The Arawak Amerindians, who migrated from South America, are the earliest known inhabitants of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Subsequently, the Caribs took control of the islands and were there when Christopher Columbus reached St. Vincent on 22 January 1498.
St. Vincent was one of the last of the West Indies to be settled. Left to the Carib Amerindians by British and French agreement in 1660, the island continued to have a sizable Amerindian population until the first quarter of the 18th century. One of the results of this isolation from European influence was the evolution of the Black Caribs, who descend from the intermarriage of runaway or shipwrecked slaves with the Amerindians. The island was taken formally by the British in 1763, who ruled thereafter, except from 1779 to 1783 when it was in the hands of the French.
The island changed its ethnic character during the next century. When the Black Caribs and the remaining Amerindians rebelled against the British in 1795 at French instigation, most of the defeated insurgents were removed to the Bay of Honduras. Those who remained were decimated by an eruption of Soufrière in 1812. They were supplanted by African slaves, who were freed in 1834, Madeiran Portuguese, who immigrated in 1848 because of a labor shortage, and Asian indentured laborers who arrived in the latter half of the 19th century.
St. Vincent was administered as a crown colony within the Windward Islands group from 1833 until 1960, when it became a separate administrative unit linked with the Federation of the West Indies. The federation fell apart in 1962, and after lengthy discussion, St. Vincent became a self-governing state in association with the United Kingdom seven years later. On 27 October 1979, St. Vincent and the Grenadines achieved full independence as a member of the Commonwealth.
During the first months of independence, the young nation faced a rebellion on Union Island, its southernmost constituent, by a group of Rastafarians attempting to secede. The revolt was put down with military support from neighboring Barbados. In the end, 1 person was killed and 40 arrested. Otherwise, the political system has had few disruptions. The government at independence under the St. Vincent Labor Party gave way to the New Democratic Party (NDP) in 1984, with the NDP renewing its government in 1989.
In 1990, leaders of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominica, Grenada, and St. Lucia formed the Regional Constituent Assembly to plan for a limited union. However, these talks have been halted since 1995 because the parties in power have changed in several of the countries. In the February 1994 election, the NDP won its third consecutive term in office. The NDP captured 12 seats in the House of Assembly and the ULP won three seats.
The NDP retained its parliamentary majority by only one vote in early elections held in June 1998, winning 8 seats as opposed to 7 won by the opposition ULP led by Vincent Beache. But in 2001, the ULP led by Ralph Gonsalves won the election with 56.7% of the vote and secured 12 of the 15 elected seats in the 21-member Assembly.
In spite of efforts at diversification, bananas remain the most important sector of the country's economy. However, the banana industry, like those of other Caribbean island nations, has suffered serious blows in recent years.