On A Coconut Island…

On a Coconut Island
Original Recordings 1936 – 1938
Louis Armstrong

I know it’s kind of a cliché  to say that in the Caribbean one can always find coconuts. I’ve been to Trinidad and Tobago, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and The Bahamas and I just can’t conjure up an image of all those tropical paradises without including the coconut trees! But this time, I invite you to look a little bit further into all these coconut islands in the Caribbean.

Keep in mind that a number of countries in the Caribbean region have yet to gain independent status. They still maintain constitutional relationships, albeit under different systems, with their original metropolitan powers. These so-called dependent Caribbean microstates – in total 12 territories – are among the most subsidized territories on the globe; together they have a population of slightly more than 5 million. Puerto Rico alone accounts for almost 4 million people.

This article excludes Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

 Antigua & Barbuda was a British dependency until 1984. English is the official language and it’s spoken by 95% of the population and it coexists with other local dialects.

 The Bahamas gained independence from Britain in 1973. English is the native language of 228,000 inhabitants (90% of the population); Creole is also spoken.

 Barbados is the most easterly island of the Caribbean. It was a colony of Britain from 1627 till 1966, so it has been English speaking almost twice as long as Trinidad for example.

 Commonwealth of Dominica (not Dominican Republic!) is an English speaking island in the Eastern Caribbean situated between the French departments of Guadeloupe to the north and Martinique to the south. The island has been tied in a knot of confused identity: The Dominican Republic is in the Greater Antilles, the Commonwealth of Dominica is in the Lesser Antilles. When the British Colony of Dominica prepared for Independence in 1978, it considered the problem of nomenclature. Some suggested that the island should revert to its original Carib Indian name. But that was Wai’tukubuli and the majority considered it was too much of a mouthful. Dominica was to become a Republic, but the word “republic” had to be avoided at all costs. So the government settled on the wording Commonwealth of Dominica which, as someone soon pointed out, has more letters in it than Wai’tukubuli! There is one Spanish sentence that every Dominican knows, and that is Mal encaminado a Santo Domingo: Missent to the Dominican Republic. It appears stamped in purple ink across many of the letters the island receives from abroad. It is an inconvenience they have to live with.  Nevertheless, the confusion remains and every citizen of Dominica is resigned to the fact that whenever he goes abroad, or writes in the international press, he has to give a lesson in Caribbean geography. The simplest version goes: ‘The Dominican Republic is the biggest one next to Haiti, we are the smaller ones south.’ (Cf. The Dominica Story: A History of the Island (1975), written by famed Dominican historian Lennox Honychurch).

 Grenada gained independence from Britain in 1974, and besides English as a native and official language of 101,000 inhabitants, French Creole is spoken.

 Jamaica is the largest of the English speaking country of the West Indian islands. For much of the last 150 years the Cayman islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands shared a constitutional link with Jamaica, as its dependencies. The link was broken when Jamaica gained its independence from Britain in 1962, while the two dependencies preferred to maintain a strong relationship with the crown.

 Saint Kitts (Christopher) and Nevis gained independence from Britain in 1983. English is the native language of 44,100 people.

 Saint Lucia was a Crown Colony until 1983. English is native as well as French Creole (patois).

 Saint Vincent and the Grenadines was administered as a British colony within the Windward Islands group from 1833 until 1960, when it became a separate administrative unit linked with the Federation of the West Indies. The federation fell apart in 1962, and after lengthy discussion, St. Vincent became a self-governing state in association with the United Kingdom seven years later. On 27 October 1979, St. Vincent and the Grenadines achieved full independence as a member of the Commonwealth.

 Trinidad and Tobago gained independence from Britain in 1962. Besides English as a native language, Hindi, French and Spanish are spoken. Calypso is considered to be the national folk song of Trinidad and Tobago and the music of the Caribbean after the emancipation of the slaves. Radinito recently wrote an article about the Trinidadian singer Calypso Rose – a living legend and the ambassador of Caribbean music: Mamá Caribe.

 The UK Caribbean Overseas Territories – COTs  (formerly known as Dependent Territories). The collapse of the Federation of the West Indies precipitated a period of decolonization in the English-speaking Caribbean, which began with Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago in 1962. By the end of 1983, British colonial responsibilities in the Caribbean extended to only five territories (Anguilla, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Montserrat, and Turks and Caicos Islands). Bermuda located in the West Atlantic stayed also under UK control.

“[A] big change to the relationship between Britain and its Overseas Territories came with the announcement that British citizenship, and so the right of abode, would be offered to citizens of the Overseas Territories [hitherto only the Falkland Islanders and Gibraltarians had enjoyed such status]. British citizenship rights for Territory residents were gradually restricted under a series of Immigration Acts in the 1960s and early 1970s. The final change came with the British Nationality Act 1981, which created a British Dependent Territories citizenship, a status separate from those with British citizenship. Only the latter group had the right of abode in the UK. However, with the transfer of Hong Kong’s sovereignty to China on 30 June 1997, the population of Britain’s Dependencies amounted to only 186,000 and therefore posed no conceivable threat to a country of well over [7] million people. In addition, not all of the resident population of the Dependent Territories were citizens, and these were not included in the change. For example, only 19,000 of the Cayman Islands’ resident population of 33,600 were Caymanian. Further, approximately 70 percent of the total population of the Territories had a higher income per head than Britain, and as was suggested, “residents [of the Territories] might well be more likely to want to stay where they are”. (…) The resulting White Paper acknowledged the UK’s responsibilities and promised to offer citizenship to those residents of the Territories to whom no other national citizenship was available”.  (Extract from Peter Clegg’s article: “The UK Caribbean Overseas Territories. Extended Statehood and the Process of Policy Convergence”, 2005). Therefore, all these territory residents now qualify for British citizenship under the British Overseas Territories Act of 2002.

 Anguilla is a dependent territory of the UK, therefore English is not only the official, but the native language as well.

 The Islands of Bermuda (over 64.000 inhabitants), also one of the British Overseas Territories, is not part of the Caribbean region. Its nearest landmass is Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. English is the spoken language. In Bermuda the first talk of independence came in the mid-1960s. In the 1968 general election, the Progressive Labour Party (PLP), strongly supported by black Bermudans, called for independence. However, the election was lost to the United Bermuda Party (UBP) which enjoys the support of most white Bermudans.

 British Virgin Islands is a dependent territory of the UK, therefore English is native here (spoken by 11,000 people).

 Cayman Islands is a dependent territory of the UK, English is native language here (26,000 people). After its separation from Jamaica in 1962, the Cayman Islands gained its own constitution and then followed a period of economic growth, with few constitutional problems, and little constitutional change. When it gained its separate Dependent-Territory status, the UK provided this territory with a constitution (just as it was the Case with Anguilla, and the Turks & Caicos).

 Montserrat is one of the islands that were colonized the earliest by the British, in the 1st half of the 17th century. It is still the dependent territory of the UK. English is said to be spoken with an Irish accent, by 12,000 people. In 1989 a serious banking scandal was uncovered which implicated most of the islands’ banks in money laundering. In response, the UK government re-wrote Montserrat’s constitution to ensure the Governor would in future have supervisory power over the island’s international financial affairs.

 Turks and Caicos Islands: dependent territory of the UK, English is a native tongue here.

The Dutch Caribbean Islands. In principle, the Netherlands Antilles consisted of two island groups, both in the Lesser Antilles. The ABC islands of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao are in the Leeward Antilles – just off the Venezuelan coast, and the SSS islands of Sint Maarten, Saba, and Sint Eustatius are in the Windward Islands southeast of the Virgin Islands. The Netherlands Antilles was a self-governing territory till it was disbanded on October 10th, 2010. The idea of the Netherlands Antilles as a state never enjoyed the full support of all of the islands, and political relations between islands were often strained. Currently, all these have attained a free association arrangement within the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Het Statuutthe Constitution of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, was formalized in 1954 and defines the Kingdom as a federal state of four autonomous countries: the Netherlands in Europe and three countries in the Caribbean: Curaçao, Sint Maarten and Aruba; the other islands Bonaire, Saba, and Sint Eustatius  became after 2010 special municipalities within the Netherlands. Needless to say that all citizens of these territories hold Dutch nationality (Nederlanders). Dutch is the formal language to be used for instruction, in court and police summons. However, on the streets of Curaçao, Bonaire and Aruba Papiamento is the predominant language; English is widely spoken in Sint Maarteen, Saba and Sint Eustatius.

Aruba‘s status aparte caused some constitutional amendments when it seceded in 1986 from the Netherlands Antilles; this secession was initially granted on the condition of becoming and independent country after a period of 10 years. As soon as Aruba had seceded, it began to renegotiate the independence clause as the island had never intended to become independent. Without much ado the Netherlands gave in.

Curaçao was by far the largest island of the Netherlands Antilles (NA) with 130,000 inhabitants in 2004. The other islands perceived the national government of the Netherlands Antilles to be dominated by Curaçao (it held 14 seas out of a total of 22 in the Staten).

Sint Maarten, like Aruba, wished to separate itself from the Netherlands Antilles and formally asked for it in 2003. The island shares its borders with the French territory of Saint-Martin, the only border shared by these two countries anywhere on Earth.

Sint Eustatius Sint Eustatius measures 6 miles (10 km) long and up to 3 miles (5 km) wide and, with Saba, forms the northwestern termination of the inner volcanic arc of the Lesser Antilles.

Saba is the smallest special municipality (openbaar lichaam) of the Netherlands. The tiny island is just 5 square miles with a population of some 1,800 residents. Dutch is the official language; however, English is the principle language and spoken by the locals for around than 150 years. In January 2011 the US dollar became the official currency replacing the Netherlands Antillian Guilder. Saba voted to become directly administered directly by the Netherlands.

Bonaire Bonaire has a population of 16,000. The majority of the population is Antillean, but a number of Venezuelans, Dutch, Colombians, Peruvians, Dominicans, Chinese, and Americans live on the island. Among the Dutch are those who live on the island on work contracts (usually for a duration of one or two years). Dutch is the official language on Bonaire. English and Spanish are widely spoken. Papiamento, made up of all the European settler languages as well as African and Indian, is spoken by the local islanders.

 US Insular Areas (also called US Overseas Territories, US Overseas Possessions, US Unincorporated territories).

 Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico (or Commonwealth of Puerto Rico). English and Spanish are official, but English is not native. Today the island is neither a state of the USA nor a sovereign republic. The USA took control of Puerto Rico following the Spanish-Cuban-American War of 1898. The current status of Puerto Rico, originally conceived as a self-governing model of free association, was established in 1952, under Law 600 which stipulates the responsibilities and powers for both the insular territory and the US. As a result Puerto Rico was removed from the U.N. List of NSGT’s in 1953 via the General Assembly Resolution 748. Puerto Ricans are US citizens by statute and can move freely to the USA.

As the Cold War came to an end the question of Puerto Rico’s status re-emerged as a key issue and it drives and sustains the whole political and financial scaffolding of the three main parties. The categories of liberal and conservative do not apply here as a natural divide; instead the three camps are drawn along strict ideological lines—Independence, Statehood or Commonwealth for Puerto Rico. Historically, the electorate has shied away from independence for several reasons including the substantial trade benefits and monetary transfers accrued from Puerto Rico’s relationship with the USA, and the reluctance to relinquish their US citizenship as there is significant circular migration between Puerto Rico and the US.

After 1960, Puerto Rico became an attractive destination for Caribbean immigrants, especially Cubans and Dominicans. Smaller numbers of people have come from Spain, Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina, China, and other countries. Violations of human rights in Puerto Rico focus on undocumented immigrants from the Dominican Republic. US immigration authorities have been accused of mistreatment and abuse of persons attempting to enter the US territory illegally. Saúl Pérez, president of the Dominican Committee for Human Rights, has denounced several instances of police brutality and harassment of Dominican citizens in Puerto Rico. Many Dominican workers also experience labor discrimination on account of their national origin.  In the wake of federal legislation restricting health, educational, and housing benefits to legal residents of the United States, the Commonwealth government may deny such basic services to undocumented Dominicans.

US Virgin Islands: At present the islands are an organized non-incorporated territory, governed by a US Congressional Organic Act, and overseen by the US Office for Insular Affairs. In contrast to Puerto Rico, political status is not an issue in the US Virgin Islands. The lack of a strong distinct national identity, the dominance of the English language, its small size, the limited population (112,000 compared with four million for Puerto Rico) and its narrow productive base (mainly tourism) make it very difficult for the islands to move to either statehood or full independence. Indeed, when a referendum was held in 1993 on the status issue, a large majority (80 per cent) voted for continued or enhanced territorial status with the US. Only five per cent voted for independence.  The US Virgin Islands has less political and economic autonomy than Puerto Rico.

Départements d’outre mer de France & Collectivité d’Outre-Mer française. Unlike the British, Dutch and US territories, the French Overseas Departments in the Caribbean are fully part of France, and therefore ‘integrated jurisdictions’. Saint-Martin and Saint-Barthélemy, unlike Guadeloupe and Martinique, bear a different legal status.

Guadeloupe and Martinique. The law of assimilation of 19 March 1946 under Article 73 of the French Constitution granted Guadeloupe and Martinique (along with French Guiana and Réunion) the administrative status of Département so that all territorial institutions operate like their metropolitan equivalents in France. With this system, and as far as Paris was concerned, the question of their constitutional status was closed. As part of France, they are part of the European Union and their currency is the Euro (€). The official language in both islands is French, although many of their inhabitants also speak Antillean Creole (créole).

Overseas Collectivity of Saint-Martin, shares its borders with the Dutch territory of Sint Maarten, the only border shared by these two countries anywhere on Earth. Saint-Martin is not a département but a collectivité d’outre-mer française, but an overseas collectivity of France. In 2003, the populations of St. Martin and St. Barthélemy voted in favor of secession from Guadeloupe in order to become separate overseas collectivities of France. The new status took effect on 22 February 2007 when the law was published in the Journal Officiel. They remain part of the European Union, as stated in the Treaty of Lisbon.

Overseas Collectivity of Saint-Barthélemy is an overseas collectivity of France. Often abbreviated to Saint-Barth in French, or St. Barts or St. Barths in English, the indigenous people called the island Ouanalao.

Caribbean Islands

Caribbean Islands


Find out more:

De Jong and D. Kruijt (Eds) Extended Statehood in the Caribbean: Paradoxes of quasi colonialism, local autonomy and extended statehood in the USA, French, Dutch and British Caribbean, (Amsterdam, Rozenberg Publishers, 2005).

Foreign Affairs Committee (2004) ‘Overseas Territories: Written Evidence’, HC 114, House of Commons, March (London: The Stationary Office).

Clegg, P. (2012). Independence movements in the Caribbean: withering on the vine?. Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, 50(4), 422-438.
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