Before Columbus’s arrival in 1493, there were Amerindians living on both islands, and their relics can still be seen. As in most of the other islands, they were slaughtered by European immigrants, although the Caribs fought off the British and the French for many years and their battles are celebrated locally. St Kitts became the first British settlement in the West Indies in 1623 and was important for its sugar industry, with the importation of large numbers of African slaves. In April 1690 a severe earthquake caused heavy damage to St Kitts, Nevis and Redonda. It was followed by a tidal wave which compounded the damage and, it is believed, destroyed Nevis’ first capital, Jamestown.
For a time St Kitts was shared by France and England; partition was ended by the Peace of Utrecht in 1713 and it finally became a British colony in 1783. From 1816, St Christopher, Nevis, Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands were administered as a single colony until the Leeward Islands Federation was formed in 1871.
From 1958, St Kitts-Nevis and Anguilla belonged to the West Indies Federation until its dissolution in 1962. In 1967 their constitutional status was changed from Crown Colony to a state in voluntary association with Britain, in a step towards Independence. Robert L Bradshaw was the first Premier of the Associated State. Local councils were set up in Anguilla and Nevis to give those islands more authority over local affairs. Anguilla broke away from the group and was re-established as a Crown Colony in 1971. During the 1970s Independence was a burning issue but Nevis’ local council was keen to follow Anguilla’s lead rather than become independent with St Kitts. Negotiations were stalled because of British opposition to Nevis becoming a Crown Colony. Eventually, on 19 September 1983, St Kitts and Nevis became independent as a single nation.
The main political parties are the People’s Action Movement (PAM), the St Kitts and Nevis Labour Party (SKNLP), the Nevis Reformation Party (NRP) and the Concerned Citizens Movement (CCM). Dr Kennedy Simmonds (PAM) was elected Prime Minister in 1980 and held office until July 1995. Elections in November 1993 were highly controversial when PAM and the SKNLP each won four seats, the CCM two and the NRP one. The CCM declined to join a coalition government or to form a majority with either party. The Governor then asked Dr Kennedy Simmonds to form a minority government with the support of the NRP, PAM’s previous coalition partner. This was extremely unpopular, given that the Labour Party had won 54.4% of votes cast in St Kitts compared with 41.7% for PAM. A state of emergency was declared for 10 days in December because of rioting. More clashes greeted the budget presentation in February 1994 with the SKNLP boycotting parliament (except to take the oath of allegiance in May) in support of fresh elections.
Also during 1994, St Kitts was rocked by a corruption scandal linked to senior political officials involving drugs trafficking, murder and prison riots. It was alleged that traffickers were exploiting St Kitts and Nevis and avoiding better monitored routes. The crisis pushed the Government to call a forum for national unity, at which it was decided that a general election should be held, three years ahead of schedule. In the meantime, all parties in the National Assembly participated in decisions on matters such as foreign investment and a code of conduct to regulate political activity. A Commonwealth observer team monitored the elections to prevent a recurrence of the 1993 disturbances.
In the months leading up to the 3 July elections, British police officers were brought in to assist the local police. The campaign was marred by political party rivalry which was often violent, but the result was an overwhelming victory for the SKNLP, which won seven seats. PAM was reduced to one, while the CCM and the NRP continued to hold two seats and one seat respectively. Dr Denzil Douglas became Prime Minister.
The Premier of Nevis is Mr Joseph Parry (NRP). He became Premier in 2006, defeating Mr Vance Amory (CCM), who had been in power for over 20 years. Although Mr Amory had been in favour of the secession of Nevis from the federal state, Mr Parry prefers to resolve issues with the federal government. A referendum on secession in July 1998 was unsuccessful when it failed to gain the approval of two-thirds of the electorate.
The SKNLP returned to power in 2000, winning all eight seats in St Kitts. There was no change in Nevis, the CCM winning two seats and the NRP one. PAM had claimed massive fraud in the elections, in which it won 35.5% of the vote in St Kitts but no seats. In October 2004, the SKNLP won again, with seven of the eight seats, while in Nevis the CCM won two seats and the NRP one. The Hon Dr Denzil Douglas remains Prime Minister, while the leader of the opposition in Parliament is the Hon Sean Richards (PAM).
Sugar was for centuries the traditional base of economic production. Low prices for sugar in the world markets, hurricane damage, droughts, cane fires and the falling value of the euro, meant the industry was running at a loss and was finally closed in 2005. More vegetables, sweet potatoes and yams are now being grown, while on Nevis, Sea Island cotton and coconuts are more common on smallholdings. Livestock farming and manufacturing are developing industries. There are enclave industries, such as electronic assembly, data processing and garment manufacturing (now over a quarter of total exports), which export to the USA and Caricom trading partners, while sales of sugar-based products such as pure cane spirit go mainly outside the region.
Tourism has become an important foreign exchange earner, and contributes about 10% of GDP. The construction industry has benefited from the expansion of tourist infrastructure. The Government is increasing cruise ship arrivals with port improvement projects enabling several cruise liners to berth at once. Stopovers will be encouraged by resort development projects on the southeast peninsula of St Kitts.