Broad use of the term Caribbean must contend with inconsistencies. Unless the term Gulf/Caribbean is employed, the United States is a part only through political control of Puerto Rico and several of the Virgin Islands. In a locational sense the Bahamas, Turks and Coicos Islands, and El Salvador also are not a part as none touches the Caribbean Sea. Yet custom and common sense favor the perception that they are part of a Caribbean region or realm.
The Guianas present another problem in classification. Situated on the continent southeast of Venezuela, they neither fringe the Caribbean nor are islands. The name, however, comes from a native American name meaning land of many waters. The sea and rivers do dominate the coastal environment, which was the only portion of the Guianas to receive serious European contacts. Mountain barriers did and do make surface travel difficult between coast and interior.
The British, Dutch, and French colonies in the Guianas were exceptions on a continent conquered elsewhere by the Spanish and Portuguese. A result of this situation is that throughout their history, the Guianas have functioned as islands. All contacts were by sea with distant places.
Plantations established by the English and Dutch were worked by slaves from Africa and later by contract laborers from South Asia. The effect was to create cultures similar to those of the rimland. Plantations, however, never became established in French Guiana, and it remains a backwater place with unique characteristics. For these reasons, inhabitants of Guyana and Suriname, and West Indians as well, regard the Guianas as part of a Caribbean region despite the physical separation. Since independence, both countries routinely have been included in various Caribbean regional organizations.
The sea was not called the Caribbean at first. Prior to the discoveries, the Spanish had called all the western Atlantic the Mar del Norte. After the voyages of Columbus the usage was extended to the Caribbean. Following discovery by Balboa the Pacific became known as the Mar del Sur, a designation that is logical in light of the fact that the Pacific is indeed south of Panama. To the Spanish the continental rim south of the Caribbean became known as Tierra Firme, which the English eventually transmuted into Spanish Main. Most wealth in precious metal and gems was transported from mainland sources to Spain, and privateers soon found it easier to attack the treasure ships than the fortified towns. In time the entire sea and its islands came to be known as the Spanish Main. Sailing to the Spanish Main evolved to sailing on the Spanish Main.