The islands were originally settled from South America, and had Amerindian populations at the time of the first European landings. St Christopher (St Kitts) was sighted by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage in 1493. It was colonised by the English under Sir Thomas Warner in 1623 and during the following centuries sugar was grown on plantations worked by enslaved Africans. Already in 1624, however, another part of the island was colonised by the French (who also used slaves on their estates) and the two powers fought over the island during the 17th and 18th century until St Kitts was ceded to Britain by the Treaty of Versailles (1783). Nevis was settled by the English in 1628. It, too, was subject to attack, from the French and Spanish, in the 17th and 18th centuries, with less damage, however, to its economy. From 1816 the islands were administered, along with Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands, as a single colony and from 1871 as part of the Leeward Islands Federation.
The two islands, together with Anguilla, assumed the status of association with the UK in 1967, a situation which the Anguillans rejected from the outset, with rebellion beginning in 1967. In 1971, the UK and the other islands agreed that Anguilla would formally separate and remain a UK dependency when the country achieved its independence.
The country, as the Federation of St Christopher and Nevis, had internal self-government from 1976, and achieved independence on 19 September 1983, choosing to remain a constitutional monarchy with Queen Elizabeth II as head of state.
The St Kitts–Nevis Labour Party (SKNLP) held power from 1967 until defeat in 1980 by a coalition of the People’s Action Movement (PAM) and Nevis Reformation Party (NRP), and PAM’s Dr Kennedy Alphonse Simmonds became Prime Minister. Simmonds was re-elected in 1984, 1989 and 1993, when the PAM and SKNLP each won four seats, and the PAM formed a governing alliance with the NRP, though the SKNLP had received 54 per cent of the vote and NRP was itself losing support to the other main Nevis party, the Concerned Citizens’ Movement (CCM).
In an early general election in 1995, after 15 years in opposition, the SKNLP was elected to office with an overwhelming majority of seven seats to the PAM’s one. The CCM retained its two seats in Nevis and the NRP one. Labour Party leader Dr Denzil Douglas became Prime Minister.
In the elections in March 2000 the SKNLP won all eight St Kitts seats, while in Nevis the CCM retained two and the NRP one.
On Nevis, discontent with the federation grew through the latter 1980s, with increasing calls for separation, and strikes among sugar and other agricultural workers. Elections in Nevis in 1992 then ousted the NRP, replacing it with the CCM.
At the Nevis Island Assembly elections in February 1997, three seats were won by the CCM and two by the NRP, CCM leader Vance Amory retaining the premiership. In October 1997, the five members of the Nevis Assembly voted to secede from the federation, triggering a referendum on Nevis which was held in August 1998. Only 62 per cent of the voters of Nevis backed secession, which fell short of the required two-thirds majority. Prime Minister Denzil Douglas promised to work for greater autonomy for Nevis.
In the September 2001 Nevis Island Assembly elections, the CCM won four seats and the NRP one, and Amory was returned as Premier. An unsuccessful attempt at triggering a referendum on Nevis was initiated in June 2003.