The West Indies is an archipelago in the northern part of the Western Hemisphere that separates the Caribbean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean. Politically, the West Indies is made up of 13 independent nations and a number of colonial dependencies, territories and possessions.
The area was discovered and called the Indies by Christopher Columbus. It was subsequently designated the West Indies to distinguish it from the East Indies archipelago.
Three main island chains comprise the West Indies and they extend in a roughly crescent shape from the eastern tip of the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico and southeastern Florida in the United States to the Venezuelan coast of South America.
The Bahama Islands in the north form a southeasterly line. The Greater Antilles, comprising Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica and Puerto Rico, lie in the center. To the southeast are the Lesser Antilles, comprising the Virgin Islands, Leeward Islands and Windward Islands. Barbados, Trinidad, Tobago and the Netherlands Antilles are often considered part of this third chain.
The islands total land area is about 91,000 square miles and the population is about 30 million.
Cuba is the largest nation in the West Indies. Haiti and the Dominican Republic, two other independent nations, occupy Hispaniola, the second largest of the archipelago. Jamaica, Barbados, the Bahamas, Trinidad and Tobago, Dominica, Granada, Saint Christopher and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Antigua and Barbuda are the other sovereign nations.
Sovereignty over nearly ail of the other West Indies islands is divided between the United States, France, the Netherlands and Great Britain.
Puerto Rico, fourth largest island, is a commonwealth of the U. S. and several of the Virgin Islands are U.S. territories.
The French West Indies includes Martinique, Guadeloupe and a number of small island dependencies of Guadeloupe.
The Dutch possessions consist of Curacao, Bonaire, Aruba and the smaller Lesser Antilles Islands.
Venezuela holds about 70 Lesser Antilles islands.
Dependencies of Great Britain are the Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos Islands and some of the Virgin Islands.
Most of the non coral islands of the West Indies are mountainous, projecting remnants of submerged ranges related to Central and South American mountain systems. The highest point is Pico Duarte in the Cordillera Central of the Dominican Republic. It is 10,417 feet high.
Except for part of the Bahamas chain, all the West Indies islands lie within the Tropic Zone. Two seasons are distinguishable: a relatively dry season from November through May and a wet season from June through October.