Of volcanic origin, the islands are generally rugged, mountainous, and well forested, and they have many streams and lakes. With an equable climate, ample rainfall, and rich soil, they produce a variety of tropical agricultural crops for export, including bananas, spices, limes, and cacao. The islands are subject to hurricanes. Although small-scale manufacturing has gained importance, the most substantial change has been the growth of the tourist trade, which constitutes the region's economic mainstay. The deep and sheltered harbors encourage considerable interisland commerce. Fort-de-France , on Martinique, and Castries , on Saint Lucia, are the islands' chief cities. The islands are largely inhabited by descendants of Africans, who were brought as slaves during the colonial period. The culture varies from island to island, but the French influence is particularly strong.
For some time after Columbus's exploration of the islands, they were largely ignored by Europeans and left to the indigenous Caribs. In the early 17th cent., colonization was undertaken by the British and the French settlements and sovereignty overlapped. The long struggle for dominance in the islands was a significant part of the worldwide Anglo-French conflict. Several naval battles were fought there in 1782, off Saint Lucia, the French Admiral de Grasse was defeated by Admiral Rodney. In the Napoleonic Wars the islands traded hands, and it was only after the close of the conflict that Britain established its dominance over them.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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