Who are West Indians?

Who are West Indians?
Most West Indian people have a complex ancestry.
Source: Museum Victoria Caribbean Community Photographic Collection

The Caribbean Sea is bordered by North America, South America, Central America to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. It takes its name from the indigenous Caribs who inhabited this region.

The name West Indies was coined by Christopher Columbus in 1492, who mistakenly thought he’d reached India. The British used it to describe their colonies on the islands and coastlines of the Caribbean.

Today, the ‘West Indies’ refers to a group of mainly English-speaking dependencies, territories and independent Caribbean countries, many of which are members of the Commonwealth. Because most Caribbean migrants to Australia are West Indian, the terms ‘Caribbean’ and ‘West Indian’ are used interchangeably here.

Most West Indian people have a complex ancestry including African slaves, Indian indentured workers and the region’s colonisers from Britain, France, Spain and the Netherlands. Some of our heritage also comes from indigenous Amerindians, as well as European Jews and later settlers from China, Madeira, Lebanon and Syria. No wonder we believe ours were among the first multicultural societies in the world!

Due to our ethnic diversity, even West Indians from the same country do not usually look alike, and migrants don’t always recognise each other. Often we only stumble across another West Indian by overhearing a familiar accent.

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