St. Lucia may be described in terms of its size (twenty seven by fourteen miles), its approximate population (160,000), its climate (tropical), or its main sources of income (banana production, tourism, light manufacturing) - but what do such descriptions mean to those of us who were born and raised here? Or to those of us who now live overseas? It doesn't stir up memories of the exhilaration felt when going up river with a gang of other kids to slide down the waterfalls, crying 'Whiiiiee Sallee!' all the way down. It doesn't convey anything of the all-familiar sight of school children, barefoot with their uniforms dishevelled, pelting stones into fruit-laden mango trees and later, bellies full, pulling the stringy bits from between their teeth with their shirtsleeves.
And what does dry, quantitative information teach those of us who intend to visit the island for the first time, hoping for a relaxed get-away on a soft, sandy beach, or a romantic time in a smoothly-run hotel? Lets try to keep those smells, sights and sounds in mind, and remember that they are what really make up the culture and people of St. Lucia – as we take ourselves on a concise tour of the island's history, its political make-up and social structure.
St. Lucia was colonised for the very first time around 500 BC by the Ciboneys - an Amerindian people orginating in Venezuela. They were followed by Arawak Indians around 200 AD, and later again, around 900 AD, by the Caribs. Today, very little remains of the culture of these original inhabitants in St. Lucia, bar some knowledge regarding boat building, weaving and pottery, and some linguistic remains. From 1605 onwards, French, British and Dutch seafarers began colonising St. Lucia - as they did elsewhere in the New World. By 1680, the Caribs had had to yield control over the island, and European settlement began in earnest. Soon, French, British and Irish colonisers felt compelled to bring in enslaved workers from the West-African coast to perform the arduous tasks associated with tropical agriculture, particularly sugar cultivation. Despite a major uprising in the 1790s, known as the Brigands' War, slavery continued in St. Lucia until 1838, when it was finally abolished in all of the British West Indian colonies. Since 1804, St. Lucia had permanently been under British rule, after several changes in ownership between France and Britain during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Culturally, however, St. Lucia continues to demonstrate strong French influences - as is highlighted by its predominantly French-based Creole (also informally known as 'patois').
After Emancipation, in 1838, St. Lucians remained in many ways subservient to the demands and needs of the capitalist world system. A small white elite of planters and merchants maintained control over a large black workforce, with a small but expanding coloured middle-class mediating between the two. Some workers managed to establish themselves as peasants on lands not in use by the elite-owned sugar plantations, but many had to continue working on these estates for a livelihood. Wages were very low until well into the 20th century, and alternative ways of making a living remained limited to fishing, charcoal-making, wood cutting, shopkeeping or emigration (both seasonal and permanent). In the late 19th century, contract labourers from India were imported to work on the sugar estates, and this 'East-Indian' heritage has since complemented the African and European ethnic make-up of St. Lucian culture and society.
In the mid-twentieth century, St. Lucian society went through a series of major changes. Plantation-based sugar cultivation was abandoned in the 1950s, and replaced by small-scale, farmer-grown banana production. Around the same time, thousands of St. Lucians decided to try their luck overseas: in Curacao first, and soon after in the U.K., Canada, the United States and elsewhere. In political terms, the birth of a labour movement (in the 1930s) gave rise in the 1950s to an increasing level of self-governance. Adult suffrage, various constitutional changes and closer cooperation within the Eastern Caribbean finally gave rise, in 1979, to political independence for St. Lucia within the British Commonwealth. Since the 1970s, subsequent governments have prompted diversification of the local economy, by stimulating investments in the tourism and light manufacturing sectors. Today, tourism and banana production form the mainstay of the island's economy, with manufacturing and a range of other, smaller income-earners making up the rest.
St. Lucia is a parliamentary democracy, boasting two political parties:
The United Workers Party (which was in almost permanent power from 1964 until 1997, most of the time under the leadership of Sir John Compton), and the St. Lucia Labour Party, which was in power from 1979 to1982, and again since 1997, under current Prime-Minister Dr. Kenny D. Anthony.
Traditionally, St. Lucia's education system has been in the hands of the Catholic church. Due to perpetual clashes between the (French-oriented) church and the (British-oriented) government, development of the education system has long been a bone of contention. Until the 1960s, the island relied on only two secondary schools - St. Mary's College for boys, and St. Joseph's Convent for girls, in Castries. Since then, however, the expansion of primary and secondary schooling has steadily continued, and the aim of secondary education for all is now within reach. Extraordinarily, the absolute lack of educational opportunities has not prevented St. Lucians from attaining the highest honour any scholar can achieve: in 1979, Sir Arthur Lewis was awarded the Nobel Prize for economics and in 1992, Sir Derek Walcott received the same for literature. Besides that, numerous other St. Lucians are leading specialists, world-wide, in the fields of medicine, law, accountancy, history, chemistry, and other disciplines.