First sighted by Christopher Columbus in 1493 on his second voyage to the New World, St Kitts and Nevis became the oldest British colonies in the Caribbean in 1623 and 1628, respectively. Like many islands in the region, their growth was fueled by sugar and the African slaves that worked on the plantations. Even after St Kitts and Nevis became independent of Britain in 1983, sugar continued to drive the economy until 2005.

Discovery

The island known today as St Kitts was called Liamuiga (Fertile Island) by the Caribs, who arrived about AD 1300 and chased out the peaceable agrarian bands who’d been in the area for hundreds of years. When Columbus sighted the island on his second voyage to the New World, in 1493, he named it St Christopher after his patron saint, later shortened to ‘St Kitts.’

Columbus used the Spanish word for ‘snow,’ nieve, to name Nevis, presumably because the clouds shrouding its mountain reminded him of a snowcapped peak. Caribs knew the island as Oualie (Land of Beautiful Waters).

Colonial Times

St Kitts was colonized under Sir Thomas Warner in 1623, only to be joined soon after by the French, a move the British only tolerated long enough to massacre the Caribs. In one day, 2000 of them were slaughtered, causing blood to run for days at the site now known as Bloody Point.

A century and a half of Franco-British battles culminated locally in 1782, when a force of 8000 French troops laid siege to the important British stronghold at Brimstone Hill on St Kitts. Although they won this battle, they lost the war and the 1783 Treaty of Paris brought the island firmly under British control.

Nevis had a colonial history similar to St Kitts. In 1628 Warner sent a party of about 100 colonists to establish a British settlement on the west coast of the island. Although the original settlement, near Cotton Ground, fell to an earthquake in 1680, Nevis eventually developed one of the most affluent sugar plantation societies in the Eastern Caribbean. As on St Kitts, most of the island’s wealth was built upon the labor of African slaves who toiled in the island’s sugarcane fields. Sugar continued to play a role in the local economies until the last plantation closed in 2005.

By the late 18th century, Nevis, buoyed by the attraction of its thermal baths, had become a major retreat for Britain’s rich and famous.

Road to Independence

In 1816 the British linked St Kitts and Nevis with Anguilla and the Virgin Islands as a single colony. In 1958 these islands became part of the West Indies Federation, a grand but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to combine all of Britain’s Caribbean colonies as a united political entity. When the federation dissolved in 1962, the British opted to lump St Kitts, Nevis and Anguilla together as a new state. Anguilla, fearful of domination by larger St Kitts, revolted against the occupying Royal St Kitts Police Force in 1967 and returned to Britain as an overseas territory.

In 1983 St Kitts and Nevis became a single nation within the British Commonwealth, with the stipulation that Nevis could secede at any time. In the 1990s, a period of corruption on St Kitts and pro-independence on Nevis almost brought an end to the federation. A referendum held on Nevis in 1998, however, failed to produce a two-third majority needed to break away.

Looking Ahead

St Kitts’ future is quite literally under construction as parts of the unpopulated southern part of the island are being developed into Christophe Harbour, a high-end residential area with villas, a private-member beach club, a superyacht marina and a Tom Fazio–designed golf course. The area is also home to a new Park Hyatt resort, the brand's first in the Caribbean. A new tunnel and resurfaced road have also been completed. In the north, the big news is the opening of the Belle Mont Farm, a visionary sustainable resort set on its own 400-acre farm at the foot of Mt Liamuiga.

Nevis, on the other hand, is looking to the past as its greatest asset. The expanded Nevis Heritage Trail goes a long way toward education and heritage preservation.