A BRIEF HISTORY - Insight Guides: Pocket St Lucia - Insight Guides

Insight Guides: Pocket St Lucia - Insight Guides (2016)


St Lucia’s ancient history is shrouded in mystery and our knowledge of the peoples who lived there before the arrival of Europeans at the beginning of the 16th century, is based on recent archaeological and anthropological investigations. What is certain, however, is that this lush and fertile island attracted waves of immigrants from South America, heading up the arc of islands from what is now Trinidad to the Greater Antilles, and some of them put down roots and stayed.

St Lucia’s first inhabitants

The first settlers on St Lucia were Amerindians travelling up the island chain by canoe from the Orinoco region of South America around AD 200. Settlements have been discovered on neighbouring islands which pre-date this arrival, so it is possible that people lived on the island before then, but no evidence has yet been found. The earliest archaeological remains have been found at Grand Anse on the east coast and at Anse Noir in the south near Vieux Fort.

These migrants are referred to as Island Arawaks because they came from an area on the continent where the language, Arawak, was spoken. They would have had another name for themselves but that has got lost over time. Some time around 1450, a further flow of migration brought the Caribs, who called themselves Kalinago, and the Island Arawaks disappeared. It is not known whether they left, were killed or absorbed into the invading culture, but they ceased making their pottery after that date.

When the Spanish arrived at the beginning of the 16th century, the Kalinago were the sole occupants of the island they called Iouanalao, meaning ‘where the iguana is found’. The name later morphed into Hiwanarau and then Hewanorra, a title now given to the international airport in the south.


An example of Bellin’s rare 1758 map of Saint Lucia

Public domain

European colonisation

Further mystery surrounds the arrival of the Spanish. Although legend had it that Christopher Columbus discovered the island on St Lucy’s Day (13 December) in 1502, his ship’s log showed he wasn’t even in the area on that day. Despite not knowing who discovered the island, nor when, St Lucy’s Day has been adopted as the national holiday. Someone must have spotted it, though, as in 1520, a Vatican globe marked it as Santa Lucía, implying that it was claimed by Spain. It is believed that in the 1550s, the pirate François Le Clerc, or Jambe de Bois, tried to settle on the island and there may later have been an attempt by a Dutch expedition. In 1605, an English ship, Olive Branch, landed at Vieux Fort after being blown off course en route to Guiana (Guyana). Of the 67 survivors only 19 were left a month later, when they escaped in a dugout canoe. The Kalinago did not take kindly to unwelcome visitors.


A Carib, or Kalinago family

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In 1627, St Lucia appeared in a document as one of the territories granted to the Earl of Carlisle. There were no immediate attempts to settle the land and in 1635, the French made a counter-claim that the land had been granted to M. d’Esnambuc by Cardinal Richelieu in 1626. This was the beginning of a territorial dispute between England and France which was to last until 1814, during which time the island changed hands 14 times.

In 1638 the English made a serious attempt to settle St Lucia, with an expedition comprising 300 men from Bermuda and St Kitts. They managed to live alongside the Kalinago for 18 months until a dispute in 1640 lead to many deaths on both sides and the English survivors fled. Three years later, the French appointed a governor who was married to an Amerindian, allowing him to make peace and establish the first permanent settlement. Around this time, the King of France ceded the island to the French West India Company, who in 1650 sold it to MM Houel and Du Parquet. The English continued to state their claim and the two nations began to fight over the island, all the while being harassed by the Kalinago, who tried to get rid of the settlers and killed several governors. Gradually, however, the settlers, who were mostly French, introduced a plantation economy using slave labour, growing first cocoa and coffee and then sugar.


Rodney attacking the French fleet in 1782

Mary Evans Picture Library

European warfare

St Lucia was one of many islands fought over by European powers in the 17th and 18th centuries, being caught up in strategic manoeuvres by governments from far away. While the Spanish were interested in the Greater Antilles, particularly Cuba, for its position on the shipping route between Spain, South and Central America, the English, French and Dutch battled mostly over the Lesser Antilles.

One of the most famous battles was in 1782, when Admiral George Rodney led the English fleet from Pigeon Island to attack the French navy off the islands of Les Saintes, intercepting it on its way to attack Jamaica.

The French Revolution, which began in 1789, also had implications for the French colonies, particularly when the new French Republic granted freedom to enslaved Africans in its overseas territories in 1794. Victor Hugues supported insurrections in neighbouring islands from his base in St Lucia. The guillotine was erected in Castries and the island became known as St Lucie La Fidèle by the French. In 1796, General Sir Ralph Abercrombie led English troops in another invasion, fighting a long campaign against a joint force of white and black Republicans. The newly emancipated islanders, fearing they would be returned to bondage, banded together, joined by a number of French army deserters, to create l’Armée Française dans les Bois. The rebels - called Brigands by their enemies - led a campaign of resistance across the island. In 1795 they took control of the fortifications on Pigeon Island, but victory was short-lived. In 1796 British forces defeated and captured them at Morne Fortune.

The Treaty of Amiens in 1802, which ended the Seven Years’ War, returned St Lucia to the French, before it was finally ceded to the British in the Treaty of Paris in 1814. Despite the ideals of the French Revolution, slavery remained in force on St Lucia until the British passed the Emancipation Act in 1834, which came into force in 1838.


Locals carrying coal onboard a U.S. warship at Castries, 1903

Getty Images

British rule

From 1838, St Lucia came under the jurisdiction of the Windward Islands Government, with a Governor based first in Barbados and then in Grenada. While important as a plantation economy, from 1885, St Lucia experienced a period of prosperity when it became an important coaling station. Welsh coal was sold to passing steam ships and by the end of the century, Castries was the 14th most important port in the world when rated by tonnage handled. The rise of oil, however, saw the decline of steam ships and a fall in demand for coal, with a resulting adverse impact on the colony’s economy.

The 1930s were a period of poverty and labour unrest. In 1935 coal workers went on strike and there was violence which had to be put down by the navy. Two years later sugar workers also came out on strike demanding higher wages. This was the beginning of an organised labour movement, culminating in the formation of the first trade union in 1939: the St Lucia Workers Co-Operative Union. This later grew into the St Lucia Labour Party (SLP), led by George FL Charles (1916-2004), who had championed striking workers and became the secretary of the Union, a reformer and one of the most important politicians of the 20th century.

British model of government

St Lucia is governed by a multi-party parliamentary democracy based on the British model and led by an elected prime minister. A House of Assembly made up of 17 members is elected for a five-year term and the island’s Governor General appoints the 11-member Senate.

In 1951, universal adult suffrage was introduced for the first time and elections that year were won by the SLP. Charles became the first Chief Minister and retained power until 1964. He introduced legislation improving workers’ rights and oversaw the shift from sugar production, which had been hit by falling prices, to bananas, which could be produced on smallholdings, benefiting large numbers of small scale farmers. In 1958, St Lucia joined the West Indies Federation until it collapsed in 1961 when Jamaica pulled out.

The 1964 elections were won by the United Workers Party (UWP), led by John Compton (1925-2007), another prominent politician of the late 20th century. He held power from 1964 to 1979, then again won elections in 1982, 1987 and 1992, before retiring in 1996. However, Compton came out of retirement to lead the UWP to victory in the 2006 elections, beating the SLP which had lost popularity during difficult economic times and becoming Prime Minister aged 82 until his death a year later. During his first period of office, St Lucia gained full internal self-government, becoming a State in voluntary association with Britain. Full independence was gained in 1979. St Lucia remains a member of the Commonwealth with Queen Elizabeth II as head of state, represented by the Governor General.


Banana farmer

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Workers’ champion

George Frederick Lawrence Charles came to prominence in 1945 when he championed the cause of striking construction workers who were employed to build an extension to the airport. Knighted in 1998, the airport in Castries was renamed in his honour and a sculpture of the trade unionist was erected there in 2002.


Cruise ships docked in Castries


Challenges in the 21st century

Although St Lucia has the largest banana crop in the Windward Islands and has diversified into other agricultural products, such as renovating historic cacao plantations, planting coconuts, growing flowers and promoting fisheries, farming alone is insufficient to sustain the island’s economy. Entrepreneurs have gradually turned to tourism, which has been promoted by the government to provide jobs as well as bring in foreign exchange. The spectacular landscape of the Pitons, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005, marinas, plenty of sandy beaches and other natural features attract some 320,000 stayover tourists and 600,000 cruise ship passengers a year. Investment in hotels has been significant, from low budget guest houses to the height of luxury at sky-high prices. Nevertheless, the industry remains at the mercy of the world economy and suffered from the international financial crisis of 2008 and thereafter, when the slowdown and high oil prices affected travel. With the fiscal deficit running at nearly 10 per cent of gross domestic product, there is little leeway for the government to soften the impact of external factors with greater spending at home. In a bid to secure sustainable sources of energy, in 2014 the government began negotiations with the World Bank and the government of New Zealand to develop a geothermal project at Soufrière. The project has the potential to provide investment and jobs as well as provide electricity and stabilise energy prices on the island.

Fairtrade bananas

Banana growers in the Windward Islands benefit from the Fairtrade scheme. It enables small farm owners to pay decent wages to their workers and protect their environment without resorting to heavy use of agrochemicals. They produce less than half the quantity of bananas per hectare produced in the intensive, corporate-owned plantations of Latin America, but in the fragile island ecosystems such levels of output would be unsustainable. At a time when international competition is fierce, with the end of EU quotas because of WTO rulings, the Fairtrade scheme is vital to the survival of St Lucian banana farmers. In 2007, Sainsbury’s supermarket in the UK announced that all the bananas it sells would be fairly traded and that 100 million, or 75 percent of the total crop, would come from St Lucia.


AD 200 Amerindians arrive in canoes from the north of South America.

1450 The Kalinago (Caribs) migrate from South America and take over the island.

1502 Columbus may have sighted St Lucia.

1550s The pirate, François Le Clerc, tried to settle St Lucia.

1605 The English land in the south after a ship is blown off course.

1627 Land granted to the Earl of Carlisle includes St Lucia.

1635 The French establish a colony, claiming the island was granted to M. d’Esnambuc in 1626.

1638 300 Englishmen from Bermuda and St Kitts settle on St Lucia but flee after 18 months because of battles with the Kalinago.

1659 The English and French commence hostilities. The island changes hands 14 times in 150 years.

1782 Admiral Rodney destroys the French fleet at the Battle of Les Saintes.

1814 St Lucia is ceded to Britain in the Treaty of Paris.

1838 Following the Act of Emancipation in 1834, slavery is abolished in British territories.

1885 Castries becomes a major coaling station selling coal to passing steam ships.

1920s The rise of oil and decline of coal lead to economic problems.

1930s Poor working conditions and strikes for higher wages lead to the formation of the first trade union.

1951 Universal adult suffrage is established in the British colonies.

1967 St Lucia gains internal self-government as a State in voluntary association with Great Britain.

1979 St Lucia gains full independence.

2005 The Pitons are declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

2014 Negotiations begin with the World Bank and New Zealand to develop geothermal energy at Soufrière.