The Amerindians were well established in St. Lucia, long before the first European ever set foot on the island. At that time, the island bore the Amerindian name ‘Ioüanalao’ and ‘Hewanorra,’ meaning “there where the iguana is found”. The island was first populated by the Ciboneys, who were hunters and gatherers, and who disappeared leaving little trace of their presence. The Arawaks, adept potters, weavers, builders, agriculturists and shipwrights followed them. Records suggest that they enjoyed nearly 800 years of peace before a new warrior group, Kalinago, also known as Caribs, overcame them. Once the Caribs overpowered the Arawaks, they executed the males and kept the females as wives.
The Kalinago were supreme rulers of the Windward Islands. However with the arrival of the first European ships, the development of the Caribbean changed radically. Even though historians credit the Spaniards for giving the island her modern-day name, (“Santa Alousie” was first used in the late sixteenth century), they gave the island a wide berth and never bothered to colonize it. They did not want to tangle with the Kalinago and St. Lucia was not known to have gold deposits. But the Europeans were inexorable and their coming put an end to Amerindian supremacy.
The first European to settle in St. Lucia was François Le Clerc, known as Jambe de Bois or Wooden Leg. He was a pirate who set himself up on Pigeon Island from where he attacked passing Spanish vessels.
The English first landed in 1605, having been blown off course on their way to Guyana aboard their vessel, the Olive Branch. Sixty-seven settlers landed and purchased huts from the Kalinago. One month later only 19 were left and these were forced to flee from the Kalinago in a canoe.
The French arrived in 1651 when representatives of the French West India Company bought the island. Eight years later, ownership disputes between the French and English ignited hostilities that would endure for 150 years. During this time, the island changed hands fourteen times.
St. Lucia was finally ceded to the British in 1814.
From the 1760’s onwards, St. Lucia developed into a sugar-producing economy, built on African slave labour. However, the endless conflicts between the French and English colonial powers, over St. Lucia’s strategic military value impeded the development of its plantations, and by the late 18th century the French revolutionary cry of ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’ reached St. Lucia.
Under Revolutionary law, slavery was abolished in 1794 and the political equality of the coloured man was officially recognized. Freed slaves proceeded to wipe out the plantation infrastructure. Resistance against British attempts to re-take the island was orchestrated by the Maroons: renegade ex-slaves who lived in secret hideouts in inaccessible parts of the island. The Maroons joined forces with the French Revolutionary army to form L’Armée Française des Bois.
St. Lucia became Ste. Lucie la Fidèle and all of the towns were given revolutionary names such as La Patriote (Laborie), La Revolution (Gros Islet), and Le Republicain (Dennery).
The Revolutionaries held St. Lucia for fifteen months against the British. The Maroons finally surrendered arms in 1797 but refused to accept slavery, which the British insisted on reinstating. According to British records, these men were returned to Africa.
The British finally abolished slavery in 1834. After Emancipation, many former slaves were unwilling to stay on as labourers on the plantations and the colonial powers sought alternative manpower. In 1882, the first Indian immigrants arrived from the provinces of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. About half of them returned home at the end of their indenture while the others settled permanently in St. Lucia, enriching the island’s cultural diversity.
St. Lucia’s economic base has traditionally been agricultural. Sugar, the first mono-crop was eventually abandoned in the 1950s, when bananas became the largest export crop. Over the last few years, however, privileges enjoyed by the West Indian banana in Europe have ended, and St. Lucia must diversify into other areas or face real economic hardship. Tourism is now the most important source of foreign exchange. St. Lucia is also one of the largest transhipment points for containerised cargo in the Eastern Caribbean. The colonial motto “statio haud malefidia carinis” - a safe haven for ships, still applies to the island.
In 1842, English became the island’s official language but St. Lucia retains a strong French heritage. The majority of the island’s village and town names are French, and the Creole language born of St. Lucia’s Amerindian, African and European roots, is widely spoken.
St. Lucia moved towards independence in 1951 when suffrage was granted to all citizens over twenty-one. In 1967, England granted the island full self-government and St. Lucia, a member of the British Commonwealth, became an independent nation on February 22nd, 1979. The island retains the Westminster-based parliamentary system but a Senate made up of government and opposition appointees debates house bills. According to the latest census, St. Lucia’s population stands at 156,000, of which about 62,000 live in and around the capital, Castries.