When Columbus discovered the island on his third voyage in 1498, it was inhabited by Caribs, who had migrated from the South American mainland, killing or enslaving the peaceful Arawaks who were already living there.
The Amerindians called their island Camerhogue, but Columbus renamed it Concepción, a name which was not to last long, for shortly afterwards it was referred to as Mayo on maps and later Spaniards called it Granada, after the Spanish city. The French then called it La Grenade and by the 18th century it was known as Grenada. Aggressive defence of the island by the Caribs prevented settlement by Europeans until the 17th century. In 1609 some Englishmen tried and failed, followed by a group of Frenchmen in 1638, but it was not until 1650 that a French expedition from Martinique landed and made initial friendly contact with the inhabitants. When relations soured, the French brought reinforcements and exterminated the Amerindian population. Sauteurs, or Morne des Sauteurs, on the north coast, is named after this episode when numerous Caribs apparently jumped to their death in the sea rather than surrender to the French.
The island remained French for about 100 years, although possession was disputed by Britain, and it was a period of economic expansion and population growth, as colonists and slaves arrived to grow tobacco and sugar at first, followed by cotton, cocoa and coffee. It was during the Seven Years’ War in the 18th century that Grenada fell into British hands and was ceded by France to Britain as part of a land settlement in the 1763 Treaty of Paris. Although the French regained control in 1779, their occupation was brief and the island was returned to Britain in 1783 under the Treaty of Versailles. The British introduced nutmeg in the 1780s, after natural disasters wiped out the sugar industry. Nutmeg and cocoa became the main crops and encouraged the development of smaller land holdings. A major slave revolt took place in 1795, led by a free coloured Grenadian called Julian Fedon (see page 853), but slavery was not abolished until 1834, as in the rest of the British Empire.
In 1833, Grenada was incorporated into the Windward Islands Administration which survived until 1958 when it was dissolved and Grenada joined the Federation of the West Indies. The Federation collapsed in 1962 and in 1967 Grenada became an associated state, with full autonomy over internal affairs, but with Britain retaining responsibility for defence and foreign relations. Grenada was the first of the associated states to seek full independence, which was granted in 1974.
Political leadership since the 1950s had alternated between Eric (later Sir Eric) Gairy’s Grenada United Labour Party (GULP) and Herbert Blaize’s Grenada National Party. At the time of independence, Sir Eric Gairy was Prime Minister, but his style of government was widely viewed as authoritarian and corrupt, becoming increasingly resented by a large proportion of the population. In 1979 he was ousted in a bloodless coup by the Marxist-Leninist New Jewel (Joint Endeavour for Welfare, Education and Liberation) Movement, founded in 1973, which formed a government headed by Prime Minister Maurice Bishop. Reforms were introduced and the country moved closer to Cuba and other Communist countries, who provided aid and technical assistance. In 1983, a power struggle within the government led to Bishop being deposed and he and many of his followers were murdered by a rival faction shortly afterwards. In the chaos that followed a joint US-Caribbean force invaded the island to restore order. They imprisoned Bishop’s murderers and expelled Cubans and other socialist nationalities who had been engaged in building a new airport and other development projects. An interim government was set up until elections could be held in 1984, which were won by the coalition New National Party (NNP), headed by Herbert Blaize, with 14 seats to GULP’s one in the legislature. After the intervention, Grenada moved closer to the USA which maintains a large embassy near the airport, but on 1 December 1999 diplomatic relations with Cuba were restored and embassies were opened in St George’s and Havana.
Further reading on this era of Grenada’s history includes: Grenada: Whose Freedom? by Fitzroy Ambursley and James Dunkerley, Latin America Bureau, London, 1984; Grenada Revolution in Reverse by James Ferguson, Latin America Bureau, London, 1990; Grenada: Revolution, Invasion and Aftermath by Hugh O’Shaughessy, Sphere Books, London, 1984; Grenada: Revolution and Invasion by Anthony Payne, Paul Sutton and Tony Thorndike, London, Croom Helm, 1984; Grenada: Politics, Economics and Society, by Tony Thorndike, Frances Pinter, London 1984, and many others.
In 1987, the formation of a new opposition party, the National Democratic Congress (NDC), led to parliamentary changes. Further divisions within the NNP preceded Mr Blaize’s death in December 1989; his faction, led by Ben Jones, became the National Party, while the New National Party name was retained by Keith Mitchell’s faction. In general elections held in 1990, each of these parties won two seats while the NDC, led by Nicholas Brathwaite (formerly head of the interim administration), won seven. The GULP gained four seats.
In 1991 the Government decided to commute to life imprisonment the death sentences on 14 people convicted of murdering Maurice Bishop after world wide appeals for clemency. Amnesty International and other organizations have appealed for the release of Mrs Phyllis Coard, one of the 14 convicted, on grounds of ill-health following years of solitary confinement. She was allowed to go to Jamaica for cancer treatment in 2000, but has not been pardoned.
In February 1995 Mr Brathwaite retired and was succeeded by George Brizan. General elections were held in June 1995. The NDC campaigned on its economic stabilization policies, but faced keen opposition from the NNP, led by Keith Mitchell, and GULP, led by Sir Eric Gairy. The NNP (32.7% of the vote) won eight seats, the NDC five (31.1%) and GULP two (26.8%), so Keith Mitchell became Prime Minister. Sir Eric Gairy failed to win a seat. In December 1995, Grenada’s eighth political party, the Democratic Labour Party (DLP), was launched by Francis Alexis, former deputy leader of the NDC, thereby reducing the NDC to four seats. In June 1997, Prescott Williams launched the Grenada Progressive Party, aimed to appeal to women and young people. Sir Eric Gairy died in August 1997 and GULP split into two factions. In a much postponed election in April 1998, Herbert Preudhomme was elected leader, after many accusations of fraud and recounts.
The most recent general elections, in January 1999, were an unparalleled victory for the NNP, which won all 15 seats with 62% of the vote. The opposition parties were too numerous and weak to provide an effective challenge, although the NDC received 24% of the vote. Keith Mitchell was sworn in for a second term as Prime Minister. The Government intends to act more vigorously against increasing crime, particularly where weapons and drugs are involved, and is considering the resumption of executions for murder (last carried out in 1978). The announcement was criticized by the regional human rights movement, Caribbean Rights.
In 2000, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to investigate events in 1976-91. The inquiry was expected to take six months and cover the last three years of Gairy’s authoritarian rule, the New Jewel Movement revolution in 1979, the establishment of the People’s Revolutionary Government, the bloodshed of October 1983, the US invasion, the trial and subsequent reprieve from exection in 1991.