About St. Kitts and Nevis
Area: St. Kitts 168 sq. km. (65 sq. mi.); Nevis 93 sq. km. (36 sq. mi.).
Cities: Capital–Basseterre (pop. about 15,000).
Terrain: Generally mountainous; highest elevations are 1,156 m. (3,792 ft.) at Mt. Liamuiga on St. Kitts and 985 m; (3,232 ft.) at Nevis peak on Nevis.
Nationality: Noun and adjective–Kittitian(s), Nevisian(s).
Population (2007): 39,129.
Annual population growth rate (2007): 1%.
Ethnic groups: Predominantly of African origin; some of British, Portuguese, and Lebanese descent.
Religions: Principally Anglican, with Evangelical Protestant and Roman Catholic minorities.
Languages: English (official).
Education (2005): Adult literacy–97.8%.
Health (2007): Infant mortality rate–14.5/1,000. Life expectancy–men 68 years; women 72 years.
Unemployment (2006): 5.1%.
Type: Parliamentary democracy; independent sovereign state within the Commonwealth.
Independence: September 19, 1983.
Branches: Executive–governor general (representing Queen Elizabeth II, head of state), prime minister (head of government), cabinet. Legislative–bicameral Parliament. Judicial–magistrate’s courts, Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court (High Court and Court of Appeals), final appeal to Privy Council in London.
Administrative subdivisions: 14 parishes.
Political parties: St. Kitts and Nevis Labour Party (ruling), People’s Action Movement (PAM), Concerned Citizens Movement (a Nevis-based party), and Nevis Reformation Party.
Suffrage: Universal at 18.
GDP (2007): $477.4 million.
GDP growth rate (2006): 5.8%.
Per capita GDP (2006): $8,546.
Inflation (2006): 5.25%.
Natural resources: Negligible.
Agriculture: Rice, yams, bananas, fish, cotton, peanuts, vegetables.
Industry: Financial and business services, tourism, construction, clothing, footwear, beverages, and tobacco.
Trade (2006): Exports–$31 million (merchandise) and $139 million (commercial services). Major markets–United States (91.9%), EU (3.0%), Trinidad and Tobago (2%), Netherlands Antilles (0.8%), St. Vincent and the Grenadines (0.3%). Imports–$210 million (merchandise) and $87 million (commercial services). Major suppliers–United States (57.9%), Trinidad and Tobago (14.1%), European Union (9.3%), Japan (3.8%), and Barbados (2.8%).
Official exchange rate: EC$2.70 = U.S. $1.
At the time of European discovery, Carib Indians inhabited the islands of St. Kitts and Nevis. Christopher Columbus landed on the larger island in 1493 on his second voyage and named it after St. Christopher, his patron saint. Columbus also discovered Nevis on his second voyage, reportedly calling it Nevis because of its resemblance to a snowcapped mountain (in Spanish, “nuestra senora de las nieves” or our lady of the snows). European settlement did not officially begin until 1623-24, when first English, then French settlers arrived on St. Christopher’s Island, whose name the English shortened to St. Kitts Island. As the first English colony in the Caribbean, St. Kitts served as a base for further colonization in the region.
The English and French held St. Kitts jointly from 1628 to 1713. During the 17th century, intermittent warfare between French and English settlers ravaged the island’s economy. Meanwhile Nevis, settled by English settlers in 1628, grew prosperous under English rule. St. Kitts was ceded to Great Britain by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. The French seized both St. Kitts and Nevis in 1782. The Treaty of Paris in 1783 definitively awarded both islands to Britain. They were part of the colony of the Leeward Islands from 1871-1956, and of the West Indies Federation from 1958-62. In 1967, together with Anguilla, they became a self-governing state in association with Great Britain; Anguilla seceded late that year and remains a British dependency. The Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis attained full independence on September 19, 1983.
Culture and Tradition
One of the most cherished traditions in our treasure chest of cultural riches is our carnival at Christmas time, when our Clowns, Moko-Jumbies, Masquerade, Bull, and Actors parade in a joyous display of island pride.
The art of Masquerade
In St. Kitts, Masquerade is an art form. Uniquely Kittitian, it is our Carnival’s grand display of the cultural evolution that has taken place over the course of 300 years. Paraders wear tall peacock-feathered headdresses, masks, and fringed aprons that reach just above the knees. The entire costume is decorated with bangles, mirrors and ribbons.
Dance experts have identified elements of European and African genres, which include the “Wild Mas”, the Waltz, Quadrille, the Rhumba, the Fertility Dance, the Fine Dance, the Jig and the Boillola. The “Quadrille”, which has its roots in 17th-Century France, is the first dance. It is a slow, structured couples dance. The second dance, the “Fine”, picks up the pace. It demands greater skill as the dancers work their way, on one foot, towards each other in the centre of the ring. There they perform a Fertility Dance that is traceable to the mating dance of Africa.
The real spectacle comes when the masquerades break into a frenzy of “Wild Mas”, throwing their tomahawks into the air. This dance is typical of the African war dance that has been performed over millennia. The next dance is the “Jig”. Here the dancers display their skill with the tomahawk, with their right foot hooked behind their left.
This dance follows right into the “Boillola”, another dance movement where the tomahawk is held between the dancer’s legs, while the dancers jump and clap to the music, moving from side to side. European roots are put on parade when the dancers pair off into couples and perform the Waltz to a moderately fast triple meter.
Moko-Jumbies and African mythology
Once a year African mythology brilliantly comes to life and walks among us on St. Kitts. Dressed in long colorful gowns, Moko-Jumbies dance on six to eight foot stilts to the delight of everyone along the parade route. Although we may never know for certain, many theories surround their costumes and the dance they perform. One theory is that Moko is the name of the African God of Vengeance. Others believe it is a corruption of the word macaw, the name of a very tall palm tree covered with thorns, since the headpieces of Moko-Jumbies resemble the heart of the macaw plant when it is in full bloom.
Beware of the Bull
Don’t worry. That’s just a Kittitian dressed in red with a bull headdress coming down the street. And when he goes into a wild frenzy causing chaos and havoc, he’s only retelling the story of an incident that happened at the Belmont estate back to 1917. As it is told, the prize bull of that property’s manager fell ill, only to miraculously revive. It is this revival that is acted out in graphic detail causing humor and havoc as the bull runs wild among spectators.
From the parish of St. Peters, welcome “The Actors”
In the seventeenth century, the French Governor De Poincy took residence in the parish of St. Peters, and started a tradition that has far outlived the palace that he built there. Today “The Actors” of St. Peters still perform skillful, hair-raising acrobatic feats. They do somersaults over the prongs of upturned pitchforks, and use sledgehammers to break great stones set upon each other’s chests – all to the delight of young and old.
Bring in the Clowns!
For hundreds of years our Clowns have been a big part of our Christmas time festival. This troupe of up to fifty players wear floppy, colorful costumes decorated with tiny bells that fill the air with a delightful jingle. The punctuating crack of the Hunter, a leather whip carried by each performer, serves to keep them in sync with the rhythms of their accompanying String Band. In the same tradition of all local folk dances, our clowns wear pink wire mesh masks to hide their identity and allow for total lack of inhibition. As they serpentine behind and between each other, the elegance and grace of this fun-loving flock of Kittitians is truly a spectacle to behold.
Music and Culture
Music and the islands go hand-in-hand, and Nevis is no exception. Since the days of slavery, folk dances and folk music have been a part of life. They played a key role, particularly at Christmas when field workers were given free time for leisure activities.
With the advent of Carnival, and later Culturama, the annual cultural festival held each summer since 1974, dances and music became part of these celebrations. There are many traditional folk dances, such as the masquerade, the Mocko-Jumbies that walk on stilts, Cowboys and Indians, and Plait the Ribbon, a May pole dance.
The musical accompaniment for these dances is the Big Drum or the String Band. Big Drum, which is African in origin, consists of a bass and kettle drums, and fife. The string band or “scratch band” as it is called, consists of about 10 musicians. The band usually has three guitars and a four-string instrument-mandolin and quatro-as accompaniment. The rest of the band plays a baho, a bass pipe made from bamboo (or in recent times, PVC pipe) that reaches to the floor, and percussion (maracas, triangle, and guiro-a hollow gourd with ridges that are “scratched” with a metal comb-like object). A fife usually carries the melody for the group.
There are currently three string bands on Nevis, which entertain regularly on the island, at hotels, and at events, like weddings. Young people are learning to play the instruments in primary school, and some of the bands have younger members to keep the tradition alive.
Steel pan and Kaiso (Calypso) music play an important role in the island culture. Largely influenced by Trinidad and Jamaica, Nevisians enjoy listening to Kaiso and composing songs. Kaiso contests are a popular event around Culturama time. The winners of the Kaiso contests, the Monarch, is well-regarded for his musical ability and rises somewhat to a celebrity status. The Kaiso show is one of the more popular events for young and old alike since the message, as presented by the lyrics, portrays various aspects of the Nevisian way of life. Kaiso is a popular art form throughout the Caribbean and has its roots in West Africa as seen by the African tradition of orature or storytelling. Like most Caribbean countries it started in Nevis during the days of slavery and has continued after emancipation into the 20th century.
Work songs occupy an important place in the account of the music of Nevis, for example, when moving a heavy object such as a house or a boat, this rhyming song would be sung, “The ram, the Ewe and the Weather goat.” (symbolic of 1,2,3, go!)
Service of Songs was a special time for many Nevisians. Held annually at Easter and Whit Sunday in a tent or arbor woven from palm fronds, the music was mostly religious in nature. The songs were taken from the ‘Sanky’ Hymnal. It was a real social occasion and preparation for the event was part of the enjoyment. The Service of Songs, which were held in the early 20th century, now gives way to Gospel Concerts.