Antilles: an extensive archipelago of Caribbean islands, making up most of the West Indies

Virgin Islands from Tortola
Some Antilles: the Virgin Islands from Tortola (Click to enlarge)
© The Boon Companion, 2016

Still on a Caribbean kick, you’ll see. I confess I’m embarrassed that I’d spent a week in the Antilles before I thought:
1) Where does that word come from?
2) Does it have a singular?

Its origins are to some extent mysterious. The Antilles first appear on the Cantino planisphere (a Portuguese world map dating to 1502) as Las Antilhas del Rey de Castella, “The Antilles of the King of Spain”. That -ilhas suffix suggests that the Portuguese cartographers were thinking of this archipelago as the “[something] islands” and the obvious candidate for the origin of the first half of the word is anti-, “opposite”—the Antilles are the “opposite islands”, across the Atlantic from all the islands already known.

Detail from the Cantino planisphere
The Antilles
(Detail from the Cantino planisphere)

Case closed? Not quite. Because prior to the appearance of the Antilhas in their current location, cartographers had been plotting a large island in the middle of the Atlantic, named Antillia or Antilia. It was about 90 kilometres wide by 390 kilometres long, contained seven named cities, was surrounded by lesser islands … and was entirely mythical. No such place. The seven cities plotted on the island seem to be a reference to the legendary Island of the Seven Cities, supposedly discovered and settled by a party of Visigothic refugees fleeing the Moslem invasion of Iberia in the eighth century.

Antillia on a 1424 nautical chart
The curiously rectangular island of Antillia
(Detail from a 1424 nautical chart)

Antillia was of particular interest to Christopher Columbus, since it represented a potential stepping-stone in the mid-Atlantic for his voyage of discovery. He sought detailed knowledge of its location from the Florentine cosmographer Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, who wrote to tell him that he could expect to sail 1,000 miles from the Canary Islands to Antillia, and then 2,500 miles from Antillia to Cipangu (Japan).

Cover of No Longer On The MapThere have been suggestions that the appearance of Antillia on maps dating from more than a century before Columbus’s voyages suggests that someone had made landfall in the New World and brought back a story to tell the map-makers. It certainly seems likely that after Columbus’s voyages, the name of Antillia was transferred to the Antilles. So do we know the origin of Antillia?

Not really. While Antilha, “opposite island”, seems plausible (you can even imagine Antillia arising from Antilha by a copying error), there seem to be no maps in existence that actually spell Antillia that way. Indeed, the earliest maps use Atulae, Atilae or Attiaela. But there doesn’t seem to be any convincing alternative etymology. People have tried to make connections with Plato’s Atlantis, with the Roman Empire’s Getulia (in the Atlas mountains), with the island the Greeks called Thule (usually identified with Iceland), and with the Arabic al-Tin (“the dragon”, for the sea-dragons commonly shown at the edges of nautical maps of the time). But it all seems a bit of a stretch.

Cover of Phantom Islands Of The AtlanticSo the best we can say is that Antilles seems to derive from mythical Antillia, of uncertain etymology—and by the time the name was applied to the Caribbean islands, Portuguese cartographers were spelling it as if it had something to do with “opposite islands”.

For much more on Antillia, and other mythical islands, see Raymond H. Ramsay’s No Longer on the Map, and Donald S. Johnson’s Phantom Islands of the Atlantic.

Is there a singular? An “Antille” or “Antilla” or “Antil”? Sadly, no. Like trousers and scissors and West Indies and Balkans, Antilles is a plurale tantum—a noun that exists only in the plural. (The Latin grammatical tag looks very grand, but it just means “plural only”. It reminds me of Rob Buckman‘s story of the patient who consulted a dermatologist, who told him he was suffering from erythema annulare centrifugum. “So what does that mean?” asked the patient. The dermatologist explained that it meant he had a rash made up of expanding rings of red inflammation. “Well, I could have told you that,” said the patient.)

So to create a singular, we need to use some sort of circumlocution: something like, “an island in the Antilles,” or, “one of the Antilles.”

And there are a lot of Antilles, including several subcategories of Antilles.

Geographically, there are the Greater Antilles (the large islands of Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica and Puerto Rico, with the nearby Cayman Islands tucked in for completeness) and the Lesser Antilles (the island arc that sweeps southwards from the Virgin Islands to Trinidad, and then westwards along the north coast of Venezuela).

So far so good. But the Lesser Antilles are subdivided into the Windward Islands, the Leeward Islands, and the Leeward Antilles. That’s not remotely confusing, is it? The Windwards were the first islands a ship sailing with the prevailing, easterly trade-winds would encounter on arrival in the Caribbean—so the most easterly bulge of the island chain. Going northwards, the chain turns progressively more towards the west as it bends towards the Virgin Islands—west, downwind, leeward. So those are the Leeward Islands. The current conventional demarcation between Leeward Islands and Windward Islands is the Dominica Passage between Guadeloupe and Dominica, though the line has varied historically. After all, it’s difficult to draw a line through a north-south island chain that logically divides into leeward and windward portions relative to an east wind.

Lesser Antilles
Click to enlarge
(Original source)

The Windwards extend south to Trinidad, but don’t include that island. Ironically, they don’t include Barbados, either, which is the most windward of all the Antilles, and which was once part of a now-defunct political entity, the British Windward Islands.

(It’s usually round about now my tension headache starts to develop.)

OK. So the Leeward Antilles are, at least, incontrovertibly leeward of the rest of the Lesser Antilles. They are the chain of small islands stretching along the Venezuelan coast west of Trinidad. Most belong to Venezuela, but at the western end sit the so-called ABC Islands: Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao, which are part of the Netherlands (another geographical plurale tantum, by the way).

So much for physical geography. But there’s a set of political Antilles, too.

The Spanish Antilles need not detain us long—as my little detail from the Cantino planisphere above suggests, that was a general label for the Spanish settlements in the Antilles in the days when the Caribbean was a Spanish lake. (For reasons known only to themselves, philatelists seem to use the term to designate stamps issued by Spanish colonies in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic [so far, so good] and the Philippines. If I dwell on that for too long I will go insane.)

Next up, the Antilles Françaises, the French Antilles, which in English are often called the French West Indies. These are the French islands within the Lesser Antilles—Guadeloupe and Martinique (two overseas departments of France); Saint-Martin and Saint-Barthélemy (two territorial collectivities of France). I was walking through Terre-de-Haut (an island that’s administratively part of Guadeloupe) a couple of weeks ago, and remarking on how well-kept the roads and pavements were, compared to some other Caribbean islands. The Boon Companion pointed out that, since Guadeloupe was legally part of France, some small part of our taxes was contributing, via the European Union, to the level surface on which we were walking. This seemed both cheering and dispiriting in equal measure.

And then there were the Netherlands Antilles. These consisted of the ABC islands in the Leeward Antilles, mentioned earlier (Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao), together with three possessions in the Windward Islands (Sint Maarten, Saba, Sint Eustatius) collectively called the SSS islands. Just to complicate matters Sint Maarten is merely the southern half of an island, the northern half of which is French Saint-Martin. (There are no border formalities.)

French Antilles and Netherlands Antilles
French Antilles (red), former Netherlands Antilles (blue)
Click to enlarge
(Original source)

The Netherlands Antilles were a constituent country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, but they disbanded in 2010, and there’s no such place any more. Instead, the Kingdom of the Netherlands now contains four constitutionally equal countries: the Netherlands, Aruba, Curaçao and Sint Maarten. The remaining islands (Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba) are administered from the Netherlands as municipalities, and are referred to as either the Caribbean Netherlands or the BES islands. (No, I don’t know why Sint Eustatius went from being an “S” in “SSS” to an “E” in “BES”. You’ll have gathered by now that the naming conventions in the Antilles just haven’t been thought through clearly, in my opinion.)

Got all that? Good. But you’re still dying to know the difference between the West Indies and the Antilles, aren’t you? I thought so.

The West Indies is made up of the Antilles and the Lucayan Archipelago. The Lucayan Archipelago is the big chain of islands stretching from Cuba to Florida—mainly the Bahamas, but also including the British territory of the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Greater Antilles & Lucayan Archipelago
Click to enlarge
(Original source)

It’s called the Lucayan Archipelago in memory of the Lucayan people, who were its inhabitants when Columbus first came ashore in 1492. They called themselves Lukku-Cairi, “people of the islands”, and Lucayan is an English distortion of that name. By 1513, every single one of them had vanished into slavery, and their islands were deserted.

Here’s an Euler diagram of the whole Antilles mess:

Euler diagram of the Antilles
Click to enlarge

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