St Martin’s History shares many commonalities with other Caribbean islands. Its earliest inhabitants were Amerindians, followed by Europeans who brought slavery to exploit commercial interests.
St Martin’s History – Early history
Ancient relics date the island’s first settlers, probably Ciboney Indians (a subgroup of Arawaks), back to 3,500 years ago. Then another group of Arawaks migrated from South America’s Orinoco basin around 800 A.D. Because of St. Martin’s salt-pans they called it “Soualiga,” or “Land of Salt.” Mainly a farming and fishing society, the Arawaks lived in villages of straw-roofed buildings which were strong enough to resist hurricanes. Their tranquil civilization valued artistic and spiritual pursuits. Their lives were turned upside-down, however, with the descent of the Carib Indians from the same region they had come from. A warrior nation, the Caribs killed the Arawak men and enslaved the women. When Europeans began to explore the Caribbean, Carib society had almost completely displaced the Arawaks. St. Martin’s history shares many commonalities with other Caribbean islands. Its earliest inhabitants were Amerindians, followed by Europeans who brought slavery to exploit commercial interests.
(photo : Arawak woman, by John Gabriel Stedman)
St Martin’s History – Colonial Era
In 1493, on Christopher Columbus second voyages to the West Indies, upon first sighting the island he named it Isla de San Martín after Saint Martin of Tours because it was November 11, St. Martin Day. However, though he claimed it as a Spanish territory, Columbus never landed there, and Spain made the settlement of the island a low priority. The French and Dutch, on the other hand, both coveted the island. While the French wanted to colonize the islands between Trinidad and Bermuda, the Dutch found San Martín a convenient halfway point between their colonies in New Amsterdam (present day New York) and Brazil. With few people inhabiting the island, the Dutch easily founded a settlement there in 1631, erecting Fort Amsterdam as protection from invaders. Jan Claeszen Van Campen became its first governor, and soon thereafter the Dutch East India Company began their salt mining operations. French and British settlements sprang up on the island as well. Taking note of these successful colonies and wanting to maintain their control of the salt trade, the Spanish now found St. Martin much more appealing. The Eighty Years’ War which had been raging between Spain and the Netherlands provided further incentive to attack.
Spanish forces captured Saint Martin from the Dutch in 1633, seizing control and driving most or all of the colonists off the island. At Point Blanche, they built Old Spanish Fort to secure the territory. Although the Dutch retaliated in several attempts to win back St. Martin, they failed. Fifteen years after the Spanish conquered the island, the Eighty Years’ War ended. Since they no longer needed a base in the Caribbean and St. Martin barely turned a profit, the Spanish lost their inclination to continue defending it. In 1648, they deserted the island. With St. Martin free again, both the Dutch and the French jumped at the chance to re-establish their settlements. Dutch colonists came from St. Eustatius, while the French came from St. Kitts. After some initial conflict, both sides realized that neither would yield easily. Preferring to avoid an all-out war, they signed the Treaty of Concordia in 1648, which divided the island in two.
A legend grew up around the division of the island. According to legend, in order to decide on their territorial boundaries, the two sides held a contest. It began with a Frenchman drinking wine and a Dutchman drinking jenever (Dutch gin). When both had sufficiently imbibed, they embarked from Oysterpond on the island’s east coast. The Frenchman headed off along the coast to the north, while the Dutchman followed the coast south; wherever the two groups met was where they would draw the dividing line from Oysterpond. But as the Dutchman met a woman and stopped to sleep off the effects of the gin, the Frenchman was able to cover more distance, but apparently also cheated as he cut through the northeastern part of the island, and therefore ended up with more land. Though oft-repeated, the story is not historically accurate. During the treaty’s negotiation, the French had a fleet of naval ships off shore, which they used as a threat to bargain more land for themselves. In spite of the treaty, relations between the two sides were not always cordial. Between 1648 and 1816, conflicts changed the border sixteen times. In the end, the French came out ahead with 21 square miles (54 km2) to the 16 square miles (41 km2) of the Dutch side.
Although the Spanish had been the first to import slaves to the island, their numbers had been few. But with the new cultivation of cotton, tobacco, and sugar, mass numbers of slaves were imported to work on the plantations. The slave population quickly grew larger than that of the land owners. Subjected to cruel treatment, slaves staged rebellions, and their overwhelming numbers made them impossible to ignore. On July 12, 1848, the French abolished slavery on their side of St. Martin. The Dutch followed suit fifteen years later.
St Martin’s History – Into the 20th century
The economic decline forces many Saint-Martiners, both French and Dutch into exile. Many emigrated to the islands of Aruba and Curaçao, drawn by the oil refineries set up by the Dutch-British Shell Oil Company in the 1920s. Others emigrated to the Dominican Republic, the US Virgin Islands and the USA. Historians believe that between 1920 and 1929 the island’s population fell by 18 percent.
St Martin’s History – 1939 – France and the Netherlands abolished customs duty and indirect taxes between the two zones (Dutch and French), which allowed for unimpeded development of commercial and economic relations between the two parts of the island. At this time, the French administration had very little to do with Saint Martin, except to rescue some soldiers in the two World Wars. It was the Second World War that pulled Saint Martin out of isolation and into the spotlight. Under the Vichy Regime (1940-1944) a blockade was imposed on allied forces. During and after the War, trade with the United States intensified. The US became the island’s only supplier. This was a lucrative time for many traders, who made their money by selling cigarettes, fabrics and goods in Guadeloupe and Martinique. It was at this time that a climate of self-administration and self-management began to develop, resulting in a blend of local customs, legal vacuums and foreign practices.
St Martin’s History – 1943 – The site of the present-day Princess Juliana International Airport (Dutch side) became a strategic US airbase and a key weapon in its arsenal against German submarines. And so, the War helped to Americanise and anglicise the population of Saint Martin/Sint Maarten, and English became the working language across the island, competing with French in the north and Dutch in the south.
St Martin’s History – 1946 – French Saint Martin was included by law in the département of Guadeloupe. The two communes of French Saint Martin and St Barths formed one “arrondissement”. The new administrative departement was as absent as that of the former colony.
St Martin’s History – 1963 – French Saint Martin becomes a “sous-préfecture”. It was not until now that the first banks were set up on the island and inhabitants could hook up to the electricity network.
St Martin’s History – 1965 – The burgeoning tourist industry on Saint Martin benefits from the fresh interest of Americans drawn by the sun, who see the island as the perfect getaway. Between 1950 and 1970, hotels begin to spring up on the Dutch side.
St Martin’s History – 1972 – Grand Case Airport opens on the French side.
St Martin’s History – 1980 – The tourist economy is in full swing. The dollar gains great value and only four hours separate Saint Martin from the USA: two major pluses that lead the island’s economic and political stakeholders to realise that they can develop a luxury tourist experience on the “Friendly Island”. Simultaneously, successive tax exemption laws lead to a property boom on the French side. At the time, Saint Martin offers around 7000 rooms in its hotels, making it one of the most highly-prized destinations in the Caribbean. The island of Saint Martin becomes a cradle of tourism where sun and warm waters, parties and varied events, luxury duty-free boutiques and culinary delights blend with everyday life. However, the boom was rudely interrupted in September 1995 by the passing of Hurricane Luis.
St Martin’s History – 1995 – Hurricane Luis, a bad year for the island. Hurricane Luis, on September 5th 1995, annihilated the entire island in the full throes of economic growth. Around twelve people died, hundreds were injured and thousands lost their homes. Aside from the human drama, the full force of Luis left a desert in its wake, lined with piles of rooves, boats, trees and other detritus. Most hotels and tourist accommodation facilities were destroyed and had to shut up shop, leaving hundreds jobless 1995 will always remain a significant year in the history of the island: for every inhabitant there will always be “pre-Luis” and “post-Luis”.
St Martin’s History – Since Hurricane Luis, local stakeholders have stepped up their efforts to restore the island to its former glory. And, in spite of a less-than-auspicious global economic context and a series of events that have hampered the development of the island’s tourist economy (Hurricanes Lenny and Georges in 1999, the September 11 attacks in 2001 and the war in Iraq), the “Friendly Island” remains one of the most coveted destinations, unparalleled in the Caribbean, where the local charm, blended with a traditional way of living and one of the warmest welcomes on the planet, draws thousands of tourists from all over the globe.
St Martin’s History – 2017 – History repeats itself, Hurricane Irma hit the island on September 6th, with incredible violence and wind gusts of up to 420 km/h. The “St Martinois” must once again get up and rebuild an island devastated to 95%. But as usual St Martin will shine its splendor again in the months to come.
The “Friendly Island” remains one of the most coveted destinations in the Caribbean, where local charm, combined with a traditional way of life and one of the warmest on the planet, attracts thousands of tourists from all around the world.