern group is called the Windward Islands and other areas of prolonged drought ; tropical rainforest of the wet lowlands; montane forest, occurring in wet highlands; and elfin woodlandwhich occurs on exposed peaks.
A large of plant species in the Caribbean are indigenous to the region. At high elevations in the Greater Antilles, species more typical of midlatitude and subarctic flora are found. Land fauna is an impoverished version of the fauna found on the nearby South American mainland. There are many rodents, including the rabbitlike agouti, and numerous species of bats and lizards.
Bird species include several parrotshummingbirdsibisand flamingos. The coastal seas are rich in marine life, including turtlesshellfishcaimandolphinred snapperbonitoand flying fish. Marine life is largely unexploited for food. The population of the West Indies is ethnically heterogeneous and largely the legacy of an early plantation society based on slave labour. Most of the population is descended from enslaved Africans or from Spanish, French, British, or Dutch colonists or is of mixed ethnicity.
The French and English creoles are a blend of these languages with African and West Indian languages. South Asians constitute a substantial minority in the region, especially in Trinidad and Tobagowhere they make up almost four-tenths of the population. Chinese constitute a smaller minority, and people of European principally Spanish descent for some seven-tenths of the population of Puerto Rico. Roman Catholicism is the predominant religion in the Spanish- and French-speaking islands, while Protestantism is the norm in the English-speaking and Dutch territories.
Emigration, moreover, has played a more ificant role in the West Indies than in most other regions, having the effect of dampening population growth even more. Emigration was substantial throughout the 20th century, and more than half of the natural increase in the region was lost owing to emigration. On the other hand, the death rate also declined steadily in the second half of the century, primarily because of reductions in the rate of infant mortality, and remained comparatively low for a less-developed region of the world.
With the exception of Cuba, which has a centrally planned economythe West Indies can be characterized as a predominantly free-enterprise market region. The economies of the region are marked by dependence on the export of a few commodities, commonly agricultural, and consequently are extremely vulnerable to external economic events. Weak and unstable foreign markets have contributed to the generally unfavourable international-trade s of many West Indian countries.
Virgin Islands. Netherlands Antilles guy looking for wife of international trade agreements, including the Caribbean Basin Initiative CBIhave been established to stimulate the West Indian economy, particularly manufacturing. Agriculture is the traditional basis of the economies of the West Indies, but production and employment in agriculture have been declining. Most countries are not self-sufficient in food production, and cereals, primarily wheat, are the chief food imports. Sugar, bananascitruscocoaand spices are the principal exports and the major source of foreign exchange for a of countries.
To reduce vulnerability to external markets, many countries have diversified their agricultural production. Manufacturing in the West Indies s for a minor part of overall economic activity. Several countries, including Barbados, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago, have developed ificant mineral industries, with the chief mineral exports being bauxite from Jamaica and petroleum from Trinidad.
Among the dependent states, foreign subsidies and remittances provide a major source of income. Tourism has become the major industry on some islands and a major source of foreign exchange.
Often, however, it raises the local cost of living without producing much employment. It is also quick to decline during times of economic recession. Cuba has endeavoured to break the usual pattern of economic dependence on one or two main cash crops so common in the West Indies. Traditionally dependent on the sugar industry, it has attempted to diversify its economy by increasing its imports of capital goods to use as the basis for new industries.
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The governmental forms of the independent states of the West Indies range from the socialist republic of Cuba to republics such as Dominica and the Dominican Republic and to constitutional monarchies such as Jamaica and Saint Lucia; the majority of these countries have gained their independence from colonial powers since the early s.
In most of the region, political parties openly express opposition views. Notable exceptions include Cuba and Haiti.
In countries with parliamentary governments, the two-party system is common. The independent states of the West Indies tend to be aligned with Western countries. The United Kingdom and France also generally maintain close relations with former dependencies, supplying military training, arms, and, in some cases, defense.
Moreover, they maintain military bases on several of these strategically important islands.
Standards of living, relative to other less-developed countries, are generally high, particularly in the dependent states that receive large subsidies from central governments. Social welfare programs, particularly in the dependent states, are comprehensive and have contributed to an improvement in health conditions in the region. Health services, however, remain generally inadequate, and, partly because of the high rate of emigration, shortages of medical personnel are common.
The main health problems are those associated with the supply and improvement of drinking water and with the disposal of sewage. Diseases of the circulatory system and cancer are major causes of death, while gastroenteritisinfluenzapneumoniamalariatuberculosisand childhood diseases are also major health problems. In the least-developed countries, children and women commonly suffer from nutritional-deficiency diseases.
Housing is often substandard, and shortages are chronic throughout the region. Educational systems are generally well developed, and the great majority of countries have literacy rates exceeding 80 percent. Higher education is available at a of colleges and universities, including the University of the West Indies, which has campuses and distance-education centres in more than a dozen countries in the region.
In spite of their diversity in ancestry and language, the countries of the West Indies share a largely common culturethe result of their somewhat parallel experiences as plantation colonies. The culture of the Caribbean people is a blend of African, American IndianEuropean, and, in some cases, Asian influences. The islands take pride in their lively cultural scenes, with dances, parties, and festivals, notably annual carnival celebrations. Reggae music, now world-renowned, originated in Jamaica.
Press and broadcast media are best developed in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago, but they are present at least minimally in all of the political units. The extent of government control varies considerably within the region. The remainder of this article covers the history of the region.
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See Article History. Explore the West Indies' varying landscapes and wildlife, from dolphins to red-footed boobies. Britannica Quiz. Around the Caribbean: Fact or Fiction? Was Cuba once a colony of France? Is Jamaica the third largest island in the Caribbean Sea? Sort fact from fiction in this islands quiz and see whether your knowledge stands over—or under—the Caribbean Sea. Fumaroles, or volcanic vents, Dominica, Lesser Antilles.
Get a Britannica Premium subscription and gain access to exclusive content. Subscribe Now. A beach in Anguilla, Lesser Antilles.
Follow West Indies labourers, from banana and pineapple harvesters to woodworkers and fishermen. Many Caribbean residents rely on the land or the sea to earn their living. Farm in the Cibao Valley, Dominican Republic.