British West Indies: Islands & Location

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  • 0:00 The British Empire
  • 0:54 Leeward Islands
  • 3:09 Windward Islands
  • 4:42 Other Islands
  • 6:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the islands that made up the British West Indies. A term referring to any island controlled by the British Empire during the colonial period, these islands are interspersed throughout the Caribbean.

The British Empire

Momentous events in history have a funny way of shaping modern day situations in ways most people do not realize. For example, the reason many of the islands in the Caribbean speak English as their first language is because so many of these tiny islands (used largely as vacation spots today) were once territories of the mighty British Empire.

The seventeenth-century rush for land in the 'New World' by European powers, like France, Spain, and Great Britain, was not solely for resources on the continent. These same powers fought over the Caribbean islands, which apart from their own resources were useful as ports and resupplying stops for ships bound for Europe. Great Britain held on to many of these smaller islands for centuries, governing many well into the twentieth century. As a result, these islands came to be known, as they still are today, as the British West Indies.

Map of the Caribbean, including the British West Indies
Map of the Caribbean, including the British West Indies

Leeward Islands

The British Leeward Islands were a colony formulated in the early nineteenth century to govern the more northern and western of the islands under British control. Though the grouping changed slightly during its century and a half of existence, it is still a term used today to describe Caribbean regions. The following is a list of the island nations or territories that once made up the Leeward Islands.

Antigua and Barbuda- Antigua and Barbuda were Spanish colonies as early as the fifteenth century, but in 1632 a group of English colonists landed on Antigua and began developing the island's sugar crop. The islands were grouped into the British Leeward Islands colony from the early nineteenth century until the two islands gained their independence from Great Britain, in 1981.

The British Virgin Islands - The British Virgin Islands have been governed by Britain since 1672 when the British captured the island chain from Dutch settlers. Today, it is still ruled by Great Britain as an overseas territory and in 2002 its denizens were granted full British citizenship.

Anguilla -English settlers landed and claimed Anguilla for the crown in 1650. Today it is recognized as a self-governing overseas territory of Great Britain. In the seventeenth century, the English colonists practiced extensive agriculture on the island, and was one of the first Caribbean islands where slavery existed.

Dominica- Dominica was first a French colony before becoming a British colony in 1763 as part of the Treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Years' War. Dominica went on to become the first British colony with an African-majority parliament in 1838, and in 1978 was granted full independence from Great Britain.

Montserrat- Montserrat was claimed by English colonists in 1632 and is still a British overseas territory today.

St. Kitts and Nevis- were fought over between the French and British throughout the seventeenth century, before finally being won by the British in 1713. The two islands won full independence from the British crown in 1983. Nevis was a hub of the international slave trade throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Windward Islands

The British Windward Islands was a governing body created in the early nineteenth century to administer government to the southern and easternmost Caribbean islands under British control.

Barbados - Barbados was first claimed by English settlers in 1627. Tobacco and cotton were cultivated by the English settlers on the island for centuries until the island gained full independence in 1966.

Grenada - Grenada was originally a French colony, but was given to the British in 1763. Nutmeg was originally planted on the island by the British, and the island has since turned into a relative agricultural powerhouse, supplying forty percent of the world's nutmeg. Grenada was granted independence in 1974.

St. Lucia - Originally a French possession, St. Lucia was claimed by the English in 1664 by the son of the governor of St. Kitts, though the island did not effectively change hands until the 1720s, and France still did not recognize England's ownership until 1814. In 1795, a brief revolt on the island saw an independent, slave-led government control the island for just under a year before the revolt was quashed by British forces. St. Lucia gained full independence from Britain in 1979.

St. Vincent and the Grenadines - A small island chain in the southern Caribbean, St. Vincent and the Grenadines were ruled by the British from 1783 until the islands gained full independence from the British crown in 1979.

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