1902 Encyclopedia > West Indies

West Indies

WEST INDIES. This important archipelago received the name of the West Indies from Columbus, who hoped that, through the islands, he had found a new route to India. It is also sometimes known as the Antilles (a name, however, more properly applied to a part than to the whole), as Columbus, on his arrival here, was supposed to have reached Antilla, a fabled country, said to lie far to the westward of the Azores, which found a vague and uncertain place on the maps and charts of many geo-graphers before that time. Columbus first landed on St Salvador, or Watling Island, named by the natives Guanahani, and several voyages to this new land were made in rapid succession by the great discoverer, resulting in the finding of most of the larger islands, and a more intimate knowledge of those already known. The import-ance of its latest possession was at once recognized by the court of Spain, and, as a first move towards turning the

West Indies to profitable account, numbers of the natives, for the most part a harmless and gentle people, were shipped beyond seas and sold into slavery, others being employed in forced labour in the mines which the Spaniards had opened throughout the archipelago, and from which large returns were expected. Thus early in its history began that traffic in humanity with which the West-India plantations are so widely associated, and which endured for so long a time. Goaded to madness by the wrongs inflicted upon them, the aborigines at last took arms against their masters, but with the result which might have been expected—their almost utter extirpation. Many of the survivors sought release from their sufferings in suicide, and numbers of others perished in the mines, so that the native race soon almost ceased to exist. Spain was not long allowed to retain an undisputed hold upon the islands : British and Dutch seamen soon sought the new region, accounts concerning the fabulous wealth and treasure of which stirred all Europe, and a desultory warfare began to be waged amongst the various voyagers who nocked to this El Dorado, in consequence of which the Spaniards found themselves gradually but surely forced from many of their vantage grounds, and compelled very materially to reduce the area over which they had held unchecked sway. The first care of the English settlers was to find out the real agricultural capabilities of the islands, and they diligently set about planting tobacco, cotton, and indigo. A French West India Company was incorporated in 1625, and a settlement established on the island of St Christopher, where a small English colony was already engaged in clearing and cultivating the ground ; these were driven out by the Spaniards in 1630, but only to return and again assume possession. About this time, also, the celebrated buccaneers, Dutch smugglers, and British and French pirates began to infest the neigh-bouring seas, doing much damage to legitimate traders, and causing commerce to be carried on only under force of arms, and with much difficulty and danger. Indeed, it was not till the beginning of last century—some time after Spain had, in 1670, given up her claim to the exclusive possession of the archipelago—that these rovers were rendered comparatively harmless; and piracy yet lingered off the coasts down to the early years of the present century. In 1640 sugar-cane began to be systematically planted, and the marvellous prosperity of the West Indies commenced; it was not from the gold and precious stones, to which the Spaniards had looked for wealth and power, but from the cane that the fortunes of the West Indies were to spring. The successful propagation of this plant drew to the islands crowds of adventurers, many of them men of considerable wealth. In Barbados alone, it is said that 50,000 British subjects arrived in one year about this period. The West Indies were for many years used by the English Government as penal settlements, the prisoners working on the plantations as slaves. In 1655 a British force made an unsuccessful attack on Hayti, but a sudden descent on Jamaica was more fortunate in its result, and that rich and beautiful island has since remained in the possession of Great Britain. The Portu-guese were the first to import Negroes as slaves, and their example was followed by other nations having West-Indian colonies, the traffic existing for about 300 years. In 1660 a division of the islands was arranged between England and France, the remaining aborigines being driven to specified localities, but this treaty did not produce the benefits expected from it, and as wars raged in Europe the islands frequently changed hands. Hayti, aow divided into two republics, has suffered much from internal broils and revolutions.
The West Indies are situated in about 20° N. lat. and
75° W. long., and form a broken, but upon the whole, con-tinuous barrier, shutting out as it were the Atlantic Ocean, with its contents of 34,804,000 cubic miles of water, and its mean depth of 2135 fathoms, from the lesser basins of the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, containing respectively 1,675,000 cubic miles and 628,000 cubic miles, and with mean depths of 1269 fathoms and 772 fathoms. These two seas are separated by the island of Cuba and the isthmus of Yucatan, with the great Campeche Bank surrounding three sides of the latter. Spring tides do not rise above 4 feet, nor neaps above 2|- feet. Complicated currents and dangerous shoals, especially in the neighbour-hood of the Bahamas, necessitate the exercise of considerable skill and care when navigating this region. The equa-torial current sweeps around Trinidad and the Antilles into the Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf Stream passes from the Gulf of Mexico by way of the Florida Channel. The well-known Sargasso Sea lies to the north-east of the islands.
The physical features of the region are clearly shown on the accompanying map (Plate XL), the orographical and bathymetrical data being reproduced from a yet unpublished chart intended to illustrate one of the " Challenger" Reports, and inserted here by permission of Dr Murray, Director of the " Challenger" Expedition Commission. In the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea there are 394,850 square miles covered by depths of 100 fathoms and less, 363,950 square miles with from 100 to 500 fathoms, 263,250 square miles by from 500 to 1000 fathoms, 572,950 square miles by from 1000 to 2000 fathoms, 274,850 square miles by from 2000 to 3000 fathoms, and 7750 square miles by over 3000 fathoms. The average surface temperature of the sea in the neighbourhood of the islands is from 75° to 78° F. in February, from 79° to 80° in May, and from 82° to 84° in August. The mean annual temperature of the Gulf Stream in the Florida Channel is 80° F.
Square Popula-Miles, tion.
The various groups which go to form the West Indies have in some cases more than one name, but the follow-ing classification is that usually adopted. To the north lie the Bahamas, situated upon the Great Bahama Bank, south from which is Cuba; Jamaica, again, lies to the south of the latter, and to the east of Jamaica are Hayti and Porto Rico. Still farther to the east lie the Virgin Islands, south of which are the Caribbee Islands, or Antilles proper, divided by mariners into the Leeward and Windward groups. Trinidad lies close to the coast of South America. Thus the whole archipelago stretches, in the form of a rude arc, from Florida and Yucatan in North America to Venezuela in South America. Area and Population of the Islands according to the latest Returns.
Porto Rico....
29,000 9,000 20,000
1,103 714
434 212 129 62
1,150,000 800,000 350,000 352,400 180,800 2,370 169,230
44.734 25,686 4,008 6,407 2,286 6,347
33,763 18,430 14,389 944
2.275.997 1,521,684 754,313 1,213,144 43,521 4,732 580,804
38,551 40,548 171,860 42,403 18,051
5,287 29,137 11,864 34,964 10,083 28,211 153,128
49.479 45,883
3,596 12,031
4,466 169
238 133 166 133 114
S7 65 50
170 32
291 1,754
Square Popula-Miles, tion.
Turks and Caicos..
Windward Islands
St Lucia
St Vincent. ,
Grenada, <fcc
Leeward Islands..
Virgin Islands.,
St Christopher.,
Antigua, &c
San Domingo
Guadeloupe, &c
St Bartholomew
223 135 53 35
St Eustatius
St Martin and Saba
Santa Cruz
St Thomas
St John
The principal rivers are the Cauto, the Sagua la Grande, and the Sagua le Chica in Cuba, the Rio Grande and Plantain Garden in Jamaica, and the Gran Yacui, the

Neiba, and Yuna in Hayti. All have, necessarily, short courses, and none of them are of much importance.
The population is almost entirely of European, Negro, or East-Asiatic origin. The Negroes far outnumber the others, but the Asiatics are rapidly increasing in numbers.
As in most tropical countries where considerable heights are met with—and here over 15,500 square miles lie at an elevation of more than 1500 feet above sea-level—the climate of the West Indies (in so far at least as heat and cold are concerned) varies at different altitudes, and on the higher parts of many of the islands a marked degree of coolness may generally be found. With the exception of part of the Bahamas, all the islands lie between the isotherms of 77° and 82° F. The extreme heat, however, is greatly tempered by the sea breezes, and by long, cool, refreshing nights. Frost is occasionally formed in the cold season when hail falls, but snow is unknown. The seasons may be divided as follows. The short wet season, or spring, begins in April and lasts from two to six weeks, and is succeeded by the short dry season, when the thermometer remains almost stationary at about 80° F. In July the heat increases to an extent well nigh unbearable, and thunder is heard to rumble in the distance. No change need now be looked for till after a period varying from the end of July to the beginning of October, when the great rainfall of the year commences, accompanied by those tremendous and destructive hurricanes, so intimately and truly associated with popular ideas regarding this region, on which the annual rainfall averages 63 inches— an amount of precipitation calculated to represent a mass of water of 12,465,437,000,000 cubic feet. This season is locally known as the " hurricane months." Out of a total of 355 hurricanes, or, more properly, cyclones, recorded during the last three hundred years, 42 have occurred in July, 96 in August, 80 in September, and 69 in October. These storms commence in the Atlantic and towards the east. For a day or two they follow a westerly course, inclining, at the same time, one or two points towards the north, the polar tendency becoming gradually more marked as the distance from the equator increases. When the hurricanes reach latitude 25° N., they curve to the northeast, and almost invariably wheel round on arriving at the northern portion of the Gulf of Mexico, after which they follow the coast line of North America. Their rate of speed varies considerably, but may be said to average 300 miles per day among the islands. The usual signs of the approach of the cyclones are an ugly and threatening appearance of the weather, sharp and frequent puffs of wind increasing in force with each blast, accompanied with a long heavy swell and confused choppy sea, coming from the direction of the approaching storm. But the baro-meter is the true guide, which should always be consulted when a cyclone is expected. If a sudden fall of the baro-meter is observed, or even if a marked irregularity of its diurnal variations takes place, a storm may be confidently looked for. In some of these hurricanes the barometer has been found to stand 2 inches lower in the centre of the disturbance than it did outside the limits of the storm field. December marks the commencement of the long dry season, which, accompanied by fresh winds and occasional hail showers, lasts till April. The average temperature of the air at Barbados, which may be taken as a favourable average, is, throughout the year, 80° F. in the forenoon, and about 82° in the afternoon. The maxi-mum is 87°, and the minimum 75°.
The geological features of the West Indies are interesting. A calcareous formation, often assuming the shape of marbles, is most common, and indeed preponderates above all the other rocks to a remarkable degree. The Bahamas, which are low, are composed wholly of limestone formed from coral and shells, crushed into a concretionary mass, hard on the surface, but soft where not exposed to atmospheric action, full of holes and indentations, and disposed in nearly level beds. The lower parts of the Antilles present a like formation where the land does not rise above 230 feet. Cuba shows two distinct compact limestones, one a clayey sand-stone and the other a gypsum. These are confined to the central and western parts of the island, which has also syenitic rocks, with some serpentine from which petroleum is obtained. Four-fifths of Jamaica consists of limestone overlying granite and other igneous rocks. Hayti has much metamorphic strata, generally greatly uptilted, and often exhibiting marked folding. These rocks appear to have been limestones, shales, sandstones, and conglomer-ates. Auriferous quartz veins occur in slates, where these are found near eruptive masses; there is also some syenite, and both active and extinct craters are upon this island. The western Antilles are entirely of volcanic origin, and coral reefs occur along their shores ; coral reefs are also presented on the coasts of many of the other islands, but are most irregular in their mode of occurrence, sometimes forming complete belts surrounding the land on all sides, but oftener appearing in the shape of unconnected masses. The fossils of the West Indies are important, as from many of them clear evidence is obtained to show that at no very remote geological period the islands formed part of the adjoining continents. The remains of the megatherium, mylodon, and cabylara, essentially South-American, are also found in North America, but only along the seaboards of Georgia and Carolina. As these are also found in some of the West India islands, as well as in South America, it is thus perfectly clear that at one time the archipelago formed a land passage between the two great divisions of the New World. These remains have also been found in conjunction with the fossil human skeletons of Guadeloupe and the rude weapons associated with them. We may therefore fairly conclude that in Pleistocene times the West Indies formed the connecting link between the two Americas. The occurrence of tree stumps in situ several feet below high-water mark also points to a comparatively late sinking of the land in some areas.
The mineral wealth of the islands is not remarkable. Gold, silver, iron, copper, tin, platinum, lead, coal of a poor quality, cobalt, mercury, arsenic, antimony, manganese, and rock salt either have been or are worked. Of late years asphalt has been worked to considerable advantage among the pitch lakes of Trinidad. Opal and chalcedony are the principal precious stones.
The fauna of the region is Neotropical, belonging to that region which includes South and part of Central America, although great numbers of birds from the North-American portion of the Holarctic realm migrate to the islands. The resident birds, however, eighteen genera of which are certainly Neotropical, show beyond doubt to which faunal region the islands properly belong. Mammals are, as in most island groups, rare. The agouti abounds, and wild pigs and dogs are sufficiently numerous to afford good sport to the hunter, as well as smaller game, in the shape of armadillos, opossums, musk-rats, and raccoons. The non-migrating birds include trogons, sugar-birds, chatterers, and many parrots and humming birds. Waterfowl and various kinds of pigeons are in abundance. Reptiles are numerous: snakes—both the boa and adder —are innumerable, while lizards, scorpions, tarantulas, and centipedes are everywhere. Insects are in great numbers, and are often very annoying. Among domestic animals mules are largely reared, and where the country affords suitable pasture and forage cattle-breeding is extensively engaged in. Much attention is not bestowed

on horse-breeding, except in regard to the comparatively I small numbers required for use in driving and riding by | the officials and planters. Goats abound, and large flocks j of sheep are kept for the sake of their flesh alone, as the climate is not adapted for wool-growing.
The flora of the islands is of great variety and richness, as plants have been introduced from most parts of the globe, and flourish either in a wild state or under cultivation; grain, vegetables, and fruits, generally com-mon in cool climates, may be seen growing in luxuriance within a short distance of like plauts which only attain perfection under the influence of. extreme heat, nothing being here required for the successful propagation of both but a difference in the height of the lands upon which they grow. The forests, which are numerous and wide-spreading, produce the most valuable woods and delicious fruits. Palms are in great variety, and there are several species of gum-producing trees. Some locust trees have been estimated to have attained an age of 4000 years, and are of immense height and bulk. Piptadenia is, on account of its almost imperishable character when in the ground, universally used as a material for house-building. Xanthoxylon, the admired and valuable satin-wood of commerce, is common; Sapindus finds a ready market on account of its toughness ; crab-wood yields a useful oil and affords reliable timber; and tree ferns of various species are common. Pimento is peculiar to Jamaica. But it is to the agricultural resources of the islands that the greatest importance attaches. For centuries almost the whole care of the planters was bestowed upon the culti-vation of the sugar-cane and tobacco plant, but since the emancipation of the slaves and the fall in the price of sugar attention has been turned to the production of other and more varying crops. Perhaps this change has been most marked in the trade which has now sprung up in fruit, which is very large, and annually increasing. Sugar, however, is still the staple product, and has for some time been grown in considerable quantities on the small holdings of the Negroes and other labourers. Crops of tobacco, beans, pease, maize, and Guinea corn are also becoming popular, and a species of rice, which requires no flooding for its successful propagation, is largely produced. Hymenachne striatum covers many of the plains, and affords food for numerous herds of cattle.
For further particulars see CUBA, JAMAICA, HAYTI, and other
articles on separate islands. Interesting information regarding
the state of the islands immediately after the abolition of slavery
may be found in Extracts from Papers Printed by Order of the
House of Commons, 1839, Relative to the West Indies; and notices
of the earlier British settlers are contained in Hotten's Original
Lists of Emigrants, &e. (J. GU.)

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