Like many islands in the Caribbean St. Lucia was inhabited long before the Europeans arrived. Arawak Indians had settled in St. Lucia around 2 thousand years ago. The second wave of settlers consisted of the warlike Carib Indians who had more or less removed the Arawaks by 800AD. They called the island “Hewanorra” . The island was not referred to as St. Lucia until the late 1500′s.
The New, European arrivals…
There is some speculation as to which European set foot on St. Lucia first and initially it was thought to have been Columbus on his 4th voyage to the West Indies in 1502. However, historians believe that from the records it was probably Juan de la Cosa that arrived first – a lesser known but no less prolific explorer who had sailed alongside Columbus on 2 previous voyages. The first European settler was Francois Le Clerc, a french pirate known as Jambe de Bois (pegleg). He set up shop on Pigeon Island and attacked passing spanish ships. The Dutch, who increased their presence in the Caribbean throughout the 1600′s, set up a base at Vieux Fort in around 1600. The English arrived accidentally in 1605 when their ship The Olive Branch was blown off course whilst attempting to reach Guyana. This resulted in 67 new settlers to the island who were gradually whittled down to 19 in one month by the resident Caribs. The remaining settlers decided at that point not to push their luck any further, fleeing in a canoe. Sir Thomas Warner spearheaded another bold english attempt to settle in 1639 – and failed.
The French & English Go At It… 14 Times!
Spurred on (no doubt by England’s failure), the French arrived in 1651 in the form of the French West India Company whose representatives bought the island. 8 years later the English disputed the sale (on principle, one suspects) and this ignited hostilities between the two nations for the next 150 years. During this time the island officially changed hand no less than 14 times. Thankfully the tug-of-war ended in 1814 when the island was ceded to the British. The legacy of this struggle has been left behind in a St. Lucia filled with French and English place names. English and french Patios are spoken with equal ease – these days with a distinctly St. Lucian accent and dialect.
The French Connection…
The French were responsible for establishing the first official settlement in St. Lucia – Soufrière in 1746. They built more towns and sugar plantations over the next 40-50 years and prospered with cheap, imported slave labour. The island then changed hands in 1814. The abolition of slavery in 1838 by the English Parliament spelt the beginning of the end for the sugar industry in St. Lucia. Indentured labour from India arrived in the 1880′s to alleviate the chronic agricultural labour shortages. Over the next 30 years indentured labourers continued to arrive and many of them settled permanently in the island. However, it could not stop the overall decline of the industry and by the early 1960′s the sugar industry had totally disappeared.
The British Connection
The backbone of the British Empire was built on good communications – done through their highly organised shipping networks. In the latter half of the 1800′s these vessels were increasingly coal-fired steamships. Coaling stations had to be strategically located around the globe and Castries became a major coaling station. Events conspired to make this role increasingly less important though – first with the abandonment of the island as a garrisoned naval station in 1906 and then with the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, WWI, the Depression and finally with the introduction of diesel and oil fuel in the 1940′s.
The Struggle For Independence
As with many of the British territories after the Second World War, St. Lucia along with its Caribbean neighbours sought increasing autonomy in a strive for total independence. The right for all those over 21 to vote was introduced in 1951 and after unsuccessful attempts to gain increasing autonomy through the ill-fated West Indian Federation of 1958, St. Lucia enacted a new constitution which expired in 1967 when the island was granted full self-government by the British. St. Lucia became fully independent on February 22, 1979. It remains a member of the British Commonwealth.
A New Era
St. Lucia’s tourist industry has grown steadily in the last 20 years and its increasing appeal as an eco-destination with its delightfully unspoilt natural resources bodes well for the future. St. Lucians have a reputation in the rest of the Caribbean for being surprisingly worldly, mentally tough and resourceful. Despite the many perplexing developmental issues for the Small Island Developing States across the Caribbean, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind as to St. Lucia’s potential – one feels that the St. Lucian people are just the sort to realise it. Beautifully.