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Welcome to Kim Collins country.

The islands of St Kitts & Nevis and Dominica, with their 90% African-descendant population, are known as the 'sleepiest places on earth'. They have just been celebrating their 20th and 25th independence anniversaries. Clayton Goodwin reports.

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Through just one athlete--Kim Collins, the World and Commonwealth 100m champion--the tiny Leeward Islands state of St Kitts & Nevis gained more gold medals in the recent World Athletics Championships in Paris than the UK, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Nigeria, Ghana and several other supposedly "major" countries put together.

Dame Eugenia Charles (the so-described "Thatcher of the Caribbean") was the prime minister at that time of the otherwise internationally "lightweight" Commonwealth of Dominica in the Windward Islands, who was instrumental in persuading the American president, Ronald Reagan, to intervene militarily in Grenada in 1983--an event that changed the course of the region's history.

If they are the only citizens of these two countries of whom you have heard, do not worry. The islands, which celebrated respectively their 20th and 25th anniversaries of independence this autumn (19 September and 3 November), are, themselves, the real heroes of this feature.

St Kitts & Nevis is situated in the cluster of islands towards the northern end of that arc of islands which bends outwards from the Caribbean Sea into the Atlantic Ocean. Francophone Guadeloupe is located a short way to the south and the shared Dutch/French island of St Maarten or St Martin an even shorter distance to the north--though Anglophone Antigua & Barbuda to the east and the volcano-ravaged Montserrat slightly to the south are the "overseas" territories which are the closest in most respects.

The geographical pattern is echoed in history as the islands, which were inhabited previously by the Caribs. They flirted initially with the French before the islands finally passed into the possession of the British who had settled there first in 1623 and, using it as a base for colonising other islands, described St Kitts as the "Mother Colony of the West Indies".

Since the end of the Napoleonic Wars just under two centuries ago, these two islands have been associated with one, another, and sometimes more, of their neighbours in various forms of administration.

It was in 1967 that St Kitts & Nevis and Anguilla became a State in voluntary association with Great Britain, but the arrangement was not to the liking of Anguilla, and the British prime minister, Harold Wilson, sent a posse of Metropolitan policemen to invade the island and put the dissenters under "heavy manners".

Anguilla was separated formally in 1980 and the way was clear for its former partners to achieve their own political independence three years later. Six years ago, the Nevis Assembly voted unanimously for secession, but that objective has not been realised.

St Kitts, the formal name for which is "St Christopher", and Nevis are described as being two of the sleepiest places in the Caribbean and one of the few countries in the region where agriculture still has a larger part in the economy than tourism. Just the place "to get away from it all" and appreciate the verdant scenery of the mountains, the sugar cane fields and the exotic gardens. The waters, coral beaches and shores around the islands are favoured by divers and snorkellers.

The lush tropical aspect of St Kitts is dominated by the volcanic Mount Liamuiga, the sides of which are covered in forest and the top fringed in cloud.

In spite of this justified appearance of Paradise, the Kittitians are aware of what happened when the Soufriere Volcano on the neighbouring Montserrat, which had not erupted for some 330 years, did so in July 1995, destroying much of the island's social fabric and causing a substantial part of the population to emigrate.

The more modest mountains around Nevis Peak were used as look-out posts for the fleet of Admiral Horatio Nelson. As with all territories in this part of the world, the sugar cultivation in St Kitts and cotton and coconut production on Nevis are vulnerable to hurricanes.

The combined population of the two islands is not above 45,000 (well over three-quarters living on St Kitts)--making the state the smallest country in the Western Hemisphere, and is based substantially on Basseterre, the capital.

Whereas the people are overwhelmingly African in heritage (90%), religious allegiance is more varied with all major Christian denominations being represented. The inhabitants are considered to be generally easy-going and without affectation.

For an island of such limited size and population, Nevis has given birth to a remarkable number of first-class and international cricketers. Yet those without particular interest in sport would consider singer Joan Armatrading--Mel B of the Spice Girls is part-Nevisian--to be the best-known descendant of St Kitts & Nevis.

Dominica--which commentators who should know better often confuse with the Dominican Republic, which is the eastern half of the island of Hispaniola that it shares with Haiti--is the largest and most northerly of the Windward Islands.

It nestles between the two French islands Guadeloupe and Martinique. Indeed, for much of its early history, Dominica was in French possession, a factor thatstill remain today, with 77% of Dominicans being Roman Catholic and French patois being spoken (almost) as widely as English. The ethnic complexion of the population of some 75,000, of which about four-fifths live in the capital Roseau, is described as being principally of African heritage with some 3,000 Caribs.

Caribs are the very people who have given their name to the region. These once fearsome warriors, who, it is said, came initially from the Amazon Basin, were working their way anti-clockwise around the arc of islands from the south at about the same time that the Europeans were butting in from the north.

Both did quite a lot of damage to the inhabitants who happened to be there at the time. In the book "Robinson Crusoe", which is based on the experience of a marooned sailor, Alexander Selkirk, the conflict between "Man Friday" and the "cannibals" could be taken as an allegory of that between the fierce Caribs and the less belligerent people whom they supplanted.

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The Caribs found a refuge from their European enemies in this mountainous forested island. I remember when flying over the region for the first time, I looked down on a myriad of islands initially indistinguishable, and recognised Dominica rising straight up from the sea as a one-tree-clad island.

The Carib name for Dominica is "Ouaitoucoubouli" (meaning "she of tall stature", ie, the mountain). At first the French and British made Dominica a possession of the Caribs, but the lure of setting up plantations proved to be too strong. Even so, little of these feared warriors remains in their gentle descendants who today live in harmony with nature and make their living primarily from farming. The country's economy, which was long based on the production of bananas, is still essentially agricultural. The growing market for tourism has a specialist eco-tourism sector. There are, in fact, several peaks, including the inactive volcanoes of Morne Trois Pitons in the south, the Watt Mountain even further south, and the tallest peak of all Morne Diablotin in the north.

With Morne au Diable Massif forming a blunt peninsula ending in high north-facing cliffs in the north, the central part of the island is watered by the gorges of many streams and by the basin of the Layou River. The topography is truly magnificent in its scenic scope and variety.

Dominica recently hosted the 7th Annual World Creole Music Festival and while the names of the artistes may not mean too much to the "world at large", their heterogeneity is testimony to the importance of an island which stands at the cross-roads of cultures--African, Carib, English, French.

The 20th and 25th anniversaries of political independence of two of the world's smallest countries may not mean all that much in the international order of things. Yet nations many times bigger will envy the profile which Kim Collins has brought to his country and the tradition of the independent spirit of the Caribs.

Add to that a laid-back attitude and some breathtaking scenery, and even the most casual observer will admit that this part of the world, and especially the smaller islands, have much to celebrate whatever the anniversary.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Diaspora
Author:Goodwin, Clayton
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:5STKI
Date:Jan 1, 2004
Words:1375
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