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Saint Kitts & Nevis - History

At the time of European discovery, Carib Indians inhabited the islands of St. Kitts and Nevis. Columbian Carib inhabitants knew their island as Liamuiga, or "fertile land," a reference to St. Kitts rich and productive volcanic soil. Today that name graces St. Kitts' central peak, a 3,792-foot extinct volcano that has left its legacy of a rich geologic history and lush tropical vegetation. It stands majestically above the ever-expanding rainforests that spread like great green canopies where sugar cane was once cultivated. This is why the first non-Spanish settlers of the Caribbean chose what was then called St. Christopher. Along with its fertile soil St. Christopher offered fresh water, abundant forests, and salt.

Christopher Columbus landed on the larger island in 1493 on his second voyage and named it after St. Christopher, his patron saint. Columbus also discovered Nevis on his second voyage, reportedly calling it Nevis because of its resemblance to a snowcapped mountain (in Spanish, "nuestra senora de las nieves" or our lady of the snows). European settlement did not officially begin until 1623-24, when first English, then French settlers arrived on St. Christopher's Island, whose name the English shortened to St. Kitts Island. As the first English colony in the Caribbean, St. Kitts served as a base for further colonization in the region.

The English and French held St. Kitts jointly from 1628 to 1713. During the 17th century, intermittent warfare between French and English settlers ravaged the island's economy. Meanwhile Nevis, settled by English settlers in 1628, grew prosperous under English rule. St. Kitts was ceded to Great Britain by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. The French seized both St. Kitts and Nevis in 1782. The Treaty of Paris in 1783 definitively awarded both islands to Britain. They were part of the colony of the Leeward Islands from 1871-1956, and of the West Indies Federation from 1958-62. In 1967, together with Anguilla, they became a self-governing state in association with Great Britain; Anguilla seceded late that year and remains a British dependency. The Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis attained full independence on September 19, 1983.

St. Christopher (hereafter, St. Kitts) and Nevis share a long history of British colonization. St. Kitts has been referred to as the "mother colony of the West Indies," a reflection of its status as the first English colony in the Caribbean. Although discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493, St. Kitts was not settled by Europeans until 1623, when a small group of Britons established themselves at Sandy Bay. An English gentleman by the name of Sir Thomas Warner brought his family, along with fourteen others, to an island inhabited only by native peoples. They arrived at what is now Sandy Point.

As elsewhere in the Caribbean, the French were not far behind; they established settlements the following year. Less than two years later Pierre Belain d'Esnambue led a small group of French settlers to the island. Within a year, blood flowed. Not each other's blood, not yet. This early eruption of violence wiped out the entire native population of Arawaks and Caribs. It was an out and out massacre at what is now Bloody Point. Once the English and French had the island to themselves, they could expand their sugar and tobacco plantations at will, and began bringing in African people to serve as slaves. And so the seeds of St. Kitts's rich culture were sewn, influenced by the peoples of Africa, Europe and the Caribbean itself.

Nevis was colonized in 1628 by an English party dispatched from St. Kitts.

The British and French kept up an uneasy cohabitation on St. Kitts until 1713, when Britain was granted sole dominion under the Treaty of Utrecht. The only apparent cooperative venture between the two groups of settlers during this period was a series of joint military operations against the native Carib Indians that resulted in their virtual elimination from the island. Although officially sovereign, the British were unable to solidify their control over the islands and secure them against French assault until the late eighteenth century.

From its early settlement by Europeans, every religious conviction found fertile soil on the island of St. Kitts. Besides the many reform movements of Christianity, the tiny island made room for Jewish and Catholic worship, as well as Free Masonry. St.Kitts was the home of one of the oldest Jewish Temples and oldest Masonic Temples in the Caribbean. However, the plantocracy of the island had little tolerance for the few islanders who were staunch advocates of abolishment, and at least two of the most influential abolitionists were forced to leave the island.

Of all the English colonies in the Caribbean, St. Kitts was the oldest and wealthiest - with rich volcanic soil and an ideal climate. Annually St. Kitts yielded a fortune in sugar and rum for its wealthy, mostly absentee, landholders. By around 1775, the time of the American Revolution, 68 sugar plantations existed on St. Kitts, one for every square mile. The plantation owners sold their sugar products to American, British, French and Dutch customers. They are also credited with production innovations that led St.Kitts to become the world leader in sugar cane cultivation, and a catalyst for the industrial revolution.

The consolidation of British rule was recognized by the Treaty of Versailles in 1783. Under British rule, St. Kitts and, to a lesser extent, Nevis provided classic examples of the plantation system. On tracts owned by well-to-do Britons, often on an absentee basis, cash crops were raised for export by indentured laborers and, eventually, by African slaves. After brief attempts at indigo and tobacco cultivation, sugarcane was introduced to both islands by the mid-seventeenth century. Sugarcane cultivation and its by-products — land scarcity, price fluctuations, seasonal employment and unemployment, and migration — went on to shape the history of St. Kitts and Nevis, although soil erosion and depletion in Nevis eventually led to the abandonment of sugarcane cultivation by the plantation owners and the establishment of peasant smallholdings.

The persistent arguments, outcries, and writings of three prominent English residents of St. Kitts, are said to have influenced the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807 more than any other factor. And with the total abolishment of slavery throughout all the British colonies in 1834, came the end of the sugar industry. Europe's beet sugar undersold Caribbean cane. Depressed market prices could not offset the production and transportation costs for an island crop.

The two islands, along with the somewhat more distant Anguilla, experienced a number of administrative configurations and changes of status during the course of colonial history. Beginning in 1671, St. Kitts and Nevis joined Antigua (with Barbuda and Redonda) and Montserrat as part of the Leeward Caribbee Islands Government under a British governor. This arrangement endured until 1806, when the Leeward Caribbees were split into two separate governmental units, with St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands comprising one of these units. The Leewards were reunited as a single administrative entity in 1871, with Dominica included in the grouping. St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla was established as a "presidency" within the Leeward Islands Federation in 1882, a status it kept until 1956.

The passing of the Emancipation Act in 1833 was an epochmaking event in the history of the West Indies. In slavery days, riots and insurrections took place with more or less frequency and more or less disastrous results, in all the West Indian colonies. The forty difficult and troubled years in the island of St Kitts which fit so conveniently into period between the “Portuguese Riots” of 1896 and the Buckley’s “Riots” of 1935 was the period that witnessed the birth of St Kitts Labour Movement.

The riot which occurred at Basseterre in St. Kitts, on the 17th of February 1896, had its origin, about a week before, in a dispute about wages on " Needs Must," an estate owned by Joaquim Ferrara, a Portuguese. The blacks imagined they were being cheated. The discontent spread from estate to estate round the island, including here and there estates owned by Creoles as well as Portuguese, till it culminated in the burning and looting of Portuguese shops in Basseterre on the 17th of February, in which looting the local boatmen also took part.

The three-island grouping participated in the ill-fated West Indies Federation from 1958 to 1962 and took part in the unsuccessful negotiations of the so-called Little Eight (Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Montserrat, St. Kitts-Nevis- Anguilla, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines), which broke off in 1966 when the government of Antigua and Barbuda would not agree to have its postal service absorbed into a federal framework. When these efforts failed, St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla, along with most of the other small Caribbean colonies, accepted the British offer of associated statehood, which provided for domestic self-government while Britain maintained responsibility for external affairs and defense.

St. Kitts and Nevis remained an associated state until it declared full independence in 1983 (the last of the associated states to do so). By that time, Anguilla had long since declared and demonstrated its opposition to continued union with St. Kitts and had assumed dependency status.

In 2005, due to plummeting profits, the Government closed both the cane fields and sugar factory. Tourism is now the major source of income for St. Kitts. The sugar train railway is now home to the St. Kitts Scenic Railway, a unique tour that takes visitors through many of the plantation ruins.

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Page last modified: 19-07-2017 18:55:26 ZULU