The Windward Islands and Barbados

Caribbean Islands Table of Contents

THE WINDWARD ISLANDS consist of Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Grenada. The name Windward dates back to the 1700s, to the time when English ships bound for Jamaica followed the trade-wind passage, stopping at islands along the way. The islands constitute a north-south chain in the southern section of the Lesser Antilles and share a volcanic rock formation. These nations also had highly similar political and economic systems in the late 1980s. Despite these parallels, the Windwards were much more heterogeneous than other Commonwealth Caribbean island groupings. These differences prevented the establishment in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries of a common government along the lines found in the Leeward Islands.

A French legacy distinguished the Windward Islands from their Commonwealth Caribbean neighbors. The French established permanent settlements on the four islands in the 1600s and controlled them until the islands were seized by the British in the 1760s. Even after the British takeover, France continued to compete with Britain for authority over the Windwards, regaining control over St. Lucia, for example, on several occasions. France did not relinquish its claim to St. Lucia until 1815.

The islands varied widely in the degree to which they subsequently assimilated British culture and mores. The most extensive assimilation occurred in St. Vincent, where the population easily adopted the English language and Protestantism. In Grenada, on the other hand, the majority of the residents remained Roman Catholics even though English became the sole language of the island. Dominica and St. Lucia offered the greatest resistance to British influence. A French creole language called patois continued to be spoken in the late 1980s among much of the rural population of both islands. Dominicans and St. Lucians were also overwhelmingly Roman Catholic.

Beginning in the 1830s, the Windward Islands and Tobago ostensibly were under the authority of the governor of Barbados. In actuality, however, lieutenant governors on each of the islands exercised considerable autonomy. In 1875 the governor of Barbados attempted to implement a British proposal calling for a Windward Islands confederation. Fearing a loss of political and financial autonomy, Barbadian planters successfully defeated the measure. In 1885 Barbados withdrew from the government of the Windward Islands, leaving St. Lucia, St. Vincent, and Grenada with a nominal governor (Dominica had left earlier). In 1940 Dominica rejoined the Windwards after being a reluctant member of the Leeward Islands Federation for the previous seventy years. The weak Windwards structure lasted until 1956; its members were absorbed the following year in the ill-fated West Indies Federation (see The West Indies Federation, 1957-62, ch. 1).

The newly independent nations of the Windward Islands shared common political and economic patterns. All were constitutional monarchies with a parliamentary system of government on the Westminster model. St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Grenada each had a bicameral legislature consisting of an elected House and a non-elective Senate. The prime minister was the leader of the party that secured a majority of House seats. The pattern was similar in Dominica except that House and Senate members were part of a unicameral body. Agriculture was the leading component of the gross domestic product for each of the islands. In the case of Grenada, however, tourism had replaced agriculture as the primary earner of foreign exchange by the mid-1980s. All of the Windwards islands had high levels of unemployment and emigration.

In the late 1980s, following a tumultuous decade, national security remained an important consideration for the leaders of the Windward Islands. The overthrow in 1979 of the Grenadian government and its replacement by the People's Revolutionary Government (PRG), the temporary seizure the same year of Union Island in the Grenadines, the attempted coup in 1981 in Dominica, and the assassination in 1983 of PRG leader Maurice Bishop had shocked the Windward population. These events led to the creation of paramilitary Special Service Units within each of the national police organizations. At the same time, however, leaders generally continued to oppose the establishment of a regional army, fearing that such an institution could endanger democracy.

Despite its nineteenth-century ties to the Windward Islands, Barbados differed from its neighbors in several ways. Barbados lies east of the Windwards and is characterized by lowlands, plains, and rolling hills rather than the mountainous terrain of the Windwards. The island also followed a distinct historical path. Barbados was regarded as the most British nation in the Commonwealth Caribbean, a reflection undoubtedly of the uncontested control exercised by the British from 1625 until the granting of independence in 1966. The economic base was different from most of the Windward nations also; tourism had replaced agriculture as the primary foreign exchange earner by the 1970s. Barbados was also distinguished from its neighbors by the maintenance of a standing army. Barbados' political structure, however, was identical to that found in St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Grenada.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress