St Christopher's Island (also commonly known as St. Kitt's) was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493. The island was just one amongst hundreds scattered across the Caribbean and although nominally under Spanish control they exerted no formal presence on this particular island nor the neighbouring Nevis Island. The fearsome reputation of the local Caribs also deterred Spanish interest. And as the Spanish had ports, islands and opportunities throughout the region, there was no immediate need for them to colonise these islands also.
Thomas Warner was the first Englishman to formally challenge the regional hegemony of the Spanish in the islands of the Caribbean in the 1620s and establish a colony. Thomas Warner had earlier attempted to follow the lead and inspiration of Sir Walter Raleigh who waxed lyrical about the opportunities in Guiana. However, Thomas Warner and some of his compatriots quickly became disillusioned with their prospects on the mainland of South America and so decided to search for an alternative location to make their fortune. Inspired by the nascent success of the Virginia colony in North America with growing the new tobacco plant, Thomas Warner reasoned that as the most successful variety of the tobacco plant originated in the West Indies, he presumed that islands in the Caribbean might make for a suitable location to grow the profitable crop on.
When Thomas Warner landed on the island on January 28th 1624 with his wife and 14 others, he was pleasantly surprised to be greeted by a friendly Carib chief called Tegramond of the Kalinago tribe. His small band built one room long huts and established a tiny foothold for themselves and set about planting tobacco and maize.
When the supply ship Hopewell called in on a return journey from Virginia in 1625, they were delighted to be able to pick up a consignment of 7,000 lbs of tobacco to take back to London. Thomas Warner also travelled back on the Hopewell in an attempt to seek more investors and settlers and to lobby the English Crown for formal recognition and potentially protection for his small and isolated colony.
On September 13th, 1625 Thomas Warner was awarded the first Letters Patent granted to an English West Indies colony from the new king, Charles I. It formally recognised his claim to not only St. Christopher but also to nearby Nevis, Montserrat and Barbados.
Before any reinforcements of English colonists could arrive, an unexpected infusion of French colonists landed in 1625 under the leadership of Pierre Belain d'Esnambuc. These were the remnants of a French expedition that had intended to find its own island colony but had been ambushed by jealous Spanish ships en route. Only the one ship limped to St. Christopher where the fledgeling English colony felt sympathy for their plight and were keen to find allies against the Spanish who they felt might try to evict them some time in the near future. So a small French settlement grew up on the island in a settlement on the north of the island at Dieppe Bay Town and later in the south of the island at Basseterre.
Carib tolerance towards the ever growing presence and dispersal of Europeans quickly began to wear thin. In 1626, the Europeans got wind from a Carib woman that the local tribe was preparing to launch a surprise attack on the European settlements in an attempt to drive them out once and for all. The English and French combined forces and launched their own pre-emptive strike against the Caribs, killing Tegremond and crushing local Carib power. Over a hundred Europeans died in the fighting despite the primitive weapons used by the Caribs, but the disciplined training and superior technology of the Europeans eventually prevailed. Most Carib survivors were forcibly expelled from the island except an unknown number of women who were retained as slaves. After the victory, the French and English settlers concluded a formal treaty between themselves on 13 May 1627 which divided the island and defined the relationship between the two groups. The treaty awarded each end of the island to the French and the middle portion to the English. The treaty also provided for mutual defence against Spanish or Carib attack and dictated neutrality in a European war unless expressly forbidden by each government, and only then after a warning had been given.
In June 1627 Thomas Warner's letter patent was replaced by a proprietary charter granted to James Hay, the first earl of Carlisle. This new arrangement offered the island's planters secure title to their lands and promised assistance in defending the island in return for the Europeans paying rent to their new landlord. Thomas Warner maintained his position as governor and worked diligently on behalf of the Earl of Carlisle and slowly but surely expanded settlement on not just this island but also onto the surrounding islands of Nevis in 1628 and Monsterrat and Antigua in 1632. Montserrat was settled largely by the growing Irish migration to the Caribbean, and Antigua was first governed by Thomas Warner's own son Edward.
Spanish attempts to reassert their control in the region came to a head in 1629 when Admiral Fadrique de Toledo seized the neighbouring island of Nevis before arriving at St. Christopher and burning the English and French settlements and seizing control of the island. Many of the English settlers were forcibly returned to England under the surrender terms, but others escaped to the forests and mountains. The Spanish arrival was to be short lived though as the five year long Anglo-Spanish War came to an end in 1630 and St. Christopher and Nevis were returned to English control as part of the final peace treaty. After the Spanish withdrew, the remaining colonists elected a governor and set about rebuilding their plantations and settlements. They were soon joined by returning French settlers and later by Sir Thomas Warner, he had been knighted in England. The Earl of Carlisle named Sir Thomas Warner as governor of St Kitts for life in recognition for his work, sacrifice and success. However, Sir Thomas Warner had a harder time convincing the European settlers to continue to pay their rents after the Earl of Carlisle had failed to provide the promised for protection against foreign invasion. Reluctantly and after much diplomatic cajoling, Sir Thomas Warner reasserted control over the English portions of the island with the help of an appointed council.
The (first) Earl of Carlisle died in 1636 but Sir Thomas Warner continued his governorship for a further decade and in fact was made Lieutenant General of much of the English controlled West Indies. In 1639 he attempted an interesting experiment in collaboration with the French Governor General. They banned tobacco cultivation in any of their islands for a period of eighteen months. The policy was intended to prop up tobacco prices and force planters to diversify their crops - perhaps with the new sugar cane that was beginning to be cultivated elsewhere in the Indies. Although the French planters resumed tobacco cultivation after the term expired, tobacco planting in the English islands was banned for an additional twelve months, until 1 October 1641. Planters were unhappy at having to pay rents whilst not having a marketable commodity to sell. Relations between the governor and the planters strained just as religious and political sensibilities were straining back in England.
In late 1641 the island's planters openly rebelled and in early 1642 Sir Thomas Warner and his council declared martial law. He imprisoned some of the leaders of the rising and succeeded in briefly regaining control of the island. Rebellion flared again after Sir Thomas Warner's council executed a man, named Short, for defaming John Jeaffreson who was a member of Warner's council. On 8 February 1642, facing some 1500 armed rebels to his 100 supporters, Sir Thomas Warner was presented with the landholders' grievances. Among other things the island's planters refused to pay rent to the proprietor and refused to acknowledge laws passed without their consent. Sir Thomas Warner seemed to cave in and issued a general pardon on 11 February. Soon afterwards the island elected its first assembly of burgesses, which began drafting new laws regarding the payment of rents and debt relief.
However, Sir Thomas Warner had second thoughts and refused to share power with the planters and their elected burgesses. With the help of the French, he was able to regain control of the island. He brutally suppressed the leaders of the insurrection. The burgesses were dispersed: some were executed, some imprisoned, and some banished. Others fled. The Parliamentarian government back in England was happy to back Sir Thomas Warner as they were suspicious of the loyalties of the planter class in the Caribbean. Sir Thomas Warner remained in control of St. Kitts throughout the Civil War years until his own death in 1649.
St Christopher Island would never be as profitable as the other sugar islands, partly due to the success of Sir Thomas Warner in attracting so much settlement to the island during his long tenure. The European population of the islands was so large that it made it difficult to find the necessary land for the large plantations that the new sugar cane crops demanded. Sugar cane would be grown on the island, but the industry developed slower than it did on nearby islands like Nevis or Barbados. And as its relative economic power ebbed, so did its political importance within the English Caribbean colonies. It did not help that the island was still split between the English and French which made it that much more difficult to defend if war broke out between the two nations.
Despite its initial relative unimportance, sugar cane production did require the importation of slave labour. The black African population steadily increased even if it did not increase as fast as on neighbouring Nevis for instance. It should be remembered that the French also expanded their own slave population on the island as their own territories developed economically and so the black African population grew substantially island wide. There were certainly difficulties in controlling the reluctant workforce even with the harsh laws and punishments available to the planters. 1639 saw the first significant slave revolt when slaves fled into the interior and conducted raids into isolated settlements and plantations. It was put down ruthlessly by Thomas Warner who raised 500 troops to accompany him into the interior to destroy the makeshift camps and round up these runaways. Many of the slaves were brutally treated upon recapture and some executed as an example to others.
Hostilities between the English and French zones finally occurred as a consequence of the Second Anglo-Dutch war, when the French settlers took advantage of an England at war with the rising power of Holland. French troops attacked the English settlements and gained control of the whole island from 1665 The French finally agreed to return the English parts of the island as part of the Treaty of Breda in 1667 at the conclusion of the war.
The strategic vulnerability of the small Caribbean islands like St. Christopher led the British to creating a larger Leeward Islands Colony along with Nevis, Montserrat and Antigua from 1671 in an attempt to coordinate administration and defence.
Peace was illusory as the English and French returned to war from 1688 to 1697 as the War of the League of Augsburg spilled outside of Europe and into its colonies. France once again re-occupied the entire island in 1689, and laid waste to English farms and plantations as they sought to displace the English from their Caribbean foothold once and for all. They received help from poor European farmers in the English zone, especially those of Irish dissent who were unhappy at the events of the Glorious Revolution bringing a Protestant Dutch king to the throne of England. Christopher Codrington coordinated the English war effort in the region from Antigua. He felt that he could not wait for reinforcements to arrive from England to reassert control and so used his own private money to fund military expeditions throughout the Leewards chain to give the appearance of strength at a time of dire peril for the English in the Caribbean. Eventually a fleet and a regular army regiment arrived from England. This was used to relieve the island in March 1690. It was now the English turn to deport French settlers. They were sent to Martinique. The Treaty of Rijswijk in 1697 eventually restored pre-war conditions. However, the long war devastated St Kitts's economy and deterred investors and settlers for many years.
As if to illustrate the island's continued strategic vulnerability, in 1705 during the War of the Spanish Succession, over 8,000 French troops easily took the island once more. This time, they held it for a total of eight years. In this time, the war went badly for France back in Europe and they found that they had to make large concessions to the victorious side which included Britain. The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 did not just see the British returned to their part of the island, but they were actually to receive the entire island with no French presence whatsoever.
The British moved the capital to the town of Basseterre in 1727 and with something of an exodus of the French population, new land was available for sugar cane plantations. These would steadily grow in importance to the economy and suck in yet more African slave labour to undertake the arduous work and continue to change the demographic look of the colony.
French interest in the island was not completely spent and the American War of Independence would see yet another French task force launched against the island in 1782. The French Admiral De Grasse had already taken Nevis and was in the process of attempting to seize control of St Kitts landing 6,000 troops ashore to besiege and attack the British fort at Basseterre. By chance, a British fleet under Admiral Hood was in the area and although smaller, was able to manoeuvre into the anchorage of Basseterre and evict the French fleet, if temporarily, from its anchorage. Hood inflicted significant damage on the French fleet, but the smaller British force eventually retreated after the French troops on land were able to seize the British fortifications and gained control of the island. Once again though, what was lost on the battlefield was returned by Treaty at the conclusion of the American Revolutionary Wars in 1783.
In 1806, the Leeward Islands Colony government was split into two groups, with Antigua, Barbuda, Redonda and Montserrat in one group, and St Christopher, Nevis, Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands in the other. The islands in the new grouping however, were able to keep a great degree of autonomy. The grouping split entirely in 1816 after the Napoleonic wars ended. Although this period of complete autonomy was short lived as in 1833 they were reunited once more.
The next challenge to the island economy was the abolition of slavery in 1834. The island had become dependent upon slave labour for its sugar production. However, the introduction of sugar beet to Europe during the Napoleonic wars gradually undermined the high value of sugar as it could be produced increasingly economically in the farms of Europe or in the growing sugar cane plantations of South America. St. Christopher escaped some of the hardships faced by the other sugar islands as it had a more diversified economy and had invested significantly in public works projects to reduce soil erosion and protect its nutritious soils.
The authorities were concerned that plantation owners would be unable to fund the continued production of sugar on the plantations without the forced labour of slaves. They therefore introduced the concept of 'apprenticeships' which had the effect of binding the workforce to their employers for a set number of years - without pay but in return for food and lodging. The effect of this law was to convince many blacks that slavery had not been abolished after all. Expectations had been built up but not delivered. There was widespread unrest and many freed slaves were inspired by events in nearby Antigua where slavery was abolished and not replaced with an apprentice system. The 'apprentices' effectively went on strike and refused to work, many disappeared into the interior to attempt to avoid punishment and retribution. The authorities dealt with the uprising through harsh measures including the introduction of martial law, burning apprentice huts and homes and sending troops into the interior to find runaways. Ring leaders were tried, some were banished and others flogged. The workforce drifted reluctantly back but the apprentice scheme itself was abolished in 1838 and replaced by a free market wage system. Sugar continued to be vitally important to the economy of the island but increasingly relied on paying low wages to maintain profitability. As the price of sugar fluctuated and headed downwards so did the pay of the local population.
The Leewards Colony was renamed as the Federal Colony of the Leeward Islands in 1871. Within this Federation St Christopher, Nevis and Anguilla were administratively combined into a single colony based in 1882. Both Nevis and Anguilla disliked the union, as they had previously had their own separate presidencies.
Attempts to unionise the sugar plantation workforce took hold in the interwar years and especially the Great Depression of the 1930s during which time the price of sugar utterly collapsed. The leaders of these new unions would go on to provide the nationalist leaders who would call for and eventually receive increased rights for the islanders.
The islands remained in the Leeward Islands Federation until they joined the failed West Indies Federation from 1958 to 1962, in which Saint Christopher-Nevis-Anguilla was a separate state. In 1967, the islands became an Associated State of Britain and gained full independence in 1983.