There is a famous passage in Jane Austen’s Persuasion in which Admiral Croft’s wife makes an important geographical point about the Caribbean area: ‘We do not call Bermuda or Bahama, you know, the West Indies.’ At this, ‘Mrs Musgrove had not a word to say in dissent; she could not accuse herself of having ever called them anything in the whole course of her life.’ Austen’s joke on the ignorance of the English about the Caribbean holds good today, though some have a confused notion of tropical islands derived from cruises. Americans used to know rather better, for Cuba was a holiday resort for millions of Americans of quite modest incomes. Since Castro took it over in 1959 they have shunned it, and now the Caribbean is just a blur for them too.
This is a pity, for it is a fascinating part of the world with a rich history and a surprisingly varied racial and cultural composition. At times it has been of great geopolitical importance, notably at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when its sugar wealth