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Caribbean Islands Table of Contents

Caribbean Islands

Historical Background

Colonial Rivalry

Until the end of the nineteenth century, the United States had to compete at various times with Spanish, British, French, and Dutch power in the Caribbean. The region assumed strategic significance as early as the seventeenth century when Spain's rivals began colonization attempts. During this period, France and England took advantage of numerous opportunities in the Eastern Caribbean. Spain had established garrison outposts on many of the Caribbean islands in order to guard its trade route to Mexico and Panama. As Spain's military power declined beginning in the midseventeenth century, however, its Caribbean sea-lanes became more vulnerable. The Dutch seized Curaçao to use as a base for harassing Spain's shipping, and England captured Jamaica from Spain. In addition, the eighteenth-century power struggle in Europe was projected into the Caribbean, where the Netherlands was the first to be forced out. With the onset of the American Revolution, the Americans began building a navy to secure the "back door" of the new nation, thereby dashing French dreams of Caribbean domination.

The fierce colonial rivalry in the region required the permanent stationing of British naval and military forces on the commercially important Caribbean islands of Barbados, St. Lucia, and Jamaica, as well as Bermuda in the Atlantic. In 1798 the British established a volunteer defense force known as the West India Regiment. Although primarily responsible for defending and maintaining order in Britain's West Indian colonies, the Britishtrained and British-commanded regiment also fought for Britain in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and various campaigns in West Africa.

The Treaty of Vienna in 1815 ensured British command of the Caribbean for most of the nineteenth century. Britain never missed an opportunity to use its naval strength in the Caribbean until the signing in 1850 of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, in which Britain and the United States declared that they would not unilaterally seek to exercise dominion over any part of Central America, excluding British Honduras (present-day Belize).

Data as of November 1987