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Archaeological investigations carried out on Saint Martin since the 1950s have pointed to the presence of American Indian settlers on the island from 2000 BC until the 15th century AD. Between 800 BC and 300 BC the island was inhabited by Arawaks. Two groups are thought to have settled on the site of Hope Estate (in the hills across from today’s Route de L’Espérance, which leads to Grand Case Airport) between 200 BC and 300 BC and from 300 AD to 500 AD. Possibly from South America, these early dwellers, who were semi-nomadic, were hunters, fishermen and farmers. Further migratory waves of fishermen and farmers arrived and settled in villages.
In all, over thirty pre-Columbian settlements have been discovered on the island, in particular Baie Rouge at Terres Basses, which is of continuing interest to archaeologists. In 1400 AD the Arawaks were displaced by the much-feared cannibalistic warriors, the Caribs. Historical research suggests that the Taínos were the last American Indian people to have settled on the island in the 1500's ; they died out after the arrival of the first European colonists, who brought viruses and disease.
On St Martin’s Day, November 11th 1493, Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus, on his second journey into Antillean waters, landed on the island, naming it “Saint Martin” and marking a new discovery for the Western world.
In the heyday of 16th-century corsairs and buccaneers, the Spanish, French, Dutch, Portuguese, English and Flemish coveted the island for its protected waters and salt deposits, earning it the name of Soualiga, Land of Salt.
It was over the course of the sixteenth century that the remaining American Indian populations on the island were enslaved and deported to neighbouring islands. Now too small for the conquistadors, the Spanish started to lose interest in the island and began to desert it.
The Dutch began to settle on Saint Martin between 1627 and 1631 with the intention of exploiting the island’s natural salt deposits, which it required for its North American operations. The Dutch erected a fort, which provoked a spirited attack from the Spanish. The island fell under Spanish military control in 1638. The Spanish deserted Saint Martin for good in 1648, considering it to be too small (88km²) and of limited interest.
On March 23rd of the same year, the French and the Dutch settled the matter of the ownership of the island when they signed the Treaty of Concordia, named after the mountain (Mount Concordia) on which the agreement was signed. France and the Netherlands would divide the island into two parts, France occupying the northern section (54km²) and the Dutch the southern section (34km²). The Treaty recognised both the dual nationality and the unity of the island: there would be no physical border between the two nations and people and goods would move freely between the two zones. And so, Saint Martin became known as the “Friendly Island”, a name that it keeps to this day.
All of the provisions of the 1648 treaty are still enforced today.
Treaty of Concordia
Today, the 23rd of March 1648, have assembled Robert de Lonvillliers, Knight and Lord of this place, Governor of the island of St.Martin, on behalf of his Most Christian Majesty and Martin Thomas, likewise Governor of the said island, on behalf of the Prince of Orange and the States-General of the Netherlands, and Henri de Lonvilliers, Lord of Benevent, Savin and 'Courpon, Chevalier, Lord of La Tour, lieutenant-colonel of the island, and David Coppins, Lieutenant of a Dutch company, and Pitre van Zeun Hus, likewise Lieutenant of a company of the above mentioned, who, on either side, have agreed upon the following:
1. that the French shall continue in that quarter where they are established at this present, and that they shall inhabit the entire coast which faces Anguilla;
2. that the Dutch shall have the quarter of the fort, and the soil surrounding it on the south coast;
3. that the French and Dutch established on the said island shall live as friends and allies, and that, in case of either party molesting the other, this shall constitute an infringement of this treaty, and shall therefore be punishable by the laws of war;
4. that, if a Frenchman or Dutchman being guilty of a criminal act or an infringement of this agreement, or of disobedience to the commands of his superiors, or of whatever other remissness, shall withdraw to the territory of the other nation, the contracting parties shall be bound to cause such person to be arrested in their territory, and to deliver him up to his Governor on the latter's first requesting it;
5. that the chase, the fisheries, the salt pans, the rivers, the lakes, the fresh waters, the dye-wood, mines and minerals, harbours and roadsteads, and other commodities of the said island shall be common, and shall serve to provide the wants of the inhabitants;
6. that it shall be permitted to French persons at this present residing with the Dutch to join the French , if it so please them, and to take with their movables, foodstuffs and money and other commodities, provided they shall have settled their debts or given sufficient security, and that the Dutch shall be able to do like-wise and on the same conditions;
7. that, if enemies should attack one part or the other, the parties to this treaty shall be obliged to render each other aid and assistance;
8. that the delimitation and partition of the said island between the two nations shall be submitted to the General of the French and the Governor of St. Eustatius, and to the deputies that shall be sent to visit the places; and that, their report having been made, they shall delimit their quarters, and proceed in the manner stipulated above;
9. that any claims one party may have against the other shall be submitted to the King of France and the gentlemen of His Council, and to the Prince of Orange and the States of Holland. Neither of the above parties shall be able to construct fortifications without contravening the above agreement and compensations with respect to the other party.
Given on the date heretofore mentioned, on the mountain known as des Accords (Concordia) of the said island, and signed by the said gentlemen, in the presence of Bernard de la Fond, Knight and Lord of Esperance, Lieutenant of a French Company on St. Christophe.
Signed by de Lonvilliers, Martin Thomas, Henry de Lonvilliers, de Courpon, David Coppin, de l'Espérance and Piter van Zeun-Hus.
At this time, the French part was linked administratively to the island of Saint Kitts (now Saint Kitts and Nevis) and the Dutch part was linked to the island of Statia. In 1656, Dutch colonists were chased out of Brazil by the Portuguese. Some took refuge with their slaves on Martinique, but most fled to Guadeloupe and Saint Martin.
The French governor at the time, Charles Houël, saw the arrival of the new immigrants, who were thought to hold the secrets to sugar production techniques, as a means of achieving economic growth.
In the centuries that followed, the island of Saint Martin welcomed English settlers and corsairs, and some black slaves, while remaining under dual French/Dutch administration. Nonetheless, the French and the Dutch were forced to defend themselves from constant attack by the English.
During this period the island of Saint-Martin was occupied, deserted, evacuated, pillaged, invaded, captured and restored under the Treaty of Versailles, occupied again, then liberated during the Revolution.
In 1713 (Treaty of Utrecht), France lost Saint Kitts (now Saint Kitts and Nevis) to the English. The administration of the French side of Saint Martin had up to this point been linked to Saint Kitts, on which the island was dependent. The loss of Saint Kitts severed all ties with France, and from this date onwards French Saint Martin could rely only on itself.
1750 - Construction of Fort Louis, which dominates the village of Marigot and its bay.
1763 - The French part of the island is annexed to the island of Guadeloupe, 250km away. Between 1775 and 1784, the white population increases from 300 to 500, and the number of slaves - mostly blacks - shipped in on trade ships or imported from neighbouring islands, increases sharply from 1000 to 2500 individuals.
1802 - Napoleon Bonaparte reinstates slavery by decree on May 20th. Arrival of Napoleon’s forces sent to the Dominican Republic and Guadeloupe.
1816 - The Treaty of Congress signed at Vienna signals an end to colonial struggles and secures French/Dutch rule over the island. Between 1648, the date of the signing of the Treaty of Concordia, and 1816, the signing of the Treaty of Congress, Saint Martin changes hands seven times between the French, Dutch and the English. It is these multiple influences of France, the Netherlands Antilles, the English Antilles, the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, the United States and Sweden over these three centuries that paved the way for the multilingual and multicultural island we can enjoy today.
May 27th 1848 - Slavery is abolished on French Saint Martin. France abolishes slavery in the decree for the abolition of slavery of April 27th 1848, which was written by the undersecretary of the navy in charge of the colonies, Victor Schoelcher (1804-1893). Governor Laryle of Guadeloupe (of which Saint Martin is now part) decides to apply the decree for the abolition of slavery throughout the archipelago on May 27th 1848.
1850 -- The island becomes a tax-free port due to the growing isolation of the island and a lack of resources, on February 11th 1850 the privy council of Guadeloupe adopts a resolution to approve a law that “grants the dependent territory of Saint Martin new trade immunities, and also new incentives to encourage the exploitation of its salt resources”. Saint Martin benefits from duty-free port status, with no customs duty.
1863 - Slavery is abolished on the Dutch side. Fifteen years after their French counterparts, slaves on the Dutch side are finally free. During these fifteen years, “Dutch slaves” had only to cross the border between the two zones to be free. The abolition of slavery results in a slump in trade. In spite of quality goods being produced on the island (cattle, cotton, rum and salt), the late 18th century sees an economic downturn.
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.
In 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.
In 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.
In 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.
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.
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.
1972 - Grand Case Airport opens on the French side.
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.
Hurricane Luis: 1995, 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”.
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.
Until the 1950s, the island’s economic activity was focused in two areas: farming and the exploitation of the salt pans. The first colonists farmed food crops but very quickly moved to developing trade plantations for tobacco, indigo, cotton, sugar cane, coffee and cocoa.
The economic development of the island can be divided into 6 key stages :
1630 - 1674: tobacco
1680 - 1700: indigo
Late 17th century to 1820: cotton
18th century to early 20th century: sugar. It was in the context of the Antilles sugar production boom that Saint Martin began to produce sugar cane in 1772. In 1786, almost 1000 acres were being run by 24 sugar mills, producing 875 tons each year. The early 20th century saw the final decline of sugar production with the closure of the last sugar mill in Spring (Marigot).
Late 19th century to 1960s: salt. Salt production took over from sugar production. To reboost the declining economy following the crisis in sugar farming in the early 19th century, the people began to exploit the many salt ponds on the French side. The Dutch were already exploiting ponds on their side of the island. There are 3 large salt ponds on the French side of the island, in Grand Case, Quartier d’Orléans and Chevrise. The industrial extraction of salt lasts around a century. The last working salt plant, in Grand Case, closed its doors in the 1960s when it was no longer a profitable enterprise.
By the early 1980s, tourism had taken over as the main source of revenue for the population. Successive tax exemption laws (Pons, Paul, Robien Besson and Girardin) have contributed greatly to this economic boom. The tourist economy reached new heights in 1994, with over 600,000 visitors coming through Princess Juliana Airport. In 2007, over 1,430,406 cruise ship passengers came through the deep water port at Great Bay (Dutch side). In 2007, over 2 million people visited Saint Martin. (Source: IEDOM).
Don't miss : Musée de Saint Martin - 7 rue Fichot, Marigot.