The history of Nevis is multi-layered – alternately stories of discovery, triumph, prosperity and tragedy.
Evidence of the early history of Nevis can still sometimes be found on the windward side of the island at Indian Castle beach. Shards of pottery dating back to the Arawak people of about 2000 BC can emerge after storms. The original people, the peaceable Arawaks were wiped out by the Caribs who migrated through South America to establish themselves in the islands.
European History and Slavery
Europeans probably first saw Nevis on Christopher Columbus’s 1493 voyage. It is said that this voyage went past the cloud topped volcanic island and was named by Columbus, Las Senora de las Nieves (Our Lady of the Snows). It was Columbus, in fact, who named the West Indies. The Spanish didn’t colonize it. That fell to the British who came much later in 1623.
Nevis came to be known as is the Queen of the Caribees. And there is a good reason. In the 17th and into the 18th century little Nevis was the richest sugar economy in the British West Indies. It was a highly sought after prize and frequent battles over ownership with the French created havoc for plantation owners and workers and ultimately contributed to its ruin. That, along with beet sugar production in Europe and British legislation that made slavery illegal, spelled the end of Nevis’s wealth.
Life was hard for the landowners and harder still for indentured workers and slaves. But there was some education and training for both. White indentured servants became the first clerks and storekeepers. Slaves were taught crafts and construction. When emancipation came in 1833 black workers were referred to by their trades – as carpenters, coopers, saddlers depending on the craft they had learned on the plantation. Needless to say, with emancipation came their move away from the plantations to start their own farms and businesses. Most took as their last names the family name of the plantation owners. These names are still common in Nevis today.
A family by the name of Cottle, who had a prosperous plantation on the north side of the island, commissioned the building of the Cottle Church – the first integrated church on the island – which opened in 1824. On the south side of the church wall is a plaque that lists the names and ages of all the slaves who were members of that church and the Cottle family estate. It is both sad and exhilarating.
It is very difficult to credit a slave economy but perhaps these small gestures helped to make the modern history of Nevis what it is. A place that is run by the descendents of slaves and who are happy to welcome people of all complexions to the home they have built and of which they are justly proud.
The Jewish Cemetery
The Jewish Cemetery on Government Road in Charlestown is about all that is left of a once significant Jewish population. From time to time someone thinks the site of the synagogue has been discovered but so far there is no compelling evidence that pinpoints its location. The cemetery stones date from between 1670 to 1730 and have inscriptions carved in Hebrew, Portuguese and English. It is believes that the Jewish population on Nevis emigrated from Brazil sometime after 1654. The cemetery was discovered and restored and rededicated in 1971. It is a moving site. Visitors still place pebbles on the marker stones.
Nevis was also an important part of Nelson’s career development. Sent to the Caribbean as the senior naval captain in an effort to enforce a very unpopular navigation act – which forbade trade with the islands other nations – he demonstrated more determination in the enforcement of the act than his Admiral and found first trouble then fame and then love. Nevis is very proud of its connection to Nelson and there is a small museum with some interesting artifacts and documents – including his wedding certificate – to be seen. Montpelier House where he courted Fanny Nesbit is long gone but the gateposts are still here and have a commemorative plaque. St. John Figtree, one of the oldest churches on the island and an exquisite piece of architecture was the site of the wedding ceremony. It is very likely that during his stay on Nevis he visited the manor house at The Hermitage.
There is a terrific book about the history of Nevis called, Swords and Ships, and a book about how Nelson’s fame got its foundation in the Caribbean called, Nelson in the Caribbean – The Hero Emerges, 1784 – 1787 which can be found in the museums and gift shops.
A signer of the American Declaration of Independence, Alexander Hamilton was born in Nevis around 1755. The exact date is not known. He was born out of wedlock and orphaned by the age of 11. Hamilton was raised by the community who recognized his abilities and sent him to the New York City for his education. His career under George Washington and John Adams is well documented and celebrated.
Part of the charm of Nevis is in its place names. The villages have names like Morningstar, Church Ground, Cotton Ground, Gingerland, Spring Hill, Figtree and Newcastle. Most village names came from the estate names of the sugar cane period. Historic mills have been converted into residences, restaurants and hotel rooms. The little wooden houses, which are modeled on the plantation chattel houses built for slaves, are rapidly being replaced with concrete and stucco homes. But, an effort is being made by the local Historical Society and some inn keepers like the Lupinaccis to keep the architectural heritage alive. And, the new, more comfortable, homes are still colourful, often maintaining the traditional rooflines and are decorated with gingerbread.