St Lucia – a tropical gem
St Lucia is the sort of island that travellers to the Caribbean dream about – a small, lush tropical gem still relatively unknown. One of the Windward Islands of the Lesser Antilles, it is located midway down the Eastern Caribbean chain between Martinique and St Vincent, and north west of Barbados.
St Lucia has an area of 238 square miles and is only 27 miles long and 14 miles wide. Its population is estimated at 163,000.
Simply beautiful, it has dramatic twin coastal peaks, the Pitons, which soar 2,000 feet above sea level, sheltering magnificent rain forests where wild orchids, giant ferns and birds of paradise flourish.
Brilliantly plumed tropical birds abound, including endangered species like the indigenous St Lucia parrot. The rainforest is broken by verdant fields and orchards of banana, coconut, mango and papaya.
St Lucia was originally settled by Arawak Indians in around AD 200, though by AD 800 their peaceful lifestyle and culture was dominated by the neighbouring Caribs.
There is much speculation as to which European saw the island first. Some say it was Columbus on his fourth voyage to the West Indies in 1502; others think it was Juan de la Cosa. Either way – perhaps due of the fierceness of the Caribs or attacks from other pirates – there were no successful European settlement attempts for another hundred years.
The Dutch, who had an increasing presence in the Caribbean, arrived around 1600, establishing a fortified base at Vieux Fort. Following England’s failure to settle, the French arrived in 1651 as part of the French West India Company and ‘bought’ the island.
They established the first official settlement in St Lucia – Soufrière – in 1746. Despite the wars and flag changes, St Lucia became an important sugar-producing island. The first sugar plantation was started by two Frenchmen in 1765.
African slaves were imported to supply the necessary manpower required by the huge plantations. By 1780, twelve settlements and a large number of sugar plantations had been established.
Anglo-French rivalry over St Lucia continued for more than a century. From the mid-17th century until 1814, battles between Britain and France caused St Lucia to change hands fourteen times. After a series of long and destructive battles the island was formally ceded to Britain in 1814.
In 1842, English became the official language. Indentured Indian labourers arrived in 1882 to work in the agricultural industry. They continued to arrive over the next thirty years and many decided to settle.
In the late 1800s, as coal-fired steamships came into use, the need for strategically located coaling stations became essential. In 1863, the first steamship laden with coal arrived in Castries and it became a busy major coaling station.
Over the next century, St Lucia settled into the stable democracy and multicultural society that it is today. The country remained under the British crown until it became independent within the British Commonwealth in 1979.
Despite the length of British rule, the island’s French cultural legacy is still evident in its Creole dialect – a local French-based Patois.
Catholicism is the dominant religion in St Lucia. Catholics account for approximately 67 per cent of the population; 40 per cent of whom are described as ‘active’.
Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses are prominent. The Anglican Church has approximately 6,000 members, with 50 per cent active, while Baptists and Methodists represent smaller numbers.
There are a small number of Muslims, primarily local converts, but some are immigrants from the Middle East, South Asia and other Caribbean countries. Other minority religious groups include Rastafarians (2.1 per cent) and members of the Baha’i Faith.
The island’s constitution provides for freedom of religion, and its other laws and policies contribute to the free practice of religion.
The government is secular and does not interfere with an individual’s right to worship. It maintains a close relationship with the Christian Council, an organisation comprised of the Catholic Church and mainline Protestant denominations.