Arawak Indians, followed by Caribs, were the earliest known inhabitants of the islands. Discovered by Columbus in 1493 and named St. Christopher, St. Kitts was the first of the British West Indies to be settled. Sir Thomas Warner established a settlement on St. Kitts in 1623, later leading colonial expeditions to Nevis in 1628 and Antigua in 1632. For a short while during this period there were French settlements at both ends of St. Kitts, and the French settlers cooperated with the British to repel a Spanish invasion. By the 1660s there were some 4,000 Europeans engaged in the sugar trade, based on a plantation system with slaves imported from Africa. The French gained control in 1664 but lost it to the British in 1713, under the Peace of Utrecht. The French besieged the British garrison in the Brimstone Hill fortress in 1782 and once more gained control of the island, but the Treaty of Versailles (1783) returned St. Kitts again to Britain. By the late 18th century, the thermal baths at Charlestown, Nevis, attracted thousands of international tourists. Although the slaves were emancipated in 1834, many of the ex-slaves continued to work on the sugar plantations, so the sugar-based economy did not decline as rapidly as elsewhere in the West Indies.
St. Kitts, Nevis, and Anguilla (the most northerly island of the Leeward chain) incorporated with the British Virgin Islands in 1816. The territorial unit of St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla became part of the Leeward Islands Federation in 1871 and belonged to the Federation of the West Indies from 1958 to 1962. In 1967, the three islands became an associated state with full internal autonomy under a new constitution. After the Anguilla islanders rebelled in 1969, British paratroopers intervened, and Anguilla seceded in 1971, an arrangement formally recognized on 19 December 1980.
There have been regular general elections in St. Kitts and Nevis since 1971. A 1982 white paper on independence provoked stormy debate over the form of the constitution, spilling over into civil unrest in 1982 and 1983. St. Kitts and Nevis became an independent federated state within the Commonwealth on 19 September 1983. Under the arrangement, Nevis developed its own legislature and gained the power to secede from the federation. Elections in June 1984 produced a clear majority for the People's Action Movement/Nevis Reformation Party coalition. In June 1996, Nevis premier Vance Amory announced plans for Nevis to secede from the federation as detailed in the constitution. Elections for the Nevis Island Assembly held in February 1997 returned Amory to power. The CCM retained its three seats, and the NRP held its two seats. Nevis's assembly voted unanimously for secession in 1997. However, a referendum on succession in July 1998 was unsuccessful when it failed to gain the approval of two-thirds of the electorate (61.8% in favor).
In the 21 March 1989 elections, 11 of 14 members of the National Assembly were elected, six from the People's Action Movement Party (PAM), two from St. Kitts and Nevis Labor Party (SKNLP), two from the Nevis Reformation Party (NRP), and one from the Concerned Citizens Movement (CCM). In the 29 November 1993 elections, no major party won the most seats and no coalition government emerged. The governor-general invited a minority government to form. In response, the Labour Party demonstrated, which led to serious disturbances, causing a 21-day state of emergency in December 1993.
The 3 July 1995 elections gave the SKNLP seven seats; PAM kept one seat; NRP, one seat; and the CCM, two seats. Denzil L. Douglas, leader of the SKNLP, became prime minister. Elections in March 2000 resulted in SKNLP winning all eight seats in St. Kitts, returning Douglas for a second five-year term as prime minister. The CCM retained two seats in Nevis, and NRP kept one seat. The PAM won no seats. New elections must be held before March 2005.