The Greater Antilles is a group of islands located in the Caribbean Sea. The countries that make up this island group are Cuba, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Jamaica. These are high islands which extend eastward from the Yucatan Peninsula, and divide the Caribbean from the Gulf of Mexico. Geologists believe that the Greater Antilles are summits of a mountain chain which has been raised and submerged at different times in the past. The similarity of rock formations shows that they are connected with mountains in Mexico and Central America.
The Greater Antilles (West Indies) lie in tropical waters but because of the mountain areas and the brisk trade winds the climate is tempered.
In 1492 Columbus sailed from San Salvador (Watling Island) and discovered the islands of Cuba and Hispaniola. On his second voyage he founded the first permanent European settlement in the New World on the island of Hispaniola. On later voyages he discovered still other islands of the West Indies and claimed them for Spain. Columbus thought he had reached the East Indies, and when this was found to be incorrect, the entire Caribbean group of islands became known as the West Indies.
For more than a century the Spanish controlled the West Indies area. Gradually the English, Dutch, French and later the Danes and, for a time, the Swedes, gained control over some areas. The Spanish continued to control the important islands of the West Indies, but the English took over Jamaica in 1670. In the 17th and early 18th centuries pirates and buccaneers, often in the employ of the French and English governments, swarmed the Caribbean attacking Spanish harbors and ships. During the 18th century European powers squabbled over trading rights and ownership of the islands. In 1804 after a series of slave uprisings Santo Dominque became the independent state of Haiti. The Dominican Republic became independent in 1844. As a result of the Spanish-American War in 1898, Cuba became independent and Puerto Rico was annexed to the United States.
The West Indies are located in the Northern Hemisphere within the Tropic of Cancer. It is part of the Western Hemisphere. The coordinates range approximately 60° W longitude (Puerto Rico) to 85° W for the western tip of Cuba. The latitude position runs from about 23° N to 17° N. The fact that the Greater Antilles is located within the Tropic of Cancer suggests that the climate is subtropical to tropical. Although the West Indies are in tropical waters, their mountain areas and brisk trade winds temper the climate. Tropical plants do well on the lower levels and plants needing cooler temperatures thrive on higher elevations.