European 'discovery' and settlement

Thomas Warner's gravestone in St Thomas's Church, St Kitts

The first recorded European to sight St Kitts and Nevis was Christopher Columbus who arrived in the eastern Caribbean on his second voyage of exploration and colonisation in 1493. There is some confusion over the names he gave to the individual islands but by the 1520s the present names of St Christopher, as St Kitts is more formally known, and Nevis had been fixed.

The islands were not colonised by Europeans until 1624 when the Englishman Thomas Warner, who had learned of the fertile island on a voyage to South America, landed in St Kitts with a party of thirteen settlers. During the next two years over 400 new settlers arrived. They cut down trees to clear land to plant tobacco and build wooden huts. Despite shortages of food, they managed to gain a foothold on the island.

In 1625 the French had landed at the other end of St Kitts and formed their own settlement. The two parties reached an agreement to divide the island. The English held the middle, while the French occupied the two ends, and they agreed to share the valuable salt pans on the long southern peninsula of the island.

This led to an uneasy relationship for the next 150 years as Britain and France were competing with one another for power at home as well as for trade and territory amongst their colonies. Other European nations, Spain and Holland, also held colonies in the Caribbean. Wars in Europe frequently resulted in conflict in the Caribbean. In one episode, the French attacked the English part of St Kitts in 1667, driving out many English settlers, destroying their plantations or farms and stealing their enslaved labourers. Another French attack on both St Kitts and Nevis in 1706 caused great destruction to plantations and property, including the loss of slaves and sugar crops. Only with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 did the French finally give up their part of St Kitts to England.

Nevis

Nevis was settled by Anthony Hilton, an associate of Thomas Warner. Hilton was an English merchant, who left St Kitts in 1628 to found another settlement on Nevis. Within a year, more than 150 settlers had come over from St Kitts, either in search of more land or to escape Warner's autocratic rule. The Spanish destroyed this settlement the following year, but the settlers returned and Nevis became a colony producing tobacco, ginger and indigo. In the 1640s planters began to grow sugar, which thrived in Nevis's fertile soils, and the profits from the new crop soon ensured that it took over from other crops.

Landscape and environment of the islands after European settlement

Landscape and vegetation change

When Captain John Smith landed on Nevis in 1607 on his way to found the colony of Jamestown in Virginia, he described it:

"It is all woddy... in most places the wod growth close to the water side, at a high water marke, and in some places so thicke of a soft spungy wood like a wilde figge tree, you cannot get through it, but by making your way with hatchets, or fauchions [a short broad sword]." (cited in Bridenbaugh and Bridenbaugh 1972, 41; from Captain John Smith, Travels and Works II, 909)]

When the English settlers first arrived in 1624, the islands were still clothed in dense forest down to the water's edge. The existing Carib inhabitants had created small temporary clearings in the forest but the arrival of European settlers led to massive changes in the vegetation of the two islands. The first settlers cleared the forests only slowly to cultivate crops such as ginger, tobacco and indigo (a plant from which dye was extracted), as well as food plants. The valuable timber trees such as lignum vitae and mastic were cut and sold, while less valuable trees were burnt, but the forest clearance was hard work and labour-intensive. After sugar was introduced in the 1640s, the pace quickened and much of the remaining forest had been cleared for cultivation within a few decades. By 1650 St Kitts and Nevis were densely populated with white settlers, but their way of life was uncertain. Many died young and others emigrated in search of land.

Indigo plant, St Kitts (left) and tobacco plant on the island of St Eustatius (right)

Over time dozens of new species of plant were introduced from Europe, Asia, South America and Africa, transforming the appearance of the landscape. Some were fruit trees, such as limes and mangoes, coconuts and papaya. But the settlers and their enslaved workforce also brought food crops such as maize and yams, or plants for medicinal purposes, like the arrowroot or the castor oil plant. Plants from Africa including Guinea corn, water melons and yams were all grown in the West Indies by the mid-17th century. Plantation owners introduced a wide range of ornamental trees to decorate their estate gardens, including the tamarind and flamboyant trees.

Papaya tree

The most dramatic change in the vegetation was the clearance of forest for sugar cultivation. Janet Schaw, who visited St Kitts in 1774, wrote that she was:

 "...surprised at the complete cultivation I met every where. The whole Island is a garden divided into different parterres [a level space in a garden divided into ornamental flower beds]. There is however a great want of shade, as every acre is under sugar". 

The planters had cleared the forest well up the mountain slopes so they could grow sugar cane on high terraces. However, the heavy rains washed away the soil nutrients, and often the soil itself, so the high land was unprofitable to cultivate and was often abandoned to the forest.

Green lizard

The animals and birds on the islands which the British encountered included mammals such as guinea pigs and agoutis (a rodent like a long-legged guinea pig), which had probably been introduced by Amerindian settlers, as well as bats, lizards, frogs and iguanas, but some native animals were hunted to extinction by the early settlers. However, new species were also introduced. The mongoose was introduced from Asia in the late 19th century to control snakes and rats, while green monkeys, originally from West Africa, were introduced as pets but some had already escaped by 1670. Both animals are now common but the local people consider them as pests as they destroy gardens, fruit-trees and crops. Domestic animals such as donkeys, pigs, sheep and goats, horses and cattle were all introduced for their meat, for transport or to work the sugar mills.

Green vervet monkey, St Kitts

Natural hazards

The early settlers met new and unfamiliar natural hazards. The Revd William Smith warned that although the islands looked attractive, 

"we must not look for Paradise, ...in the West Indies, on account of earthquakes, excessive heat, muskitoes, hurricanes etc". 

Hurricanes could be very destructive. Christopher Jeaffreson records how a great storm in 1681 damaged his house at Wingfield, St Kitts.

"It was a little after midnight when a great part of the roof of my dwelling-house began to fly away; several of my out-houses being allready down." 

He fled and when he returned only one wall of his house remained standing. More seriously he lost most of his crop of sugar cane. He built a temporary house but six weeks later a second hurricane took off its roof.

Earthquakes were another threat to life in the islands. St Kitts and Nevis lie near the junction of two tectonic plates. Slight movement of these huge masses of the earth's crust created a chain of volcanoes along this junction and can cause earthquakes and occasional tsunamis. In the five years he lived in Nevis, Revd Smith recorded that he felt at least a dozen tremors. One in 1717 lasted two and half minutes and "shook the whole house, causing it to crack loudly" though apart from cracking cisterns and boiling house walls on the island it caused no major damage. A much more violent earthquake in 1690 caused several deaths in Antigua, destroyed houses in Charlestown and opened up cracks in the earth up to nine feet wide. The tremor caused a tsunami and the sea retreated "a furlong" (over 200m) before returning to its normal level.

Insects were particularly troublesome to the newcomers. Not only mosquitoes and gnats but also ants and cockroaches plagued the early settlers, forcing them to adopt the native style of sleeping in hammocks.

Diseases

The early settlers encountered a variety of diseases to which they had little immunity, such as malaria, yellow fever, dropsy, dysentery, leprosy, yaws, hookworm, and elephantiasis. These were made worse by poor nutrition and hygiene so until the 18th century the life span of white settlers was frequently short. The enslaved Africans were even more vulnerable and died at an alarming rate, due to the trauma of the voyage, and brutality, poor diet and overwork on the plantations.