West Indies, British and French

views updated


WEST INDIES, BRITISH AND FRENCH. The terms British West Indies and French West Indies refer to those islands in the Caribbean formerly or presently under the British or French flags These terms lost any specific political meaning in the twentieth century. Britain continues to administer five possessions in the Caribbean as overseas territories: the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands, the Turks and Caicos Islands, Anguilla, and Montserrat. These five territories are each governed

separately. The other islands comprising the former British West Indies achieved independence over a period beginning in the early 1960s and continuing into the 1980s.

French territories in the Caribbean are organized into two overseas departments and are treated as integral parts of France. One department consists of the island of Martinique; the other includes the island of Guadeloupe, part of the island of St. Martin, and several smaller island groups. Historically, France's largest and most important possession in the West Indies was Saint Domingue, which proclaimed its independence on 1 January 1804 as the Republic of Haiti. Independence came after years of protracted warfare with France, beginning with a slave uprising in 1791. Haiti is thus the first black republic, and the second-oldest independent country in the Western Hemisphere. (Only the United States achieved independence before Haiti.)

Relations between the United States and the islands prior to independence were largely determined by the state of relations between the United States and Britain and France. In the wake of the American Revolution, for example, many Americans who had remained loyal to the Crown fled to the British West Indies. Today, the majority of the white population of the Bahamas traces its descent to loyalists from South Carolina and Georgia who found refuge in those islands. During the Civil War, the South shipped cotton to England and purchased great quantities of weapons, ammunition, food, and other supplies from Britain. The Bahamas served as a major site for both British and Confederate ships running the Union blockade of Southern ports. Some blockade running also took place between Jamaica and ports on the Gulf Coast.

Since Haiti achieved independence long before any other state in the British and French West Indies, its relations with the United States are of particular interest. Because Haitian independence came as the result of a slave uprising, the southern slaveholding states viewed Haiti with fear and revulsion. Attempts to establish diplomatic relations between the United States and Haiti were repeatedly blocked by southern leaders. It was not until 1862, after the South had seceded, that Haiti and the United States finally established formal diplomatic relations. Haiti's history has been marked by frequent periods of authoritarian rule, instability, and widespread poverty. In July 1915, the United States landed marines there, following a protracted period of unrest that culminated in the killing of the country's president by an enraged mob. American intervention was motivated by fear of increased German influence in Haiti and a desire to protect foreign investments. The fact that U.S. marines did not leave Haiti until 1934 caused much resentment. From September 1957 until February 1986, Haiti was ruled by the Duvalier family. Dr. Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, who ultimately had himself declared president for life, governed the nation despotically until his death in April 1971, when he was succeeded by his 19-year-old son, Jean-Claude ("Baby Doc"). American relations with Haiti during the Duvalier era, which ended with the overthrow of Jean-Claude on 7 February 1986, were often strained. The United States has played a major role in trying to improve the political and economic climate in Haiti since then. During the late twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first century, important issues in U.S.-Haiti relations included control of illegal immigration, and the fact that Haiti had become a major transshipment point for cocaine and other South American narcotics into the United States.

The United States has generally enjoyed friendly relations with the English-speaking Caribbean states since they received independence from Britain. In October 1983, however, U.S. forces, along with those of some Caribbean states, landed on Grenada to restore order in the wake of the murder of that nation's Marxist prime minister, Maurice Bishop, by rival elements in his government. In the last decades of the twentieth century, many states of the British West Indies served as transshipment points for South American narcotics destined for the United States. The Bahamas and the Cayman Islands, among other states and territories in the British West Indies, became major centers for offshore banking and other financial operations. Controlling narcotics and illegal financial transactions were significant issues in U.S. relations with the area in the opening years of the twenty-first century.


Abbott, Elizabeth. Haiti: The Duvaliers and Their Legacy. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988.

Braveboy-Wagner, Jacqueline Anne. The Caribbean in World Affairs: The Foreign Policies of the English-Speaking States. Boulder. Colo.: Westview Press, 1989.

Krehm, William. Democracies and Tyrannies of the Caribbean. New York: Lawrence Hill., 1985.

Williams, Eric Eustace. From Columbus to Castro: the History of the Caribbean, 1492–1969. New York: Harper Collins, 1971.


About this article

West Indies, British and French

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article