Nevis is an island in the Caribbean Sea, located near the northern end of the Lesser Antilles archipelago, about 220 miles (350 km) southeast of Puerto Rico and fifty miles (eighty km) west of Antigua. The 36-square-mile (93 km²) island is part of the inner arc of the Leeward Islands chain of the West Indies. The capital of Nevis is Charlestown.
Nevis, along with Saint Kitts, forms the Federation of Saint Kitts and Nevis. The two islands are separated by a shallow two-mile (3.22 km) channel, known as "The Narrows". Nevis is conical in shape, with a volcanic peak, Nevis Peak, at its centre. The island is fringed on its western and northern quadrants by sandy beaches that are composed of a mixture of white coral sand with brown and black sand, eroded and washed down from the volcanic rocks that make up the island. The gently-sloping coastal plain (0.6 miles/1 km wide) has natural fresh-water springs, as well as non-potable volcanic hot springs, especially along the western coast.
The island was named Oualie by the Caribs and Dulcina by the early British settlers. The name, Nevis, is derived from the Spanish, Nuestra Señora de las Nieves; the name first appears on maps in the sixteenth century. Nevis is also known by the sobriquet "Queen of the Caribees", which it earned in the 18th century, when its sugar plantations created much wealth for the British.
Nevis is of particular historical significance to Americans because it was the birthplace and early childhood home of Alexander Hamilton. For the British, Nevis is the place where Horatio Nelson was stationed as a young sea captain, and is where he met and married a Nevisian, Frances Nisbet, the young widow of a plantation-owner.
The majority of the approximately 12,000 citizens of Nevis are of primarily African descent. English is the official language, and the literacy rate, 98 percent, is one of the highest in the Western Hemisphere.
When Nevis was sighted by Columbus in 1493, the island had already been settled for more than two thousand years by Amerindian people. Since the 1990s, artifacts from three major prehistoric periods have been discovered at excavation sites in Nevis.
The indigenous people of Nevis during these periods belonged to the Leeward Island Amerindian groups popularly referred to as Arawaks and Caribs, a complex mosaic of ethnic groups with similar culture and language. Lennox Honychurch from Dominica, a leading scholar in the history and culture of Caribs, traces the European use of the term "Carib" to refer to the Leeward Island aborigines to Columbus, who picked it up from the Tainos on Hispaniola. It was not a name the Caribs called themselves. The Spanish used the term to clarify which native groups were officially available for enslavement. "Carib Indians" was the generic name used for all groups allegedly involved in cannibalistic war rituals, more particularly, the consumption of parts of a killed enemy's body. The Spanish law permitted and encouraged the enslavement of all such "cannibals", so "Caribs", "slaves", and "cannibals" became interchangeable terms.
The Amerindian name for Nevis was Oualie, land of beautiful waters. The structure of the Island Carib language has been linguistically identified as Arawakan. This is used as an argument to support the Arawakan Continuity Model for the Leeward Islands. According to the continuity model, the many ethnic groups of the Leeward Islands lived side by side through the centuries before the Europeans arrived, becoming multilingual because of intense inter-island trade. The suggestion that a natural merging of languages and cultures occurred over the centuries is in sharp contrast with the invasion and displacement model which has previously been the dominant model in Caribbean scholarship. The displacement model suggests that the Cariban speaking groups killed off the Arawakan groups, but that the Arawakan language survived because the Carib warriors spared the Arawak women and the women then passed Arawakan on to their children. Many scholars now subscribe to moderated continuity models, considering the Caribbean to have been a site of encounter and exchange throughout history.
In 1498, Christopher Columbus gave the island the name San Martin (Saint Martin). However, the confusion of numerous poorly-charted small islands in the Leeward Island chain meant that this name ended up being accidentally transferred to another island, which is still known as Saint-Martin/Sint Maarten.
The current name Nevis was derived from a Spanish name Nuestra Señora de las Nieves by a process of abbreviation and anglicization. The Spanish name means Our Lady of the Snows. It is not known who chose this name for the island, but it is a reference to the story of a 4th century Catholic miracle: a snowfall on the Esquiline Hill in Rome . Presumably the white clouds that usually cover the top of Nevis Peak reminded someone of this story of a miraculous snowfall in a hot climate.
Nevis was part of the Spanish claim to the Caribbean islands, a claim pursued until 1671, even though there were no Spanish settlements on the island. According to Vincent Hubbard, author of Swords, Ships & Sugar: History of Nevis, the Spanish ruling caused many of the Arawak groups who were not ethnically Caribs to "be redefined as Caribs overnight". Records indicate that the Spanish enslaved large numbers of the native inhabitants on the more accessible of the Leeward Islands and sent them to Cubagua, Venezuela to dive for pearls. Hubbard suggests that the reason the first European settlers found so few "Caribs" on Nevis is that they had already been rounded up by the Spanish and shipped off to be used as slaves.
In spite of the Spanish claim, Nevis continued to be a popular stop-over point for English and Dutch ships on their way to the North American continent. Captain Bartholomew Gilbert of Plymouth visited the island in 1603, spending two weeks to cut twenty tons of lignum vitae wood. Gilbert sailed on to Virginia to seek out survivors of the Roanoke settlement in what is now North Carolina. Captain John Smith visited Nevis also on his way to Virginia in 1607. This was the voyage which founded the Jamestown Settlement, the first permanent English settlement in the New World.
On August 30, 1620, James I of England asserted sovereignty over Nevis by giving a Royal Patent for colonisation to the Earl of Carlisle. However, actual European settlement did not happen until 1628 when Anthony Hilton moved from nearby Saint Kitts following a murder plot against him. He was accompanied by 80 other settlers, soon to be boosted by a further 100 settlers from London who had originally hoped to settle Barbuda. Hilton became the first Governor of Nevis. After the 1671 peace treaty between Spain and England, Nevis became the seat of the British colony and the Admiralty Court also sat in Nevis. Between 1675 and 1730, the island was the headquarter for the slave trade for the Leeward Islands, with approximately 6,000-7,000 enslaved West Africans passing through on route to other islands each year. The Royal African Company brought all its ships through Nevis.
Due to the profitable Triangular trade and the high quality of Nevisian sugar cane, the island soon became a dominant source of wealth for Great Britain and the slave-owning British plantocracy. When the Leeward Islands were separated from Barbados in 1671, Nevis became the seat of the Leeward Islands colony and was given the nickname "Queen of the Caribees". It remained colonial capital for the Leeward Islands until the seat was transferred to Antigua for military reasons in 1698. During this period, Nevis was the richest of the British Leeward Islands. The island outranked even larger islands like Jamaica in sugar production in the late 17th century. The wealth of the planters on the island is evident in the tax records preserved at the Calendar State Papers in the British Colonial Office Public Records, where the amount of tax collected on the Leeward Islands was recorded. The sums recorded for 1676 as "head tax on slaves", a tax payable in sugar, amounted to 384,600 pounds in Nevis, as opposed to 67,000 each in Antigua and Saint Kitts, 62,500 in Montserrat, and 5,500 total in the other five islands. The profits on sugar cultivation in Nevis was enhanced by the fact that the cane juice from Nevis yielded an unusually high amount of sugar. A gallon (3.79 litres) of cane juice from Nevis yielded 24 ounces (0.71 litres) of sugar, whereas a gallon from Saint Kitts yielded 16 ounces (0.47 litres). Twenty percent of the British Empire’s total sugar production in 1700 was derived from Nevisian plantations. Exports from West Indian colonies like Nevis were worth more than all the exports from all the mainland Thirteen colonies of North America combined at the time of the American Revolution.
The enslaved families formed the large labour force and were forced to perform the monotonous and dangerous work of the sugar plantations. After the 1650s the supply of white indentured servants began to dry up due to increased wages in England and less incentive to migrate to the colonies. Additionally, the plantation owners considered lifelong enslavement a better long-term investment for their owners than indentured servants who could leave after four to seven years. They also considered it easier to control persons in a workforce that had been removed from their homelands and separated from their kin by brute force and who were easily discerned by their skin colour should they try to escape. By the end of the 17th century, the population of Nevis consisted of a small, rich planter elite in control, a marginal population of poor whites, a great majority of enslaved families of African descent, and an unknown number of maroons, people who had freed themselves from the exploitation at the plantations and escaped into the mountains. In 1780, 90 percent of the 10,000 people living on Nevis were black. Some of the maroons joined with the few remaining Caribs in Nevis to form an ever present resistance force in the mountainous regions of the island. Memories of the Nevisian maroons' struggle against the injustices suffered by the Afro-Caribbean population under the plantation system are preserved in place names such as Maroon Hill, an early centre of resistance.
The great wealth generated by the colonies of the West Indies led to wars between Spain, Britain, and France. The formation of the United States can be said to be a partial by-product of these wars and the strategic trade aims that often ignored North America. Three privateers were employed by the British Crown to help protect ships in Nevis' waters. One of them, Captain Frances, was of African descent. He commanded 100 men and a 20-gun ship.
During the 17th century the French, based on Saint Kitts, launched many attacks on Nevis, sometimes assisted by the Island Caribs, who in 1667 sent a large fleet of canoes along in support. Letters and other records from the era indicate that the English on Nevis hated and feared the Amerindians. In 1674 and 1683 they participated in attacks on Carib villages in Dominica and St. Vincent, in spite of a lack of official approval from The Crown for the attack.
On Nevis, the English built Fort Charles and a series of smaller fortifications to aid in defending the island against Carib attacks.
In 1706, Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville, the French Canadian founder of Louisiana in North America, decided to drive the English out of Nevis and thus also stop pirate attacks on French ships; he considered Nevis the region's headquarter for piracy in the Caribbean against French trade. During d'Iberville's invasion of Nevis, French Buccaneers were used in the front line, infamous for being ruthless killers after the pillaging during the wars with Spain where they gained a reputation for torturing and murdering non-combatants. In the face of the invading force, the English militiamen of Nevis fled. Some planters burned the plantations, rather than letting the French have them, and hid in the mountains. It was the enslaved Africans who held the French at bay by taking up arms to defend their families and the island. The slave quarters had been looted and burned as well, as the main reward promised the men fighting on the French side in the attack was the right to capture as many slaves as possible and resell them in Martinique.
During the fighting, 3,400 enslaved Nevisians were captured and sent off to Martinique, but about 1,000 more, poorly armed and militarily untrained, held the French troops at bay, by "murderous fire" according to an eyewitness account by an English militiaman. He wrote that "the slaves' brave behaviour and defence there shamed what some of their masters did, and they do not shrink to tell us so." After 18 days of fighting, the French were driven off the island. Among the Nevisian men, women and children carried away on d'Iberville's ships, six ended up in Louisiana, the first persons of African descent to arrive there.
One consequence of the French attack was a collapsed sugar industry and during the ensuing hardship on Nevis, small plots of land on the plantations were made available to the enslaved families in order to control the loss of life due to starvation. With less profitability for the absentee plantation owners, the import of food supplies for the plantation workers dwindled. Between 1776 and 1783, when the food supplies failed to arrive altogether due to the rebellion in North America, 300-400 enslaved Nevisians starved to death. On August 1, 1834, slavery was abolished in the British Empire. In Nevis, 8,815 slaves were freed. The first Monday in August is celebrated as Emancipation Day and is part of the annual Nevis Culturama festival.
A four-year apprenticeship program followed the abolishment of slavery on the plantations. In spite of the continued use of the labour force, the Nevisian slave owners were paid over £150,000 in compensation from the British Government for the loss of property, whereas the enslaved families received nothing for 200 years of labour. One of the wealthiest planter families in Nevis, the Pinneys of Montravers Plantation, claimed £36,396 pounds in compensation for the slaves on the family-owned plantations around the Caribbean.
Because of the early distribution of plots and because many of the planters departed from the island when sugar cultivation became unprofitable, a relatively large percentage of Nevisians already owned or controlled land at emancipation. Others settled on crown land. This early development of a society with a majority of small, landowning farmers and entrepreneurs created a stronger middleclass in Nevis than in Saint Kitts where the sugar industry continued until 2006. Even though the 15 families in the wealthy planter elite no longer control the arable land, Saint Kitts still has a large, landless working class population.
Nevis was united with Saint Kitts and Anguilla in 1882, and they became an associated state with full internal autonomy in 1967, though Anguilla seceded in 1971. Together, Saint Kitts and Nevis became independent on September 19, 1983. On August 10, 1998, a referendum on Nevis to separate from Saint Kitts had 2,427 votes in favour and 1,498 against, falling short of the two-thirds majority needed.
Before 1967, the local government of Saint Kitts was also the government of Nevis and Anguilla. Nevis had two seats and Anguilla one seat in the government. The economic and infrastructural development of the two smaller islands was not a priority to the colonial federal government.
When the hospital in Charlestown was destroyed in a hurricane in 1899, planting of trees in the squares of Saint Kitts and refurbishing of government buildings, also in Saint Kitts, took precedence over the rebuilding of the only hospital in Nevis. After five years without any proper medical facilities, the leaders in Nevis initiated a campaign, threatening to seek independence from Saint Kitts. The British Administrator in Saint Kitts, Charles Cox, was unmoved. He stated that Nevis did not need a hospital since there had been no significant rise in the number of deaths during the time Nevisians had been without a hospital. Therefore, no action was needed on behalf of the government, and besides, Cox continued, the Legislative Council regarded "Nevis and Anguilla as a drag on St. Kitts and would willingly see a separation". Finally, a letter of complaint to the metropolitan British Foreign Office gave result and the federal government in Saint Kitts was ordered by their superiors in London to take speedy action. The Legislative Council took another five years to consider their options. The final decision by the federal government was to not rebuild the old hospital after all, but to instead convert the old Government House in Nevis into a hospital, named Alexandra Hospital after Queen Alexandra, wife of King Edward VII. A majority of the funds assigned for the hospital could thus spent on the construction of a new official residence in Nevis.
Electricity was introduced in Nevis in 1954, when two generators were shipped in to provide electricity to the area around Charlestown. In this regard, Nevis fared better than Anguilla, where there were no paved roads, no electricity and no telephones up until 1967. However, electricity did not become available island-wide on Nevis until 1971.
An ambitious infrastructure development programme has been introduced during the last 10 years, including a transformation of the Charlestown port, construction of a new deep-water harbour, resurfacing and widening the Island Main Road, a new airport terminal and control tower, and a major airport expansion, which required the relocation of an entire village in order to make room for the runway extension.
Modernized classrooms and better equipped schools, as well as improvements in the educational system, have contributed to a leap in academic performance on the island. The pass rate among the Nevisian students sitting for the Caribbean Examination Council exams, the Cambridge General Certificate of Education Examination and the Caribbean Advance Proficiency Examinations is now consistently among the highest in the English-speaking Caribbean.
Since 2005, Nevis has its first Resident Judge, Her Ladyship Justice Ianthea Leigertwood-Octave.