St. Vincentians

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St. Vincentians

LOCATION: St. Vincent and the Grenadines
POPULATION: 118,432 (July 2008 est.)
LANGUAGE: English; local dialect with French, West African, Spanish, and English elements
RELIGION: Protestant sects (80–90%): Anglicans, Methodist, and Seventh-Day Adventists; Roman Catholicism; Hinduism; Islam


In spite of its small size, St. Vincent and the Grenadines has a tumultuous early history. Control of its constituent islands was vigorously contested by both Amerindian and European groups for nearly 300 years, and its heritage includes the unique mingling of Africans and Amerindians that produced the group known as the Black Caribs. The Amerindian population on the island of St. Vincent guarded their homeland so vigorously that it became the last major Caribbean island to be colonized.

Christopher Columbus's sighting of the island in 1498 is thought to have taken place on 22 January, the feast day of the saint for which it is named. Aggressively defended by its native Carib population, St. Vincent remained impervious to European settlement attempts until the 18th century. However, when a passing Dutch ship carrying settlers and slaves was shipwrecked off the coast of Bequia in 1675, the Caribs welcomed the Africans who were the sole survivors of the disaster. They were allowed to settle on the island and mix with its population. The resulting people, whose numbers were swelled by escaped slaves from the neighboring islands of Barbados and St. Lucia, became known as the Black Caribs. Ensuing tensions between this group and the "pure" or Yellow Caribs on the island led to hostilities and territorial division by 1700.

In the 18th century, the French, the British, and the Caribs fought for control of the island, which was ultimately ceded to Britain by the Treaty of Paris in 1763. However, the French retained control of some of the Grenadines for a number of years, establishing a strong cultural influence in the area. On St. Vincent, sugarcane plantations flourished under the British in the first part of the 19th century. East Indian and Portuguese indentured laborers were brought to the island to make up for the labor shortage that followed the abolition of slavery by Great Britain in 1834.

In the mid-1800s, sugar prices fell, and the islands sank into an economic depression that lasted for decades. The century ended with two natural disasters, a hurricane in 1898 and the most destructive eruption to date of La Soufrière, St. Vincent's active volcano. Clouds and gases from the eruption were recorded as far away as Barbados, and nearly 2,000 people lost their lives. La Soufrière's most recent major eruption in 1979 forced over 16,000 people to evacuate their homes and blanketed much of the island with ash, resulting in extensive crop damage. However, no lives were lost.

Long administered as a British crown colony, St. Vincent and the Grenadines moved gradually toward full independence following the breakup of the West Indies Federation (of which it had been a member) in 1962. Internal self-government was granted in 1969 and full independence came on 27 October 1979. The period of independent statehood has been marked by secessionist tendencies in the Grenadines, including a rebellion on Union Island immediately following independence and protests in the early 1980s.

The eruption of La Soufrière in 1979 was followed a year later by Hurricane Allen, which caused extensive crop damage. In 1987, Hurricane Emily destroyed an estimated 70% of the nation's banana crop. This lower-middle-income country still is highly vulnerable to natural disasters. Tropical storms wiped out substantial portions of crops in 1994, 1995, and 2002.

The economic growth was of 6.6% in 2006, which was considered low after a decade of sturdy growth of nearly 7%. However, it has been predicted that the economy will remain robust. Economic growth is heavily dependent on the seasonal variations that affect the agricultural and tourism sectors. In recent times, the increase in construction activity has become an important engine for the national economy, especially regarding job creation.

Bananas, coconuts, sweet potatoes, and spices, as well as a small number of cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, and fish, represented 10% of the economy in 2001. In industry, food products, cement, furniture, and clothing are the main commodities produced by the country, accounting for 26% of national production. The service industry represented 64% of the economy during the same period.

As in other Caribbean nations, tourism has been one of the sectors with spectacular growth. The filming of the Pirates of the Caribbean saga on the island also helped to increase tourism and expose the country to the wider world. During 2007, the islands received more than 200,000 tourist arrivals. Saint Vincent is home to a small offshore banking sector and has moved to adopt international regulatory standards. The government's investment plans in social programs and its responses to natural and external shocks are strongly limited by its high debt burden.

Queen Elizabeth II, the British monarch, is the head of state and is represented on the island by an appointed governor-general. St. Vincent and the Grenadines have a unicameral legislature that is composed by the House of Assembly, an organism that is formed by representatives and senators appointed by the governor-general.


St. Vincent and the Grenadines is located among the Wind-ward Islands in the southern portion of the Lesser Antilles. St. Vincent is 32 km (20 mi) south of St. Lucia, while the Grenadines stretch southward toward Grenada. Thirty-two of the Grenadines are part of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, while the rest belong to Grenada. Barbados lies 161 km (100 mi) to the east. St. Vincent itself has a total area of 345 sq km (133 sq mi), while the land area of the Grenadines totals 44 sq km (17 sq mi), bringing the country's total area to 389 sq km (150 sq mi).

St. Vincent is a volcanic island whose highest point—at 1,234 m (4,048 ft)—is La Soufrière, an active volcano whose last major eruption, in 1979, caused serious crop and property damage but no loss of life, thanks to modern warning systems. La Soufrière is the northern end of a mountain range that runs southward to Mt. St. Andrew, bisecting most of the island. The mountains are heavily forested, with numerous streams fed by heavy rainfall.

Of the Grenadines associated with St. Vincent, the largest are Bequia (pronounced Beck-way), Canouan, Mayreau, Mustique, Isle D'Quatre, and Union Island. Bequia, 14.5 km (9 mi) south of St. Vincent, is the largest of the Grenadines. It is also the last Caribbean island on which whaling is still practiced, with the approval of the International Whaling Commission, which has granted the island a special Aboriginal Whaling Status. The home of the country's prime minister, Sir James Mitchell, St. Vincent has only had electricity since the 1960s and was only accessible by boat until the construction of an airport in 1992.

Farm animals outnumber the human population on Mayreau, which had its first—and only—telephone installed in 1990. Union Island (with an area of 8 sq km or 3 sq mi), the country's southern port of entry, was also the site of a secessionist revolt by about 50 young men a few days after St. Vincent and the Grenadines was declared an independent nation in 1979. Perhaps the best-known of the Grenadines is Mustique, a tiny semi-privately owned island with homes belonging to such well-known public figures as Mick Jagger and England's Princess Margaret, as well as other wealthy but lesser-known owners.

St. Vincent and the Grenadines has an estimated population of 120,000 people, of whom some 100,000 live on St. Vincent and about 8,000 on the Grenadines. About 25% of the country's population lives in the capital of Kingstown or in one of its suburbs. Kingstown itself has an estimated population of 15,000–16,000 people, and the surrounding area has another 10,000 people. The ethnic composition of the population is estimated as 65% Black, 20% of mixed Black and White ancestry, 5.5% East Indian, 3.5% White, and 2% descended from the island's native Carib population, with the remainder being immigrants from North America, Latin America, and Asia. There is a Carib reservation at Sandy Bay in the northern part of St. Vincent.


English is the official language of St. Vincent and the Grena-dines, but most people on the islands speak a local dialect, or Creole, that contains elements of both French and West African grammar and a vocabulary that is mostly French with some African, Spanish, and English words. It includes one of the most characteristic features of West Indian Creole languages, the use of object pronouns in the subject position, as in "Me going down town." There are many French place names in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, including Sans Souci, Petit Vincent, and Mayreau, as well as Carib names, which include Bequia (one of the Grenadines) and the Commantawana Bay on St. Vincent.

St. Vincentians have historically prided themselves on their ability to speak standard English correctly, while devaluing the use of the Creole that is for most the language of everyday life. In recent years, however, Creole has enjoyed an enhanced reputation as its use has become associated with cultural and national pride, especially among young people. Skits, speeches, and other activities in Creole have become popular in the schools, long the bastion of proper English.


The folklore of St. Vincent and the Grenadines reflects its combined English, African, and French heritage, as well as Creole and West Indian influences. Like other West Africans, Vincentians tend toward the superstitious, and some still fear the African-influenced black magic called obeah that is common in the Caribbean region. The nation's best-known folk tradition is its annual summer carnival celebration.


Between 80% and 90% of the populations is Protestant. Anglicans represent the greatest share with 47% of the population, followed by Methodists, who account for 28% and the Roman Catholic with 13%. Other minority groups in the island include Hindus, Seventh-day Adventists, and other Protestants, who in total account for around 12% of the inhabitants.


Public holidays in St. Vincent and the Grenadines include New Year's Day (January 1), St. Vincent and the Grenadines Day (January 22), Good Friday, Easter Monday, Labor Day (May 1), Whit Monday, Carnival Tuesday, CARICOM Day (July 1), Emancipation Day (August 1), Independence Day (October 27), Christmas (December 25), and Boxing Day (December 26). The nation's Carnival celebration (Vincy Mas) is held in late June and early July and features costumed parades, calypso and steel drum bands, and "jump-up" (street dancing). The final two days are J'Ouvert (a Monday when revelers stream into the streets at dawn), and Mardi Gras, and there are boisterous street parties on both days. Preliminary rounds in preparation for the Carnival calypso competitions can be heard throughout the island in the two months preceding the festivities.

Union Island holds sporting and cultural events, including a calypso competition, at Easter, and a Big Drum festival in May.


Major life transitions, such as birth, marriage, and death, are marked by religious ceremonies appropriate to each St. Vincentian's faith community.


"What di' man say?" is a typical greeting. Popular slang among young people on the islands includes "Irie" (an all-purpose phrase that is something like "stay cool" or "see you later") and "Sic too bad" (similar to "awesome").


In 2007 the national economy experienced a growth of 6.6%, while GDP per capita was of $9,800 dollars and the inflation reached 6.1%. It is common to see public spaces crowded with young men and women who are without jobs. High unemployment rates have prompted many inhabitants to leave the islands seeking a better quality of life.

St. Vincentians generally own their own homes, growing produce for their own consumption and selling the surplus at the market. Women are more likely to own homes through inheritance, while men typically build their own; it is not uncommon for a family to live in a house owned by the wife. Besides inheritance, another way that a woman commonly acquires a home is by having a son or daughter build it for her. A typical rural dwelling is a single-story wooden house with a tin roof, often painted red.

According to recent estimates, there is 1 physician per 3,800 people. Common health problems include parasitic diseases and circulatory disorders. Gastrointestinal diseases are also prevalent, although less so than before. Average life expectancy was 71 years as of 1992. Medical care is provided at the Central General Hospital in Kingstown, as well as at 35 clinics and dispensaries in various other locations.

Parts of St. Vincent are accessible only by foot or boat. The country's road area is divided nearly equally between all-weather and rough roads. Local transportation is provided by open-air buses and small minibus-taxis sporting colorful hand-painted names such as "Mad Dog II," "Stragglin' Man," and "Say Wha Yo Like." The E. T. Joshua Airport is located on the island's southern tip, near Kingstown, and there are smaller airports or airstrips on Bequia, Union, Canouan, and Mustique islands.

The Vincentian press is privately-owned. The constitution guarantees a free press and publications openly criticize government policies. There are several private radio stations and a national radio service, which is partly government-funded.


Three types of family arrangement common throughout the much of the West Indies are found on St. Vincent and the Grenadines: legal marriage, unmarried cohabitation, and "visiting unions," where the man and woman live apart and the woman raises the children. Visiting unions are more likely to occur in early adulthood, while married relationships are more common later in life. Even in visiting unions (also referred to as "friending"), strong links are maintained between father and child. There is equal recognition of kinship through legal and nonlegal unions.

Infants are highly valued and receive a large amount of attention and physical affection from all members of the household. Fathers, sons, grandparents, and daughters may actually provide the greatest amount of attention if the mother is too busy taking care of the family's washing and cooking, as well as raising its produce and, in many cases, serving as the household's water carrier.

Men are responsible only for those children they have actually fathered, whether through a present or previous relationship. Thus, they may have obligations toward children living in different households. The mother occupies a central position in the household as the only person with obligations toward all its members, including the children from both her present and previous relationships, as well as toward her husband and any grandparents, aunts, or uncles who may live with the family.

Although women accounted for 38% of the nation's work force in the 1980s, traditional gender roles and expectations kept most women from receiving an education equal to that of men.


People on St. Vincent and the Grenadines wear modern Western-style clothing. They favor light and brightly colored clothes and are interested in the latest fashions. Some young people enjoy dressing in attention-getting items, such as bright orange jeans, the latest in expensive footwear, or shirts with popular designer names. Children wear uniforms to school.


Staple foods include rice, sweet potatoes, and fruits, especially those of the banana family, which includes plantains and bluggoe (green figs), in addition to ordinary bananas. Another widely eaten food, breadfruit, is associated with a famous historical incident, the mutiny on board the Bounty by the crew of Captain William Bligh in 1789. Bligh's men mutinied on a voyage to gather breadfruit and other items to be shipped to Jamaica and St. Vincent. Although he and 19 loyal sailors were cast adrift and compelled to sail 6,667 km (3,600 mi) in an open boat before reaching dry land, Bligh undertook a second voyage in 1793, gathering the breadfruit that ultimately found its way to St. Vincent and the rest of the Caribbean. Today, St. Vincent's local rum is called Captain Bligh in honor of the tenacious seaman, and its national dish is jackfish and breadfruit. Arrowroot, a major cash crop, is used in desserts, including arrowroot sponge and arrowroot custard. Popular fare includes dishes containing spicy Scotch Bonnet peppers.


Primary education is free but not compulsory, and there are both government-operated secondary schools, which are free, and government-assisted private schools, which charge tuition. In 1994/95, about 76% of all children at the primary level were attending school, while only 24% of older students were enrolled in secondary school. At the post-secondary level, St. Vincent has a technical college and a teacher training college affiliated with the University of the West Indies. Most students seeking a higher education must leave the country, attending college at other campuses of the University of the West Indies or in the United States, Canada, or Great Britain. The adult literacy rate of St. Vincent and the Grenadines is estimated at 96%.


The Big Drum music of the Windward Islands, to which St. Vincent and the Grenadines belongs, reflects the islands' African cultural roots, combining the African call-and-response tradition with features of calypso and reggae, but retaining an authentic African flavor. The Big Drum is actually a set of three drums, originally carved from trees and later made of rum kegs. The singers are usually women, and the lead singer is called a chantwell. The songs—in either English or patois (dialect)—resemble those of other Caribbean traditions, such as calypso, in their reliance on satire and social commentary. Dances are performed inside a ring of people by dancers wearing full skirts and headdresses who interact with the musicians.


Many St. Vincentians practice agriculture or fishing, either at a subsistence level or for profit. Those who farm small plots bring their surplus fruits, vegetables, chickens, or fish to sell at the modern market in Kingstown on Saturdays. Bananas are St. Vincent's main commercial crop. Most banana growers cultivate only 0.8 to 2 hectares (2–5 acres) of land. Translucent blue plastic bags cover the "hands" (bunches of bananas) to protect them from the full heat of the sun, retain moisture, and prevent bruising. The sensitive bananas must be harvested at exactly the right time, and radio broadcasts keep farmers advised of the best harvesting time. The growers are paid for their harvest at the stations where bananas are boxed. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are counted into small envelopes every week and distributed to as many as 3,000 waiting St. Vincentians with receipts in their hands.

On the Grenadines, most men are fishermen or boat-builders. The island of Bequia has a tradition of whaling, a skill the islanders have been practicing since the 19th century. The International Whaling Commission has granted the Bequians Aboriginal Whaling Status, a classification reserved for people who hunt whales for local consumption rather than commercial use and who have a whaling tradition that is closely linked to their familial, cultural, and community ties. No more than three whales are caught in any one year. The whales are subdued with harpoons, which today are often shot from a whale gun rather than thrown by hand. They are then towed to the island of Petit Nevis to be processed and sold. A successful catch is considered an important event on Bequia, and much of the island's population flocks to Petit Nevis to see the whale.

St. Vincent and the Grenadines has a high rate of unemployment, estimated at about 25% in the early 1990s.


Cricket, the most popular sport, is played throughout the islands on any piece of flat ground and even on the beach. Other sports include football (soccer), netball, volleyball, and basketball.


Nighttime gatherings outdoors are a favorite form of recreation and may include singing, dancing, and the universally popular pastime of gossiping. With the recent growth of tourism on the islands, it has become common for locals to gather at hotel and restaurant entertainment facilities to eat, drink, dance, and socialize. Men on St. Vincent and the Grenadines, like those elsewhere in the Caribbean, are inveterate players of dominoes.


Folk music is played on the four-stringed quatro, as well as the guitar, fiddle, drums, and a variety of percussion instruments. Bequia is known for its skilled model-boat-builders, who fashion small-scale versions of yachts, whaleboats, and other vessels that are faithful in every detail. Even the island's children make model boats out of coconut shells with brightly colored sails.


The low percentage of young people who complete their secondary education has created a shortage of skilled workers on the islands, exacerbated by the fact that the better-educated segments of the population often emigrate and live abroad until retirement.

There is a high level of concern about drug-related crime on the islands.


Women in St. Vincent are expected to fill the traditional roles of caregiver and homemaker. Their male counterparts, on the other hand, are mostly considered to be breadwinners and the ones who discipline the children and provide a safe and comfortable environment in which the household can live. Even as women have been incorporated into the labor force, they are expected to be able to fill their traditional roles in the home. Male infidelity is often tolerated, though not accepted. Women enjoy the same legal rights as men, and they receive an equitable share of property following separation or divorce.

Adolescent pregnancy is one of several reproductive risks and constitutes a barrier that prevents women from developing capabilities to achieve the resources necessary for their well being. In 2004, 6% of adolescents 15 to 19 years old gave birth. Violence against women is also a serious problem. The law does not criminalize domestic violence or sexual harassment. Cases involving domestic violence have been normally charged under assault, battery, or other similar laws. Rape, including spousal rape, is illegal, and the government enforces the law. Depending on the magnitude of the offense and the age of the victim, sentences for rape could be 8 to 10 years. Although prostitution is illegal, it remains a problem among young women and teenagers.

The line separating what is a traditional occupation for each gender is increasingly disappearing. However, males still dominate the construction and manufacturing industry, with most females in these sectors are involved in clerical rather than manual work. The minimum wage law specifies that women should receive equal pay for equal work.

Even though there are female politicians in St. Vincent, they are significantly fewer than their male counterparts. In 2008, there were two women in parliament, three women in the cabinet (minister of education, minister of urban development, labor, culture, and electoral matters) and a female attorney general.


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—revised by C. Vergara