The West Indies is a region of the Caribbean Basin and North Atlantic Ocean that includes the islands of the Antilles and the Lucayan Archipelago. After the first of the voyages of Christopher Columbus to the Americas, Europeans began to use the misnomer West Indies to differentiate that region from the Indies (South Asia and Southeast Asia).
From the 17th through the 19th century, the European colonial territories of the West Indies were the British West Indies, the Danish West Indies, the Netherlands Antilles (Dutch West Indies), the French West Indies, and the Spanish West Indies. By extension, some formerly Danish and Spanish islands are now collectively known as the American West Indies, however this appellation is of recent origin.
In 1916, Denmark sold the Danish West Indies to the United States for US $25 million in gold, as per the Treaty of the Danish West Indies. The Danish West Indies became an insular area of the US, called the United States Virgin Islands.
Between 1958 and 1962, the United Kingdom reorganised all their West Indies island territories (except the British Virgin Islands, the Bahamas, British Honduras, and British Guiana) into the West Indies Federation. They hoped that the Federation would coalesce into a single, independent nation. However, the Federation had limited powers, numerous practical problems, and a lack of popular support; consequently, it was dissolved by the British in 1963, with nine provinces becoming independent sovereign states and four becoming British Overseas Territories.
West Indies / West India was the namesake of several chartered companies of the 17th and 18th centuries, including the Danish West India Company, the Dutch West India Company, the French West India Company, and the Swedish West India Company.
Use of the term
Tulane University professor Rosanne Adderly says “[T]he phrase ‘West Indies’ distinguished the territories encountered by Columbus and claimed by Spain from discovery claims by other European powers in [Asia’s] ‘East Indies’. … The term ‘West Indies’ was eventually used by all European nations to describe their own acquired territories in the Americas. … considering British Caribbean colonies collectively as the ‘West Indies’ had its greatest political importance in the 1950s with the movement to create a federation of those colonies that could ultimately become an independent nation. … Despite the collapse of the Federation [in the early 1960s] … the West Indies continues to field a joint cricket team for international competition.”