The British Overseas Territory of Anguilla was first settled by Amerindian tribes from South America; however, it was first discovered by Europeans sometime in the 15th or 16th century. Its actual discovery has long been in debate. Some suggest that it was first sighted by Christopher Columbus in 1493, while others claim that the island was discovered and named by French explorer Pierre Laudonnaire in 1565.
Regardless of the original discovery, the island of Anguilla sat untouched for nearly a century. There have been some claims that the Dutch built a fort on Anguilla two decades earlier; however, little more is known, and no trace remains to verify the claims.
Anguilla likely went uncolonized for so long due to the notoriously wild and fierce Caribs who controlled the island. The Caribs were known cannibals who had wrested the island from its original Amerindian settlers. It wasn’t until 1650 that English settlers arrived and dared to face down the Caribs.
The first English settlers arrived from the nearby colony of Saint Kitts. They established a settlement and began growing crops of tobacco and corn; however, early life on Anguilla was far from easy. In 1656, the colony was attacked by invading Carib Indians who destroyed crops and settlements and slaughtered many settlers. In 1666, French forces attacked and captured the island.
French rule was short lived, and the English soon regained control through the Treaty of Breda in 1667. Hardships increased, and the settlers were soon facing drought, poor crop yields and crippling famine; yet the colonists hung on resolutely. Throughout this time, the island was governed by the British through Antigua.
The initial settlers were followed in 1688 by a host of Irish invaders who were fleeing the religious persecution of Cromwell’s government. In Anguilla, these refugees found a British territory where they could live and worship in peace.
Throughout the 1700s, the French and English forces continued to fight over ownership of the island – and ultimately for control of the Caribbean. The French tried again and again to invade and capture Anguilla, with major attempts made in 1745 and 1796. These attempts failed and the British maintained control of the island.
In 1824, administrative control of Anguilla was transferred to nearby St. Kitts. The government attempted to develop the island’s infrastructure by building up a plantation-based economy. Planters arrived, bringing African slaves to man the plantations; however, attempts at agriculture were largely unsuccessful due to poor soil and an adverse climate. Once slavery was abolished by the British in 1830, many plantation owners left Anguilla and returned to England, causing a drastic decline in population. The remaining population of 2000 was made up mostly of freed slaves.
When St. Kitts was granted full internal autonomy in 1967, Anguilla was incorporated into the newly created dependency along with the island of Nevis. The dependency was dubbed Saint Christopher-Nevis-Anguilla – much to the chagrin of the Anguillan population.
After an Anguillan rebellion in 1967, a full-scale revolution in 1969, and a brief foray into self-declared independence, the British government stepped in and restored authority over the island. Anguilla was eventually allowed to secede from Nevis and St. Kitts, and in 1980, it was officially declared a full British colony.