Spanish West Indies

The Spanish West Indies or the Spanish Antilles (also known as "Las Antillas Occidentales" or simply "Las Antillas Españolas" in Spanish) were Spanish colonies in the Caribbean. In terms of governance of the Spanish Empire, The Indies was the designation for all its overseas territories and was overseen by the Council of the Indies, founded in 1524 and based in Spain.[1] When the Crown established the Viceroyalty of New Spain in 1535, the islands of the Caribbean came under its jurisdiction.

Spanish West Indies
Las Antillas Occidentales
Antillas Españolas
Anthem: Marcha Real
"Royal March"
  Spanish West Indies
StatusColony of Spain
(Territory of the Viceroyalty of New Spain from 1492 to 1898)
CapitalSanto Domingo (1511–1764)
Common languagesSpanish (official)
Taíno, Guanahatabey, Macorix, Ciguayo
Roman Catholicism
Ferdinand II
Isabella I
Alfonso XIII
Historical eraSpanish colonization
CurrencySpanish colonial real, Spanish dollar
ISO 3166 codeES
Preceded by
Succeeded by
New Spain
Bay Islands
Colony of Jamaica
Cayman Islands
Dominican Republic
United States Military Government in Cuba
Puerto Rico

The islands ruled by Spain were chiefly the Greater Antilles such as Hispaniola (inclusive of modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Cuba, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. The majority of the indigenous populations on these islands had died out or had mixed with the European colonizers by 1520.[2] Spain also claimed the Lesser Antilles (such as Guadalupe and the Cayman Islands) but these smaller islands remained largely independent until they were conquered in the late 17th and early 18th century by other European nations.

The islands that became the Spanish West Indies were the focus of the voyages of the Spanish expedition of Christopher Columbus in America. Largely due to the familiarity that Spaniards gained from Columbus's voyages, the islands were also the first lands to be permanently colonized by Spanish in the Americas. The Spanish West Indies were also the most enduring part of Spain's American Empire, only being surrendered in 1898 at the end of the Spanish–American War. For over three centuries, Spain controlled a network of ports in the Caribbean including Havana (Cuba), San Juan (Puerto Rico), Cartagena de Indias, Veracruz (Mexico), and Portobelo, Panama, which were connected by galleon routes.

Some smaller islands were seized or ceded to other European powers as a result of war, or diplomatic agreements during the 17th and 18th centuries. Others such as Dominican Republic gained their independence in the 19th century.

Change of sovereignty or independence

Spanish Caribbean

Today, the term Spanish Caribbean or Hispanophone Caribbean refers to the Spanish-speaking areas in the Caribbean Sea, chiefly Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico.[4] An even broader definition can include the Caribbean coasts of Mexico, Central America (Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama), and South America (Colombia and Venezuela), however aside from Panama, Venezuela, and parts of Colombia, most of these countries share little with the Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands culturally.[5] It includes regions where Spanish is the main language, and where the legacy of Spanish settlement and colonization influences culture, through religion, language, cuisine, and so on. The varieties of Spanish that predominate in this region are known collectively as Caribbean Spanish.

The Spanish Caribbean (Cuba, Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico) can be considered a separate subregion of Latin America, culturally distinct from both continental Spanish-speaking countries and the non-Spanish -speaking Caribbean. Apart from culture, the Spanish Caribbean is different racially as well. In comparison to the predominantly black majority of the non-Hispanic Caribbean, but with similarities to the multi-racial continental areas of Latin America, mixed-race people are most dominant in this region. However, in the Spanish Caribbean, the majority of the mixed-race population is made up of mulattos/tri-racials, being of mixed white Spanish, black West African, and indigenous Taino ancestry, who also make up the majority of the total population overall, especially in the Dominican Republic, as opposed to mestizos in many continental Hispanic countries. Also, like the majority of the Caribbean, there are still sizeable populations of unmixed black people and a large amount of undeniably African cultural influences. The Spanish Caribbean also has higher Canarian influence compared to continental Latin America, making them the primary European ancestral group. French ancestry is high, due to white French fleeing Haiti after independence to the surrounding Hispanic Caribbean. Around 18% of surnames in the Spanish Caribbean are of French origin, second highest after Spanish. This mixture of European (especially Canarian), West African, and Taino is heavily reflected in the culture.

The term is used in contrast to Anglophone Caribbean, French Caribbean, and Dutch Caribbean, which are other modern linguistic divisions of the Caribbean region. The Hispanophone Caribbean is a part of the wider Hispanic America, which includes all the Spanish-speaking countries in the Americas. Historically, coastal areas of Spanish Florida and the Caribbean South America (cf. the Spanish Main) were closely tied to the Spanish Caribbean. During the period of Spanish settlement and colonization of the New World, the Spanish West Indies referred to those settlements in islands of the Caribbean Sea under political administration of Spain, as in the phrase "a 1765 cedula authorized seven sea ports, in addition to the port of San Juan, to trade with the Spanish Caribbean."[6] Until the early 19th century these territories were part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain.

In a modern sense, the Caribbean islands of Colombia could be included in the Hispanophone Caribbean as well, due to the fact they are located in the Caribbean, but not in the Antilles.


Map of the West Indies published in 1899

Below is a list of islands belonging geographically to the Greater and Lesser Antilles and that were under Spanish rule in various stages of history, until it became independent from Spain. Several islands which were previously largely under Spanish rule, but since they were passed into the domain of France, England or the Netherlands, are no longer considered part of the Spanish Caribbean.[7][8]

In addition, the Colombian islands of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina are located in the Caribbean, but are not part of the Antilles. Under intermittent periods of Spanish rule, these islands were administered as part of the Spanish Main (initially Guatemala, later New Granada).

West Indian islands that were under Spanish rule
Political entity Islands of the West Indies Status
 CubaIsla de Cuba — Isla de la Juventud — Sabana-Camagüey Archipelago — Cayo Blanco del Sur — Cayo Levisa — Cayo Los EnsenachosCayo Largo del SurJardines de la Reina — Cayo Guillermo — Cayo Coco — Cayo Romano — Cayo Guajaba — Cayo Sabinal — Cayo Santa María — Cayo Paredón Grande — Colorados Archipelago — Cayo Saetía — Cayo BlancoIndependent republic from Spain since 1898
 Dominican RepublicEastern HispaniolaSaonaBeata — Catalina — Alto Velo — Cayo LevantadoIndependent republic from Spain since 1821, independent from Haiti since 1844
 Puerto RicoIsla de Puerto Rico — CulebraViequesMonaMonitoDesecheoCaja de MuertosIsla de Cabras — Cayo Batata — Isla Cardona — Cayos de Caña Gorda — Culebrita — Icacos — Cayo Luis Peña — Isla Magueyes — Cayo Norte — Isla Palominos — Isla de Ratones — Isleta de San Juan — Cayo Santiago — Spanish Virgin IslandsCommonwealth of the United States, independent from Spain since 1898
 VenezuelaIsla de Margarita — Coche — Cubagua (form the state of Nueva Esparta) Los Monjes — Las Aves — Los Roques (Gran Roque, Francisquí, Isla Larga, Nordisquí, Madrisquí, Crasquí, Cayo Espenquí, Cayo Carenero, Cayo de Agua, Dos Mosquises, Cayo Sal, Cayo Grande) — Los Hermanos — Los Frailes — Aves — La Sola — La Tortuga (Cayo HerraduraIslas Los Tortuguillos)La Orchila — La Blanquilla — Los Testigos — Patos (ceded from British Trinidad in 1942,[9] form the Federal Dependencies of Venezuela)Independent republic from Spain since 1811, recognized by Spain in 1845

See also


  1. Mark A. Burkholder, "Council of the Indies" in Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture, vol. 2, p. 293. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons 1996.
  2. Reséndez, Andrés (2017). The other slavery: The uncovered story of Indian enslavement in America. ISBN 978-0-544-94710-8.
  3. Douglas A. Phillips; Charles F. Gritzner (2010). The Dominican Republic. Infobase Publishing. pp. 36–. ISBN 978-1-60413-618-0.
  4. Romaine, Suzanne (2013). "Caribbean". In Strazny, Philipp (ed.). Encyclopedia of Linguistics. New York: Taylor & Francis. p. 176. ISBN 978-1-135-45522-4.
  5. David L. McKee; Don E. Garner; Yosra AbuAmara McKee (1998). Accounting Services and Growth in Small Economies: Evidence from the Caribbean Basin. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 51. ISBN 978-1-56720-138-3.
  6. Luis F. Pumarada O'Neill (July 31, 1994), National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation: Historic Bridges of Puerto Rico MPS (pdf), National Park Service
  7. Simon Collier, "The non-Spanish Caribbean islands to 1815" in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Latin America and the Caribbean, 2nd edition. New York: Cambridge University Press 1992, pp. 212-217.
  8. "Las Antillas". Digital Library of the Caribbean (in Spanish). Librería de Antonio J. Bastinos. Retrieved 28 June 2019.
  9. González, Hermann; Donis Ríos, Manuel Alberto (1989). Historia de las fronteras de Venezuela. Caracas: Lagoven. ISBN 9789802592579.

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