The little island with big ideas

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The Independent Culture
SO NEVIS, verdant birthplace of Alexander Hamilton and once favoured holiday destination of Diana, Princess of Wales, has narrowly escaped independence. In a vote on Monday, 62 per cent of Nevisians voted in favour of secession from their larger sister island of St Kitts. Had they succeeded, they would have made Nevis one of the smallest independent nations in the world. Just 67 per cent was needed to carry the motion.

Nevis is a mountainous island at the top of the Lesser Antilles chain in the Caribbean. It has a population of 9,000 inhabitants, only 4,000 of whom voted on the issue. Its main sources of revenue are as a budding financial centre and an upmarket tourist destination - it possesses a number of hotels fashioned from former plantation "great houses" - one, in particular, Montpelier, where, I think, Diana stayed, once belonged to the uncle of Fanny Nisbet, Nelson's wife, and their wedding ceremony in 1787 was held there.

Nevis, in the 18th century, was, according to Nelson's biographer, Tom Pocock, unlike the other British islands in being richer and more fashionable, and its merchants and planters more arrogant.'

In 1987, celebrations were held in Nevis to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Nelson/Nisbet wedding, with participants in 18th-century dress. The Nelson museum in Nevis contains, among other Nelson memorabilia, the dress "created" by the late Mrs Louis Bjorstad (Marjorie) for the event. The "Horatio" costume of her partner had been made by a tailor in Charlestown, the island's capital. There is also a photograph of the pair in full kit.

St Kitts used to be known as the "Mother Colony"; it was the first British colony, settled in 1624, and the Queen remains Head of State. Since independence from Britain in 1983, St Kitts, with a population of 32,000, and Nevis have been joined together as one country. ("O land of beauty/our country where peace abounds..." runs the national anthem), though Nevisians insisted on a constitutional clause allowing them to break away, and they have been trying to do so ever since.

But Nevisians complain - with reason - of being treated as second-class citizens. They also object to being tarred with the same brush as their raunchier big sister, which has been the centre of a number of drug-related scandals, including the disappearance in 1994 of the Kittitian envoy to the UN with five other people, while out sailing, and the murder of the second son of the then deputy prime minister and his girlfriend. This was followed by the killing of the senior policeman investigating the case and the subsequent implication of the two remaining sons of the deputy prime minister in their brother's murder and a conspiracy to traffic in cocaine.

"Drugs in the region is a monster and St Kitts-Nevis is a major transshipment point for drugs because of our proximity to US markets," Ricky Skerritt, the president of the chamber of commerce, told me when I last visited the island four years ago. "Thanks to tourism, transport services are now in place and what is happening in St Kitts is happening or could happen anywhere in the Caribbean." But not, so far, in Nevis; and Nevis wants to keep it that way.

However, drugs are only one reason why Nevis wants independence from St Kitts. A more powerful reason is that, under British rule, the islands were discouraged from getting on with one another in case they should rise up in unity against their colonial masters. Divide and rule was how the British saw it. In consequence, virtually since the abolition of slavery, the Caribbean islands have longed for independence, first from the British, then from each other. Nevis, like Barbuda (which Diana also liked, and which is a dependency of Antigua), is the victim of a neo-colonial mentality and treated as a poor relation.

Caribbean politics are notoriously volatile: vociferous, passionate, hyperbolic, with little room for compromise. One writer coined the phrase "the traditional bacchanal of West Indian politics". The Prime Minister of St Kitts-Nevis, Denzil Douglas, has predicted, with characteristic hyperbole, that "a veritable Pandora's box of problems would come cascading on the people of St Kitts and Nevis, should Nevis secede".

I think he is exaggerating. The problems of the small islands of the Lesser Antilles are much of a muchness: geography, corruption, poverty, an inevitable overdependence on tourism. It's hard to see how the people of Nevis, desperate for the pride and sense of self-worth that independence would bring, could be any worse off.

Lucretia Stewart is the author of 'The Weather Prophet: A Caribbean Journey' (Vintage pounds 5.99)