History of Saint Kitts and Nevis
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Saint Kitts and Nevis have one of the longest written histories in the Caribbean, both islands being among Spain's and England's first colonies in the archipelago. Despite being only two miles apart and quite diminutive in size, Saint Kitts and Nevis were widely recognized as being separate entities with distinct identities until they were forcibly united in the late 19th century.
Pre-Columbian Period (2900 B.C. to 1493 A.D.)
The first settlers to arrive to the islands, almost 3,000 years B.C., were a pre-agricultural, pre-ceramic people, who migrated down the archipelago from Florida. These hunter-gatherers for years were mistakenly thought to be the Ciboney, an Amerindian race from Cuba. However, archaeological evidence has proven that they were in actuality a group which has been labelled simply "Archaic people". In a few hundred years, these Archaic people disappeared.
Around 1000 B.C., the ceramic-using and agriculturalist Saladoid people came to the islands, migrating up the archipelago from the banks of the Orinoco River in Venezuela. These people were then replaced in 800 A.D. by the Igneri people, members of the Arawak tribe. They were a peace-loving pro-religious people who migrated up the same path from the Orinoco. They heavily settled it, climaxing to an estimated population of 5,000.
Around 1300 A.D., the Kalinago, or Carib people arrived on the islands. The war-like or belligerent Kalinago people quickly dispersed the Igneri, and forced them northwards to the Greater Antilles. They named Saint Kitts Liamuiga meaning "fertile island", and Nevis Oualie meaning "land of beautiful waters". The islands of Liamuiga and Oualie marked the furthest the Kalinago ever reached northwards, in terms of permanent residence, and probably would have succeeded in occupying the entire archipelago had the Europeans not come. Both islands were major bases used by the Kalinago from the South to raid the Eastern Taino peoples of the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, and were critically important for the Kalinago trade routes to the North.
The First Europeans (1493 to 1623)
The first Europeans to see and name the islands were the Spanish under Christopher Columbus, who sighted the islands in 1493 during his second voyage. He named Saint Kitts Sant Jago (Saint James). However, misinterpretations of maps by subsequent Spanish explorers led Saint Kitts to be named San Cristobal (Saint Christopher), a name originally applied to Saba twenty miles north. Nevis was named "Nuestra Señora de las Nieves", or "Our Lady of the Snows", because the wreath of white clouds that usually covers the top of its volcanic peak reminded the Spaniards of the ancient Catholic miracle Our Lady of the Snows.
The first non-Spanish settlement attempt in the Caribbean occurred on Saint Kitts, when French Huguenot refugees from the fishing town of Dieppe established a town on a harbour on the island's north coast, which they also named Dieppe, in 1538. However, only months after the founding, the settlement was raided by the Spanish and all the inhabitants were deported. The remains of one of the buildings is now the basement for the Main house in the Golden Lemon Hotel.
The next European encounter occurred in 1607 when Captain John Smith stopped at Nevis for five days on his way to founding the first successful settlement in Virginia. Smith documented the many hot springs in Nevis, whose waters had remarkable curative abilities against skin ailments and bad health.
Saint Kitts, 1623 to 1700
In the early 17th century, an English sea captain, Sir Thomas Warner, set sail with a crew to found a colony on the Guiana coast. His colony proved a failure, as his crew was ravaged by disease, unfamiliar weather conditions, and Carib raids. A friend of Warner's then suggested that he should instead try to colonise one of the islands in the Lesser Antilles because of their more favourable conditions. In 1623 Warner abandoned his Guiana post and sailed north through the archipelago. After checking each island, Warner decided that Saint Kitts would prove to be the best-suited site for an English colony, because of its strategic central position ideal for expansion, its friendly native population, fertile soil, abundant fresh water, and large salt deposits. He and his family landed on the island and made peace with the local Kalinago peoples, whose leader was Ouboutou Tegremante. Warner then left his family behind and returned to England to gather more men to officially establish a colony. In 1624, he returned and established the colony of Saint Christopher, the first English colony in the Caribbean. They established a port town at Old Road, downhill from Tegremante's capital village.
In 1625, a French captain, Pierre Belain d'Esnambuc, arrived on the island. He had left France hoping to establish an island colony after hearing about the success of the English on Saint Kitts, but his fleet was destroyed in a clash with the Spanish navy, leaving him with only his flagship. Warner took pity on the French settlers and allowed them to settle on the island as well, thus making Saint Kitts the site of the first permanent French colony in the Caribbean as well. French settlers lodged themselves in the ruins of the town of Dieppe, which they rebuilt. Warner also willingly accepted the French in an attempt to out-populate the local Kalinago, of whom he was growing suspicious.
Warner's suspicions proved to be accurate. As the European population on Saint Kitts continued to increase, Tegremante grew hostile to the foreigners. In 1626, after a secret meeting with Kalinago heads from neighbouring Waitikubuli (Dominica) and Oualie (Nevis), it was decided that in a secret raid they would ambush the European settlements. The secret plan was revealed to the Europeans, however, by an Igneri woman named Barbe. She had only recently been brought to St Kitts as a slave-wife after a raid on an Arawak island. Barbe despised the Kalinago and had fallen in love with Warner, and thus told him of the planned ambush. The Europeans acted by attacking the Kalinago first. At a site now called Bloody Point, which housed the island's main Kalinago settlement, over 2,000 Kalinago men were massacred, many of whom were from Waitikubuli, who had come overnight planning to attack the Europeans the next day. The many dead bodies were dumped in a river, on the site which housed the Kalinago place of worship. For weeks, blood flowed down the river like water, giving it its nickname, Bloody River. The remaining Kalinago were deported to Waitikubuli.
After the Kalinago Genocide of 1626, the island was formally partitioned between the English and the French, with the French gaining the ends, Capisterre in the north and Basseterre in the south, and the English gaining the centre. The 1629 English colonization was led by George Donne. Both powers then proceeded to colonise neighbouring islands from their bases. The English settled Nevis (1628), Antigua (1632), Montserrat (1632) and later Anguilla (1650) and Tortola (1672). The French colonised Martinique (1635), the Guadeloupe archipelago (1635), St Martin (1648), St Barths (1648), and Saint Croix (1650).
Saint Kitts suffered heavily from a Spanish raid in 1629, from which all of the island's inhabitants fled as the Spaniards pillaged. They returned shortly after, however, and developed a series of fortifications along the Caribbean coast.
The island soon became a centre of production of tobacco. The planters grew prosperous. However, when the colony of Virginia began to dominate world tobacco production and profits started declining, the island switched to producing sugar cane, starting in 1640. To provide the large amounts of labour needed for the industry, African slaves were imported in large numbers. The slaves had very harsh living conditions, and thousands perished working the fields.
Phillippe de Longvilliers de Poincy became governor of the French portion of the island in 1638. Owing greater allegiance to the Order of Saint John, he soon refused to accept the authority of the King of France. In 1651 the island was purchased by the Order from the Compagnie des Îles de l'Amérique with de Poincy remaining as governor. He died on the island in 1660, and five years later the Order sold all of its possessions in the Caribbean to the French West India Company.
During the Second Anglo-Dutch War, the relationship between the French and English settlers soured, as their home countries warred. Warfare soon broke out on the island itself. The overwhelming French troops attacked the English settlements and gained control of the whole island from 1665–1667. The Treaty of Breda restored the English portion of the island to its owners.
In 1689, during the War of the Grand Alliance, France re-occupied the entire island, and decimated the English farms. An English retaliation by General Codrington defeated the French forces and deported them to Martinique. The Treaty of Rijswijk in 1697 restored pre-war conditions. The war devastated St Kitts's economy.
Nevis, 1628 to 1700
The history of Nevis was less tumultuous. The island was colonised by Anthony Hilton and 80 settlers from Saint Kitts in 1628. The island quickly grew very profitable from tobacco trading, and was able to secure prime investment from England. It was able to evade much of the conflict and devastation that nearby Saint Kitts suffered, and its riches were so great it was nicknamed "Queen of the Caribees." In 1629, during the Anglo-Spanish war of 1625-30, the Spanish occupied both islands and deported the English and French inhabitants back to their countries. However, the island was returned to England by the Treaty of Madrid in 1630. In 1640, Nevis, like St Kitts switched over to sugar cane production and its wealth continued to grow. By 1660, it was officially the most profitable colony in the English crown per capita. Its gross profits were great as well, as they surpassed that of all 13 American colonies combined, up until the 19th century, despite being thousands of times smaller. Nevis' riches however, made it a target for pirates and other European nations.
In 1690, a massive earthquake and tsunami destroyed the city of Jamestown, then the capital of Nevis. So much damage was done to it that the city was completely abandoned. It is reputed that the whole city sank into the sea, but since then, the land has moved over at least 100 yards to the west. That means that anything left of Jamestown would now be underground. The capital was moved south to the town of Charlestown, and the island's successful sugar trade quickly bounced back.
Saint Kitts and Nevis, 1700 to 1883
Saint Kitts was to face even greater devastation at the start of the 18th century. The French made one more major attack on English troops in 1705 during the War of the Spanish Succession, as the over 8,000 French troops on the island easily defeated the 1,000 English posts. The French held St Kitts for eight years, until the Treaty of Utrecht was signed (1713). The treaty ceded the entire island of St Kitts to the newly united Kingdom of Great Britain. Upon gaining control of the whole island in 1713, the British soon moved the island's capital to the town of Basseterre in 1727, and St Kitts quickly took off as a leader in sugar production in the Caribbean.
Whilst conditions on St Kitts improved, Nevis was seeing a decline. The years of monocrop cultivation, as well as heavy amounts of soil erosion due to the high slope grade on the island, caused its sugar production to continuously decrease. A heavy French raid in 1706 further complicated the situation, and damaged the island's agriculture extensively. It proved to never fully recover.
To make up for sugar losses in Nevis, the island opened its first hotel in 1778. The first such establishment in the Western Hemisphere, the Bath Hotel was constructed over the site of one of the island's famous hot springs. The island thus became the first place in the Americas to officially practice tourism. Nevis's popularity as a destination grew, and it continued to be in the favour of the British upper classes.
By 1776, Saint Kitts had become the richest British colony in the Caribbean, per capita. It retained this status until the late 19th century, despite a myriad of attacks by the French throughout the 18th century, including the Battle of St Kitts of 1782. The consolidation of British rule was recognized finally under the Treaty of Versailles in 1783. In 1806, the Leeward Islands Caribee government was split into two groups, with Antigua, Barbuda, Redonda and Montserrat in one group, and St Kitts, Nevis, Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands in the other. The islands in the new grouping however, were able to keep their great degrees of autonomy. The grouping then split entirely in 1816.
Slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1834. Profits from sugar began sinking even further, and this was made even worse with new countries, namely Brazil, Cuba and India beginning to dominate the market. Nevis' economy, as well as that of most Caribbean islands, suffered extensively from this. St Kitts escaped the plight of its neighbours because of its good soils, and massive projects undertaken to reduce soil erosion.
In 1833, the Leeward Islands were reunited as a single administrative entity, and was renamed the Federal Colony of the Leeward Islands in 1871. In 1883, St Kitts, Nevis and Anguilla were linked under one "presidency," based in St Kitts. Both Nevis and Anguilla disliked the union, as they had previously had their separate presidencies. An uneasy relationship followed.
Alexander Hamilton, the first United States Secretary of the Treasury, was born in Nevis; he spent his childhood there and on St. Croix, then belonging to Denmark, and now one of the United States Virgin Islands.
Saint Kitts and Nevis, 1883 to present
Sugar production continued to dominate the lives of the islanders. The dominance by estate owners of the island's only and extremely limited natural resource, the land, and the single-minded application of that resource to one industry precluded the development of a stable peasant class. Instead, the system produced a large class of wage labourers generally resentful of foreign influence. The nature of the sugar industry itself—the production of a nonstaple and essentially nonnutritive commodity for a widely fluctuating world market—only served to deepen this hostility and to motivate Kittitian labourers to seek greater control over their working lives and their political situation. The collapse of sugar prices brought on by the Great Depression precipitated the birth of the organized labour movement in St Kitts and Nevis. The Workers League, organized by Thomas Manchester of Sandy Point in 1932, tapped the popular frustration that fueled the labor riots of 1935–36. Rechristened the St. Kitts and Nevis Trades and Labour Union in 1940 and under the new leadership of Robert Llewellyn Bradshaw, the union established a political arm, the St Kitts and Nevis Labour Party, which put Bradshaw in the Legislative Council in 1946. The Labour Party would go on to dominate political life in the twin-island state for more than thirty years.
The islands remained in the Leeward Islands Federation until they joined the failed West Indies Federation from 1958 to 1962, in which Saint Christopher-Nevis-Anguilla was a separate state. Robert Bradshaw was the Minister of Finance for the short-lived country.
In 1967, the islands became an Associated State of Britain.
In the same year Anguilla had a major secession movement supported by St Kitts' political opposition party, The People's Action Movement (PAM). Both forces, working together, invaded the island from an Anguillian base in an attempted coup d'état. Anguilla was able to successfully break away from the union in 1971.
In 1970 there was a serious maritime incident, the Christena disaster, the sinking of an overloaded ferry boat, with much loss of life.
During Bradshaw's long tenure, his government slowly moved into a statist approach to economic development. All sugar lands were bought by the government, as well as the central sugar factory. Opposition to Bradshaw's rule began to build, especially by the families and supporters of former estate owners, who founded the People's Action Movement party in 1964, after frustration over a failed demonstration against a raise in electricity rates. Opposition was especially great in Nevis, who felt that their island was being neglected and unfairly deprived of revenue, investment and services by its larger neighbour. Bradshaw mainly ignored Nevis' complaints, but Nevisian disenchantment with the Labour Party proved a key factor in the party's eventual fall from power.
In 1978 Bradshaw died of prostate cancer. He was succeeded by his former deputy, Paul Southwell, but Southwell himself died a few months later, in 1979. The party then fell into a crisis of leadership. The position of premier was then handed over to Lee Moore.
Taking advantage of the Labour Party's confusion, the PAM party was very successful in the 1980 elections, winning three seats on St Kitts, compared to the Labour Party's four. The Nevis Reformation Party, under the leadership of Simeon Daniel, won two of the three seats on Nevis. PAM and NRP then formed a coalition government, naming Kennedy Simmonds, a medical doctor and one of the founders of the PAM, premier (Simmonds had won Bradshaw's former seat in a 1979 by-election). The change in government reduced the demand for Nevis' secession. In 1983, the federation was granted independence from Britain, with a constitution that granted Nevis a large degree of autonomy as well as the guaranteed right of secession. To take advantage of this landmark, early elections were called in 1984, in which the NRP captured all three seats on Nevis, and the PAM party capturing six seats on St Kitts, compared to the Labour Party's two, despite overall the Labour Party winning the nationwide popular vote. The new coalition government now had a strong 9 to 2 mandate in parliament.
Economic improvement for St Kitts followed, with the PAM party shifting focus from the sugar industry to tourism. However, much of the island's poorest people, mainly the sugar workers, were neglected. Opposition to PAM began to build from this, as well as on accusations of corruption. In the 1993 elections, both PAM and Labour took four seats each, whilst on Nevis, a new party, the Concerned Citizens Movement, took two seats, beating the NRP's one. The stalemate on St Kitts proved unresolvable when the CCM in Nevis refused to form a coalition with PAM. Rioting soon followed on the islands, which was finally resolved in a special set of elections held in 1995, in which the Labour Party overwhelmingly defeated the PAM party, winning seven seats compared to PAM's one. Dr. Denzil Douglas became the new prime minister of the federation, and retains the post to this day.
On September 21, 1998, Hurricane Georges severely damaged the islands, leaving nearly $500 million of damage to property. Georges was the worst hurricane to hit the region in the 20th century.
In 2005, St Kitts saw the closure of its sugar industry, after 365 years in the monoculture. This was explained as due to the industry's huge losses, as well as to market threats by the European Union, which had plans to cut sugar prices greatly in the near future.
- British colonization of the Americas
- French colonization of the Americas
- History of the Americas
- History of the British West Indies
- History of North America
- History of the Caribbean
- List of Prime Ministers of Saint Kitts and Nevis
- Politics of Saint Kitts and Nevis
- Spanish colonization of the Americas
- Saint Kitts#History
- French colonization of the Americas#West Indies
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- T. H. Breen (1973). "George Donne's 'Virginia Reviewed', a 1638 Plan to Reform Colonial Society". The William and Mary Quarterly 30 (3).
- Jedidiah Morse (1797), "St. Christophers", The American Gazetteer, Boston, Massachusetts: At the presses of S. Hall, and Thomas & Andrews