Why Isn’t the West Indies a Single Country?

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Podcast Transcript

If you have ever looked at a map of the Caribbean, you might have noticed that the tiny islands in the Lesser Antilles consist of a whole bunch of tiny, independent countries. 
All of these countries became independent around the same time, got their independence from the same country: Great Britain.
Given their common history and location, why are they a bunch of separate tiny countries rather than one larger one? 
Learn more about the West Indies and their modern history, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.


The Caribbean can be a rather confusing part of the world just because there are so many islands in such a small area. So before I get into the history, I should do a brief overview of the geography.
The Caribbean can roughly be divided into three regions: the Bahamas, the Greater Antilles, and the Lesser Antilles. 
The Bahamas consists of the nation of the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands. Technically speaking, they aren’t actually in the Caribbean, but they are often lumped with the Caribbean because they are so close. There is a whole other episode about that which I’ll do in the future. 
The Greater Antilles is basically all of the large islands which are located further to the west. This includes Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and the Cayman Islands. 
The Lesser Antilles is everything else. It starts with the US Virgin Islands and arcs to the south down to Trinidad and Tobago, and the ABC islands of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao
The term “West Indies” is basically a misnomer. Columbus was searching for what was known as the Indies, which was South and Southeast Asia. When it became clear that he hadn’t reached Asia, this region became known as the “West Indies”, with the region in Asia being known as the “East Indies”. 
The “West Indies”, geographically referred to everything in the Caribbean. 
However, for the purposes of this episode, the West Indies is going to specifically refer to the islands which were British Colonies after World War II. These are all English-speaking islands with similar histories and cultures. 
Just to be complete, the list of islands were Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, the Brtish Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Antigua, Montserrat, St Kitts and Nevis, Dominica, St. Lucia, Barbados, St Vincent, Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Turks and Caicos. 
Basically, everything in the region except for the Bahamas, Bermuda, and Guyana, which is actually in South America, but is often linked with the Caribbean culturally. 
After World War II, the British Empire basically had a fire sale. The empire wasn’t long for this world and it was just a matter of time before all the constituent parts would become independent countries. 
For larger countries like India, independence practically made perfect sense. They had the size to join the ranks of other nations. 
The islands of the Caribbean, however, were not like India. They were small in area, small in population, had few resources and lacked strong economies. 
The British knew that independence was inevitable, and so as part of the transition, in 1958 they created the West Indian Federation. The federation basically consisted of all of the islands I just mentioned. 
The explicit goal of creating the federation was to create an entity that would become independent, similar to the Federation of Canada
Here I should note something about these islands. They are indeed similar in language and culture. However, that doesn’t mean they are the same. 
In 2013 I took a trip where I traveled from Puerto Rico down to Trinidad, and I visited all of the countries and territories along the way. To be sure, the islands are similar, but there are differences. Subtle, but important differences. Similar to the differences between the US and Canada, Germany and Austria, or Sweden and Norway. 
There were more than just subtle cultural differences between the islands. The most populous island, Jamaica, was over 1,200 miles of open water away from the second-most populous island, Trinidad.
The idea of the Federation of the West Indies wasn’t a bad one at least on paper. The concept of taking this many small islands and uniting them into a single country isn’t crazy. But there were many problems that doomed it from the start. 
For starts, the idea of the Federation came entirely from the British. It was totally a top-down affair and there was initially no input from the people on the islands. It doesn’t mean that the idea was universally rejected everywhere, but nor was it the result of a groundswell of popular support.
The other thing that quickly came into play was inter-island politics. 
One of the biggest sticking points was where the capital of the new country was to be. 
At first, the idea was to put in on one of the smaller islands which would be more neutral to the larger islands that would have dominated the federation government. One suggestion that was floated was to put the capital on the island of Grenada. 
When that idea was scrapped, the three candidates were the three most populous islands in the federation: Jamaica, Trinidad, and Barbados. For the short duration of the Federation, Port of Spain, Trinidad served as the de facto capital, even though it never was officially named as such because an agreement could never be reached as to where to put it.
The Federation had a major problem in that each island was responsible for imposing its own tariffs and trade policies, even with other islands in the federation. That meant that each island was basically their own independent economy, which sort of defeated the entire purpose of being a unified country. 
Even when sovereign countries do usually band together, like in the European Union, it is to remove tariffs and trade barriers to allow commerce to flow more easily. 
There were also ethnic issues that came to the fore. Most of the islands in the federation have a population that is overwhelming Afro-Caribbean. The exception to that is Trinidad and Tobago, which has a plurality of the population which is of Indian ancestry. There were no legislative protections for ethnic minorities in the Federation, which was the reason why Guyana refused to join, as they also have a plurality of people of Indian descent. 
There was a single election that ever took place in the Federation of the West Indies. In 1958, the West Indies Federal Labour Party won a small majority in the new parliament over the Democratic Labour Party. Both parties were organized and founded in Jamaica. 
The demise of the short-lived federation began in September 1961 when a referendum was held in Jamaica. The question put to voters was simply “Should Jamaica remain in the Federation of the West Indies?”
The “no” votes won 54% to 46%.
The next year on August 6, 1962, Jamaica left the federation and became independent. 
This was a devastating blow as Jamaica was the largest island in terms of population and had the largest economy. 
The biggest concerns of Jamaicans were that they would have to financially support the smaller islands, that Jamaica’s representation in the parliament was smaller than its share of the population, and that Kingston wasn’t selected as the capital. 
With Jamaica out, after the referendum, the center of gravity of the Federation now shifted to Trinidad. 
The Trinidadians now faced the same problems that Jamaica did. They would have had to provide most of the revenue for the new country, yet they wouldn’t have had a majority of seats in the parliament. 
In January 1962, the largest political party in Trinidad passed a resolution in support of independence, and that happened just a few weeks after Jamaica. 
With Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago now out, efforts shifted once again to make Barbados the center of the Federation. 
However, with the two largest states gone, there was no real way for the federation to be viable, especially if the biggest burden had to be carried by Barbados, which was much smaller than Trinidad or Jamaica. 
With that, later in 1962, the British Parliament officially dissolved the Federation of the West Indies. 
Over the next two decades, seven of the former states in the federation became independent countries: Barbados, Grenada, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Lucia, Dominica, St. Kitts and Nevis, and Antigua and Barbuda. 
Several of the smallest islands are still British Territories, and I outlined them in my previous episode on the subject. 
In the almost 60 years since the break up of the federation, the economic fortunes of every member state have improved considerably, mostly due to the rise of tourism to the region. 
Cooperation between the islands has also improved as well. The problem the federation had with each state running its own trade policy has mostly been overcome with the creation of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States and the Caribbean Community, or CARICOM, which is sort of the Caribbean version of the European Union. 
The Eastern Caribbean dollar is now in use in many of the smaller islands in the Lesser Antilles, and it is pegged to the US dollar for stability. 
There is also an appellate court and a supreme court which 
I also have to mention the one institution which still functions under the West Indies name, the West Indies Cricket team. This is a transnational team representing all of the West Indies and is the team that competes against other national teams like England, India, and South Africa
They have actually had a fair amount of success having won the world cup in 1975 and 1979, and the Twenty20 world cup in 2012 and 2016. 
I remember eating at a small restaurant in Antigua and I saw posters of some cricket player all over the walls that I didn’t recognize. I asked who it was, and they looked at me like I was from the moon. It turned out to be Sir Viv Richards, arguably the greatest player in West Indies history. 
Since the failure of the Federation of the West Indies, strangely enough, most of the former member states have wound up creating economic and judicial institutions which are not too far from what the federation was trying to achieve. 
Instead of doing it as a single nation, they’ve managed to achieve it as a group of sovereign, independent countries. 


Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast. The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett. Today’s review comes from listener skipjust82 over at Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

GREAT SHOW!!

I love how much detail and life you give to each episode. Even when the topic seems like something I’d never be interested in. I’ve learned a lot in a short time. THANKS!!!
Thanks, skipjust82!  Your message is one that I hope everyone will take to heart. You learn the most from shows that you know the least about. If you find a topic uninteresting at first, it is probably because you just haven’t been exposed to the topic before. 
Remember, if you leave a review or send in a question, you too can have it read on the show.