How the Caribbean Islands became Known as the West Indies


On August 3, 1492, Christopher Columbus and his crew set sail from Spain in three ships: the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. On October 12, the ships made landfall—not in Asia, as Columbus assumed, but on one of the Bahamian islands.

For months, Columbus sailed from island to island in what we now know as the Caribbean, looking for the “pearls, precious stones, gold, silver, spices, and other objects and merchandise whatsoever” that he had promised to his Spanish patrons, but he did not find much. Columbus called these islands the Indies because he thought he had finally reached Asia (and the East Indies). Spain, when Columbus’ mistake was discovered, renamed them the West Indies, to distinguish them from the Spice Islands in the Pacific Ocean, (the East Indies) which we now call Indonesia.

In March 1493, leaving 40 men behind in a makeshift settlement on Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), he returned to Spain.

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