The word ‘Caribbean’ is said to be derived from the indigenous people’s name for themselves, ‘Carib’. The term ‘West Indies’ which is often used interchangeably with Caribbean is the name given to the region by Christopher Columbus in 1492.
As with the inexact name of the region so to is there little agreement on what area is included within the Caribbean. Different criteria are used to define the region.
THE GEOGRAPHICAL CARIBBEAN
This term describes the area washed by the Caribbean Sea
For political purposes the concept of CARICOM is used to define the Caribbean. But this definition was limited to the eleven island states and territories and two mainland countries until Suriname and Haiti were added to the grouping in 1995 and 2000 respectively
A more recent definition is based on the Association of Caribbean States (ACS) formed in 1994. This definition incorporates all the countries in Central America including Mexico and Panama, all the countries in South America and all the islands in and around the Caribbean Sea as well as Bahamas and Barbados.
Girvan (cited in Benn and Hall, 2000), posits four notions of the Caribbean:
The Caribbean as the island chain lying in the Caribbean Sea.
The Caribbean as Basin comprising the countries in and around the Caribbean Sea.
The Caribbean as an ethno-historic zone comprising the islands and adjacent coastal communities in South and Central America which share a similar history, culture and ethnicity.
Most recent, the Caribbean as a transnational community that embraces the Caribbean diaspora overseas.
Problems in Defining the Caribbean
Geographical: This definition includes countries not normally associated with the Caribbean – Panama, Colombia and other countries of Central America.
On the other hand , Guyana, Barbados and the Bahamas do not have coastlines on the Caribbean Sea. Yet these countries are commonly accepted as part of the Caribbean.
Historical : This definition would include Guyana and the Bahamas. It should also include the French, Dutch and Spanish speaking countries of the Caribbean and Central America.
The problem with defining the Caribbean according to linguistic or European heritage is the tendency to ignore the similar experiences of each island by the colonial power.
Geological: The northern edge of the Caribbean Plate defines much of Belize, Cuba, the Bahamas and Guyana as extra-regional.
However, the western edge of the Caribbean Plate is located in the Pacific and includes Honduras, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama in the Caribbean.