St Kitts and Nevis - A Brief History

Saint Christopher (more commonly known as Saint Kitts) was subject to more than the usual colonial intervention. It was initially claimed by Christopher Columbus in 1493, but it became the site of the first British and French colonies in the Caribbean, in the mid-1620s. This gave it the perhaps unenviable title of  'The Mother Colony of the West Indies'. Its position meant that it was easily reached on the sea currents and it soon became the first port of call for transatlantic expeditions. The English took up the middle, with the French at the top and the bottom. The Spanish arrived, in 1629, but left again a year later.

The island alternated repeatedly between English (then British) and French control during the seventeenth and eighteenth, until 1783, when the British finally seized absolute power. They already had control of Nevis, which had become a huge centre for the import and export of slaves. St Kitts and Nevis became the richest islands in the Caribbean, mainly because of the sugar plantations. Antigua, Barbuda, Montserrat, Saint Christopher, Nevis, Anguilla and the Virgin Islands together were initially dubbed the British Leeward Islands, part of the British West Indies. In 1816, they were further subdivided into two separate administrative colonies (Antigua–Barbuda–Montserrat and Saint Christopher–Nevis–Anguilla–Virgin Islands.) St Kitts and Nevis finally gained independence in 1983 as a federation, though the British monarch remains the titular head of state.

A Glorious Confusion of Names

There's considerable confusion over names. It was thought that Columbus named the island of St Kitts, St Christopher (Cristobal in Spanish). 'after his patron saint'. But it transpires that he actually named it St James and the nearby island of Saba, was supposed to be St Christopher. Similarly, Nevis was supposed to be St Martin. but the Dutch/French Caribbean island was mistakenly called that instead. So, Nevis was named after the cloud around its mountain - Nieves - Our Lady of the Snows in Spanish.

Facts and Factoids

  • Today, St Kitts and Nevis is the smallest sovereign state in the Western Hemisphere, in both area and population, as well as the world's smallest sovereign federation. The country is a Commonwealth Realm, with the British monarch as head of state.
  • St. Kitts is famous for its green vervet monkeys - they pop up everywhere, often on the shoulders of young men, trying to get you to take a (paid) photograph with them. They’re not actually native to the islands, of course. French settlers brought them to the islands in the seventeenth century, to keep as pets
  • Nevis was the birthplace of American founding father Alexander Hamilton, the protagonist of Lin Manuel-Miranda’s hit Broadway show.

What To See on St Kitts and Nevis?

The two islands are separated by a two-mile stretch of sea known as ‘the narrows’. To get between them, you can hop on a five-minute water taxi, to Charlestown, Nevis. Every year, thousands flock here for the Channel Swim, joined by kayaks and fishing boats to keep a lookout for sharks. Or:

  • Take a round the island tour of St Kitts and make sure to see the views from Brimstone Fort and Lookout Hill.
  • Wander in Basseterre
  • Enjoy the beaches (Cockleshell is the prettiest) and variety of water sports.
  • Stay in a plantation house.

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