Caribbean Sea, Commonwealth States

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Caribbean Sea, Commonwealth States

The Commonwealth Caribbean (generally known as the West Indies) encompasses twelve independent countries and six British dependent territories with a total population of approximately 6 million in the early twenty-first century. Spread throughout the insular and littoral Caribbean basin, this assemblage stretches from the Bahamas in the north to the South American country of Guyana (formerly British Guiana) in the south. The Commonwealth includes the countries of Jamaica and Belize (formerly British Honduras) on the Central American littoral and Trinidad and Tobago and insular Barbados on the Atlantic rim of the Caribbean. The remaining six independent countries and four of the six dependent territories are found in the Leeward and Windward Islands of the eastern Caribbean.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Caribbean territories served primarily as pawns in European power struggles. Most were ruled consecutively by two, sometimes three, colonial masters. Saint Lucia, for instance, changed hands fourteen times (explaining why the official language is English but the lingua franca is French patois). Every island experienced alternating patterns of European attention and neglect. The phase of conquest ended with the defeat of France in the Napoleonic Wars. The Congress of Vienna (1815) established the basic geopolitical outlines of the Caribbean Commonwealth islands.

The next major watershed for the Commonwealth territories came with the abolition of the slave trade followed by emancipation (1834–1838). The impact and consequences of these two events were not everywhere the same. Islands with ample land outside the plantation system, such as Trinidad and British Guiana, were known as open economies because former slaves could leave plantations and settle the land as subsistence farmers. In closed economies, such as those on Barbados and Saint Christopher (Saint Kitts), there was no free land, so former slaves stayed on the plantations as wage labor.

Severe labor shortages developed in the open economies, a problem addressed by the adoption of a system already used in Mauritius in the Indian Ocean: importing indentured labor from India. The project lasted from 1854 to 1917 and led to a historical watershed in certain West Indian islands. By 1870 there were 28,500 Indians (mostly Hindus) in Trinidad, and by 1883 the number had risen to 48,000, about one-third of the island's population. In the same year there were 65,000 Indians in British Guiana out of a population of a quarter of a million. This steady supply of migrant labor enabled the sugar estates to expand production and put the two colonies on the road to prosperity. It also allowed former slaves to migrate to the cities where they became the indispensable craftsmen of the building trades. At the same time, many free villages had been established, creating a landed peasantry.

By 1870, British colonial interests had shifted to India and slave-grown sugar was more cheaply imported from Brazil and Cuba. In the islands, community development through ownership and education began to falter and local leadership disappeared. Social and political inertia characterized the rest of the nineteenth century. The West Indies became the backwater of the British Empire.

The twentieth century began with the aggressive entry of a new imperial power: the United States. The rapid increase in the United States's influence in the region corresponded with the diminishing power of British colonization. At the same time the building of the Panama Canal had a dramatic impact on both the strategic importance and the economy of the Caribbean. A major part of that impact was through the recruitment of labor and the remittances sent home.

Once the employment opportunities generated by the canal project ended, population pressures combined with poor wages to create explosive conditions in the islands. The population of the British West Indies had increased from 1,719,000 in 1896 to 2,514,000 in 1936, and there were no outlets for emigrants. In 1941 the Panamanian constitution forbade the immigration of "the negro race, whose native language was not Spanish, the yellow race, and the native races of India, Asia Minor, and North Africa." In 1942 the United States promised to abide by the Panamanian restrictions when recruiting labor for the Canal Zone. Costa Rica, Cuba, and the United States all either closed the door completely to West Indian immigrants or left only a small space for a few to enter.

Discontent erupted first in 1935 in Saint Kitts when sugar workers struck for higher wages. Some months later the tension mounted in Saint Vincent. In Saint Lucia there were strikes among the coal workers, but no violence. Blood was shed in the Trinidad oilfields, and arms had to be used to quell the disturbance and to restore order. Soon after, rioting broke out in Barbados. In June 1938, there were serious disorders in Guiana and in Jamaica.

The first enduring labor and political organizations of the British West Indies emerged out of these disorders. After 1938 this growth was encouraged by the colonial government. Between 1939 and 1945 some sixty-five trade unions were formed and legislation was passed setting up departments of labor and providing machinery for regulating labor disputes. In every Commonwealth country, with the exception of Trinidad, trade union leaders became the political leaders who later led the decolonization movement.

The outbreak of World War II delayed the implementation of some reforms. The Caribbean, strategically located between the United States and Germany's South American sources of fuel and raw materials, became a shooting gallery for German U-boats. In 1940, Britain agreed to exchange fourteen bases on British West Indian islands for forty-four U.S. destroyers. The resulting U.S. influence on the islands would be profound.

The postwar decolonization process in the Commonwealth Caribbean proceeded with none of the conflict and violence evident in other parts of the British Empire. London hoped to create a single state out of all the islands, and the West Indies Federation was created in 1958. Powerful insular forces brought this experiment to an end in 1962. This unleashed independence movements in virtually all the islands. Despite periodic spurts of violence and ongoing racial conflict, the Commonwealth Caribbean islands have established themselves as stable two-party systems with entrenched social democratic values. Their efforts to organize a true common market have been torturous, but persistently pursued given the region-wide awareness of just how vulnerable small countries are in the global market place.

See alsoLabor Movements; Panama Canal; Slavery: Spanish America; United States-Latin American Relations.


Knight, Franklin W. The Modern Caribbean. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

Lewis, Gordon K. The Growth of the Modern West Indies. Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle Publishers, 2004.

                                Anthony P. Maingot

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Caribbean Sea, Commonwealth States

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