Caribbean Sea

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Caribbean Sea (kâr´Ĭbē´ən, kərĬb´ēən), tropical sea, c.970,000 sq mi (2,512,950 sq km), arm of the Atlantic Ocean, Central America. It is bordered on the N and E by the West Indies archipelago, on the S by South America, and on the W by the Central American isthmus. The Caribbean is linked to the Gulf of Mexico by the Yucatán Channel; to the Atlantic by many straits, of which the Windward Channel and Mona Passage are the most important; and to the Pacific Ocean by the Panama Canal. The Magdalena is the largest river entering the sea; Lake Maracaibo is its largest embayment.

Geology and Climate

Geologically, the Caribbean Sea consists of two main basins separated by a broad, submarine plateau. Cayman Trench, a trench between Cuba and Jamaica, contains the Caribbean's deepest point (24,721 ft/7,535 m below sea level). The Caribbean's water is clear, warm (75°F/24°C), and less salty than the Atlantic; the basin has a very low tidal range (c.1 ft/.3 m). The Caribbean Sea has a counterclockwise current; water enters through the Lesser Antilles, is warmed, and exits via the Yucatán Channel, where it forms the Gulf Stream. Volcanic activity and earthquakes are common in the Caribbean, as are destructive hurricanes that originate over the sea or in the Atlantic.


Petroleum, iron ore, bauxite, sugar, coffee, and bananas are the main local products traded on the sea. Economically, the region is dependent on U.S. and European patronage and a large tourism industry. The Caribbean Sea has also acted as a barrier, isolating the islands and preventing the mingling of peoples on the scale characteristic of Latin America. In the 1990s, however, the increased need for labor due to the growth of tourism attracted immigrants to some of the islands.


After the Caribbean was visited by Christopher Columbus in 1493, Spain claimed the area, and its ships searched for treasure. With the Spanish discovery of the Pacific Ocean in 1513 the Caribbean became the main route of their expeditions and, later, of convoys. Pirates and warships of rival powers preyed on Spanish ships in the Caribbean. Although Spain controlled most of the sea, Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Denmark established colonies on the islands along the eastern fringe. The 1800s brought U.S. ships into the Caribbean, especially after 1848, when many gold-seekers crossed the sea to reach California via Panama.

After unsuccessful French attempts in the late 1800s to build a canal across Panama, the United States, in 1903, assumed control of the project. The 1914 opening of the Panama Canal paved the way for increased U.S. interest and involvement in this strategic sea, sometimes called the "American Mediterranean." Several Caribbean islands have U.S. military bases, many of which were established during World War II as support bases to protect the Panama Canal. The naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (est. 1899) is the oldest U.S. Caribbean base.

U.S. policy since the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 has been to exclude foreign powers from the Caribbean; however, in 1959, Cuba became the first country to come under strong foreign (Soviet) influence. U.S. intervention in the affairs of Caribbean countries, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the landing of U.S. marines at Santo Domingo in 1965 and at Grenada in 1983, and the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989, reflects the region's importance in U.S. eyes.


See C. Gibson, Empire's Crossroads (2014).

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Caribbean Sea

Defined geographically, the Caribbean Sea is the body of water surrounding the islands of the West Indies that also washes the mainland, Antilles-facing shores of Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, and Venezuela. As a cultural designation, the word "Caribbean" may also be used to identify not only the diverse peoples who inhabit the territory outlined above but also the population of Guyana.

The term "Caribbean" has long suffered from lack of precision. Carl O. Sauer put the matter succinctly: "The whole of the Caribbean area came to be known in English as the Spanish Main, including the sea. Thus, sailing to the Spanish Main became called sailing on the Spanish Main." For two decades after Columbus made landfall, what the Spaniards called the Ocean Sea was thought to be a vast, unbroken expanse lying to the west between Europe and Asia. After Balboa traversed Darién, the Ocean Sea was divided in two, with the Pacific Ocean called the Mar del Sur (South Sea) and the Atlantic, with its Caribbean indentation, called the Mar del Norte (North Sea). In the English-language world, the designation dates to the eighteenth century and is attributed by Sauer to Thomas Jefferys, whose introduction to the West-India Atlas (1775) states that "it has been sometimes called the Caribbean-Sea, which name would be better to adopt, than to leave this space quite anonymous." "Caribbean" derives from Carib, the name given to a group of people originally from mainland South America who later island-hopped their way across the Lesser Antilles, displacing other cultures as they went and raiding eastern Puerto Rico until Spanish intrusion halted their expansion.

See alsoBelize; Costa Rica; Honduras; Nicaragua; Panama.


The best account of the tragedy that befell the native peoples of the Caribbean, a bitter experience of enslavement, exploitation, demographic collapse, and cultural extinction, is Carl O. Sauer's masterly reconstruction The Early Spanish Main (1966; 2d ed. 1992.) Also authoritative is Mary W. Helms's "The Indians of the Caribbean and Circum-Caribbean at the End of the Fifteenth Century," in The Cambridge History of Latin America, edited by Leslie Bethell, vol. 1 (1984), pp. 37-58. A more controversial depiction of the encounter between natives and newcomers is Kirkpatrick Sale, The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy (1990). An enduring classic is the textbook by Robert C. West and John P. Augelli, Middle America: Its Lands and Peoples (1966; 3d ed. 1989).

Additional Bibliography

Arciniegas, Germán. Caribbean, Sea of the New World. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2003.

Britto García, Luis. Señores del caribe: Indígenas, conquistadores y piratas en el mar colonial. Caracas, Venezuela: Fundación Tradiciones Caraqueñas, 2001.

Duval, David Timothy. Tourism in the Caribbean: Trends, Development, Prospects. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Prevost, John F. Caribbean Sea. Minneapolis: Abdo Pub. Co., 2003.

Salazar-Vallejo, Sergio. "Huracanes y biodiversidad costera tropical." Revista de biología tropical 50, no. 2 (June 2002): 415-428.

Taylor, L.R., and Norbert Wu. The Caribbean Sea. Woodbridge, CT: Blackbirch Press, 1998.

                                   W. George Lovell

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Caribbean Sea Extension of the n Atlantic Ocean linked to the Gulf of Mexico by the Yucatán Channel and to the Pacific Ocean by the Panama Canal. The first European to discover the Caribbean was Columbus in 1492, who named it after the Carib. It soon lay on the route of many Spanish expeditions and became notorious for piracy, particularly after other European powers established colonies in the West Indies. With the opening of the Panama Canal (1914) its strategic importance increased. Area: c.2.64 million sq km (1,020,000sq mi).