St Lucia History
Today, St Lucia is a stable democracy having enjoyed independence since the 1970s. It has however, got a very colorful and fascinating history.
Archaeologists studying St Lucia history have determined that the Arawak Indians originally settled on the island between 1000 and 500 BC. The Arawaks were a peaceful people, but fierce migrating Caribs then conquered the Arawaks in around AD 800, and established permanent settlements on St Lucia. The Carib Indians called the island Iouanalao, which is thought to mean “where the iguana is found”. The name was later changed to Hiwanarau, which then evolved into Hewanorra – the present day name of the international airport. The name St Lucia was not used until the 16th Century.
Although many St Lucians believe that their island was discovered by Columbus on St Lucy’s Day – 13 December, a national holiday – St Lucia was probably first sighted by Spanish explorers during the early 1500s. According to Columbus’ log, he was not even in this area at that time. A Vatican globe dating back to 1520 shows the island marked as Santa Lucia, which is where the suggestion that the Spanish discovered it comes from.
The first European to settle in St Lucia was a pirate called Francois Le Clerc, also known as Jambe de Bois, or Wooden Leg. He would attack passing Spanish ships from Pigeon Island.
A couple of British attempts at colonization were successfully defended by the Caribs in the 1600s – 67 Englishmen made an attempt on their way to Guiana in 1605, when their ship, the Olive Branch was blown off course – Sir Thomas Warner and others tried again in 1638, but were killed by the Caribs around three years later.
The French were more successful a century later. The King of France claimed sovereignty in 1642, and then ceded the island to the French West India Company. The French established Soufriere, the first European settlement on St Lucia, in 1746. They had already established twelve settlements by 1780 and had begun to develop sugar plantations with the help of slave labor – which was abolished by the British in 1834. The Caribs tried repeatedly to expel the French, murdering several of the governors. The British did not wish to relinquish their claim to the island, so this colonial period was also a time of war from about 1660, with a successful British invasion taking place in 1778. Naval bases were established at Gros Islet and Pigeon Island, with attacks being launched from here on the French islands to the north. 150 years of conflict continued until the Treaty of Paris in 1814 ceded the island to the British. During this period, St Lucia changed its flag 14 times! The years of war have left their mark on the island with fortresses and other wartime relics still providing a poignant reminder of such a turbulent St Lucia history.
Britain chose St Lucia as one of its main coaling stations, passing steam ships could buy Welsh coal from the island.
The city of Castries was founded by the French in the 18th century but has lost many of its historic buildings, having been ravaged by fire no less than four times in its history. By the end of the 19th century, Castries was the 14th most important port in the world based on tonnage handled, however, decline set in once oil began to dominate in the 20th century.
French customs persisted on St Lucia, with the official language changing to English from French in 1842. Even today, however, locals speak a French based Patois, and many villages have French names. St Lucia history has been far from quiet, but locals enjoy a far more peaceful state today as the country gained full independence on February 22 1979.