Even though some St Lucians have claimed that their island was discovered by Columbus on St Lucy’s day (13 December, the national holiday) in 1502, neither the date of discovery nor the discoverer are in fact known, for according to the evidence of Columbus’ log, he appears to have missed the island and was not even in the area on St Lucy’s Day.
A Vatican globe of 1520 marks the island as Santa Lucía, suggesting that it was at least claimed by Spain. In 1605, 67 Englishmen en route to Guiana touched at St Lucia and made an unsuccessful effort to settle though a Dutch expedition may have discovered the island first. The island at the time was peopled by Caribs. There are Amerindian sites and artefacts on the island, some of which are of Arawak origin, suggesting that the Caribs had already driven them out or absorbed them by the time the Europeans arrived, as no trace of the Arawaks was found by them. The Indians called their island Iouanalao, which may have meant: where the iguana is found. The name was later changed to Hiwanarau and then evolved to Hewanorra. In 1638 the first recorded settlement was made by English from Bermuda and St Kitts, but the colonists were killed by the Caribs about three years later.
In 1642 the King of France, claiming sovereignty over the island, ceded it to the French West India Company, who in 1650 sold it to MM Houel and Du Parquet. There were repeated attempts by the Caribs to expel the French and several governors were murdered. From 1660, the British began to renew their claim to the island and fighting for possession began in earnest. The settlers were mostly French, who developed a plantation economy based on slave labour. In all, St Lucia changed hands 14 times before it became a British Crown Colony in 1814 by the Treaty of Paris.
From 1838, the island was included in a Windward Islands Government, with a Governor resident first in Barbados and then Grenada. Universal adult suffrage was introduced in 1951. The St Lucia Labour Party (SLP) won the elections in that year and retained power until 1964. The United Workers’ Party (UWP) then governed from 1964-79 and from 1982 onwards. In 1958 St Lucia joined the West Indies Federation, but it was short-lived following the withdrawal of Jamaica in 1961-62 (see Jamaica History section). In 1967, St Lucia gained full internal self-government, becoming a State in voluntary association with Britain, and in 1979 it gained full independence.
From 1964 until 1996 the UWP was led by Mr John Compton, who held power in 1964-79 and subsequently won elections in 1982, 1987 and 1992. In 1996 Mr Compton retired as leader of the UWP (subsequently receiving a knighthood in the 1997 UK’s New Year’s Honours List) and was replaced as Prime Minister and leader of the party by Dr Vaughan Lewis, former Director General of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), who led the party into the 1997 elections. The leader of the SLP, Julian Hunte, resigned after his party’s poor performance in the by-election which brought Dr Lewis into parliament. He later announced his intention of standing as an independent in the 1997 general elections. He was replaced by Dr Kenny Anthony.
The May 1997 elections were a triumph for the SLP, who had been in opposition for 25 years apart from a brief period in 1979-82. They won 16 of the 17 seats, with the UWP gaining the single remaining seat, a result which took even the SLP by surprise. The new government’s priorities were to diversify the economy, create employment, conduct an audit of public spending and investigate corruption claims. A Commission of Inquiry was set up to investigate corruption cases (the report was unpublished as we went to press) and a task force was established to assess the country’s economic and financial condition.
In 1998, the UWP unanimously elected Sir John Compton (73) as its leader again after Dr Vaughan Lewis declined the nomination.