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History of St Maarten/St Martin

Columbus sighted the island on his second trip across the Atlantic in 1493


St Maarten/St Martin
Brief History of "The Friendly Island"

The name of "The Land of Salt"

The Arawaks were first to live on the island and named it "Svalugia" or "The land of salt". Since those times, the name changed, and the island changed hands often times: in their battle over the West Indies, French, English, Dutch, Danish, Spanish and Portugues "Conquistadores" spent more or less time governing and fighting over St Martin. The name of the island is said to be given by Christopher Columbus when he spotted the land on November 11, the feast of St. Martin of Tours, who lived from 330 to 397 as a bishop and missionary in France. He was, and still is, one of the most popular Saints in Western Europe up to today. However, it has never been proven that it was Columbus to name the island. Other sources say that is was for an European settler by the name of St. Martin, who lived there in the late 16th century. Today, the island is called "Sint Maarten" in Dutch spelling, and "St Martin" in French, Spanish, Italian, and English spelling.

History of St Maarten/St Martin

The first settlers were Arawaks...

Before Columbus discovered the island it had already been inhabited for some one thousand years. The first settlers were a tribe of Arawak Indians who left their homeland in the Orinoco basin of South America and kept migrating upwards along the chain of Caribbean islands. The few fresh water springs around Pic Paradis, Mt. William, Billy Folly, and in Terres Basses (Lowlands) could only support a small population, and this is where the Arawaks settled around 550 BC, alternating the Amerindians who had been living here since 2000 BC .The Arawaks were a relatively cultured and peaceful tribe, and introduced agriculture and pottery, and a well structured social organization to the country. Later the Arawaks were subjugated by the more aggressive (and cannibalistic) tribe of Carib Indians, who came down from North America in the early 14th century, and later gave the entire Caribbean its name.


then came the Spanish...

In the 1490´s Christopher Columbus, a sea captain from Genua/Italy, went on his second voyage across the Atlantic, to look for new lands to conquer for the Spanish royalty. On the crossroad of the Upper and Lesser Antilles he found a vast amount of real estate in 1493. Whether Columbus ever set a foot on this island or if he sailed past, is still unclear, but he put this 37 square miles on the map and claimed it for Spain.

As the Spaniards conquered the islands, they rounded up its Indians and put them to work. Actually, they introduced the first slaves to the area in the 16th century. The main influx of slaves however started in the 18th century with the French sugar plantations. Slavery was officially abolished in 1848, whereupon the British brought in Chinese and East Indians to work. Thus, the island is populated by a mixture of Amer-Indians, Africans, Asians and Europeans.

Columbus claimed St Martin for the Spanish Crown

The era of pirates, and in changing hands of Europeans

In the mid 17th century, pirates, smugglers and privateers were attracted to the Caribbean by the increasing volume of West Indies trade, and of the increasing number of ships between Europe and Americas, especially since cargo included silver and other precious merchants from South America. Pirates and smugglers were condoned, even encouraged, by the European countries fighting for control over the Caribbean seas and islands. England, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, the Netherlands and France "island-hopped" by means of naval assaults. Between 1630 and 1648, of the neighboring islands, the Dutch had also seized Saba and St. Eustatius, all precious trading and smuggling depots. The British had seized Anguilla. The French established their "Compagnie des Iles d'Amerique" on St. Martin in 1635, and their joint rule with the Dutch began in 1648, one year after the Spaniards had sailed off and abandoned the island. A treaty was signed on top of Mount Concordia in 1648, but despite the claim of peaceful cohabitation, the border was to change numerous times until 1815 when the Treaty of Paris fixed the boundaries for good.


... and the Dutch... and the French...

For more than a century, the Spanish didn´t show too much interest to settle on the island. The Dutch however did. They first began to ply the island's ponds for salt in the 1620's and were also seeking an outpost half way between their colonies in Brazil and Nieue Amsterdam. By 1630, they were joint by French settlers, who introduced sugar, coffee, cotton and tobacco plantations to the island.

History of Sint Maarten St. Martin conists of many wars

The Dutch occupied St. Martin in 1631, assigned a governor, and erected the first fort (Fort Amsterdam). The Spanish became aware of the incursion and recaptured the island in 1633, expelled all of the Dutch.

One year later, they built a fort at Pointe Blanche to assert their claim. Over the next 15 years, the Dutch made numerous attempts to regain their lost possession. But they had to wait until 1647, when the King of Spain conceded the right to Peter Stuyvesant, the Spanish Commander, to abandon the island upon his request. Laborers were brought in from Puerto Rico to dismantle the fortress, and the Spanish set sail.

French Fort on St. Martin / Sint Maarten
Fort St. Louis - French Fort in Marigot

Change was the only steady factor

The island had changed hands between the Dutch, French and English powers no less than 16 times between 1620 and 1815, and for 13 years (between 1690 to 1703) St. Martin was even "ownerless".

From colonial power to poverty

The cultivation of sugar cane, tobacco, cotton and coffee in the 18th century came along with slavery, and African men, women, and children were imported by the numbers. Soon they exceeded the small population of European planters, merchants and professionals. The growth of trade in sugar, rum and slaves made the possessions in the West Indies a primary target of European colonialism. Every major war in Europe of the 18th century was reflected in fighting in the Caribbean, and every peace treaty included transfers of West Indian islands. All this changed, when the French abolished slavery on July 12, 1848 - today still celebrated as Schoelcher Day - and the Dutch to follow 15 years later. The end of slavery , in conjunction with much cheaper competition in the sugar and other industries, had a serious impact on the island. The plantations died out leaving virtually no industry, and no work.

Migration from St. Martin and Sint Maarten

People started to migrate to other islands, France, and the USA for a better living, and St Maarten/St Martin entered into a deep and long depression.

A booming vacation destination

In 1914 there were just 3,000 people living on St. Martin, and by the end of 1930 the number had dropped to 2,000. The period of impoverishment and neglect lasted until 1939, when the island was declared a duty-free port. Peculiar turn of history that it was World War II that helped to change the faith of the island: as German submarines threatened the whole Caribbean at that time, the US Army had built runways on numerous islands to eliminate the threat from the air. That is how Sint Maarten got its international airport in 1943! And then came the commercial airplanes and the tourists.The Dutch were first to develop tourism industry in the 1950's, the French not before the 1970's. The influx of people changed the island dramatically, leading not only to a huge economic growth, but also to an explosion of population. Today, two governments guide an estimated total of 90,000 people on 37 square miles of land. In its own and unique way, the Friendly Island has found a peaceful place in the sun.

In 2010, the Dutch part became an independent country, though still closely linked to the Netherlands, and part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The French part became disconnected from Guadeloupe, and has now the status of a French community.

Video Clip of  St. Martin and Sint Maarten Click for the map guided video tour of the island !
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The word "cannibal" comes from an Arawak word which referred to the Caribs. They killed and ate the Arawak men, then married the Arawak women. Interestingly to note that the surviving language was Arawak...

Arawaks were the first settlers

Treasures in St Martin

Rumors of buried treasures on St.Martin persist to this day...


Arawaks were the first settlers

Christopher Columbus sighted the island in 1493

The Dutch eventually pushed out the Spanish, but only to discover a well established French settlement.

Christopher Columbus sighted the island in 1493

Legend says that a French and a Dutch, both drunken (the first by wine, the latter one by gin!), settled the land dispute. Starting at Oyster Pond, they would walk West, the French along the northern edge, the Dutch along the southern. Where they met they would draw a dividing line across the island.

Pirates, smugglers and privateers haunted St Maarten and St Martin

Famous Buccaneers: Sir Francis Drake, Sir Henry Morgan, Sir John Hawkins, and William Dampier were among the English buccaneers. At the same period the Dutch "Sea Beggers" and French Huguenot privateers were active. It is said that over 1000 privateers were licensed during that time.
It was on Fort Amsterdam that the Dutch Commander Peter Stuyvesant lost his leg, when he led an unsuccessful assault against the Spaniards.
Peter Stuyvesant lost his leg on Cay Bay Hill
His plan was to land his ships in the bay beyond Cay Bay, and to lead his men up Cay Bay Hill in a surprise attack at Fort Amsterdam. The plan of 1644 failed, however some years later "Peg Leg" became governor of Nieue Amsterdam, now New York.

.Pirates, smugglers and privateers haunted St Maarten and St Martin

The word "buccaneer" comes from the French word "boucan". French privateers smoked their meat on grills called "boucans", thus the appellation.

Sugar cane plantations were predominant in the 18th century

Banana plantations never played such an important role in the economy on St Martin/St Maarten as it did on other islands, such as Martinique or Guadeloupe. Rum production however did, and remains one of the favorite duty free items!

Rum is one of the favorite duty free items Rum is one of the favorite duty free items

Economic growth started after WW II

Tourism is the main industry of modern St Maarten/St Martin

Thousands of tourists from all over the world choose this prime vacation destination every year
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St. Maarten and St. Martin Island information for tourists
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St. Maarten and St. Martin Island information for tourists