The Lesser Antilles of the eastern Caribbean are divided into the Leeward and the Windward Islands. The Leeward Islands were so named because ships sailing south from the Atlantic did so on the leeward (sheltered, or facing the direction toward which the wind blows) side of the islands. The islands are administered by the United States (the U.S. Virgin Islands), the Netherlands (Saba, St. Eustatius, and the southern part of St. Martin), France (Guadeloupe, the northern part of St. Martin, St. Barthélemy, and a few others), and the United Kingdom (the British Virgin Islands). Several of the islands that were formerly British colonies were part of a West Indies Federation, dissolved in 1962: Anguilla, Antigua, Barbuda, the British Virgin Islands, Montserrat, Nevis, Redonda, St. Kitts, and Sombrero.
Columbus visited the Leewards but, not finding any precious metals, considered them islas inutiles (useless islands). The English, French, and Dutch were less disdainful and indeed fought over them. Even Sweden had a colony (present-day French St. Barthélemy, also known as St. Barts). They were important strategically and as sugar and tobacco colonies. British Admiral Lord Nelson stationed his fleet in Antigua. At the Battle of the Saintes (off Guadeloupe) in 1782, the English fleet defeated the French fleet, stopping any further French conquests in the Caribbean region.
Dominica, independent since 1978, has at various points in its history been considered part of the Leeward Islands and the Windward Islands. Twice declared a neutral Carib sanctuary, it was nevertheless colonized by the French because of its strategic location between the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique (part of the Windward Islands). After winning the Battle of the Saintes, England gained the island and dominated the Caribbean.
Every one of the Leewards has made a more or less smooth transition from colonialism to either outright independence or Dependent Territorial status, that is, keeping a link to the United Kingdom but with full internal self-governance. The area has not been without its conflicts, however. In 1967 Anguilla seceded, preferring to be linked with London than with Saint Kitts and Nevis. In Antigua in 1990, the eldest son of the prime minister, Vere Bird Jr., was involved in a scandal involving the sale of Israeli guns to the Colombian Medellín drug cartel. Hurricanes and volcanic eruptions have also played a destructive role. Half the island of Montserrat has remained uninhabitable since 1995, when the Soufrière Hills volcano became active after a long dormancy. There are volcanoes also called Soufriere in Guadeloupe, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent.
The transition away from sugar economies has been difficult for the islands. By the end of the twentieth century the British Virgin Islands was relying on tourism and offshore financial services, and Antigua on Internet gambling. All the islands are members of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States and of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). It is expected that the CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME) plan will bring some benefits to these well-governed but economically fragile states.
See alsoWindward Islands .
Fergus, Howard A. A History of Education in the British Leeward Islands, 1838–1945. Mona, Jamaica: University of West Indies Press, 2003.
Anthony P. Maingot
J. A. Cannon