Confessions of an Expat – What exactly are the West Indies?

This is most people’s idea of the West Indies


The idiot’s guide to the Caribbean

A recent brief trip to Barbados started me thinking about the whole Caribbean area and how it sees itself, as opposed to how the rest of the world sees it.

The UK thinks there is this group of islands called the West Indies.

It’s all Christopher Columbus’s fault. He was trying to get from Spain to south Asia, but ended up in the Caribbean. Easy mistake to make. Just fail to turn left when you come out of the Mediterranean and you are heading across the Atlantic ocean, bound for the wrong continent.

Columbus would have been better off going overland, as it happens, but he wasn’t to know that, so he did his best and, when he found land and didn’t know where the hell he was, he assumed he wasn’t far away from his desired destination. If he was looking for clues from the local population, he may have noticed something Asian about the eyes of the Native Americans.

“Anyway, we were looking for the Indies [i.e. something to do with India] and we’ve found a place with vaguely Asian-looking people so let’s call it the West Indies. Strayed a bit there, Mr Navigator. Pull your socks up – but we can’t be far away.”

Nowadays, some people refer to south Asia as the East Indies, which also helps to disguise Columbus’s enormous miscalculation. He hadn’t even found north or south America, as it happens. But none of these places had names, anyway, so he could call them what he liked.

Some 400 years later, the English, having muscled in on the ‘New World’ and given the locals everything from organized sport and commerce to fancy foreign diseases, started playing cricket against the West Indies, and that was the British perception up to the middle of the 20th century. Cricket is the only sport in which the Caribbean nations compete as a group and under the name West indies. Usain Bolt comes not from a generalized WI but the highly specific Jamaica.

(It should be understood that England is part of Great Britain (and if you add Northern Ireland, it’s the United Kingdom), and therefore British can mean English, although it can equally indicate Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish people.)

After the Second World War they ran out of bus drivers in London and, the British population having been depleted by casualties, someone had the brilliant idea of bringing some West Indians, mainly Jamaicans, over to help out. Global integration was on its way (although it has been a frustratingly slow and antagonistic process).

But xenophobia (in both directions, mind you) is by the by. Air travel suddenly made it possible for the British to visit the tropics on holiday.

Americans have a different story to tell, but all I really know about that is that they call the Caribbean nations ‘the islands’ in a rather proprietorial way.

For us Brits, we couldn’t get enough of the sun, sea and sand. Not that we don’t have our own, but unfortunately the thermostat is stuck on a low temperature for most of the year.

What we knew from cricket was that in the “West Indies” there was Barbados, there was Trinidad and there was Guyana. Yes, Guyana. Well known (to cricket fans only) players such as Basil Butcher, Lance Gibbs and Rohan Kanhai were all part of the West Indies team that toured England in the mid 60s, and then came Clive Lloyd. All Guyanese. All playing for the Windies. And therefore Guyana must be an island in the Caribbean, right?

Wrong, actually. It’s a country in South America. Pardon one’s ignorance. And anyway, Guyana, along with Suriname, doesn’t consider itself part of South America as much as part of the Caribbean.

Culture was on its way, too. Bob Marley gave the world a kind of music that would be loved everywhere.

Memorial for the man who put the jam in Jamaica

There was a hit pop song in the UK in the early 70s, complete with faux-Caribbean accent,  that went ‘Oh, I’m going to Barbidas, blah blah blah, oh, lots of pretty palm trees… in the sunny Caribbean sea.’ It was a catchy tune and the British music-buying public are susceptible to a bit of holiday daydreaming a la Y Viva Espana.

Now Barbados is known by some as Little England, and from my brief  visit I can confirm that there is certainly a lot of British influence – and the people I met were not sullenly resentful of white people, which sadly can be the case in other islands.

So the British perception was that the West Indies was Barbados, Trinidad, Guyana and Jamaica.

Then came the ultimate Caribbean cricketing hero, Viv Richards, and we heard of Antigua, because that’s where he is from. And people started getting married on the beach in St Lucia. And there was Grenada, the spice island. The Caribbean map was taking shape.

The Caribbean is the blue bit, so any of the green bits that touch it can – and do – call themselves part of the Caribbean.

But that’s where it stopped for most people. We knew about the Bahamas, but we didn’t necessarily know where they were. Tobago? Never heard of it. Curacao? Somewhere in China. Aruba and Bonaire? Figments of your imagination, old son (although the Dutch know where they are, because they made the most impact there in colonial times). Antilles, Windward islands, Leeward islands? You’re just trying to confuse me.

Guadeloupe? No, that’s a kind of melon. Cuba? Off the coast of Russia, mate. St Kitts and Nevis? That’s a home for stray animals in south London.


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