Britain is responsible for the defence, security and diplomatic relations of five territories in the Caribbean. These territories are the Cayman Islands, British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Montserrat and Turks and Caicos Islands.
The British Overseas Territories located in the Caribbean, once widely known as British West Indies, represented back in the heyday of the Empire just small additions of red marks in the imperial map. In the early twentieth century, Britain was responsible for the administration, defence and foreign relations of more than 15 territories just in the Caribbean and so it was for more than a hundred years.
The winds of change arrived in the region in the late 1950s with the creation in 1958 of the West Indies Federation, which did not include mainland possessions such as British Guiana and British Honduras. The Federation was a move towards the creation of a political unit that eventually would become independent from the UK as a single state, similar to the political arrangements of the Australian Commonwealth or Canadian Federation.
Nevertheless, due to lack of widespread support, internal disagreements and political divergences over how the new political union would function the West Indies Federation collapsed in 1962.
After the dissolution of the Federation, in 1962, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago become independent, followed by British Guiana, technically located in South America but with close links with the Caribbean, in 1966. Only in 1973 that the question of independence would gain momentum again. The decolonisation process accelerated in the Caribbean, and within ten years most of the British colonies achieved independence. In 1983 five territories were remaining under British responsibility: The Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos Islands, British Virgin Islands, Montserrat and Anguilla.
Long before 1983, the territories in the region witnessed the gradual reduction of the British military presence. The Royal Navy used to have a permanent presence in the area; it usually was a frigate and an RFA ship. The effect of the defence cuts is that only a Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship is sent to the Caribbean – loaded with Royal Marines, engineers and humanitarian aid – only in the hurricane season between May and November.
RFA Mounts Bay was the vessel present there at the beginning of the 2017 hurricane season. However, the Royal Navy and the RFA continue to pay regular visits to the territories.
Alongside Britain, France and the Netherlands have possessions under their responsibilities. But both France and the Netherlands have relatively large numbers of military personnel permanently based in the Caribbean. France has more 1,000 troops in the region plus 2,000 in the nearby French Guyana. The French also have a naval base in Martinique and two frigates supported by helicopters. The Netherlands also have troops in the region accompanied by two vessels.
The lack of permanent British forces in the area is a source of growing criticism, especially when the British Territories need aid from Britain to recover from hurricanes and other natural disasters. The critics argue that a permanent base in the Caribbean would reassure the British dependencies of Britain’s ongoing commitments with them and hasten the response in time of crises. Nonetheless, some of the territories have their local-raised forces.
With a population of only 5,000, Montserrat is one that maintains its military unit, known as the Royal Montserrat Defence Force and also have a cadet corps for secondary school students. Anguilla has its marine police force with around 32 personnel with one M160-class fast patrol boat. Since 2009, the British Virgin Islands has an Army Cadet Corps, a youth organisation with links to the Royal Virgin Islands Police Force. The Cayman Islands, created in 2001 the Cayman Islands Cadet Corps that performs military-type training with teenage citizens. The government of the islands expressed its intention to raise a Cayman Islands Defence Force, which would put the islands as the fifth British Overseas Territories to have a locally raised defence force.
It is worth to mention that the total population of these overseas territories in the Caribbean is approximately 140,000. Their land area is also reduced, the five dependencies cover just over 1,030 km² or 400 square miles. They are largely self-governing and possess their own constitutions and regional governments. Despite that, its inhabitants are British citizens, meaning the Queen is their head of state and, as already said, that the UK is entirely responsible for their security, defence and foreign relations.
So, five of the fourteen British Overseas Territories are located in the Caribbean. These territories provide to Britain a continued presence in the region for centuries and once were an essential pillar of the British naval power in the Atlantic Ocean. So, these dependencies, despite their lack of significant land mass and human resources, contributed to building Britain’s preponderance in the Atlantic since they were first established in the seventeenth century.
Therefore, it is important that Britain is ready to stand for its territories when a crisis arises and the lives of British citizens are endangered by natural disasters or by others nations interests.
The UK has a duty with every territory that wishes to remain British and despite budgetary restraints, the British Armed Forces show their qualities and commitment when deployed to the region, aiding thousands of British citizens to recover from natural disasters and carry on.