A History of St. Vincent and the Grenadines

Known by the Caribs as Hairoun (“Land of the Blessed”), St. Vincent was first inhabited by the Ciboney, a grouping of Meso-Indians. The economy of these hunter-gatherers depended heavily on marine resources as well as the land. They used basic tools and weapons and built rock shelters and semi permanent villages.

    Another indigenous group, the Arawak, who entered the West Indies from Venezuela and moved gradually north and west along the islands, gradually displaced the Ciboney. They practiced a highly productive form of agriculture and had a more advanced social structure and material culture. The peace-loving Arawak fished and collectively formed plots of land. The bountiful harvests and abundant fish, combined with the compact and stable island population, permitted the development of an elaborate political and social structure.


    The Caribs, arriving in St. Vincent perhaps no more than 100 years before the Europeans, conquered the Arawak and began a new chapter in Vincentian history. More warlike than their predecessors, the Caribs were extremely efficient at keeping unwanted settlers from their shores. While it is doubtful that Christopher Columbus ever set foot on the island, he may have sighted it on his third voyage to the New World (1498-1500). Heavy Carib resistance prevented  St. Vincent from being colonized long after most other Caribbean islands had well-established European settlements. In 1627 Charles I of England granted the island to Lord Carlisle and then, in 1672 Charles II granted it to Lord Willoughby. While the British, French and Spanish disputed possession, the Caribs resisted all these claims.


    The first permanent settlers arrived on the shores of St. Vincent in 1635. These new inhabitants were African slaves who survived the sinking of the Dutch slave ship on which they were being transported. The escaped Africans merged with the Caribs and gradually adopted their language. Referred to as Black Caribs,” to differentiate them from the original. “Yellow Caribs,” the progeny of this group became the foundation of the Garifuna  (which means“cassava eating people”) who today populate Belize and Honduras. After several skirmishes both groups had agreed in 1700 to subdivide the island between themselves, the Yellow Caribsoccupying the Leeward and the Black Caribs the Windward.

    The British, who claimed Carib land by royal grants, were more despised by the Caribs than the French who were permitted to set up settlements in the early 1700’s. The 1748 TreatyofAix -la-Chapelle officially ended the War of the Austrian Succession. This treaty included the proviso that  St. Vincent remain officially “neutral.” The 1763 Treaty of Paris ceded St. Vincent to the British. During the period 1772-1773 (referred to as the First Carib War), the Caribs engaged in guerrilla warfare and destroyed plantations by setting them on fire. With Carib aid, the French forcibly seized the island in1779, but restored itto Britain in 1783, underthe Treaty of  Versailles.


    In 1795, with the country under the governership of James Seton, the Caribs began the two years of attack known as the Second Carib War. With the aid of French rebels from Martinique, the Caribs plotted the removal of the British. Chatoyer and DuValle (the two main Carib chiefs) planned that Chatoyer would lead the rebellion on the Leeward side and DuValle would lead on the Windward side. News came to Kingstown on March 8th that war had broken out.

    Chatoyer directed his fury at the settlers themselves rather than destroying their property. His belief was that the land would be extremely useful to the Caribs after the removal of the British. He worked his way along the Leeward, joined in battle by the French at Chateaublair, to unite with DuValle at Dorsetshire Hill. The amalgamated forces then set their sights on Kingstown.


A battalion of British soldiers from recently arrived warships marched towards Dorsetshire Hill on March 14th. On this night, Chatoyerwas killed by Major Alexander Leith. Considered a hero to the nation, a monument in Chatoyer’s honour is placed at Dorsetshire Hill. Battles raged throughout St. Vincent overthe nextyear with both sides bearing heavy losses. The final battle took place at Vigie on June 10th, 1796. After a night of arduous fighting  the Caribs approach the British with a truce flag.


    Submission terms were negotiatead and during the next four months over 5,000 Caribs surrendered. The Caribs were exiled to the neighbouring island of Balliceaux and in February 1797,  the defeated Caribs were loaded onto a convoy of eight vessels and transported to the coast of  Honduras. The few remaining Caribs scattered to the north of the island nearSandy Bay where their descendants can still be found.


    The plantation economy, based on slave labour, flourished and St. Vincent produced sugar, cotton, coffee and cocoa. In 1812 La Soufiiйre erupted and devastated much of the island. After the emancipation of slaves in 1833, indentured labour from Portugal and the East Indies was brought in to rectify the Labour shortage. St. Vincent became a part of the British colony of the Windward Islands in 1871. In the latter half of the 19th century sugar slumped and a depression lasted until the end of the century. In 1902 La Soufriиre erupted again, devastating the northern half of the island and killing 2,000 people.


    In 1925 a Legislative Council was inaugurated but it was not until 1951 that universal adult suffrage was introduced. St.Vincent and the Grenadines belonged to the Windward Islands  Federation until 1959 and the West Indies Federation between 1958 and 1962. Britain granted  internal self-government to the isLand in 1969 and as a British Assodated State, Vincentians were responsible for their internal affairs while Great Britain handled foreign affairs and defense.


    In 1972 james Mitchell (an independent) formed a coalition government with the People’s Political  Party (PPP) which collapsed in 1974. Followingthe 1974 elections MiLton Cato formed a coalition  government with the PPP and the St. Vincent LabourParty (SVLP). On Oct. 27, 1979 St. Vincent gained full independence within the Commonwealth from Britain. The New Democratic Party (NDP) formed a majority government with Mitchell as Prime Minister in1984.


    Politically, the island remained under the leadership of Sir james Mitchell until March 2001 when the Unity Labour Party (ULP), led by Dr. RalpGonsalves, won 12 of the 15 parliamentary seats. St. Vincent and the Grenadines continue to be a stable democratic society welcoming  visitors from around the world.



    In February 2001 a Belizean arrived in St. Vincent as part of a University of the West Indies sponsored ‘Artiste in Residence’ programme. The gentleman, Pen Cayetano, entered  the taxi that was taking him to his temporary place of abode beating his drum furiously and passionately, much to the constermation of the taxi driver. Cayetano had grown up in a community where there were constant references to St. Vincent as their motherland. He had, for a longtime, yearned to visit this country and was finally given the opportunity to do so. His drum became a vent for his pent-up emotions. He had finally reached home.


    Mr. Cayetano hails from the Garifuna community of Belize, a people who have traced their roots to 18th century St. Vincent. They are the descendants of the Black Caribs who were exiled trom St. Vincent in March 1797. These people are the product of the inter marriage between the Caribs (Kallinagoes) of  St. Vincent and African slaves who took refuge among them. For centuries they had resisted European attempts to take control of  St. Vincent and to deprive them of  their lands, until finally surrendering to the British in 1796. After having been kept on Balliceaux, a tiny island of the St. Vincent and the Grenadines, for about seven months, some 2,248 of them who remained from a captive population of 4,338, were put on board a convoy of eight vessels and sent into exile to Roatan, an island off Honduras. From Roatan they moved to mainland Honduras and then to other countries in Central America. Today the Garifuna people form distinct parts of the population of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Following the pattern of migration from the mid-twentieth century, Garifuna communities now also exist in the United States of America, with an estimated population of  between 75,000 and 100,000. Efforts are being made to build a monument at Balliceaux in honour of those who were forced to leave these shores and the thousands who died there. Belizean visitors to Balliceaux have often been overcome with emotion as they landed on this tiny island  where so many of their ancestors were kept and died.

    The connection between the descendants of the Belizean Garifuna people and the Black Caribs of St. Vincent had fora longtime been a well-kept secret, until the indigenous people used the 500th anniversary of the coming of Columbus to reflect on their past and present Life, and the Garifuna took the opportunity to strengthen the reconnection process.


    While the Central American Garifuna communities made efforts to preserve aspects of their culture and their uniqueness as a group, in St. Vincent their customs and way of life became fused with the post emancipation Afro -Vincentian culture. Some of the traditional foods and customs, such as the making of cassava bread, boat-building and basket making became essential elements of Vincentian culture without their origin being fully recognized. It is ironic that in the homeland even the language has been lost. This should in fact not be surprising since the main culture bearers were among those exiled in 1797 and those remaining had to adapt themselves for survival.

    The most recent development in this quest for reclaiming identity and reconstructing their history took place on March 14, 2002 when the Great Carib (Garifuna) Chief, Chatoyer, was declared first National Hero of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and the day made a national holiday. Chatoyer, who is also revered bythe Garifuna people in Central America, was Paramount Chief at a very critical period in the struggle to retain the independence of St. Vincent and to preserve the lands on which his people lived. He died in 1795 during the battle that led to the final defeat of the Caribs. The recognition of the importance of the Carib Chief to the life and struggles of his people has long been recognized. The British have established a monument in a prominent place in the Anglican Cathedral to their Major Leith who, it was alleged, had killed Chatoyer in a duel. The account of his death given by the British has been disputed, and is believed to have been part of efforts at psychological warfare.

    Chatoyer was also immortalized in a play, the “Drama of King Shotaway” , that was performed in NewYork in 1823, twenty-eight years after his death. The play was written by Mr. Browne, whose first name is unknown. It is believed that he was a Garifuna member who had experienced the battle of 1795 in which Chatoyer was killed. Mr. Browne is regarded as the Father of BlackTheatre in the United States of America and this play is said to be the first about a black person.


    The recognition given on March 14 to this leading figure in the history of the Garifuna/Black Carib people will undoubtedly focus attention on his and his people’s contribution to the history of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. They had held the might of Europe at bay for centuries, St. Vincent being among the last of the Caribbean countries to be colonized. It will also contribute to restoring the confidence and reconstructing the identity of a people who had been victims of a colonial past and who have had over the years to face the accusation of being cannibals that had been widely propagated in colonial history.


    The Black Carib/Garifuna population in St. Vincentthat remained following the exile, had for long lived on the margin of society, many of them in communities that had been devastated by volcanic eruptions in 1812 and 1902 and had, to all intents and purposes, been cut off from mainstream Vincentian life. A lot has changed over the years, a result of political developments and the growing consciousness of the people. The reconnection of the people, among other things, will help in the reclaiming of their history, identity and pride; and in reconstructing and restoring their central place in the eady history and development of St. Vincent, or Yuremi as it is known in Garifuna language.


    The history, artifacts and other symbols of the Black Caribs (Garifuna people) are essential parts of the history and culture of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Many of the forts and places where the different encounters took place, remain and tell their own story, among them the cannons at Fort Charlotte that point inland. Beside the information they provide to the Vincentian people, they also add to the rich heritage and cultural-tourism infrastructure. Sections of the Central American Garifuna community are developing a case for reparations and are seeking ‘symbolic’ citizenship of this country. The story of the Garifuna people is a unique one that needs to be told, since among other things, it is pivotal to understanding their position in Central America and also the history of St. Vincent and the Grenadines; and indeed the rest of the Caribbean region in which St. Vincent was one of the last outposts of  Carib resistance.