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The islands of St Kitts & Nevis and Dominica, with their 90% African-descendant population, are known as the 'sleepiest places on earth'. They have just been celebrating their 20th and 25th independence anniversaries. Clayton Goodwin reports.

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Through just one athlete--Kim Collins, the World and Commonwealth 100m champion--the tiny Leeward Islands state of St Kitts & Nevis gained more gold medals in the recent World Athletics Championships in Paris than the UK, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Nigeria, Ghana and several other supposedly "major" countries put together.

Dame Eugenia Charles (the so-described "Thatcher of the Caribbean") was the prime minister at that time of the otherwise internationally "lightweight" Commonwealth of Dominica in the Windward Islands, who was instrumental in persuading the American president, Ronald Reagan, to intervene militarily in Grenada in 1983--an event that changed the course of the region's history.

If they are the only citizens of these two countries of whom you have heard, do not worry. The islands, which celebrated respectively their 20th and 25th anniversaries of independence this autumn (19 September and 3 November), are, themselves, the real heroes of this feature.

St Kitts & Nevis is situated in the cluster of islands towards the northern end of that arc of islands which bends outwards from the Caribbean Sea into the Atlantic Ocean. Francophone Guadeloupe is located a short way to the south and the shared Dutch/French island of St Maarten or St Martin an even shorter distance to the north--though Anglophone Antigua & Barbuda to the east and the volcano-ravaged Montserrat slightly to the south are the "overseas" territories which are the closest in most respects.

The geographical pattern is echoed in history as the islands, which were inhabited previously by the Caribs. They flirted initially with the French before the islands finally passed into the possession of the British who had settled there first in 1623 and, using it as a base for colonising other islands, described St Kitts as the "Mother Colony of the West Indies".

Since the end of the Napoleonic Wars just under two centuries ago, these two islands have been associated with one, another, and sometimes more, of their neighbours in various forms of administration.

It was in 1967 that St Kitts & Nevis and Anguilla became a State in voluntary association with Great Britain, but the arrangement was not to the liking of Anguilla, and the British prime minister, Harold Wilson, sent a posse of Metropolitan policemen to invade the island and put the dissenters under "heavy manners".

Anguilla was separated formally in 1980 and the way was clear for its former partners to achieve their own political independence three years later. Six years ago, the Nevis Assembly voted unanimously for secession, but that objective has not been realised.

St Kitts, the formal name for which is "St Christopher", and Nevis are described as being two of the sleepiest places in the Caribbean and one of the few countries in the region where agriculture still has a larger part in the economy than tourism. Just the place "to get away from it all" and appreciate the verdant scenery of the mountains, the sugar cane fields and the exotic gardens. The waters, coral beaches and shores around the islands are favoured by divers and snorkellers.

The lush tropical aspect of St Kitts is dominated by the volcanic Mount Liamuiga, the sides of which are covered in forest and the top fringed in cloud.

In spite of this justified appearance of Paradise, the Kittitians are aware of what happened when the Soufriere Volcano on the neighbouring Montserrat, which had not erupted for some 330 years, did so in July 1995, destroying much of the island's social fabric and causing a substantial part of the population to emigrate.

The more modest mountains around Nevis Peak were used as look-out posts for the fleet of Admiral Horatio Nelson. …