Created by a series of seismic and volcanic events over millions of years, St Lucia is today one of the world’s most beautiful tropical holiday destinations. Here we look at the island’s beginnings and earliest inhabitants.
Sometimes referred to as ‘the Helen of the West Indies’ for her beauty, which was such that armies fought over her, St Lucia is an idyllic tropical island in the Windward Isles, part of the Lesser Antilles, set in the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean Sea.
Some fifty million years ago the Atlantic tectonic plate moved beneath the Caribbean plate, which pushed up from the sea areas of land which are now the north and south of St Lucia – areas which today we call the Cap Estate (Pointe du Cap) and Moule-a-Chique. At about the same time, other islands in the Lesser Antilles were also created – including Antigua, the Grenadines and the southern tip of Martinique – but it took millions of years for St Lucia to be fully formed.
The island’s geological transformation into the shape and size that we know today took place over four phases.
The first of these phases was the Early Tertiary period (50-58 million years ago), and this was when Pointe du Cap and Moule-a-Chique were formed.
The second stage, the Middle Tertiary period, took place about 30-40 million years ago. During this phase, pressure inside the earth built up while for thousands of years hot molten rock accumulated beneath the surface. Eventually this pressure culminated in earthquakes and massive volcanic eruptions, with masses of ash, rocks, boulders and gas spewing into the air and into the sea. These joined with Pointe du Cap and Moule-a-Chique to form the central, northern and eastern parts of St Lucia.
The third stage in St Lucia’s geological evolution was the Late Tertiary phase, about 26 million years ago. This was another volcanic event, or series of volcanic events taking place over thousands of years, which had a profound effect on the islands of the Lesser Antilles. Saint Lucia’s shape was altered again; this time, the mountainous areas south of Roseau were formed, creeping along into the centre of the island and along the Anse la Raye River, and then southwards to Mount Gimie and Gros Piton. During this geological phase Saint Lucia’s western coastline and central mountains were also formed.
The final phase (so far, at least!) in St Lucia’s geological development came during the Holocene, or Quaternary, era. During this phase an almost incalculably large mud flow, caused by a massive volcanic eruption in Soufriere, covered all the land between Soufriere and Vieux Fort.
The volcano at Soufriere is well known throughout the world as the only drive-through volcano on Earth. It’s worth knowing that the last time any rumbles were heard from the volcano was in 1780, so visiting is quite safe, as the thousands of visitors who flock to this attraction every year will happily attest!
Is there such a thing as history when there are no people around at the time to record their experiences? Prehistory on St Lucia is still a subject of much debate. Little is known about the island’s earliest inhabitants, though many theories have been circulated over the years, and certainly on neighbouring islands there is enough archaeological evidence to hint at prehistoric humans having lived in the Lesser Antilles.
What is known is that some 1,800 years ago the island was inhabited by the Arawaks, who it is said arrived on St Lucia after long journeys by canoe from the Orinoco River valley and the northern coast of Guiana. Historians call these people the ‘Island Arawaks’, to distinguish them from the people from whom they are descended.
Artefacts from the time of the Arawaks have been found at Anse Lavoute in the north-east of the island. These artefacts include pottery fragments, worked stone and pieces of jasper, shell ornaments, and a figurine of a woman carrying a basket on her head. Further excavations at Troumassee and Pointe de Caille on the south west of the island suggested eight or nine settlements, with remains of tools, cooking pots and ornaments unearthed, as well as several burial sites.
Around 900AD the Caribes (as Spanish invaders would later call them) arrived on the island. The Caribes called St Lucia ‘Ioüanalao’ (‘the island of the iguanas’) or Hewanorra. The Caribes were a fierce people who conquered all of the Windward Islands, and claimed (though this is not confirmed) that they ate the Arawak men and kept the women as secondary wives. Certainly, after 1450AD it seems that no more Arawak pottery was made on the island; even if the Caribes’ claims were just empty boasts, the Island Arawak people disappear from the story at this point.
St Lucia’s ancient history was often wild, brutal and – quite literally – explosive. Can the same be said for her history after the middle ages? We’ll look at this in a future article, so watch this space!