Saint Lucia was first inhabited sometime between 1000 and 500 B.C. by Ciboneys, hunters and gatherers who made their way from South America. They inexplicably disappeared leaving little evidence of their presence on the island.
Sometime after 200 A.D. the peaceful Arawak Indians arrived whom archaeological sites show to have been adept in pottery, weaving, farming and boat building. The Arawaks named the island, Iouanalao, which meant ‘land of the iguanas’.
Around 800 A.D. the more aggressive Carib Indians arrived from South America quickly seizing control from the Arawaks by killing their men and assimilating the women into their own society. Descendents of the Caribs are still found in Saint Lucia today.
Although it is possible that Christopher Columbus sighted the island on an earlier voyage, discovery is generally credited to his navigator from earlier voyages, Juan de Cosa, who returned to the Caribbean in 1499 and made note on his maps of an island he called El Falcon. While some confusion still exists about the actual first discovery, it is known for certain that the island, labelled as Santa Lucia, appears on a Vatican globe dated 1502.
The first European to settle in Saint Lucia was the infamous pirate, François Le Clerc, nicknamed Jambe de Bois, which means ‘wooden leg’, which he wore. Beginning in the late 1550s, Le Clerc used Pigeon Island in the north as a staging ground for attacking passing Spanish ships. Connected in the late 1970s to the island itself by a constructed causeway, Pigeon Island is now a National Landmark which features historic ruins and a museum with a wealth of information and artefacts from the island’s past.
Early European attempts to establish settlements all resulted in failure at the hands of the war-like Caribs. The Dutch established a fort in what is now the town of Vieux Fort in the island’s south in 1600 but didn’t last long. The British were the next to arrive with 67 colonists in 1605, having been blown off course on the way to South America. After only five weeks their numbers had dwindled to only 19 due largely to Carib hostility. Those survivors escaped in a canoe and made it to Venezuela. In 1639 the British arrived again with 400 settlers but were completely wiped out by the Caribs in just 18 months.
In 1651 a group representing the French West India Company arrived from Martinique. Their leader was a military officer named De Rousselan who was married to a Carib woman. With her assistance he was able make peace with the Caribs and ‘purchased’ the island from them. De Rousselan died in 1654 and the Caribs again began attacking the French settlements.
It didn’t take long before the French and the British began battling over the island. In 1664 the British sent a force of 1,000 men to Saint Lucia to oust the French but after two years only 89 were left mostly due to disease. Over the next century and a half possession of the island changed hands 14 times between the British and French.
The early value of the island to the Europeans was found in its sugar plantations for which slaves from West Africa were brought in to work the fields. The first plantation was established by two Frenchmen in 1765. Fifteen years later there were more than 50 sugar estates in operation.
Near the end of the century, the French Revolution occurred. It didn’t take long until the ideas of the revolution arrived in Saint Lucia; a guillotine was set up on the square in the town of Soufriére and was used to execute French Royalists. In 1794, the French governor declared that all slaves were free, but only a short time later the British invaded again in response to the concerns of the wealthy plantation owners and restored slavery after several years of fighting. Castries was burned in 1796 as part of that battle between the British and the slaves and French republicans.
Britain eventually triumphed, with France permanently ceding Saint Lucia in 1814. The British abolished the African slave trade in 1807, three years after former slaves in Haiti had gained their independence as the first black republic in the Caribbean, but it was not until 1834 that slavery was actually abolished on Saint Lucia. Even after slavery was officially abolished, all former slaves had to serve a four-year ‘apprenticeship’ which forced them to work for free for their former slave masters for at least three-quarters of the work week, meaning final freedom did not come until 1838.
After Emancipation, many former slaves were unwilling to stay on as labourers on the plantations and the owners were forced to seek alternative manpower. Indentured East Indian labourers began arriving in 1882 to assist in the sugar industry which accounts for their presence and cultural influences clearly evident in Saint Lucia and throughout the Caribbean today.
The sugar industry, in decline for well over a century following the abolition of slavery, was gone by the 1960s, when bananas became the major crop in the island’s agricultural industry.
While Saint Lucia became an independent state in 1979 within the British Commonwealth of Nations, the island has in many ways retained more vestiges from its historical French influences including the Creole Patois ‘second’ language, town and village names, family surnames and its impact on local culture as is pervasive in music, dance and other aspects of the arts. The British contributions are primarily evident in the English language, the educational, political and legal systems.