West Indies Federation

As we near the end of our focus on Caribbean influences on the Americas, we focus on the West Indies Federation, A political Union in the Caribbean between States that wished to become independent.

Existing from January 3rd, 1958 till May 31st 1962, the West Indies Federation, was a short-lived political union between various islands in the Caribbean that were colonies of the United Kingdom.

The expressed intention of the Federation was to create a political unit that would become independent from Britain as a single state; however, before that could happen, the Federation collapsed due to internal political conflicts. The territories of the federation eventually became the nine contemporary sovereign states of Antigua and Barbuda,Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago; with Anguilla, Montserrat, the Cayman Islands, and Turks and Caicos Islands becoming British overseas territories.

British Guiana (Guyana) and British Honduras (Belize) held observer status within the West Indies Federation. 


The total population of the West Indies Federation was between 3 and 4 million people, with the majority being of black West African descent. Minorities included Indians from the subcontinent (called East Indians), Europeans, Chinese, and Caribs. There was also a large population of mixed descent.

Due to the significant cultural ties to Britain, the majority of citizens were Protestant, with significant numbers of Catholics and some Hindus and Muslims (both almost exclusively from the East Indian population).

The Federation spanned all the island groupings in the Caribbean:

  • The Greater Antilles: Jamaicaand the Cayman Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands
  • The Lesser Antilles:
    • Barbados, east of the Windward Islands
    • Leeward Islands: Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Christopher-Nevis-Anguilla, and Montserrat
    • Windward Islands: Dominica, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada
    • Trinidad and Tobago

Britain classified the Federation as being part of its “Caribbean and North Atlantic Territories” region which was shared alongside other possessions such as Bermuda.

The Federation today is geographically considered to be part of the North American continent as all of its islands are in and around the Caribbean, even though Trinidad is located just offshore from South America and lies on the same continental shelf.

Historically “West Indian” nations The Bahamas, Bermuda, Belize, the British Virgin Islands, and Guyana opted not to join because they believed that their future lay with becoming North American, rather than becoming part of a newly formed collection of islands we now call the Caribbean

Guyana opted not to join at that time due to its ongoing political campaign for independence from the UK which had started in the 1950s, and had hoped that once independence was gained, it would join the Federation.

The Bahamas did participate in the 1960 West Indies Federation Games, with the future prime minister of the Bahamas, Perry Christie, as an athlete. 

Government Structure

The Federation was an internally self-governing, federal state made up of ten provinces, all of which were British colonial possessions. The federation was created by the United Kingdom in 1958 from most of the British West Indies. Britain intended that the Federation would shortly become a fully independent state, thus simultaneously satisfying the demands for independence from all the colonies in the region. However, the project was doomed by political squabbling among the provinces, and the Federation never achieved full sovereignty, either as a Commonwealth realm or as a republic within the Commonwealth.

The legal basis for the federation was the British Caribbean Federation Act 1956, and the date of formation—January 3, 1958—was set by an Order in Council proclaimed in 1957.

As with all British colonies of the period, Queen Elizabeth II was the head of state, and The Crown was vested with the legislative authority for matters concerning executive affairs, defence and the financing of the Federation. Her representative,Patrick Buchan-Hepburn, 1st Baron Hailes, was given the title of Governor-General rather than that of Governor more typical for a British colony. The title may have reflected the federal nature of the state, or indicated the expectations that the Federation would soon become independent. The Governor-General also had the full power by the British Government to veto any laws passed by the Federation.

The Federal Parliament was bicameral, consisting of a nominated Senate and a popularly elected House of Representatives. The Senate consisted of nineteen members. These members were appointed by the Governor General, after consulting the respective territorial governments. Two members represented each unit (with only one from Montserrat). The House of Representatives had 45 total elected members – Jamaica had seventeen seats, Trinidad and Tobago ten seats, Barbados five seats, Montserrat one seat, and the remaining islands two seats each.

However the government (executive) would be a Council of State, not a Cabinet. It would be presided over by the Governor-General and consist of the Prime Minister and ten other officials.

Federal problems & Dissolution


The West Indies Federation had an unusually weak federal structure. For instance, its provinces were not contained in a single customs union. Thus, each province functioned as a separate economy, complete with tariffs, largely because the smaller provinces were afraid of being overwhelmed by the large islands’ economies. Also, complete freedom of movement within the Federation was not implemented, as the larger provinces were worried about mass migration from the smaller islands.

Nor could the federal government take its component states to task. The initial federal budget was quite small, making it dependent upon grants from the United Kingdom and from its member states. The provincial budgets of Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago were both larger than the federal budget, leading to repeated requests for those states to provide greater financing to the federal government. These requests were not well received, as Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago together already contributed 85 percent of the federal revenue, in roughly equal portions.

Furthermore, the office of the Prime Minister was a weak one. Unlike other Westminster systems with Prime Ministers, the West Indian Federation’s PM could not dissolve Parliament.

Many reasons have been put forward to explain the demise of the federation. These include the lack of local popular support, competing insular nationalism, the weakness of the federal government, prohibitions on federal taxation and freedom of movement, inadequacies in the Federal constitution, fundamental changes made to the constitution very early in its existence, political feuds between the influential leaders, the decision of the three most influential politicians not to contest Federal elections, friction between these leaders and the Federal government, the overwhelming concentration of population and resources in the two largest units, geographic and cultural distance between the units, the lack of a history of common administration, and the impact of the period of self-government that followed the promotion from Crown Colony system.

However, the immediate catalyst for the dissolution of the Federation was Jamaican discontent. By 1961, there were a number of reasons for Jamaica’s dissatisfaction with the state of affairs:

  • Jamaica was fairly remote from most of the other islands in the Federation, lying several hundred miles to the west.
  • Jamaica’s share of the seats in the federal parliament was smaller than its share of the total population of the Federation.
  • It was believed that the smaller islands were draining Jamaica’s wealth.
  • Many Jamaicans were upset that Kingston had not been chosen as the federal capital.

The most important reason for Jamaican dissatisfaction was the Federation’s continuing colonial status. Jamaica had joined the Federation because its leaders had believed that the West Indies would quickly be granted independence. Nearly three years after the formation of the Federation, this had not occurred; meanwhile, smaller British colonies, like Cyprus and Sierra Leone, had gained independence. Thus, many Jamaicans believed that the island could and should seek independence in its own right.


The federation’s currency was the West Indies dollar (though Jamaica continued to use the pound), which was later succeeded by the East Caribbean dollar, the Barbadian dollar, and the Trinidad and Tobago dollar. Successor organisations included the West Indies Associated States and CARICOM.

Since 2004, the West Indies Federal Archives Centre has been located on the University’s Cave Hill campus in Barbados.