History of St. Martin

St. Martin is a land conquered and divided between two governments

Photo credit: © Centrill | Dreamstime.com

St. Martin History

Long before Christopher Columbus spotted the islands of the Lesser Antilles and what is now known as St. Martin, groups of indigenous people lived on the islands throughout the region. But the population would soon change with the expansion of European exploration.

Efforts to colonize St. Martin began not long Europeans discovered the island. In many respects, the history of St. Martin mirrors the historical accounts of many other islands in the Caribbean, but this dual nation island is a unique jewel among many in the heart of this beautiful region.

Before European Discovery

Before Columbus sighted St. Martin during his second voyage to the Americas in 1493, the original people of the island were the Siboney and Arawak Indians. Evidence of the Arawak and Siboney Indians have been discovered by present-day archaeologists, who have uncovered remnants of these ancient civilizations dating back 3,500 years. These early Indians came to St. Martin from the Orinoco basin of South America around 800 A.D.


The Arawaks called St. Martin Sualouiga, which means "Land of Salt" in the Arawak language, because of the island's salt-pans and brackish water. The artifacts that the Arawak Indians left behind indicate that they were artistic, spiritual, and generally peaceful people. Their villages consisted of simple wooden structures with straw roofs, and were strong enough to withstand hurricanes. The Arawaks peaceful existence on St. Martin was interrupted by the arrival of the Carib Indians, for which the Caribbean region was named.

The Carib Indians also migrated to St. Martin from South America, but were unlike the peaceful Arawaks. In contrast, the Caribs were aggressive warriors. When the Caribs came to St. Martin, they killed the Arawak men and took the women as slaves. By the time European explorers began to arrive in the region, the Caribs dominated the Indian population on St. Martin and many other Caribbean islands.

Coming to the Americas

Although Columbus never actually set foot on St. Martin, he did claim the island in the name of Spain. The famous explorer sighted the island, which he named after Saint Martin of Tours, on November 11, the saint's feast day. Although the Spanish considered St. Martin to be a part of their territory, they took very little interest in the island. On the other hand, the French wanted to colonize all of the islands between Trinidad and Bermuda under the Compagnie des Iles d'Amerique.

The French were not the only ones who had their eye on colonizing St. Martin. The Dutch West India Company wanted to claim the islands in the Lesser Antilles because they could serve as a halfway point between their prospering settlements in Brazil and New Amsterdam, which is now New York. The Dutch set up camps on the relatively unoccupied St. Martin in 1631 and built Fort Amsterdam for protection. Jan Claeszen van Campen was then made governor, and the Dutch West India Company began mining salt on the island. The Spanish, who had been indifferent to their ownership of St. Martin, began to notice the success of the English, French, and Dutch colonies in the Lesser Antilles, and of course wanted to gain some of this success for their own country.

Spain attacked the Dutch settlers on St. Martin in 1638, regained control of the island, and banished the Dutch. The Spaniards built the Old Spanish Fort at Point Blanche to protect their newly regained territory. Under Peter Stuyvesant, the exiled Dutch initiated several unsuccessful efforts to recapture St. Martin from the Spanish colonists. In their efforts to take back the island, Stuyvesant lost his leg when he was hit by a cannonball. He replaced the lost leg with a wooden one, earning the nickname Peg Leg.

An Island Divided

When the Eighty Years' War between Spain and the Netherlands ended, the Spanish no longer needed a Caribbean base. The Spanish settlers also grew tired of defending St. Martin, which only brought in marginal profits. In 1648, they abandoned the island. The Dutch and French colonists jumped at the opportunity to occupy the island once more. The French came from St. Kitts, and the Dutch from Eustatius, to claim the island.

After some conflict, both the French and Dutch colonists realized that the other would not give up the island without a fight. Both parties signed The Treaty of Concordia in 1648, and the island was divided between the two countries. Some accounts claim that the French and Dutch settlers held a contest to decide how to divvy up the island. Supposedly, the French and Dutch began walking westward from Oysterpond on the east coast. The French walked upon the northern edge of the island and the Dutch along the southern edge. Wherever the two groups met, they were to draw a line to divide the island.

The accuracy of this account is uncertain, but makes for a great story about how the island became the French St. Martin and the Dutch St. Maarten. More reliable historical accounts tell that the French had a large navy waiting just off St. Martin's shores and won the majority of the territory by threat of force. The original boundary between the French and Dutch territories changed 16 times between 1648 and 1816. But in the end, the French ended up with 20 square miles on the north side, and the Dutch got 16 square miles on the south end of the island.

Good Neighbors

Initially, the relationship between the French and Dutch sides of the island wasn't very good. The Dutch side of the island became an important trade center for cotton, salt, and tobacco. St. Martin also saw wealth from sugar plantations, which were maintained by African slaves brought to the island. Hundreds of slaves were brought to the island to work on the plantations in the 1600's. Under harsh treatment, and in numbers that surpassed the population of plantation owners, the black slaves began to rise up against their owners. France finally abolished slavery on July 12, 1848. The Dutch followed suit 15 years later. With the emancipation of the slaves, St. Martin fell under an economic depression that lasted until 1939.  When St. Martin was declared a duty free post, things began to turn around.  Caribbean vacationers could now shop for inexpensive high end goods and bring them home with them without penalty.  This caused a tourism boom that hasn't let up since. 

Becoming Free

On October 10, 2010, the Dutch side of the island became an independent country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands.  The Netherlands will continue to assist St. Maarten in overseeing defense and finances, but in all other aspects St. Maarten will govern itself.   Now, free of the rule of the Netherlands, it is believed that St. Maarten will be able to direct more tax money into the tourism industry, boosting tourism and allowing islanders to reap the benefits. 

Only time will tell what is to come of St. Maarten's newfound indpenedence, and how it will effect the relationship between St. Maarten and St. Martin.  If history is any indication, the two nations will continue to live together on the same island in a peaceful manner that is good for both the people who live there and the people who visit either side.


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