St Kitts & Nevis: five centuries in two days

St Kitts and Nevis may be the smallest independent nation in the Americas, but every inch of its landscape is roiling with history. Garry Steckles suggests a two-day tour covering five hundred years of Caribbean life in miniature, from the first British colonial settlement to the beginning of the tourism industry

The harbour of Basseterre, founded in 1627, and capital of St Kitts since the eighteenth century. Photograph by Jordan James Munyon Martin/shutterstock.comThe ruined windmills of St Kitts are relics of the island’s sugar industry. Photograph courtesy St Kitts Tourism AuthorityThe south-east peninsula of St Kitts, with Nevis in the distance. Photograph courtesy St Kitts Tourism AuthorityBelltower at Brimstone Hill. Photograph courtesy St Kitts Tourism AuthorityRemains of the seventeenth-century rum distillery at 
Wingfield Estate. Photograph courtesy Wingfield EstateDating back to the late seventeenth century, the fortress at Brimstone Hill is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Photograph courtesy St Kitts Tourism AuthorityThe St Kitts Scenic Railway makes a thirty-mile loop around the island, on tracks originally built to transport sugar cane. Photograph courtesy St Kitts Tourism AuthorityCharlestown, capital of Nevis. Photograph courtesy Nevis Tourism AuthorityThe Bath Hotel in Nevis, the Caribbean’s first purpose-built tourist hotel. Photograph courtesy Nevis Tourism AuthorityThe Berkeley Memorial Clock Tower is a landmark in Basseterre, St Kitts. Photograph by Chris Bradshaw/shutterstock.comSt Kitts and Nevis map

There are a couple of things you should know about St Kitts and Nevis before we embark on a history-steeped tour of the twin-island Eastern Caribbean federation. For starters, this is the smallest independent nation in the Western Hemisphere, with a combined land mass of just over a hundred square miles, a total population of around fifty thousand, and an economy that relies heavily on tourism.

And you might be interested to know these tiny islands have long been labelled “the Caribbean the way it used to be” — a description of which they’ve been justifiably proud. But there are so many upscale mega-developments either happening or about to happen, particularly in St Kitts, that this cherished accolade may soon become a thing of the past. If it is consigned to the history books, it’ll be in remarkable company.

The tumultuous past of both islands has been almost inconceivably out of proportion to their size. In the course of the most recent half millennium or so, it has included — among other things — the very beginning of the United Kingdom’s colonisation of much of the Caribbean, the horrors of genocide and slavery, and brutal struggles among the superpowers of yesteryear seeking to control an industry that flourished on a scale that would dominate stock market indexes in today’s world. Plus the birth of the architect of the economic system that is measured by those indexes, the exploits of England’s most revered naval hero, the creation of the West Indies’ first tourist destination, and the emergence, from the shackles of colonialism, of an independent nation — perhaps the only one with a seat in the United Nations and not a single traffic light.

That’s just a smattering of what we know has happened since Christopher Columbus and his crew members became the first Europeans to set eyes on these islands in 1493, when they sailed past them during the Italian explorer’s second voyage to the New World. So much has taken place, it would be impossible to tell the full story here. But a couple of day tours, one on each island, can provide visitors with vivid insights into the country’s rich and turbulent history.

 

Let’s start at Old Road in St Kitts — and why not, that’s exactly what the Brits did. This picturesque little village, a few miles northwest of the capital of Basseterre on the Island Main Road, is where the English soldier and explorer Sir Thomas Warner and a party of fifteen fellow adventurers first made landfall in 1623, to create England’s “mother colony” in the Caribbean. Before the end of that century, St Kitts had become one of the first islands to grow sugar cane, a pioneer in the slave trade, home base for the colonisation of a slew of nearby islands, and was fought over by the English, the French and — comparatively briefly — the Spanish.

A stroll through Old Road is a pleasant way to start our tour, although there’s little to proclaim its significant role in Caribbean or world history. But significant it was: the enormous wealth generated by the sugar industry — and both St Kitts and Nevis were leaders in the trade — would help fund England’s Industrial Revolution and its successful drive to build a global empire on which the sun never set. And to make the sugar industry functional and profitable, tens of thousands of people were stolen from Africa and shipped to the West Indies — in inhuman conditions — as slaves to carry out the back-breaking work of planting and cutting the cane.

The arrival of Europeans was also anything but good news for the Carib (or Kalinago) people who had lived in St Kitts for two thousand years. The first French settlers arrived about two years after Warner, and initially the English, French, and Caribs got along reasonably well. However, suspicions and mistrust soon surfaced, and in 1626 the Caribs planned to attack and wipe out the newcomers. But the Europeans got wind of the scheme, apparently being tipped off by a Carib woman, and launched a pre-emptive attack in which something like two thousand Kalinago were slaughtered at a place now known as Bloody Point, on the outskirts of the village of Challengers and not far from Old Road. The Caribs were wiped out in what amounted to an act of genocide.

Half a mile or so inland from Old Road, history virtually comes to life among the restored ruins of Wingfield Estate. Once a thriving sugar plantation, Wingfield was in a state of decay when it was bought in 1991 by Maurice Widdowson, owner of adjacent Romney Manor, who at the time had no idea of its historic significance. Widdowson cleared rampant trees and bush, and uncovered some of the old masonry, but it wasn’t until soon after the turn of the millennium that he learned Wingfield had been England’s first land grant in the Caribbean, in 1625, when King Charles I bestowed it to a settler named Sam Jefferson II — whose great-great-great-grandson, Thomas Jefferson, would become the third president of the United States.

But the most momentous discoveries didn’t come until 2011 and 2012, when Widdowson found the remains of the oldest surviving rum distillery in the Caribbean, dating back to around 1640. A major excavation programme has unveiled much of the historic distillery, which has been painstakingly restored. “The condition is amazing,” says Widdowson. “All the main features are intact, the masonry is ninety per cent remaining, the lead outlet pipes taking the rum to the jugs and barrels are still in place. Now the mystery: when and why did rum production end?”

Our last stop in St Kitts is about three miles up the Island Main Road from Old Road, and it’s one of the Caribbean’s most magnificent historic sites: Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park. This UNESCO World Heritage Site symbolises the importance of the island to Britain’s colonial ambitions during a crucial era in world history, and — perhaps most importantly — is a monument to the skill, strength, and endurance of the enslaved Africans who built it.

The huge fortress took about a hundred years to complete, starting in the late 1600s, and the sprawling structure is perched solidly on top of steep slopes almost eight hundred feet high, looking down on the island’s Caribbean coast. The massive and imposing walls are made mainly of stone fashioned from the hard volcanic rock of the hill, and cemented using mortar made from limestone from the lower slopes.

Abandoned by the British military in the mid nineteenth century, Brimstone Hill was neglected, vandalised, and overgrown for about a hundred years. It has since been lovingly and meticulously restored, and is regarded as an historic site of world stature.

 

Now, let’s head to Nevis. And we’re going by ferry, a forty-five-minute trip through waters that are historic in their own right. Sailing serenely down the west coast of St Kitts’s once remote and now rapidly developing south-east peninsula, it’s hard to believe these waters were once the scene of an epic naval battle.

The route the ferry takes from Basseterre to Charlestown, Nevis’s capital, is exactly where twenty-two British and twenty-nine French warships slugged it out in the Battle of Frigate Bay in January of 1782. The British fleet were aiming to help the defence of Brimstone Hill, which was under siege by French troops. The Brits were outnumbered, but the French fleet was outmanoeuvred and suffered considerable damage. That victory had little impact on the siege, however, and Brimstone Hill’s defenders were forced to surrender a few weeks later, giving France effective control of the sugar-rich island. About a year after the surrender, St Kitts was returned to Britain by the Treaty of Paris, and remained under British rule until becoming independent in 1983.

After reaching Nevis, we’ll be spending a day in and around Charlestown, arguably the most lovely small town in the Caribbean, where we’ll be visiting the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton — the United States’ first Secretary of the Treasury — as well as the building that was the first tourist hotel in the Caribbean, and a museum dedicated to Horatio Nelson, the legendary British naval hero.

Nelson, then an ambitious young navy captain in his mid-twenties, was given command of the frigate HMS Boreas in 1784, and assigned to the West Indies to help protect British interests in the region. In the course of his duties, he spent a lot of time in Nevis, where he met and fell in love with a widow, Frances “Fanny” Nisbet, a member of a prominent Nevisian family. Nelson, who was almost as renowned for his romantic exploits as he was for his naval achievements, married Frances on 11 March, 1787, at Montpelier estate, site of what is now one of the Caribbean’s most exclusive plantation inns. Later that year, Nelson returned to England, where he was eventually to part from Frances and embark on an affair with Lady Emma Hamilton — which, more than two hundred years later, remains one of the most sensational scandals in the history of a nation not exactly lacking in that department.

Nelson’s days in Nevis are documented in the Lord Horatio Nelson Museum at Belle Vue, on the outskirts of Charlestown. The cosy museum contains a wealth of Nelson memorabilia — said to be the largest collection of Nelsoniana in the Western Hemisphere — as well as exhibits that tell the story of Nevis before Columbus and in the era of sugar and slavery.

Another towering figure in world history with a significant link to Nevis was Alexander Hamilton — a hero of the United States’ War of Independence against British rule, one of the fledgling nation’s revered Founding Fathers, and its first secretary of the treasury. Hamilton was born in Nevis in 1755 or 1757 — the exact year has never been officially verified — and spent his boyhood in Charlestown before moving with his mother to nearby St Croix, where he lived for six or seven years. Hamilton migrated to the United States in 1772, went into politics after a distinguished military career, and became the fledgling nation’s first treasury secretary in 1789. His visionary economic policies — which included the establishment of a national bank, the creation of the US Mint, and state encouragement of manufacturing — put the new country on a sound financial footing, sowed the seeds of it becoming the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation, and, in effect, gave birth to what we now know as capitalism.

Hamilton was mortally wounded in 1804 in a pistol duel with his fierce political rival, the then US vice president Aaron Burr, and died the following day. The esteem in which he is still held in the United States can easily be gauged by checking an American ten-dollar bill: his face is on it. Hamilton’s birthplace at the northern end of Charlestown has been rebuilt as an elegant two-storey stone structure, which houses the Museum of Nevis History.

Our last stop in Nevis will be to view the building that gave birth to the industry that succeeded sugar as much of the Caribbean’s most important business: tourism. The Bath Hotel, on the outskirts of Charlestown, was built in 1778, and was the first hotel in the Caribbean designed specifically to attract tourists. The imposing stone structure quickly became a playground for the rich and famous of that era — the sort of tourism, in fact, for which Nevis is still renowned.

The venerable building has been restored, and is now used as government offices, but locals and visitors can and do enjoy the therapeutic benefits of bathing in the hot volcanic waters of the adjacent Bath Spring. Not a bad way to end our two-day excursion through five centuries of history — letting it all soak in.