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The term “Caribbean” refers to not only a chain of islands lying east of Central America but also to some mainland countries belonging to both South and Central America. These countries extend from North to South America and separate the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico from the Atlantic Ocean. The Caribbean is a geographically diverse region of approximately 40 million people living in about 31 countries. The name ‘Caribbean’ is derived from the name that was given to one of the original groups of inhabitants, the ‘Caribs’, now referred to as Kalinagos.

There are conflicting ideas about which countries belong to the Caribbean region since people define the Caribbean in different ways. Some chose to focus on the geography, while others on the geology or history of the region. The size and population of individual territories vary greatly from Anguilla comprising just 96 km² to Guyana comprising 216,000 km². Montserrat with a population of just 5,000 has much fewer persons than Cuba with a population of 12 million.

The Caribbean is a rich and diverse region. Many unique pieces fit together to make up one spectacular whole. No two countries are the same as they vary in their geology, physical appearance, culture, political systems and even in the languages spoken. The island territories though spread over a wide area, comprise an extensive archipelago.

The Caribbean islands are further subdivided based on their position and size, into three groups:

• Greater Antilles- the larger islands in the north, comprising Cuba, Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico and Jamaica. 

• Lesser Antilles- the chain of smaller islands in the south-east and south stretching from the Virgin Islands to Aruba.

• Bahamas Islands and Turks and Caicos- the large number of islands north of the Greater Antilles. The Cayman Islands to the south of Cuba.

The Lesser Antilles are also further subdivided into Windward Islands and Leeward Islands. The former include the islands between Grenada and Dominica and the latter the islands between Guadeloupe and the Virgin Islands.

As one would expect, a region blessed such a diverse array of resources would have much to offer a tourist. Indeed the Caribbean is the world’s most tourism dependent region and the number one destination in the world for cruise tourism. With the exception of a few territories such as Trinidad and Tobago with significant petroleum resources and the large mainland countries with a comparative advantage for agriculture, tourism is the main source of foreign exchange in most countries.

The Caribbean region also has a very rich and diverse culture brought about by its history with the meeting of many people of different races and cultures. In the 15th century

Christopher Columbus first visited the Caribbean and this resulted in the colonization Caribbean territories by Europeans. The most profound impact was the destruction of the Taino and Kalinago tribes and the development of the plantation economy based on sugar-cane production. Some descendents of the First people of the Caribbean can still be found in Dominica, St. Vincent, Trinidad and the mainland countries of Belize, Guyana and Suriname. 

Under the plantation economy enslaved Africans were imported and were made to toil for long hours without wages under the threat of punishment. Some of the enslaved Africans were able to escape and set up communities in the dense mountainous terrain of the islands. These people came to be called the maroons and their descendents can still be found in many territories such as Suriname, Jamaica and Martinique.

Because plantations were not self-sufficient, much food, clothing and equipment were imported from Europe. Much of the colonial architecture is still preserved in many Caribbean territories especially in the many World Heritage sites such as Old Havana and Trinidad (Cuba), Willemstad (Curaçao) and Paramaribo (Suriname). When slavery was eventually abolished in 1834, indentured labourers were brought from India and China to fill the void left by the Africans.

In the Caribbean there also different types of political systems which include independent states, colonial dependencies and those with associated status. Most of the independent nations are democracies while Cuba has a communist system. Colonial dependencies include the British countries of Montserrat, Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos Islands and the BVI. The Overseas Departments of France are responsible for Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guiana. The Netherland Antilles comprise Saba, Sint Maarten (Dutch side), Saint Eustatius, Aruba, Curaçao and Bonaire which are Associated States of Holland. Puerto Rico is an Associated State of the United States of America.   

The wide variety of languages spoken in the Caribbean is also a result of the colonial legacy. During the colonial period territories changed hands frequently among the many European powers. Countries dominated by Spain such as Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic still speak Spanish, whilst those dominated by France such as Martinique, Guadeloupe and Haiti speak French. In the Commonwealth Caribbean where the British dominated English is the main language. The Dutch speaking territories include Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao. Many other languages can be heard including Hindi, Chinese, Javanese, Papiamento and many types of patois or ‘creole’ which is a mixing of languages. The mixing of the different races and cultures contributed immensely to the diversity of Caribbean societies. This can be seen in all areas of life including the food, music, religions, architecture, settlement designs and clothing. 

Persons wanting more information on the Caribbean can consult the author’s text “A Photographic Geography of the Caribbean…” By Sheldon G. Bleasdell on sale at Mohammed Book stores in Trinidad and Tobago.

(Pictures 4+4+1+1=10: Greater Antilles (Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Jamaica) Lesser Antilles (Guadeloupe, Martinique, Trinidad, Curaçao.); Bahamas Islands; Mainland territory (Suriname). Publisher to include a map of the Caribbean.)

1. Students on tour with Reperio Caribbean visited Martinique in 2012. The famous volcano Mt Pelee is in the background.

2. Pointe des Chateaux in Grand Terre Guadeloupe.

3. Climbing Turure waterfall in Trinidad with Island Hikers. Ecotourism is one of the fastest growing forms of tourism in the Caribbean.

4. Visitor enjoying one of the many rides in Atlantis Water Park on Paradise Island in the Bahamas.

5. Tourists petting live sharks at the Sea Aquarium in Curacao.

6. Bamboo rafting on the Rio Grande in Jamaica.

7. Trinidad is one of the oldest towns in Cuba. In 1988 UNESCO placed Trinidad on the World Heritage list for its cultural treasures.

8. Inside the Cathedral of Santa Maria La Menor in the Dominacan Republic. This is the oldest Cathedral of the Americas.

9. Fort San Felipe del Morro was built to protect the entrance to San Juan harbour in Puerto Rico and is one of the largest forts in the Caribbean.

10. Jodensavanne cultural monument is the former residence of the Portuguese Jewish nation in Suriname.

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