Once super-wealthy from the 'white gold' of sugar, this tiny nation remains super-rich in scenery, history, culture, class and charm. St Kitts was first of the Lesser Antilles to be colonized by Europeans, hence the nickname: Mother Colony of the West Indies. The first settler was Thomas Warner, an Englishman who settled in along about 1623. Later, French settlers came and, for a while Brit and French colonizers were content to protect each other from Caribs. These fierce aborigine wanted Euro-intruders to go back where they came from. After many bloody battles settled the matter of ownership, the Caribs split, and their isle of Liamuiga became St Kitts, believed to have been named after St Christopher. After many decades of fierce fighting between the French and the British, the latter gained control in the 19th century.
Political bickering did not end with squabbles in the 17th to 19th centuries. Far from it. Today, however, St Kitts and Nevis form one of the smallest independent states on earth. Before that, the State of St Kitts-Nevis was federated with Anguilla. After a 15-year struggle, Anguilla left the Federation. A similar secession effort by Nevis was unsuccessful.
The incredible beauty of these islands makes it understandable why so many nations and people have desired deeded ownership. Lower slopes of St Kitts glimmer with the emerald green of sugar cane stalks. Fertile fields rise to a rain forest and then on to mountain peaks atop stunted woodlands. The mountains are sometimes sheathed in fluffy white clouds that supposedly reminded Spanish explorers of snow-capped peaks back in Spain. The name "Nevis" is believed to have derived from nieve, the Spanish word for snow.
Speaking of Nevis, American visitors have a special reason for knowing about the island's most famous "home boy." That would be Alexander Hamilton, born to James and Rachel Hamilton on Jan. 11, 1755, according to the bestseller Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow. This 818-page book covers the dramatic-romantic life of the man who virtually invented American-style capitalism. He paved the way for 13 former British colonies that are now the world's richest nation. Chernow styles Hamilton as the "prophet of the capitalist revolution in America" as well as perhaps the foremost theoretician and intellectual of his time. Although there is no proof that Hamilton's mother was partly black, this is forever a treasured part of Caribbean folklore. Hamilton's tendency to settle political and romantic squabbles at gunpoint smacks of Caribbean tendencies to go over the top. Hamilton's son died at 19 in a duel to defend his dad's honour. Hamilton himself died on "a fine and cool" July morning when he was fatally wounded in a duel with Aaron Burr.
St Kitts is the larger of the two islands and the site of the island capital: Basseterre. This picture-postcard town is chockablock with charming West Indian architecture backed by mountains such as Monkey Hill and the South Range. About half of the island's population lives in Basseterre. The French name Basseterre dates back to the days when the island was French colonial. The gentrified Fortlands residential section of Basseterre is the site of the Governor-General's residence - not open to the public, however. The highest point is the volcano Mount Liamuiga, also known as Mount Misery and noted for being (almost) inactive. A road from Basseterre leads to Frigate Bay, once the site of early-morning duels by ticked-off members of high society. Today, however, golf clubs and jet skis have replaced dueling pistols as the most popular way to defend one's honour, at least in the sports line.