Leeward Islands (lōˈərd, lyōˈ–, lēˈ–) [key], northern group of the Lesser Antilles in the West Indies, extending SE from Puerto Rico to the Windward Islands. The principal islands are the American Virgin Islands; the French island and overseas dept. of Guadeloupe and its dependencies; the Dutch islands of St. Eustatius and Saba; the Dutch and French St. Martin; the islands of the independent states of St. Kitts and Nevis and Antigua and Barbuda; and the islands of the British dependent territories of Anguilla, Montserrat, and the British Virgin Islands. Largely volcanic in origin, the Leewards have lush, subtropical vegetation, rich soil, and abundant rainfall. The warm, delightful climate is tempered by the surrounding water so that there is little variation in temperature. Most of the islands are popular tourist destinations. Products are mostly agricultural—fruits, vegetables, sugar, cotton, coffee, and tobacco.
Columbus first sighted the Leeward Islands in 1493, but settlement began only after the British arrived in the 17th cent. Sir Thomas Warner, sent to St. Kitts in 1623, was made governor-general of the yet uncolonized neighboring islands (Nevis, Antigua, Montserrat, and Barbuda), and in the same year the Frenchman Pierre Bélain d'Esnambuc also established a colony on St. Kitts. By 1632, when the English had settled the neighboring islands, the sharp, three-way colonial conflict of England, France, and Spain had begun. The Spanish were forced from the struggle, but for nearly two centuries the islands were pawns in the Anglo-French worldwide wars. They changed hands with each fresh attack by British or French forces and were reshuffled in ownership whenever a new treaty was signed. Their final disposition did not come until the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.