Nevis and St Kitts: the Leeward Islands

Detail of a location map for the Leeward Islands from the North American Pilot, dated 1800. From the Maritime Archives and Library.

Introduction to the islands

St Kitts and Nevis are two neighbouring islands only two miles apart in the West Indies. They lie in the chain of small Caribbean islands that form the Leeward Islands. Both have a dormant volcano in the centre, with smaller volcanic hills around, and a broad fringe of sloping ground towards the coast. Steep-sided valleys or ravines called guts or ghauts run down from the mountain slopes to the coast, but many only have running water in wet spells, when erosion can be severe. The central mountains are high and distinctive. Mount Liamuiga (known until recently as Mount Misery) on St Kitts stands over 1156m high (3792 feet). Nevis Peak (985m) forms a prominent feature from the sea, and its constant plume of white clouds around the summit may have given the Spanish the idea for the name, Nuestra Señora de las Nieves (Our Lady of the Snows).

The temperature varies little throughout the year with a mean of around 26-27°C in the summer months, falling only slightly to 24-25°C in the winter months of December to February. The trade winds which blow all year round from the north-east provide a cooling breeze. Basseterre, the capital of St Kitts, has an average of over 1200 mm (47 inches) of rain a year, compared with about 590 mm (23 inches) in Liverpool, UK. In the wet season from July to December they receive up to 150-250mm (6-10 inches) of rain per month. The volcanic soils are very fertile and in most years the islands have high rainfall so the vegetation grows quickly in the warm moist tropical climate. 

The islands lie on the edge of the hurricane zone, and from August to October the islands are prone to hurricanes and cyclones with strong, often destructive, winds and high rainfall.

Nevis from the sea

The volcanic soils are very fertile and in most years the islands have high rainfall so the vegetation grows quickly in the warm moist tropical climate.

Although the mountainous areas of both islands are now heavily wooded, today the islands look rather different from one another. Much of the lowlying part of St Kitts is still covered with many acres of sugar cane fields despite the fact that in 2005, after over 350 years, the production of sugar finished when the price dropped disastrously low.

Sugar cane and Mount Liamuiga on St Kitts

Nevis is smaller and hillier than St Kitts and is more wooded. Sugar cultivation ended there earlier, in the 1960s, and many of the former cane fields are overgrown with scrub or forest. Since both islands are now tourist destinations, their appearance is drastically changing with hotels, golf courses, and holiday villas springing up alongside the homes of the local people.

The east side of St Kitts from Brimstone Hill, with Nevis in the distance