History of Saint Kitts and Nevis

The fortress on Brimstone Hill, focus of the successful French invasion of 1782

Saint Kitts and Nevis, officially known as the Federation of Saint Christopher and Nevis, is an island nation in the West Indies. Situated in the Lesser Antilles’ Leeward Islands chain, it is the smallest sovereign country in the Western Hemisphere, in both population and area. The government is a Commonwealth realm, with Elizabeth II as Queen and head of state.


The name of the first settlers, pre-Arawakan tribes who settled the islands perhaps as early as 2800-3000 years ago, is unknown. They were followed by the Taíno or Arawak peoples, about 1000 BCE.

Discovery and Early Colonial Period

According to written records, Christopher Columbus, a (in)famous explorer, was the first European to sight the islands in 1493 CE.

English settlers developed the first colony in 1623 CE, commanded by Thomas Warner. He instituted a settlement at Old Road Town on the west coast of St Kitts after reaching an agreement with the Carib chief Ouboutou Tegremante. The French colonist later also settled on St Kitts in 1625 CE under explorer Pierre Belain d’Esnambuc. As a result, both parties agreed to partition the island into English and French sectors. From 1628 CE onward, the English also started settling on Nevis.

The English and French, intent on self-enrichment by exploiting the island’s natural resources, soon met with resistance. The Kalinago (native Caribs) waged war throughout the first few years of the settlements’ presence. The Europeans thus decided to rid themselves of this obstacle once and for all. To promote this objective, colonial chroniclers waged an ideological campaign, recording back to the Spanish, as they produced literature that orderly denied Kalinago humanity (literary folklore carried through the late-seventeenth century by such authors as Pere Labat and Jean-Baptiste du Tertre). In 1626 CE the Anglo-French immigrants joined forces to annihilate the Kalinago at a place that became infamously known as Bloody Point, supposedly to pre-empt an impending Carib plan to kill or expel all European settlers. Thus, with the local indigenous population subdued, the French and English began to construct large sugar plantations that were worked by numerous imported African slaves. This arrangement created tremendous resources and money for the planter-colonists while also drastically altering the islands’ demographics as black slaves soon came to outnumber the colonial Europeans by a good margin.

An invading Spanish expedition of 1629 CE sent to implement Spanish claims destroyed the French and English colonies and banished the settlers back to their respective nations. As part of the war settlement in 1630 CE, the Spanish permitted the English and French colonies’ re-establishment. Spain later formally recognized Britain’s claim to St Kitts with the Treaty of Madrid (1670 CE), in return for British support in the fight against medieval piracy.

British colonial period

The British colony had improved by the turn of the 18th century, and by the close of the 1700s CE, St. Kitts had turned into the richest British Crown Colony per capita in the Caribbean as a result of its slave-driven sugar plantation. The 18th century CE also saw Nevis, once the richer of the two islands, being overshadowed by St Kitts in economic importance.

As Britain became embroiled in a war with its American territories, the French chose to use the chance to re-capture St Kitts in 1782 CE; however, St Kitts was returned back and recognized as British territory in the well-known Treaty of Paris of 1783 CE.

British terminated the African slave trade within the Empire in 1807 CE, and slavery was outlawed entirely in 1834 CE. A four-year “apprenticeship” phase followed for each slave, in which they worked for their previous owners for wages. On St. Kitts had 19,780 free, while on Nevis, 8,815 slaves were freed in this way.

Nevis and Saint Kitts, along with Anguilla, were ultimately federated in 1882 CE. In the first few years of the 20th-century lack of opportunities and economic hardship led to the growth of a labor movement; the Great Depression led sugar laborers to go on strike in 1935 CE. The 1940s saw the starting of the St Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla Labour Party (later renamed SKNLP or Saint Kitts and Nevis Labour Party) under Robert Llewellyn Bradshaw. Bradshaw then became Chief Minister and then Premier of the colony from 1966 CE to 1978 CE; he gradually brought the sugar-based economy under greater state control. A conservative-leaning People’s Action Movement party (PAM) was established in 1965 CE.

After a short period as part of the West Indies Federation (1958 CE– 1962 CE), the islands became a state with complete internal autonomy in 1967 CE. Both Anguilla and Nevis were unhappy at St Kitts’ control of the federation, with Anguilla declaring independence in 1967 CE.

In 1971 CE Britain restored total control of Anguilla, and it was formally separated in 1980 CE. Attention then centered on Nevis, with the Nevis Reformation Party trying to safeguard the smaller island’s concerns in any future self-governing state. Eventually, it was accepted that the island would have a level of autonomy with its own Premier and Assembly and the constitutionally-protected right to unilaterally secede if an independence referendum resulted in a two-thirds majority in favor.

St Kitts and Nevis achieved complete independence on 19 September 1983 CE.

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