Caribbean Countries And Territories

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Houses in Barbados. Image credit: zstock/Shutterstock
  • The Caribbean countries and territories were heavily colonized by the Spanish, as well as the French, Dutch and British.
  • There is not a large practical difference between a country and a territory, though countries are independent where territories are dependent on another country, usually either France, the United Kingdom or the Netherlands.
  • Christopher Columbus first "discovered" the Caribbean islands, connecting the Old and New Worlds and changing the course of history.

The Caribbean countries and territories, situated on the northern and eastern sides of the Caribbean Sea, have a long and storied history. Though these countries each have a unique culture and atmosphere of their own, they have been heavily influenced by past colonization, in some good but also many bad ways. In fact, some say that the Caribbean lands were some of the most affected by colonization even when compared to the various other colonies situated around the earth and throughout history. 

Colonization in the Caribbean 

Colonization in the Caribbean started with Christopher Columbus' voyage to the islands. He originally aimed to open up trade routes and hoped that by traveling to the west he would eventually circle to the East and be able to trade in perfume, spices, and gold without Muslim interference, as they controlled and taxed the east trade routes through to India and China.

He never made it to the East but did end up at the Caribbean islands, where he began to dig up gold while simultaneously setting up the first settlement in the Americas. His first voyage was not very profitable with just small amounts of gold and tobacco leaves to show for it.  

He returned later with many more men, set on establishing a colony. Some of the resources that this colony would open up to trade include tobacco and potatoes, which gradually grew in popularity in Europe. 

A map of the Caribbean islands.

However, the main aim of the Spanish settlements that popped up was to find and extract silver and gold. To this end, they set up mines and began breeding livestock to stay in the area for the long haul. Large deposits of the precious metals were discovered in Mexico and Peru in the early 16th century and provided ample reason for continued settlement and colonization of the area.

The original inhabitants of the islands were violently exploited by the settlers, while also being forcibly exposed to Christianity. They were coerced into working in the mines and disruption of native agriculture led to mass starvation. They also infamously died from European diseases to which they had no immunity. The Indigenous people were either wiped out or forcefully integrated into Spanish culture and way of life.

Eventually, Spanish domination of the area ended as other European countries moved in after much naval conflict. Sugar also became a hot export as it grew well in the local climate. Mass amounts of slave labor were used to grow and pick these crops, while absentee landowners went back home, with profits now made. 

Even now, despite many of the Caribbean countries and territories being free from colonial control as a result of decolonization efforts, they are still largely dependent on other countries to power their economic engines. The islands are dependent on overseas capital, decisions, and technologies, though some countries like Jamaica have made progress in breaking free of these ties.  

Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. European influence on this island is apparent in the architecture of its cities. Image credit: GiuseppeCrimeni/Shutterstock

Difference Between Countries and Territories

In terms of practical operation, there is not much difference between a country and a territory despite their differing names. Both terms refer to an area of land or a specific region, often ruled over by a governing power and defined by political boundaries rather than physical ones. The difference is so slight that basically every guide to the Caribbean area uses the terms almost interchangeably. Basically, the main difference is that where countries are considered sovereign areas that have full ruling power over themselves, the territories are considered dependent to the countries that "own" them, similar to how colonies operated in the past. In reality, most dependent territories, while not having full political independence, are largely autonomous and self-governed. 

Prominent Caribbean Countries/Territories

Cuba is one of the biggest Caribbean countries with a 2020 population of over 11 million people. It is the largest island in the West Indies group of islands and is broken up with mountainous areas and flat rolling plains. The communist state uses pesos for currency and is currently run by president Miguel Díaz-Canel. 

The Dominican Republic is also another notable Caribbean nation, this one with a population of just over 10 million people. This tourist hotspot is largely inhabited by a mix of descendants of European and African peoples. Western influence can be easily spotted in its colonial buildings as well as in art and literature, whereas African heritage is reflected in the music.

Haiti is yet another prominent Caribbean country, with an overflowing population of 11 million-plus people. This country, whose population is almost entirely descended from slaves, was the second country in the Americas to free itself from colonial rule.  

Citadelle Milot, Haiti. This fortress is a relic of colonial rule in the country populated by descendants of slaves brought from Africa by European colonists. Image credit: Rotorhead 30A Productions/Shutterstock

Puerto Rico is smaller than the other islands mentioned here, at a bit under 3 million residents. It's also a territory of the United States, not an independent country. Its colonial status and the ways in which it has been economically manipulated by the US has led to a current-day debt crisis and austerity measures. Naural disasters have exacerbated these existing struggles for the territory.

The last of the notable Caribbean zones is Jamaica which has a population slightly higher than Puerto Rico's. Located just 90 miles south of Cuba, the island is a tad bit smaller than Connecticut and is a member of the Commonwealth, with Queen Elizabeth II as its official head of state. Otherwise, its government structure bears some similarities to Canada and the US, with a prime minister and a governor-general, as well as a House of Representatives and a Senate.

The Caribbean countries are manifold and diverse in their ethnic makeup, histories, cultures, and political systems. Though they all have the shared scar of European colonialism they have continued to survive and thrive in modern society and likely will continue to do so, proudly. 

Caribbean Countries And Territories

RankCountry/TerritoryPopulation in 2020
1Anguilla (UK)15,025
2Antigua and Barbuda98,065
3Aruba (the Netherlands)106,843
7British Virgin Islands (UK)30,265
8Cayman Islands (UK)65,850
10Curaçao (the Netherlands)164,207
12Dominican Republic10,866,073
14Guadeloupe (France)400,136
17Martinique (France)375,215
18Montserrat (UK)4,993
19Puerto Rico (US)2,847,263
21Saint Barthélemy (France)9,882
22Saint Kitts and Nevis53,262
23Saint Lucia183,769
24Saint Martin (France)38,774
25Saint Vincent and the Grenadines110,210
26Sint Eustatius3,138
27Sint Maarten (the Netherlands)42,957
28Trinidad and Tobago1,400,259
29Turks and Caicos Islands (UK)38,804
30United States Virgin Islands (US)104,398

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