St. Kitts and Nevis

Caribbean Islands Table of Contents

St. KittsSt. Christopher (hereafter, St. Kitts) and Nevis share a long history of British colonization. St. Kitts has been referred to as the "mother colony of the West Indies," a reflection of its status as the first English colony in the Caribbean. Although discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493, St. Kitts was not settled by Europeans until 1623, when a small group of Britons established themselves at Sandy Bay. As elsewhere in the Caribbean, the French were not far behind; they established settlements the following year. Nevis was colonized in 1628 by an English party dispatched from St. Kitts.

The British and French kept up an uneasy cohabitation on St. Kitts until 1713, when Britain was granted sole dominion under the Treaty of Utrecht. The only apparent cooperative venture between the two groups of settlers during this period was a series of joint military operations against the native Carib Indians that resulted in their virtual elimination from the island. Although officially sovereign, the British were unable to solidify their control over the islands and secure them against French assault until the late eighteenth century (see Historical and Cultural Setting, ch. 1). This consolidation of British rule was recognized by the Treaty of Versailles in 1783.

Under British rule, St. Kitts and, to a lesser extent, Nevis provided classic examples of the plantation system. On tracts owned by well-to-do Britons, often on an absentee basis, cash crops were raised for export by indentured laborers and, eventually, by African slaves. After brief attempts at indigo and tobacco cultivation, sugarcane was introduced to both islands by the mid- seventeenth century (see The Sugar Revolutions and Slavery, ch. 1). Sugarcane cultivation and its by-products--land scarcity, price fluctuation, seasonal employment and unemployment, and migration-- went on to shape the history of St. Kitts and Nevis, although soil erosion and depletion in Nevis eventually led to the abandonment of sugarcane cultivation by the plantation owners and the establishment of peasant smallholdings.

The two islands, along with the somewhat more distant Anguilla, experienced a number of administrative configurations and changes of status during the course of colonial history. Beginning in 1671, St. Kitts and Nevis joined Antigua (with Barbuda and Redonda) and Montserrat as part of the Leeward Caribbee Islands Government under a British governor. This arrangement endured until 1806, when the Leeward Caribbees were split into two separate governmental units, with St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands comprising one of these units. The Leewards were reunited as a single administrative entity in 1871, with Dominica included in the grouping. St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla was established as a "presidency" within the Leeward Islands Federation in 1882, a status it kept until 1956.

The three-island grouping participated in the ill-fated West Indies Federation from 1958 to 1962 and took part in the unsuccessful negotiations of the so-called Little Eight (Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Montserrat, St. Kitts- Nevis-Anguilla, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines), which broke off in 1966 when the government of Antigua and Barbuda would not agree to have its postal service absorbed into a federal framework. When these efforts failed, St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla, along with most of the other small Caribbean colonies, accepted the British offer of associated statehood (see Glossary), which provided for domestic self-government while Britain maintained responsibility for external affairs and defense. St. Kitts and Nevis remained an associated state until it declared full independence in 1983 (the last of the associated states to do so). By that time, Anguilla had long since declared and demonstrated its opposition to continued union with St. Kitts and had assumed dependency status (see British Dependencies: British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, and Montserrat, this ch.).

The political history of St. Kitts and Nevis is closely intertwined with its economic development (or lack of it). The issue of land is at the heart of Kittitian politics. The dominance by estate owners of this already limited natural resource and the single-minded application of that resource to one industry precluded the development of a stable peasant class. Instead, the system produced a large class of wage laborers generally resentful of foreign influence. The nature of the sugar industry itself--the production of a nonstaple and essentially nonnutritive commodity for a widely fluctuating world market--only served to deepen this hostility and to motivate Kittitian laborers to seek greater control over their working lives and their political situation.

The collapse of sugar prices brought on by the Great Depression precipitated the birth of the organized labor movement in St. Kitts and Nevis. The Workers League, organized by Robert Bradshaw in 1932, tapped the popular frustration that fueled the labor riots of 1935-36. Rechristened the St. Kitts and Nevis Trades and Labour Union in 1940, the union established a political arm, the St. Kitts and Nevis Labour Party, which put Bradshaw in the Legislative Council in 1946. The Labour Party would go on to dominate political life in the twin-island state for more than thirty years.

During its long tenure, Bradshaw's Labour government moved increasingly toward a statist approach to economic development. This tendency culminated in 1975, when the government took control of all sugarcane fields. It assumed ownership of the central sugar factory in Basseterre, the capital, the following year. By this time, opponents of the Labour government had discerned a corresponding tendency toward political rigidity and even repression, mainly through the vehicle of the St. Christopher and Nevis Defence Force. Resentment of Labour rule was particularly acute on Nevis, where citizens not only saw themselves as neglected and ignored politically but also felt that their island was being unfairly deprived of services and revenue by its larger neighbor. Nevisian disenchantment with the Labour Party proved a key factor in the party's eventual fall from power.

The decline of the Labour Party was marked by the passing of its longtime leader, Bradshaw, in 1978. He was replaced as premier (the preindependence title for prime minister) of St. Kitts and Nevis by a close associate, C. Paul Southwell. When Southwell died only one year later, the government and the party fell into a leadership crisis that strained the unity required to fend off a growing opposition. The new Labour leader, Lee Moore, apparently was unprepared to fill the void left by Bradshaw and Southwell.

By 1979, the political opposition had coalesced into two party groupings, one on St. Kitts, the other on Nevis. The Kittitian opposition party was the People's Action Movement (PAM), a middle- class organization founded in 1965 on the heels of a protest movement against a government-ordered increase in electricity rates. The PAM first participated in elections in 1966. Its platform eventually came to advocate economic diversification away from sugar and toward tourism, increased domestic food production, reduction of the voting age to eighteen, and increased autonomy for Nevis.

On Nevis, the party that came to enjoy widespread support was the Nevis Reformation Party (NRP). Established in 1970, the NRP advocated secession from St. Kitts as the only solution to the island's lack of autonomy. Campaigning almost exclusively on this issue, the party won 80 percent of the vote on Nevis in the elections of 1975, capturing both Nevisian seats in the legislature.

Labour's decline was confirmed by the elections of 1980. Although Labour outpolled the PAM on St. Kitts, taking four seats to three, the NRP again captured both seats on Nevis. This made possible the formation of a PAM/NRP coalition government in the House of Assembly (the legislative body that succeeded the colonial Legislative Council) with a bare majority of five seats to four, a development that placed the Labour Party in the unfamiliar role of parliamentary opposition. Kennedy Simmonds, a medical doctor and one of the founders of the PAM, assumed the post of premier (Simmonds had won Bradshaw's former seat in a 1979 by-election). Simeon Daniel, the leader of the NRP, was appointed minister of finance and Nevis affairs.

The change in government reduced the demand for Nevisian secession. Most Nevisians had long focused their objections to Kittitian government on the Labour Party. The PAM, advocating as it did an enhanced autonomy for Nevis, facilitated the incorporation of the NRP and its followers into national life. The PAM/NRP coalition also cleared the way for the national independence of St. Kitts and Nevis as a two-island federation. Although Simmonds and the PAM had formerly stated their opposition to full independence, they now reversed themselves, citing economic advances since the change of government and the prospect of further development through increased foreign aid after a formal separation from Britain. Accordingly, the coalition hammered out a constitution that granted Nevis considerable autonomy as well as a guaranteed right of secession (see Government and Politics, this section). A constitutional conference was held in London in December 1982, and St. Christopher and Nevis was declared an independent state on September 19, 1983.

Although Moore had participated in the constitutional conference, the Labour Party expressed strong objections to many provisions of the new Constitution, particularly those dealing with Nevis. The arrangement worked out by the PAM and NRP, it claimed, was not a true federation, since St. Kitts was not granted the same powers of local government as Nevis, i.e., there was no separate Kittitian legislature, and was not allowed the same right of secession.

Labour's objections, however, did not seem to be widely shared by the electorate. Simmonds, now the prime minister, called early elections in June 1984. In the expanded parliament, the PAM augmented its majority by capturing six seats to Labour's two. It also scored a symbolic victory by defeating Moore in his constituency and denying him the post and platform of leader of the opposition. The NRP captured all three seats in Nevis, yielding the coalition government a commanding nine to two advantage in Parliament and an apparent mandate to pursue its policies of development through diversification and an enhanced private sector.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress