An archipelago between southeast North America and northern South America, separating the Caribbean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean and including the Greater Antilles, the Lesser Antilles, and the Bahama Islands. The original inhabitants were Caribs and Arawaks. Several of the islands were sighted and explored by Columbus during his voyages of 1492-1504. The first permanent European settlement was made by the Spanish on Hispaniola in 1496. During the colonial period the English, French, and Dutch also laid claim to various islands, and the United States acquired Puerto Rico and part of the Virgin Islands in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.