This map plots the settings and references in Wide Sargasso Sea

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The Caribbean

The Caribbean Sea is located in the North Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of central America. The term West Indies refers specifically to the islands of this sea, as does the term Antilles.

Columbus
Public DomainColumbus

The Caribbean got its name from the indigenous Carib people, the dominant tribe at the time of Columbus's discovery of America. After European settlement, Eurasian diseases and warfare soon wiped out most of the Carib population.

Christopher Columbus was the first European to discover the islands of the Caribbean, and he made four voyages to the area between 1492 and 1502. Columbus's professed intent, on his first voyage, was to sail to the Indies, then the term for South and South East Asia; no one in Europe knew of the existence of the American continents. When he hit land, he thought he had reached the Indies – hence the name West Indies. Spain claimed the entire Caribbean, but initially only settled the larger islands.

An 1897 medallion commemorating the centenary of the capture of Trinidad and Tobago by the British under Sir Ralph Abercromby in 1797
Public DomainAn 1897 medallion commemorating the centenary of the capture of Trinidad and Tobago by the British under Sir Ralph Abercromby in 1797 - Credit: Roger Griffith

As the Spanish empire weakened at the beginning of the seventeenth-century, other European nations soon claimed a slice of the West Indies. The British colonised St Kitts in 1623 and Barbados in 1627, then Nevis, Antigua, Montserrat, Anguilla and Tortola and Jamaica in 1655.

The French too started colonisation in St Kitts in 1625. It was split between the British and the French until, in 1713, it was ceded to the British. The French also claimed Guadeloupe, Dominica, Martinique and Haiti. Between 1763 and 1783 Dominica changed hands between the French and British three times, with eventual British victory. The last French attempt to reclaim Dominica was in 1805, only about thirty years before the time in which Wide Sargasso Sea is set.

The Dutch took Saba, Saint Martin, Saint Eustatius, Curaçao, Bonaire, Aruba, Tobago, St. Croix, Tortola, Anegada, Virgin Gorda, and Anguilla.

These colonial powers were often at war with each other, both in Europe and in the Caribbean. To view a video map of the political evolution of the Caribbean, click here.

This map shows how the colonies were divided at around the time of Wide Sargasso Sea:

 The Caribbean islands offered the perfect climate and landscape for sugar plantations. Sugar was a major staple food, used as a preservative as well as a sweetener, and the sugar trade boomed. By the eighteenth century, sugar was Britain's primary import, and the British Caribbean one of the Empire's most important colonies.

As all the sugar produced was for export, there was no need to stimulate local demand with wages. At first, the indigenous people were used as slaves, but their immune systems could not cope with European diseases and soon this workforce was decimated. The solution was to import slaves from African colonies: the Caribbean was a key focus of the Transatlantic slave trade. By the middle of the eighteenth century, British ships were transporting 50,000 slaves a year.

The British Caribbean emancipated its slaves in 1833; the French islands followed suit in 1848.

 

Auguste Francois Biard, The Slave Trade (1840)
Public DomainAuguste Francois Biard, The Slave Trade (1840)