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
Leeward Islands (lōō´ərd, lyōō´–, lē´–), northern group of the Lesser Antilles in the West Indies, extending SE from Puerto Rico to the Windward Islands. The principal islands are the American Virgin Islands; the French island and overseas dept. of Guadeloupe and its dependencies; the Dutch islands of St. Eustatius and Saba; the Dutch and French St. Martin; the islands of the independent states of St. Kitts and Nevis and Antigua and Barbuda; and the islands of the British dependent territories of Anguilla, Montserrat, and the British Virgin Islands. Largely volcanic in origin, the Leewards have lush, subtropical vegetation, rich soil, and abundant rainfall. The warm, delightful climate is tempered by the surrounding water so that there is little variation in temperature. Most of the islands are popular tourist destinations. Products are mostly agricultural—fruits, vegetables, sugar, cotton, coffee, and tobacco.
Columbus first sighted the Leeward Islands in 1493, but settlement began only after the British arrived in the 17th cent. Sir Thomas Warner, sent to St. Kitts in 1623, was made governor-general of the yet uncolonized neighboring islands (Nevis, Antigua, Montserrat, and Barbuda), and in the same year the Frenchman Pierre Bélain d'Esnambuc also established a colony on St. Kitts. By 1632, when the English had settled the neighboring islands, the sharp, three-way colonial conflict of England, France, and Spain had begun. The Spanish were forced from the struggle, but for nearly two centuries the islands were pawns in the Anglo-French worldwide wars. They changed hands with each fresh attack by British or French forces and were reshuffled in ownership whenever a new treaty was signed. Their final disposition did not come until the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815.
J. A. Cannon