By the time Columbus discovered St Vincent on his third voyage in 1498, the Caribs were occupying the island, which they called Hairoun. They had overpowered the Arawaks, killing the men but interbreeding with the women. The Caribs aggressively prevented European settlement until the 18th century but were more welcoming to Africans. In 1675 a passing Dutch ship laden with settlers and their slaves was shipwrecked between St Vincent and Bequia. Only the slaves survived and these settled and mixed with the native population and their descendants still live in Sandy Bay and a few places in the northwest. Escaped slaves from St Lucia and Grenada later also sought refuge on St Vincent and interbred with the Caribs. As they multiplied they became known as ‘Black Caribs’. There was tension between the Caribs and the Black Caribs and in 1700 there was civil war.
In 1722 the British attempted to colonize St Vincent but French settlers had already arrived and were living peaceably with the Caribs growing tobacco, indigo, cotton and sugar. Possession was hotly disputed until 1763 when it was ceded to Britain. It was lost to the French again in 1778 but regained under the Treaty of Versailles in 1783. However, this did not bring peace with the Black Caribs, who repeatedly tried to oust the British in what became known as the Carib Wars. A treaty with them in 1773 was soon violated by both sides. Peace came only at the end of the century when in 1796 General Abercrombie crushed a revolt fomented the previous year by the French radical Victor Hugues. In 1797, over 5,000 Black Caribs were deported to Roatán, an island at that time in British hands off the coast of Honduras. The violence ceased although racial tension took much longer to eradicate. In the late 19th century, a St Vincentian poet, Horatio Nelson Huggins wrote an epic poem about the 1795 Carib revolt and deportation to Roatán, called Hiroona, which was published in the 1930s.
In the 19th century labour shortages on the plantations brought Portuguese immigrants in the 1840s and East Indians in the 1860s, and the population today is largely a mixture of these and the African slaves. Slavery was abolished in 1832 but social and economic conditions remained harsh for the majority non-white population. In 1902, La Soufrière erupted, killing 2,000 people, just two days before Mont Pelée erupted on Martinique, killing 30,000. Much of the farming land was seriously damaged and economic conditions deteriorated further. In 1925 a Legislative Council was inaugurated but universal adult suffrage was not introduced until 1951.
St Vincent and the Grenadines belonged to the Windward Islands Federation until 1959 and the West Indies Federation between 1958 and 1962. In 1969 the country became a British Associated State with complete internal self-government. Government during the 1970s was mostly coalition government between the St Vincent Labour Party (SVLP) and the People’s Political Party. In 1979 St Vincent and the Grenadines gained full Independence, but the year was also remembered for the eruption of La Soufrière on Good Friday, 13 April. Fortunately no one was killed as thousands were evacuated, but there was considerable agricultural damage. In 1980 Hurricane Allen caused further devastation to the plantations and it took years for production of crops such as coconuts and bananas to recover. Hurricane Emily destroyed an estimated 70% of the banana crop in 1987.
The National Democratic party (NDP), held power under Prime Minister James Mitchell (Sir James after receiving a knighthood in 1995) from 1984 until 2001. In the 1998 elections, the NDP won eight of the 15 seats in the House of Assembly, and its share of the vote fell. The United Labour Party (ULP) called for new elections because the ULP won 54.6% of the vote compared with only 45.3% for the winning NDP. The Government was often criticized for its handling of the economy and for failing to deal with drug trafficking and health and education issues. US officials believed that offshore banks in St Vincent were being used to launder drugs money and that the southern Grenadines were a transshipment point for cocaine. Marijuana is grown in the hills of St Vincent and the USA regularly carries out eradication exercises. Farmers complain they have no other crop to grow, particularly since the collapse in banana exports.
Political tensions in 2000 were defused by the mediation of the Caribbean Community (Caricom). Conflict arose when the government increased pension and gratuities for members of parliament. The ULP, trade unions and others organized strikes and called for the government’s resignation. The Caricom agreement called for general elections to be brought forward by two years and held no later than end-March 2001. Sir James Mitchell (69) resigned the leadership of the NDP in August 2000. The 2001 elections resulted in a landslide victory for the ULP and Ralph Gonsalves became Prime Minister. Elections in December 2005 were described as the ‘mother of all political battles’ as the NDP campaigned vigorously to unseat the ULP, but they were unsuccessful and Prime Minister Gonsalves and the ULP retained a 12-3 majority over the NDP.
The St Vincent economy is largely based on agriculture and tourism, with a small manufacturing industry which is mostly for export. The main export is bananas, the fortunes of which used to fluctuate according to the severity of the hurricane season, but the fall in prices brought about by the new European banana policy has hit hard. Bananas account for over 60% of the labour force and 50% of exports. The Banana Growers Association is in debt and has been attempting to cut costs, but is also investing in improving land, irrigation and packing sheds. Quality, prices, planting and production have all recovered strongly. Nevertheless, the Government is encouraging farmers to diversify and reduce dependence on bananas with incentives and land reform. Arrowroot starch is the second largest export crop, St Vincent is the world’s largest producer. Arrowroot is now used as a fine dressing for computer paper as well as the traditional use as a thickening agent in cooking. Other exports include coconuts, copra, anthurium lilies, orchids, sweet potatoes, tannias and eddoes. Fishing has received aid from Japan. In return, St Vincent supports Japan on whaling issues.
Tourism in St Vincent and the Grenadines is a major employer and source of foreign exchange. The Government has encouraged upmarket, often yacht-based tourism, mainly in the Grenadines. Expansion is limited by the size of the airport and the willingness of international airlines to fly into the islands. Stopover tourist arrivals are around 60,000 a year. Visitor expenditure is about US$50 mn a year.
About 25% live in the capital, Kingstown and its suburbs, 8% live on the Grenadines; 66% of the population are black and 19% as mixed, while 2% are Amerindian/black, 6% East Indian, 4% white and the remainder are ‘others’. In the north of the island there are people of Carib descent. Nelcia Robinson, above Cyrus Tailor Shop on Grenville Street, is of Garifuna descent and is Co-ordinator of the Caribbean Organization of Indigenous Peoples.