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Before the Huguenots settled for a time in Brazil, another group fled religious persecution by sailing to St Kitts in 1538.

From Dieppe to Dieppe Bay

As students of the history of the Second World War know, Dieppe is a French port in Upper Normandy. It is on the coast of the English Channel.

By the 16th century, the city was known for having the most advanced cartography in France. As a result, the port saw much trade, including with the New World, where a few adventurous merchants were sailing back and forth to Brazil. Brazil’s wood — the now-endangered Pau-Brasil — was highly prized for its durability and its red dye. Previous explorers to that part of the world also said there were likely to be precious metals and stones, which also stimulated the imagination of intrepid traders.

The Huguenots, on the other hand, wished to set sail for the New World only to find religious freedom. Some of them were already experiencing persecution in the first part of the 16th century.

A group of them decided to set sail from Dieppe for the West Indies. They arrived on St Kitts in 1538 and named their settlement after the French port. Dieppe Bay Town — as it is known today — is the oldest European community in the Eastern Caribbean.

Unfortunately, the Huguenots’ small settlement survived for only a few months. The Spanish arrived on the island and deported them. However, remains of that colony survive today as the cellar of the main building of the Golden Lemon Hotel.

We do not know what happened to those Huguenots after that.

Early St Kitts and Nevis

The first people to arrive on these islands around 3000 BC were the ‘Archaic people’, who sailed down from what is now Florida and migrated among the various islands along the way. They survived for a few centuries.

The next group to arrive — around 1000 BC — came from what is now known as Venezuela. They were an agricultural and ceramic people known as the Saladoid.

In 800 AD, the Saladoid were replaced by the Igneri, part of the Arawak tribe. The Igneri were peaceful and spiritual; they managed to successfully settle and populate the islands.

In 1300, the aggressive Kalinago — Caribs — arrived and forced the Igneri off the islands. The Igneri sailed north to the Greater Antilles.

The Kalinago went on to name the islands: Liamuiga (St Kitts), or ‘fertile island’, and Oualie (Nevis), ‘land of beautiful waters’.

The Kalinago found the location of Liamuiga and Oualie ideal for trade with other islands and indigenous peoples. However, these belligerent settlers also raided the Taino people, who lived on what is now the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

Christopher Columbus’s and subsequent exploration

In 1493 — only a few decades before the Huguenots from Dieppe made their voyage — Christopher Columbus sighted the islands on his second expedition.

Accounts vary as to whether he named St Kitts St Jago (St James, hence Santiago) or St Martin or St Christopher. In any event, St Christopher was the most widely used on maps — perhaps in error — as San Cristobal.

The English, who arrived later to colonise the island, kept the name St Christopher and abbreviated it to St Kit’s or St Kitts. Kit is the diminutive for Christopher. Today, the island is known officially by both names.

Spanish settlers, coming after Columbus, named the smaller island Nuestra Señora de las Nieves — Our Lady of the Snows. This is thought to have come from

a reference to the story of a fourth-century Catholic miracle: a snowfall on the Esquiline Hill in Rome. Presumably the white clouds which usually wreathe the top of Nevis Peak reminded someone of the story of a miraculous snowfall in a hot climate. The island of Nevis, upon first British settlement, was referred to as “Dulcina,” a name meaning “sweet one.” Its original Spanish name, “Nuestra Señora de las Nieves,” was eventually kept however, though it was soon shortened to “Nevis.”

Nevis was a corruption and anglicisation of the Spanish name.

Subsequent settlement

Surprisingly — both for their aggressive demeanour and the fact that this did not occur with other indigenous populations in the Caribbean — the Kalinago allowed the Europeans to settle St Kitts and Nevis. Tribes on other islands fought the Europeans.

The English established a colony in 1623. The French arrived not long after to settle. Both groups of settlers massacred the Kalinago.

In 1629, the Spanish returned and sent the Anglo-French settlers packing. The following year, a war settlement allowed England and France to colonise the islands anew. Each country had its own parts of the islands.

As it was for the Kalinago, the islands became a strategic base for both countries’ expansion in the Caribbean. What was once a mutually peaceful arrangement turned into a battle for control. The French ceded their territory to Great Britain in 1713.

The islands, although internally autonomous, continue to be part of the British Commonwealth.

Next week: The Huguenot colony in Florida

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