St. Kitts and Nevis — History and Culture
Gaining independence from British rule in 1983, today St Kitts and Nevis is the smallest sovereign state in the Americas, in both geographical size and population. It consists of two islands: St Kitts (also more formerly known as St Christopher Island), and Nevis, separated by a two mile wide channel. The total population is about 52,000 people, most of African descent brought to the Caribbean during the colonial period of the 18th and 19th century to work on plantations for exporting agricultural crops to Britain. Indeed, St Kitts and Nevis were amongst the first islands of the Caribbean to be settled by Europeans, earning the country the nomination as the ‘Mother of the West Indies’. Today, the locals are proud to have lost their shackles of slavery and colonialism, yet embracing their multiple heritage, presenting an interesting cultural mix.
The islands were first spotted by Europeans in the 1493 expedition by Christopher Columbus. It is here where the island of St Kitts gained its name, since Columbus mapped the island as ‘St Christopher’, which was later shortened to the affectionate name of ‘St Kitts’, and then this name stuck throughout. At the time of Columbus’ discovery, the islands were populated by the Kalingo peoples. The Spanish empire choose not to settle St Kitts and Nevis, although an initial population of French Huguenots (Protestants who were escaping persecution from Roman Catholic France) arrived in 1538, soon to be driven out by the Spanish.
By 1623, the British had a vested interest in the Caribbean, and settled the island of St Kitts. Unlike so many other places in the Caribbean, the natives actually welcomed colonization. The first British settlements were followed by French establishments, and unfortunately by 1626 the Anglo-French settlers massacred the native Kalingo people. Nevis was settled by the British in 1628. The Spanish tried to drive the settlers out, but could not keep control, and the French also tried to make a claim. But by 1712 the islands were officially ceded to Britain due to the might of their power.
The British and French forces met again in 1782, in the famed Battle of St Kitts, a naval fight in Frigate Bay. But this time, St Kitts had become the richest colony in the British Empire. African slaves had been brought in over a hundred years earlier in order to grow sugar cane, in order to export back to Europe. Slavery was finally abolished in 1834, and also around this time profits from the sugar trade began decreasing as other countries began to dominate the market.
Sugar production continued in St Kitts and Nevis as its main economic activity into the 20th century, however this left the country vulnerable to fluctuating prices; and then the great depression of 1929 saw a complete collapse in prices, severely harming the country’s economy. This led to the rise of the leftist Labor political movement, which then continued to dominate the political arena for the next three decades. The leader at the time, Robert Llewellyn Bradshaw, is considered a national hero, and the country’s main airport is named after him.
After WWII the British Empire started dissolving, with many colonies gaining independence. In 1967, St Kitts and Nevis became an ‘Associated State’ of Britain, not gaining full sovereignty until 1983. Despite a long political tenure by one leader, St Kitts and Nevis remained prosperous and stable, Prime Minister Bradshaw was popular and politics have always remained democratic in St Kitts and Nevis. Today, popularity for the labor movement has risen following economic reforms during the 1980s and ‘90s. In 2005, St Kitts officially saw the closure of its sugar cane industry after 365 years of production. The main economic focus is now tourism.
Although St Kitts and Nevis gained status as an independent country in 1983, it was part of Britain for over 200 years, being colonized in 1782, and this has left its mark on the country today. British traditions play an important part in the modern culture of St Kitts and Nevis, and most inhabitants are of African descent, having been brought in during the early colonial period. English is the official language spoken here, and around 50 percent of the devoutly religious population is Anglican. Many others practice another form of Christianity, and there is also a large Rastafarian community, which reflects St Kitts and Nevis position as a Caribbean country.
No doubt, a big part of the culture of St Kitts and Nevis is their national sport, cricket. With its influences from the British Empire that dominated many countries in the Caribbean for centuries, the residents are passionate about cricket, as in so many other Commonwealth member countries. St Kitts and Nevis do not usually compete alone as a single country, but join the multi-national sporting confederation called the West Indies, which is colloquially known as the ‘Windies’. This team has had many successes, formed in 1926, and from the 1970s to the 1990s they were considered the strongest team in the world. St Kitts and Nevis residents are very proud to be part of the team. You can learn more from the public displays at Warner Park, the cricket stadium in Basseterre.