Saint Lucia's History and Culture
Since 1979 Saint Lucia has been a stable independent democracy within the British Commonwealth. But after a few days on the island you'll discover influences and nuances hinting at its colourful past.
Saint Lucia was first inhabited by the peaceful Arawak Indians, but they were conquered by their old enemies, the fierce Caribs. Columbus navigator was the first European to discover Saint Lucia in 1499. Then the British came and in 1667 the French arrived. Saint Lucia was alternately British and French for the next 150 years, before it was finally ceded to the British in 1814.
The war has left fortresses and relics behind. For example, Pigeon Island National Park and Fort Rodney. From the former British officers' mess, it is easy to imagine the cannons firing at French warships as they tried to slip past the fortified hilltop… You can also visit Morne Fortune, a site of a key battle, and Marigot Bay, once a vital wartime base and now a beautiful yacht haven. Diamond Falls and Mineral Baths, built by the French king, Louis XVI, to refresh and heal his troops stationed on Saint Lucia, are fascinating. As is historic Soufriere, the old French capital.
They still have many British characteristics and, although English is the official language, French patois is widely spoken by the locals. In spirit, the island is influenced by many cultures. Saint Lucians drive on the left and have a passion for cricket. But the Caribbean influence surfaces in the drinks - rum and locally brewed beer, in the music - calypso, soca, reggae, in the richly flavoured Creole cuisine, in the carnivals, festivals and days of national pride, and in the open-air markets.
You'll find Saint Lucia a colourful, unique mixture of history and charming influences.
Famous Saint Lucians
Saint Lucia is the birthplace of two Nobel Laureates (who by remarkable coincidence were both born on January 23). The late Sir W. Arthur Lewis won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1979, and poet Derek Walcott won the 1992 Nobel Prize for literature.
The Arawak Indians were well established in Saint Lucia before the Europeans ever set foot on the island. Later, came the warrior Caribs, who overcame the peace loving Arawaks, and by around 800AD, Carib settlements dominated the island.
The tribes left their mark on the island. They called it “Ioüanalao” and “Hewanorra” meaning “there where the iguana is found”. The name Saint Lucia was first used in the late 16th Century.
It was once believed that Christopher Columbus, on his fourth voyage to the West Indies in 1502, was the first European to set foot on Lucia, but Historians are now almost certain that he never landed on the island.
One theory suggests that Juan de Cosa, a little known explorer, who traveled with Columbus on his first and second voyages, named the island. One of his maps shows a small island named El Falcon near where Saint Lucia is located.
The first European to settle was Francois Le Clerc, known as Jambe de Bois or Wooden Leg. He was a pirate who settled himself up on Pigeon Island. From there he attached passing Spanish ships. The Dutch established a base at Vieux Fort around 1600.
The English first landed in 1605, having been blown off course on their way to Guyana aboard their vessel, the Olive Branch. Sixty-seven settlers landed and purchased huts from the Caribs. Once month later only 19 were left and these were forced to flee from the Caribs in a canoe. A second futile attempt at colonization by the British was by Sir Thomas Warner in 1639.
The French arrived in 1651 when two representatives of the French West India Company bought the island. Eight years later, ownership disputes between the French and the English ignited hostilities that should endure for 150 years. During this time, the island changed hands fourteen times and was finally ceded to the British in 1814.
In 1746, the first town was established; Soufriere, a French settlement. By 1780, twelve French towns had been founded and the French built the first sugar estates. Within 15 years, 50 more estates were in operation. In 1780, a hurricane destroyed many plantations but with slave labour, the French quickly repaired the damage.
Wars between the English and the French prevented the growth of large plantations and the sugar industry suffered heavily with the abolition of slavery in 1838. The industry finally died in the 1960’s.
The English first attacked Saint Lucia in 1778 after declaring war on France for aiding the Americans in the War of Independence. During this skirmish, known as the Battle of Cul de Sac, the English captured the island. They established a naval base at Gros Islet and fortified Pigeon Island.
The most memorable Anglo-French conflict was in 1780 when Admiral George Rodney sailed the English Navy out of Gros Islet Bay and attacked and decimated the pride of the French fleet under the command of Admiral Comte de Grasse. In 1796, after Castries was razed by fire, General Moore attacked the French on Morne Fortune overlooking the city after two days of fighting, the 27th Inniskilling Regiment forced the French to surrender.
In 1838, Saint Lucia joined the Windward islands with its seat of government in Barbados. In 1842, English became the island’s official language.
In 1863, the first steamship laden with coal called at Castries and the port soon became a major coaling station. The first shipment of indentured Indian labourers arrived in 1882 to help bail out the Agricultural industry. They continued to arrive over the next 30 years and many decided to settle here.
The coal industry began to decline in 1906 when the island was abandoned as a garrisoned naval station. Other events such as the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, World War I, the Depression in 1929 and the introduction of diesel and oil fuel in the 1940’s all contributed to its demise.
Saint Lucia moved towards independence in 1951 when suffrage was granted to all citizens over age twenty-one. The Windward Islands adopted a new constitution and the seat of government moved to Grenada. In 1958, Saint Lucia joined the West Indian Federation which collapsed after only four years.
In 1960, the island enacted a new constitution with the appointment of the first Ministers of Government. This constitution expired in 1967 when England granted the island full self-government. Saint Lucia became completely independent from England on February 22 1979.
About 150,000 people with 60,000 living in its capital, Castries, inhabit Saint Lucia. Although it is a full independent nation, it remains a member of the British Common wealth.