The Leeward Islands
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
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.
Data as of November 1987