Leeward Islands

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Leeward Islands is a confusing term, for several reasons, not least of which is its meaning. Its most common application, by far, is in the West Indies - among the islands of the Caribbean Sea.

  • 'Leeward' means 'downwind', 'in the direction to which the wind is blowing'. There is no dispute about that, nor about the fact that the wind in this case is the dominant Trade Wind in the area. But the early sailors and explorers who were naming (as well as colonizing) the islands in the Caribbean did not agree on the direction of the Trades. In English usage, the Trades were regarded as coming from the south east, so the Leeward Islands in the Lesser Antilles chain were those in the northern stretch, from the Virgin Islands to abour Montserrat. The islands from Guadaloupe south to Trinidad were consequently named the Windward Islands. The Dutch, French and Spanish regarded the Trades as being north-easterlies, so in their languages the terms 'Leeward' and 'Windward' Islands would have been reversed, had they not viewed the Caribbean Islands differently.
    • In Dutch, French and Spanish, the Caribbean islands of greater consequence were those on the southern edge of the Sea, bordering the Venezuelan coast. These are known as the Leeward Antilles, as opposed to all the islands in the eastern range of the Antilles, from the Virgin Islands to Trinidad, which in those languages are the equivalent of 'the Windward Islands'.
    • As the terms 'Leeward' and 'Windward' Islands are not reflections of political or physical realities, they have no formal recognition. Therefore different users of the terms include different listings of islands within them, and especially exactly where the line should be drawn between the Leeward and the Windward Islands. (in 1940, during the rule of the British Empire, Dominica was originally considered part of the Leeward Islands, but was transferred from the colony of the British Leeward Islands to the colony of the British Windward Islands.) Wikipedia lists the Leeward Islands as follows:
      • the Spanish Virgin Islands (Culebra, Vieques, Puerto Rico); the United States Virgin Islands (Saint Thomas, Saint John, Saint Croix, Water Island); British Virgin Islands (Jost Van Dyke, Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Anegada); Anguilla; Saint Martin. or Sint Maarten; Saint-Barthélemy; Saba; Sint Eustatius; Saint Kitts (forming a sovereign state with Nevis); Nevis; Barbuda (forming a sovereign state with Antigua); Montserrat; and Guadeloupe (a group containing La Désirade, or La Deseada, Basse-Terre, Grande-Terre, Marie-Galante, Îles des Saintes).
      • The World Encyclopedia says "Leeward includes the US and British Virgin Islands, Guadeloupe, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Montserrat, St Kitts-Nevis, and St Martin".
  • There are other groups of islands called Leeward Islands in other parts of the world, including the Society Islands in French Polynesia; Indonesia; Cape Verde; and Hawaii.