The country’s first known inhabitants were Arawaks, who were later driven out by Caribs; the latter put up a strong resistance to European colonisation. Christopher Columbus sighted the principal island on 22 January 1498, and named it after the saint whose feast falls on that day. No immediate European immigration followed this discovery. In 1627 Charles I of England granted the island to Lord Carlisle, but no settlers arrived. Charles II granted it to Lord Willoughby in 1672; possession was disputed by the British, French and Spanish. All these claims were resisted by the Caribs. The Caribs did not, however, oppose the settlement of a shipload of enslaved Africans who escaped after a shipwreck in 1673, and in due course seem to have merged with the Carib community through intermarriage. In 1773, under an Anglo/Carib treaty, the Caribs were allowed to continue to live independently in the north of the island. France took the island in 1779, but restored it to Britain in 1783, under the Treaty of Versailles. In 1795–96, the Caribs rebelled, aided by the French in Martinique; when this had been crushed, the rebels were deported to the island of Roatan in the Bay of Honduras. A plantation economy, based on slave labour, developed, producing sugar, cotton, coffee and cocoa. But in 1812 La Soufrière erupted and devastated much of the island. After the emancipation of slaves by Britain in 1834, indentured labour from the East Indies and Portugal was brought in to remedy the labour shortage.
In the second half of the 19th century sugar slumped and the economy remained very depressed for the rest of the century. In the early 20th century, a series of natural disasters further damaged the society: with a severe hurricane, and a further eruption of La Soufrière in 1902 which devastated the northern half of the island and killed 2,000 people.
St Vincent and the Grenadines was a member of the Federation of the West Indies. After its dissolution in 1962, and the move of larger Caribbean countries to independence individually, the transition towards independence began in St Vincent. At first, the smaller Eastern Caribbean countries attempted to set up a federation of their own, but negotiations among them were unsuccessful. Universal adult suffrage had already been established (and the executive council became partly elective) in 1951. Internal self-government was achieved in 1969 and full independence in October 1979.
Elections held two months after independence in 1979 gave overwhelming victory to Milton Cato’s St Vincent Labour Party (SVLP), the party which had campaigned most vigorously for independence.
The newly independent country faced a series of political difficulties with, first, an armed rebellion on Union Island by a Rastafarian minority led by Bumba Charles, and then protests early in the 1980s, which led to special ‘public order’ legislation. Cato called an early general election in mid-1984, but was defeated by James Fitz-Allen Mitchell’s New Democratic Party (NDP), formed in 1975. Mitchell, then standing as an independent, had been Premier between 1972–74.
Mitchell’s NDP came to power in 1984 advocating policies of closer economic and ultimately political union with the neighbouring Eastern Caribbean countries. The country had played an active part in the establishment of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States in 1981, which achieved several of the aims the countries had failed to achieve through the aborted plan for an East Caribbean Federation.
The NDP was returned to power at the 1989 elections, and at the 1994 elections, when it took 12 seats, the remaining three seats going to the SVLP and Movement for National Unity coalition, which later merged to become the Unity Labour Party (ULP). In the general election in June 1998 the NDP narrowly won a fourth successive election taking eight of the House of Assembly’s 15 seats, with only 45 per cent of the votes cast.
Following public protests at the raising of MPs’ remuneration and pensions, in May 2000, through the offices of OECS and CARICOM, the government agreed with the ULP that there would be a general election by end March 2001. In August 2000, Mitchell stepped down from the presidency of the ruling NDP and was replaced by Finance Minister Arnhim Eustace, who became Prime Minister in October.