Before European settlement on the islands of the West Indies, they were inhabited by three different peoples: the Arawaks, the Caribs, and the Ciboney. These indigenous tribes were effectively wiped out by European colonists. Christopher Columbus was the first European to visit several of the islands (in 1492). In 1496 the first permanent European settlement was made by the Spanish on Hispaniola. By the middle 1600s the English, French, and Dutch had established settlements in the area, and in the following century there was constant warfare among the European colonial powers for control of the islands. Some islands flourished as trade centers and became targets for pirates. Large numbers of Africans were imported to provide slave labor for the sugarcane plantations that developed there in the 1600s.
Until the early 20th cent., the islands remained pawns of the imperialistic powers of Europe, mainly Spain, Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands. The United States entered the scene in the late 19th cent. and is the region's dominate economic influence. Spain lost its last possession in the West Indies after the Spanish-American War (1898), and most of the former British possessions gained independence in the 1960s and 70s (see West Indies Federation).