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 in 1498.
St. Vincent was one of the last of the West Indies to be settled by Europeans. Left to the Carib Amerindians by British and French agreement in 1660, the islands continued to have a sizable Amerindian population until the first quarter of the eighteenth century. This isolation from European influence resulted in the evolution of the Black Caribs, who descended from the intermarriage of runaway or shipwrecked African slaves with the Amerindians. The islands were taken formally by the British in 1763, who ruled thereafter, except from 1779 to 1783 when they were in the hands of the French.
The islands changed their 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 a volcanic eruption 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 nineteenth 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 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 (UK) seven years later.
St. Vincent gained complete independence on 27 October 1979, and is now a member of the British Commonwealth, with Queen Elizabeth II as its formal head of state. Representation is through a governor general who appoints as prime minister the leader best able to command a majority within the legislature. In turn, the prime minister appoints the cabinet ministers. The governor general's position is ceremonial and real executive power is exercised by the prime minister and his cabinet. The legislature is the unicameral House of Assembly, comprised of 15 representatives elected by universal adult suffrage and six senators (four nominated by the ruling party and two by the opposition party). Elections are held every five years although the prime minister may call elections at any time.
The People's Political Party (PPP) was the first major political party but was dissolved in 1984 after losing badly in elections. The principal political parties are the centrist New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Unity Labor Party (ULP), which was formed by a coalition of the moderate leftist Movement for National Unity and the moderate socialist St. Vincent Labor Party (SVLP).