Saint Lucia was first occupied by Amerindians. Around AD. 200, the Arawak, who are thought to have emigrated from the coast of South America, arrived in Saint Lucia. By 1300, the Arawak were displaced by the Carib, who probably also originated on the South American mainland. Although Amerindian communities are no longer found on the island, their cultural contributions are still apparent. In particular, many of their craft skills, such as pottery making and boat building, are still practiced on a small scale.
Although Columbus is generally credited with discovering the island on 13 December 1502 (the feast day of Saint Lucy), its actual European discoverer remains unknown. The English were the first Europeans to attempt to colonize Saint Lucia, but their 1605 settlement had to be abandoned following a Carib ambush in which most of the main party of sixty-seven men were killed. The French, who had a more amicable relationship with the Carib, are credited with establishing the first successful colony on the island in 1650.
By 1674, as the French continued to settle the island, Saint Lucia was claimed by the French Crown and made a dependency of Martinique. Ten years later, however, because France and Great Britain contested its ownership, Saint Lucia was declared neutral, but the dispute continued for 150 years. During this period, the "Helen of the West"—as Saint Lucia was known because of its beauty and strategic harbor—passed back and forth some fourteen times between Great Britain and France. Even though the island was finally ceded to Great Britain in 1814, the French exerted a tremendous influence over Saint Lucia, today most evident in the realms of religion (i.e., Catholicism), language (i.e., Patwah), and culture (particularly the Flower Society revels, described under "Ceremonies," and Carnival).
Once the British gained control of the island and political stability was restored, a plantation economy was established, based on the cultivation of sugarcane. Adjusting to the vicissitudes of the nineteenth-century sugar market and compensating for a shortage of African laborers, the British introduced the meytage (sharecropping) system in the 1840s. Devised as a means to supply planters with a cheap labor force while providing the recently freed slaves with an incentive to remain on the estates, the meytage system created a dual plantation and peasant economy.
In spite of its remote location, Saint Lucia was affected both politically and economically by World War I and World War II. As a British colony, Saint Lucia sent troops to Europe and allowed the United States to establish an air base near Vieux Fort. The global depression of the 1930s also adversely affected Saint Lucia. Owing to perennial slumps in sugar prices, the islanders began to divert land from sugar to banana production, and by 1964 sugar was no longer a commercial crop.
In February 1967 Saint Lucia was granted the status of a state associated with the United Kingdom, with full internal self-government. Great Britain remained responsible for external affairs and defense. On 22 February 1979 Santa Lucia achieved full independence.