St. Vincent and the Grenadines

St. Vincent and the Grenadines facts and information about the country.


The islands of St. Vincent and the Grenadines were originally inhabited by the Ciboneys. These hunter-gatherers were largely dependent on marine resources and agriculture for their livelihood. The Arawaks (the aboriginal South American Indian tribe of the Greater Antilles) replaced the Ciboneys about 200 B.C.E. Sometime after 1000 C.E. the Arawaks were invaded and replaced by a wandering culture from South America known then as the Kalinga and later named the Caribs by the Europeans. In 1635 a group of African slaves (survivors of a Dutch ship that sank in the channel between Bequia and St. Vincent) also settled in St. Vincent. Their descendants came to be known as the Black Caribs.

By 1498 Columbus (1451–1506) had arrived in St. Vincent, but colonial rule did not come to the islands for another two centuries. Britain and France fought to gain control of these islands, and St. Vincent officially became a British colony under the Treaty of Paris in 1763. The conflict between the British and Black Caribs, who remained hostile to the Europeans, continued until 1796. The defeated natives were later deported to Honduras to work as slaves.

From 1763 until its independence, the British made several unsuccessful attempts to unite St. Vincent with the other Windward Islands (St. Lucia, Martinique, and Grenada). In 1834

Fun Fact Escoveitch comes from escabeche,

the Spanish that means “pickled.” Recipes for main dishes such as escoveitched fish or chicken evolved from a centuriesold Iberian method of preparing seafood and poultry that involves marinating the fish or fowl in a vinaigrette sauce, usually for about 12 hours.

slavery was abolished on St. Vincent and the Grenadines along with the other British colonies in the West Indies. In 1969 St. Vincent became a self-governing state under the British crown. Ten years later it acquired complete independence and also Commonwealth membership. In the early 21st century, a growing dissatisfaction within the leading political parties has led to political unrest. The political instability has resulted in economic losses, only made worse by natural disasters that have played havoc with the country’s infrastructure.


St. Vincent and the Grenadines is composed of 32 islands and cays (or keys). Some of the prominent islands in St. Vincent and the Grenadines are Bequia, Mustique, Palm Island, Canouan, Mayreau, Petit St. Vincent, Union Island, and Tobago Cays. Located in the Caribbean, just north of Trinidad and Tobago, St. Vincent and the Grenadines enjoys a year-round tropical climate with little temperature variation. Soufrière volcano, on the island of St. Vincent, is a constant threat, as are hurricanes.


Tourism is by far the most important economic force in the country, followed by agriculture, with bananas being the largest crop. Both sectors are seasonal, which is a challenge for the economy. St. Vincent has some offshore banking, which it has sought to bolster by moving toward adopting international regulatory standards. It is also a large producer of marijuana and has become a transshipping center for illegal narcotics from South America.


Though they remained under British rule for over a century, these islands feature a vital mix of cultures, including French and West African influences. The French influence can still be seen in the prevalence of the Creole language as well as the observance of Bastille Day. Most Vincentians are descended from slaves and mix African traditions and beliefs with Christian (mostly Anglican and Catholic). Religious commemorations and masquerades play an important role in all the festivals. Celebrations often last for weeks and involve a great deal of dancing and singing. The African influence is clearly evident in the music of the islands, which includes reggae,

calypso, and steel bands. Processions, prayers, street shows, and costume parties are also integral to many celebrations. Hymns, lullabies, ballads, and working and healing songs are also very popular.


The cooking of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, like the cuisine of other Caribbean islands, reflects its diverse history and borrows liberally from both African and European cooking. Seafood of all kinds is readily available, always fresh, and figures prominently in many local dishes such as conch fritters, lobster fritters, and lobster salad, various curries, pepper pots, and escoveitched fish.

Among the fish recommended in escoveitch recipes are kingfish, tilapia, red snapper, monkfish, jack, and dolphin (not the mammal).

A variety of fresh fruits, including bananas, coconut, pineapple, papaya, and mango, are also very popular as snacks or refreshing juice drinks. Because bananas are the most important cash crop of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, they are used in many popular dishes either raw or cooked. In addition to being eaten raw at any time of the day, other fruits are versatile as well and turn up in such dishes as mango chutney or salsa, pineapple chicken, and avocado salad. The very hot hot sauces, lobster and pumpkin soup, and fish varieties including porgy, parrot fish, and snapper are typical Caribbean fare. Rum is the local drink of choice. It can be drunk neat, although it is perhaps more refreshing served with fruit in cocktails and punches.

Public/Legal Holidays


Observed by:General Public Observed on:December 31–January 1 In St. Vincent and the Grenadines the beginning of a new year is a time for entertainment, celebrations, and making resolutions. People get together and enjoy this occasion with their families. Special church services are also held to welcome the new year.


Observed by:General Public Observed on: January 22 Christopher Columbus was the first European to discover these islands on January 22, 1498. His discovery coincided with the feast day of St. Vincent, the patron saint of wine makers. He named the islands as a mark of respect to the saint, although there is no recorded history of wine-making on the islands. Both beer and rum are produced.


The word is derived from the French jour ouvert, which means “daybreak.” It marks the beginning of a raucous two-day street festival. As early as 2:00 a.m. shadowy figures clad only in briefs dip into paint pots and coat themselves in motley colors. Others don masks adorned with long strips of cloth, while still others make a piercing sound with their whips. Soon they will transform themselves into figures associated with African folklore or with local superstitions introduced into the Carnival celebrations by emancipated slaves.

Slaves born in the West Indies had only oral references to connect with a culture with which they had little or no direct contact. In the 18th century freed slaves were not allowed to participate in the celebrations of the Europeans, so they often satirized their former masters and celebrated their freedom by turning to folkloric characters. These influences have now been assimilated into the local Carnival culture.

It is not uncommon to see roving bands of devils painted blue or red or covered from head to toe in thick black grease, beating large tin pans, demanding that you “pay the devil.” Ignoring them can be dangerous.

up in colorful clothes. Calypso, soca, jazz, and reggae music competitions are also held. The star attraction of the Carnival is the Miss Carnival beauty pageant. The Vincentian Carnival incorporates the tradition of J’ouvert (opening of the day), when revelers disguised as devils paint their faces and bodies with mud and roam the streets until the early morning hours.




Observed by:General Public Observed on: July 5 CARICOM Day celebrates the Treaty of Chaguaramas, signed on July 4, 1973. This treaty established the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM), which is dedicated to promoting the

St. Vincent and the Grenadines Day, or St. Vincent’s Day, is still observed in honor of St. Vincent— by the Catholic community and special church services are held. People participate in parades organized by local and national groups, and local musicians and dancers perform at events held on this day.


Observed by:General Public Observed on:May 1 Labor Day, also called May Day or Workers’ Day in some countries, was created to recognize the social and economic achievements of the international labor movement. In 1889 the Second International, a consortium of socialist organizations, designated May 1 a day to recognize the importance of workers around the world and scheduled the first demonstrations and celebrations for the following year, 1890. They coordinated this observance with the strike called by the U.S. labor union the American Federation of Labor (AFL), demanding an eight-hour workday.

In St. Vincent and the Grenadines this day is celebrated with parades and conferences. This day is also observed as Fisherman’s Day. Fishing and trolling competitions as well as fish-cooking competitions are also held.

See alsoVolume III: LABORDAY


Observed by:General Public Observed on:Late June, Early July Originally a pre-Lenten observance, the Carnival in St. Vincent’s and the Grenadines was moved so it would not conflict with other carnivals in the Caribbean region. This extravaganza, also known as Vincy Mas, is the biggest event in the country. For about 10 days street parties, beauty pageants, and parades are held mainly in Kingstown. People dress

Revelers dance to calypso music in Kingstown during Mardi Gras, one of this Caribbean island’s biggest Carnival events. St. Vincent and the Grenadines Carnival, known as Vincy Mas, ends with a street party where revelers with painted faces wearing colorful costumes, beat African drums and dance to local music. (AP Photo/Chris Brandis)

political and economic interests of the Caribbean nations. The islands became a member of this organization on May 1, 1974, and Vincentians celebrate the regional unity of the Caribbean countries. This day is marked by official speeches and political conferences.


Observed by:General Public Observed on: July 14 Bastille Day marks the beginning of the French Revolution (1789–99) and the end of the monarchy in France. (The Bastille was a prison and armory in Paris where the common people who rebelled against the abuses of King Louis XVI [1754–93] were incarcerated). The French influence has been widespread in St. Vincent since the 18th century, and the ideals of the French Revolution inspired the struggle for independence in this country. Vincentians celebrate Bastille Day by organizing various cultural events, dances, musical shows, and food festivals on the islands. Fireworks displays, grand balls, and masquerades make for festive nighttime celebrations.



Observed by:General Public Observed on:First Monday of August Slavery was abolished in St. Vincent and the Grenadines in 1834, when Great Britain emancipated all the slaves in its West Indian colonial possessions. Emancipation Day, or Abolition of Slavery Day, is an important holiday as most Vincentians are descendants of the African slaves who were brought to the islands in the 17th century. Many cultural and political programs are held to commemorate this day. A musical concert featuring an eclectic mix of gospel, calypso, jazz, and classical music is held in the capital city of Kingstown.


The breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) tree is native to the East Indian and Pacific islands. The name derives from the fact that the unripe fruit tastes like fresh bread. Captain Bligh (1754–1817) brought the first breadfruit tree to St. Vincent from Tahiti in 1793. His first mission to deliver these trees in 1788 ended in his being cast adrift after the infamous mutiny on his ship, the HMAV (His Majesty’s Armored Vessel) Bounty.

Breadfruit, a nutritious starchy melon, was intended to be used as food for the slaves in the plantations of the Caribbean. Initially the slaves disliked the taste of breadfruit and refused to eat it. Years later the descendants of these slaves learned to appreciate the breadfruit and now use it in a number of tasty dishes.


Observed by:General Public Observed on:October 27 The Independence Day celebrations begin with a military parade. Political speeches followed by cooking competitions, street festivals, and concerts are some of the major attractions.


Observed by:Christians Observed on:December 26 Boxing Day, or Feast of St. Stephen (the first Christian martyr), is observed by making donations to charitable institutions and to the poor. Many observe it as Family Day with special church services followed by picnics, luncheons, and festivals. It is customary to use the money collected from the Nine Morning Services (see under Regional Holidays) to pay for the revelry on Boxing Day. This is also a legal holiday.

See alsoVolume III: BOXINGDAY

Religious Holidays


Observed by:Christians Observed on:Friday before Easter The day commemorating Jesus’ Crucifixion and is a somber observance; special prayer services are held, and the Gospels are read in churches. The Vincentians usually prepare a couple of special fish dishes, builjol (salted fish salad) or salmon, which are served on this day. Good Friday is a legal holiday in St. Vincent and the Grenadines; schools, government offices, and many businesses remain closed.




Observed by:Christians Observed on:First Sunday after Lent Easter commemorates the Resurrection of Jesus three days after his Crucifixion. Church services start before daybreak, and parades and feasts mark the day. Girls and women wear special Easter bonnets on this occasion.

On Easter Monday the children of St. Vincent and the Grenadines participate in traditional Easter egg hunting competitions. For adults the celebrations also include animal races, food stalls, and an arts and crafts exhibit. Schools, government offices, and many businesses remain closed on this day, because it is also a legal holiday.




Observed by:Christians Observed on:Fifty days after Easter Pentecost, or Whitsunday, is a Christian holiday recalling the visitation of the Holy Spirit to about 120 of the early Christians after the Crucifixion of Jesus, 50 days following his Resurrection, and 10 days after Ascension Day. Whitsunday and Monday are observed on the seventh Sunday and Monday after Easter.




Observed by:Christians Observed on:December 25 On Christmas in St. Vincent the faithful attend church. Music is an important element of the holiday with the singing of Christmas carols and playing of cuatros, ukuleles, and guitars. Special celebrations are held in Port Elizabeth and Hamilton. People dance around Christmas trees and exchange gifts. The shops in Kingstown are decked out for the holiday and filled with all kinds of goods. Families gather for a traditional Christmas feast, where a special dessert called Caribbean Christmas Pudding with Brandy Butter will be served.


Regional Holidays


Observed in:Union Island Observed by:Christians Observed on:Easter weekend Easterval, a four-day festival held over the Easter weekend, takes place on Union Island (located midway between Grenada and St. Vincent). The origins of this festival can be traced back to the preColumbian tradition of praying to the rain god for good rains and a bountiful harvest. Easterval features concerts, sports competitions, pageant shows, parades, and food fairs. The traditional African Big Drum dance is also performed on this occasion.


Observed in:Union Island Observed on:May The Big Drum Festival of Union Island (located midway between Grenada and St. Vincent) marks the end of the dry season. On this occasion people introduce social commentary and satire in their dances and theatrical performances. The Big Drum


As the Spanish colonized the islands of the Caribbean, they brought many things that were peculiar to their native country including musical instruments. Guitars were very popular, and as time passed several new variants developed. At least four different instruments were adapted from the six-string Spanish classical guitar: the requinto, the bordonua, the cuatro, and the triple, each of which produces a unique tone and pitch.

The cuatro (which means “four”) is much like a guitar. Originally it had only four strings, but around 1875 it acquired five sets of double strings.

Dance, influenced by African and French traditions, is performed on the last day of the festival.

The Big Drum dance is common to many Caribbean countries. The term “big drum” has nothing to do with the size of a drum. Rather it refers to a large communal gathering of different tribes for a social reason, whether a wedding or a gathering to show respect for the ancestors. These tribes were originally West African, and the songs and dances are derived from their traditions. The significance may be historical or religious. The songs are mainly in patois, interspersed with many ancient words related to African spiritual beliefs, spirits, or ancestors. Such a gathering and dance is also known as Gwa Tambu.

A Big Drum dance begins with the soloist (the chantwell), who opens with a musical statement and repeats it. The chorus joins in, and the song develops into a call-and-response performance. As the chorus continues, two brass drums (boulas) enter to play a nation theme (of any one tribe) and the solo drum (kata) enters soon after with a quicker tempo. At this point the dancers enter, moving to the drumbeats. It is the flourish and color of the dance, together with the drumbeats, that give this ceremony its distinctive nature.


Observed in:Union Island Observed on:May The annual Maroon Festival held at Union Island (located midway between Grenada and St. Vincent) celebrates the culture of the Maroons, who are descendants of escaped slaves. This festival is celebrated three days before or after the full Moon night in May. It marks the beginning of the planting season. An exhibition of traditional foods and crafts is held during this festival.



Observed in:Kingstown Observed on:August This annual community festival celebrates the history and significance of breadfruit. During this festival the party-loving people of Kingstown focus on the use of breadfruit in preparing various dishes, as well as on its cultural significance. Cooks, chefs, restaurant owners, hoteliers, church and community groups, caterers, and homemakers from all over the country participate in this festival. They prepare different types of dishes made with breadfruit. There is also a parade of dancers and drummers.


Observed in:Kingstown and Calliaqua Observed on:Nine days before Christmas The origins of this festival, unique to St. Vincent, are unclear, although popular belief relates it to the novena of the Catholic Church on the nine days before Christmas. It is believed that in the 1920s a Vincentian member of the Dominican Order (a Catholic order) initiated a tradition of celebrating a Christmas novena in the early hours of the morning. After the early morning church services, some worshippers took to walking back to their homes, while others stopped off for sea baths.

Gradually it became customary for the boom drum bands (musicians playing goatskin drums and wooden flutes) to accompany the walkers. Street dancing followed, and in time, the character of the Nine Mornings’ celebration changed. Over the years the number of walkers grew, and with the advent of the steel drum band a carnival-style nine mornings tradition evolved. Street vendors joined the celebration, selling drinks made from ginger and sorrel as well as holiday cakes and sweets. A later addition was the tradition of the carolers, who went house-to-house singing Christmas carols. In Kingstown cyclists decorated their bicycles with lights and joined the walkers. Picking up hot bread from bakeries also became a tradition.

Nine Mornings became particularly popular with young people, because rules and regulations are relaxed on this day, giving them an opportunity to socialize freely with other young people.

The Nine Mornings practice is entirely unique to St. Vincent and provides a wide-ranging view of Vincentian culture. The money collected during this period is used to pay for the revelry on Boxing Day.

Rites of Passage


Among the black Caribs of Central America, the most important ritual connected with a birth is the practice of couvade. It marks the resumption of normal life after the birth of a child by the mother while the father symbolically takes to bed as if bearing the child. Baptism of infants is the norm and is performed in a church.


Among upper- and middle-class couples dating is restricted. Girls are married at an early age, usually between 16 and 18. It is customary for an unmarried woman to wear a garter on her right leg; the garter is removed only when she marries.

Marriages follow Catholic tradition with the priest who will conduct the marriage ceremony being consulted before fixing the date for a marriage. On the day of the marriage the bride dresses in a white gown. The bride and groom exchange rings and kiss. Once the ceremony is over, the newlyweds bow to receive a blessing.


Vincentian funeral ceremonies, which combine Christian and African traditions and beliefs, begin at night. The family members and friends of the deceased participate in the funeral rites. The men create a sacred space by making a tentlike roof out of canoe sails. Within the shelter they play card games, tell traditional folktales, sing, and dance traditional dances such as the punta and circle dances. Food and beverages made of rum and local roots are served to the family members and close friends.

Everyone stays for the rites through the night because it is said that anyone leaving before dawn may invite the wrath of the dead and be exposed to his or her revenge. In the morning following the wake the body is carried to a church where customary Christian rites are performed. The body is then buried according to Christian custom.

A nine-night wake is observed following the death. The rituals include praying and lighting candles. Vincentians make sure that the wishes of their ahari (dead ancestors) are followed. They place food, flowers, traditional costumes, and other items of dayto-day use over the altar to please the departed soul.

Further Reading

Edgar Adams,Mock Hangings: A Cultural Tradition in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (Kingstown: E. Adams, 1999); Edgar Adams, Nine Mornings: A Cultural Tradition in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (Kingstown: E. Adams, 1998); Vivian Child, City of Arches: Memories of an Island Capital, Kingstown, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, W. I. (Toronto: Cybercom Publishing, 2004); Julius Lester, The Blues Singers: Ten Who Rocked the World (New York: Hyperion Books for Children, 2001); Jan Rogozin´ski, A Brief History of the Caribbean: From the Arawak and Carib to the Present, Rev. Ed. (New York: Penguin USA, 2000).


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