St. Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines
How did the Saints get their names?
It was Christopher Columbus who discovered the islands of St. Kitts and Nevis. He named one after his patron Saint, St. Christopher. Later it was shortened to his nickname, St. Kitts. It was considered to be the mother colony of the West Indies. People who live on St. Kitts are known as Kittitians and people that live on Nevis are called Nevisians. The name Nevis is derived from the Spanish “Nuestra Senora de las Nieves” which means “Our Lady of the Snows.” This was in reference to its cloud cover, which resembled snow. Originally, Nevis was called “Oualie” or “Land of Beautiful Waters” by the early inhabitants, the Caribs. It was also for a time called “Dulcina” or “Sweet One” by early British settlers.
St. Lucia is one of the only countries in the world that was named after a woman. It was the French who named it, after St. Lucy of Syracuse, because they were shipwrecked on the island December 13th, 1502. It was previously called “Iounaloa” by the native Amerindians and “Hewanorra” by the Caribs. The names are purported to mean the “Land where Iguana is Found.” St. Lucia is sometimes referred to as “Helen of the West Indies” because it was traded between colonies 14 times.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines were also named by Christopher Columbus. St. Vincent was sighted by him on January 22, the feast day of the patron Saint of Lisbon and Valencia, Vincent of Saragossa. Prior to that, then island was called “Hairouna” by the Caribs. The Grenadines were named due to the proximity of the larger island to the country of Grenada.
Where are the Saints located?
All three countries are Caribbean islands located in the Lesser Antilles. Saint Kitts and Nevis are made up of two main islands. They are separated by a shallow channel called “the Narrows.” The capital of Basseterre is located on the larger island of St. Kitts.
St. Lucia is one large island about 238 square miles. The capital is Castries. St. Lucia is famous for its two giant volcanic spires called “the Pitons,” a world heritage site.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines are made up of 32 islands, however, only nine are inhabited. The largest is St. Vincent, which is considered the mainland and the other eight are all part of the Grenadines. Kingston is the capital which has a nickname of “City of Arches.” It is known as the City of Arches due to its preservation of colonial era architecture. It is filled with cobbled stone streets, arches and historic stone buildings and churches.
A Brief History of the Saints
St. Kitts and Nevis were first inhabited by the Ciboney who were followed by the Arawak and the Tainos, who were then overrun by the warlike Caribs. The English were the first to settle the islands in 1623 and St. Kitts was the first English colony in the Caribbean. Over the next several years the French and English fought over the islands. England eventually took over full control. These two islands are the Caribbean’s oldest colonized territories. They were once known as the “Gibraltar of the West Indies” due to its volcanic advantage point offering sight to nearby islands. Despite the two islands being only two miles apart they were historically thought of as two separate entities. They were forcibly united in the late 19th century.
Alexander Hamiliton, the first United State Secretary of the Treasury was born on Nevis. Both islands have suffered from natural disasters; mainly devastating hurricanes and earthquakes. The islands’ earliest cash crops were tobacco, ginger and indigo dye. These crops were later replaced with sugarcane. Nevis became the richest British colony in the western hemisphere by 1652. By 1776 St. Kitts was the richest per capita. Initially indentured servants were used to work the plantations but fewer than half survived, which is when African slaves were brought to the islands. In 1778, the Bath Hotel was built over the site of a hot springs on the island of Nevis making it the first place in the Americas to officially practice tourism. This became a trendy destination for the elite in Britain.
The African slave trade was terminated within the British Empire in 1807, and outlawed in 1834. Between the two islands, 28,500 slaves were freed. St. Kitts and Nevis became fully independent from England on September 19, 1983 and is the smallest sovereign state in the Western Hemisphere in both area and population. The sugarcane industry was closed in 2005 after 365 years in the business. Today tourism has been the main focus of the economy.
St. Lucia has a similar history. Arawaks were the first inhabitants followed by the Caribs. The first attempt at colonization occurred in 1605 when an unfortunate group of English colonists, headed to Guyana and were blown off course. Sixty-seven colonists waded ashore where they purchased huts from the resident Caribs. After a month the party had been reduced to just nineteen who soon fled in a canoe. A few decades later a second English party failed in a settlement attempt.
By the mid 17th century, it was the French who arrived and purchased the island to be part of the French West India Company. The English were not happy with this idea, which began a bitter rivalry lasting for a century and a half. The islands first settlements were all French and a large number of sugarcane plantations had been established. By 1814 after a prolonged series of destructive battles, the island was finally in the hands of the English. The country remained under the British Crown until it became independent on February 22, 1979. Its sugarcane production was replaced with bananas, which today remains an important export for St. Lucia, alongside their tourism and small manufacturing.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines share a similar history with the other Saints. It was the same Amerindian groups that inhabited the islands originally; the Ciboney, Arawaks and the Caribs. The Caribs aggressively prevented European settlement on St. Vincent until the 18th Century. It was a safe haven for African slaves, whether escapees or shipwrecked from St. Lucia and Grenada. Many intermarried with the Caribs and became known as “Black Caribs”. Today they are known as Garifuna.
They also shared the same struggle between the French and British colonists with the British ultimately winning the battle. The French were the original colonists to settle the Islands and cultivated coffee, tobacco, indigo, corn and sugarcane on plantations worked by African slaves. After emancipation by Britain, the economy went into decline. Many land owners left their plantations, which resulted in a labor shortage. This attracted Portuguese and East Indian immigrants to the islands. St. Vincent and the Grenadines gained full Independence on October 27. 1979.
Today the economy remains highly dependent on agriculture. Bananas account for sixty percent of the workforce and fifty percent of their exports. They are the largest producers in the world of arrowroot. Tourism is also very important to their GDP and employs most of the rest of workforce that is not involved in agriculture.
The Saints’ Culture
English is the official language of all three countries. They also speak a creole language and French Patois as well. All three countries have a majority of Christians as the primary religion, whether it be Anglican or Roman Catholic. The ethnic makeup is largely African and the rest are a mixed descent.
All three Saints have important festivals that they celebrate around Carnival and music festivals are also extremely popular, year round. The music ranges from traditional storytelling to reggae, calypso, soca, big drum as well as other specialties like quadrille, steelpan and bele’ music. Dance is also prominent in all three countries; each with their own style and traditional dress.
Another interesting fact all three countries share is marriage, later in life. Typically done long after living together and having children. Children are adored and often raised by everyone in the family. It is not uncommon to see multi-generational households. All three Saints have a relaxed vibe where people simply enjoy the slow pace of island time.
All of the Saints have established ports that are common cruise ship stops, especially during the winter months. This has been a big boost for tourism and a great opportunity for locals to sell their handicrafts to the tourists that come to shore. Painted masks, handcrafted pottery, wood carvings, honey, cocoa sticks, conch shells, hot sauce, batik and of course rum, are a few of the favorite souvenirs.
The Saints’ Cuisine
It is no surprise that all three of these countries have similarities in their cuisine; they are islands in the Caribbean after all. Clearly they all have influences from their history with England and France. However, it is the sea and what is grown locally that has the most influence along with their large African populations.
Spiny lobsters, crabs, conch, shrimp and snapper are common delicacies especially when paired with West Indian curry. Other popular dishes are roast suckling pig and salt fish. In St. Kitts and Nevis, goat water is considered to be the national dish. This is a goat stew with breadfruit and root vegetables and dumplings they call “droppings.” St. Lucia’s national dish is salt fish with green figs, aka green bananas and St. Vincent’s national dish is roasted breadfruit with fried jackfish.
All three have good volcanic soil for growing things. however due to limited land, all the countries import food as well. Being tourist locations, you can find everything from local street food to fine dining.
Rum is by the far the most popular alcohol, with each of the islands making their own brew. Beer is also common. Fruit juices are abundant, as all three countries grow an array of fruit.
So let’s enjoy a Caribbean meal:
We set the scene with palm fronds and shells, bananas and sugarcane, along with a rose (the national flower of St. Lucia) and a parrot (the national bird of St. Lucia & St. Vincent.) We added a brown pelican (the national bird of St. Kitts.) We put on calypso music to get us in the Caribbean spirit and began with a rum punch to kick off the meal. Rum punch is made with grenadine syrup, pineapple juice, orange juice, lime juice and of course a combination of rums.
Our first course was an octopus carpaccio. Octopus is found in the warm ocean waters of the Caribbean Sea and this is a lovely way to enjoy it. Cooked and sliced pieces of octopus were arranged in circles and topped with a light and refreshing mango salsa with a little kick from a scotch bonnet pepper. The combination of flavors was perfect.
Our next course was a green fig salad. Green bananas are called green figs on all these Caribbean islands and this salad also had salted cod, a staple in these parts, simply known as salt fish. The salad had lots of root vegetables and reminded me of a potato salad but with a twist by adding the salt fish. It is hearty and could easily be made as a lovely light lunch on its own.
For the main course we served sweet, succulent, grilled, spiny lobster tails. They were accompanied with melted butter and old bay seasoning. Honestly, if you ever have the opportunity to try the spiny lobster, I highly recommend it. It is so much sweeter than an ordinary lobster.
They spiny lobsters were served with chip like tania fritters. Tania in the Caribbean is malanga and goes by many different names. It is somewhat like arrowroot, dasheen or eddoes. The Latin name is xanthosoma. It has a natural stickiness to it when grated, so you really can just grate them and cook them in oil for a wonderful treat, without adding a binder. We used chives and salt and pepper for added flavor. Trust me, you will eat more than one or two. They are scrumptious, with a bit of a nutty flavor.
For dessert, we indulged in the very moist, dense, boozy Caribbean, black cake. This cake is loaded with dried fruits that have been soaked in rum for quite some time. It is often served at Christmas time or on special occasions. We enjoyed it with a cup of coffee to end our three Saints’ meal.
As we say goodbye to these three Caribbean countries, I leave dreaming of these nations; each with their pristine black and white sand beaches, old colonial architecture and lush green mountains, filled with exotic birds and waterfalls. But ultimately, it is the people and their warm hearts and hospitality, and the slow island vibe that are most irresistible.
Until next time,