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Saint Kitts and Nevis


Kennedy Simmonds, Brimstone Hill fortress, Basseterre, Treaty of Paris, Commonwealth of Nations

Christopher Columbus landed on the islands in 1493, on his second voyage to the Americas, and named Saint Kitts for his patron saint, Saint Christopher. At that time Carib Indians were living on both islands. They defended their territory against potential French and British settlers but were eventually slaughtered or died of diseases introduced by the Europeans. In 1623 Saint Kitts became the first British territory in the West Indies; Nevis was colonized in 1628. In 1690 the islands were struck by a devastating earthquake and tidal wave, which destroyed Nevisís first capital, Jamestown.

The French also claimed Saint Kitts and settled Basseterre. For a while the French and British shared Saint Kitts, but by the middle of the 17th century intermittent warfare between the two had become the norm. The French drove the British from Saint Kitts in 1664, only to be driven out themselves in 1689. French forces regained the island briefly in the early 18th century, and again in 1782 following a month-long siege of the British garrison in the Brimstone Hill fortress. This massive stronghold on the northwestern coast was once known as the Gibraltar of the West Indies because of its commanding strategic position. Nevis also came under periodic attack from France and Spain. France finally ceded Saint Kitts to Great Britain by the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

The islandsí first commercial crop was tobacco, but later plantation owners found that the fertile soils produced high-quality sugarcane. The sugar plantations were worked by large numbers of slaves imported from Africa. After the British government abolished slavery during the 1830s, the economy of the islands went into decline.

From 1816 until 1871 Saint Kitts, Nevis, Anguilla, and the islands of what are now the British Virgin Islands were administered as a single colony. In 1871 the Leeward Islands Federation united Saint Kitts, Nevis, and Anguilla as a British dependency. The three islands became an internally self-governing member of the West Indies Associated States in 1967. Anguilla was placed under direct British rule in 1971 and was officially withdrawn from the dependency in 1980.

Saint Kitts and Nevis jointly attained full independence within the Commonwealth of Nations on September 19, 1983. Kennedy Simmonds, leader of the Peopleís Action Movement (PAM), became the nationís first prime minister and held that position for more than ten years. The PAM remained in power until a scandal involving allegations of drug smuggling on Saint Kitts rocked Simmondsís government. An election was called in 1995, which the Labour Party won, and Labour leader Denzil Douglas became the nationís new prime minister. His government moved to crack down on drug trafficking and the crime associated with it. It also encouraged the development of tourism and of manufacturing for export.

In 1997 lawmakers in Nevis authorized a referendum on the issue of whether Nevis should pursue independence from Saint Kitts. Pro-independence leaders claimed that the government in Saint Kitts had ignored the needs of residents on the smaller island of Nevis. Saint Kitts had an infrastructure that included paved roads, a state-of-the-art hospital, and a modern port and international airport that cater to tourists. Nevis had a single dirt road and a small, aging port. Pro-independence supporters also cited cultural differences that had developed between the two islands, expressing particular alarm at the perceived growth in drug smuggling and crime on Saint Kitts. The referendum, however, failed to gain the necessary two-thirds majority for ratification by the National Assembly.

In the 2000 legislative elections, the Labour Party won a majority of the elected seats in the legislature, and the partyís leader, Denzil Douglas, began a second term as prime minister. His third consecutive term began in 2004. Although tourism increased while Douglas was in office, drug trafficking and high crime rates remained a problem.

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