The Leeward Islands

Caribbean Islands Table of Contents

LIKE THE REST OF THE INSULAR CARIBBEAN, the Leeward islands were discovered and named by the Spanish, only to have their control contested by the British and French. The term leeward islands is derived from the course taken by most of the sailing ships that voyaged from Britain to the Caribbean. Impelled by the trade winds, these vessels normally encountered Barbados, the island most to windward, as their first port of call. After progressing through the islands most to windward, which came to be known as the Windwards, these ships rounded off their voyages with the islands most to leeward--Montserrat, Antigua, Barbuda, St. Christopher (hereafter, St. Kitts), Nevis, Anguilla, and the Virgin Islands, among others.

Historically, the Leewards and Windwards have followed somewhat divergent paths despite their common colonial bond. The Leewards were settled earlier and were not, with the possible exception of St. Kitts, as rigorously disputed over as were the Windwards. Consequently, the period of uninterrupted British rule was longer in the Leewards. One legacy of this is the absence of Frenchinfluenced creole languages among the inhabitants of the Leewards. Despite colloquial forms of expression, English is the common tongue. In regard to religion, Roman Catholicism did not take root in the Leewards as it did in the Windwards. A number of Protestant denominations, predominantly the Anglican, Methodist, and Moravian churches, account for most of the Leewards faithful.

As a political entity, the Leewards experienced two extended periods of federation during the colonial period. The first of these, the Leeward Caribbee Islands Government, was established in 1671 and united the islands under the direction of a British governor. For a brief period in the early nineteenth century (1806- 32), this grouping was divided into two separate governments. In 1871 Dominica, the British Virgin Islands, Montserrat, St. KittsNevis -Anguilla, and Antigua (with Barbuda and Redonda) became the Leeward Islands Federation. Except for Dominica, which withdrew in 1940, these islands remained joined until the British dissolved the federation in 1956. Following a brief period in which they were administered as separate colonies, the former members of the Leeward Islands Federation were absorbed into the West Indies Federation in 1958 (see The West Indies Federation, 1958-62, ch. 1). The islands assumed associated statehood (see Glossary) in 1967, five years after the dissolution of the West Indies Federation. By the end of 1983, all but the dependencies (Anguilla, Montserrat, and the British Virgin Islands) had acquired full independence.

One phenomenon that binds the two island groupings together in a political and perhaps sociological and even psychological sense is the "small-island complex." Caribbean scholar Gordon K. Lewis has blamed this mind-set, which is a general feeling of inferiority suffered by the residents of small islands in relation to the residents of larger islands such as Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, for the failure of the West Indies Federation and other even less successful efforts at unification. Others have noted the "push and pull" effect on migration from the smaller islands to the larger islands, although these patterns are probably best examined and explained from an economic rather than a sociologicalpsychological point of view.

The Leewards generally have shared a similar pattern of economic development. The plantation system, characterized by production of one or possibly two major export products on land often held by absentee owners, has been another legacy of the enduring but largely static and unresponsive British control of the islands. What the system produced for Britain was sugar. Its byproducts --labor strife, migration, landlessness, and poverty--were bequeathed to the workers. Thus it was that labor unions became the first vehicles for mass-based political expression in the islands. The political parties that grew out of unionism came to dominate government in the Leewards, especially after the granting of universal adult suffrage in 1951. Although the power of the laborbased parties was eventually diminished by factionalism and the rise of middle-class opposition groups (especially in St. Kitts and Nevis), their political influence has endured.

One notable political aspect of the Leewards is the high incidence of multi-island states--Antigua and Barbuda, St. KittsNevis -Anguilla, and the British Virgin Islands. Such associations were encouraged by the British, who thought to enhance the economic and political viability of these small states by broadening their productive and electoral bases. The British did not sufficiently account for the small-island complex, however, and the seemingly inherent resentment it generated among the residents of the smaller islands. Thus, the grouping of unequal partners promoted unrest more than unity, particularly in the case of Anguilla. Eventually, a more positive approach to the question of multi-island federation, based on the concept of enhanced and assured autonomy for the smaller island, was achieved in Antigua and Barbuda and St. Kitts and Nevis.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress