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Basic Geography

The Caribbean or the West Indies is a group of islands in the Caribbean Sea. These islands curve southward from the bottom tip of Florida to the Northwest of Venezuela in South America. There are at least 7000 islands, islets, reefs and cayes in the region. They are organized into twenty-five territories including sovereign states, overseas departments and dependencies.

The name "West Indies" originates from Christopher Columbus' idea that he had landed in the Indies (then meaning all of south and east Asia) when he had in fact reached the Americas. The Caribbean consists of the Greater and Lesser Antilles and is part of North America.

The Antilles now generally refers to the islands of the Caribbean or West Indies, except the Bahamas. A distinction is made between the "Greater Antilles" on the north of the sea, including Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola (Haiti and Dominican Republic), and Puerto Rico; and the "Lesser Antilles" on the east, forming the Leeward Islands, the Windward Islands, and the Venezuelan Islands—the Leeward as far as Dominica, the Windward as far as Trinidad, and the Venezuelan along the coast of South America. Because of their linguistic similarities with Spanish-speaking nations, Cuba, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico are also considered part of Latin America. Geographically speaking the Antilles are part of North America.

Like the name "Brazil", the word "Antilles" dates from a period anterior to the discovery of the New World, "Antilia" being one of those mysterious lands which figured on the medieval charts sometimes as an archipelago, sometimes as continuous land of greater or lesser extent, constantly fluctuating in mid-ocean between the Canaries and East India. But it came at last to be identified with the lands discovered by Columbus.

Later, when Columbus's Indian territories emerged as a vast archipelago enclosing the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, "Antilia" assumed its present plural form, Antilles, which collectively applied to the whole of this archipelago.

The concept survives in the name of the Netherlands Antilles.


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