The History of St. Martin

Since the 1950s, archeological findings continue to reveal the continuous presence of Native American cultures on the island, from 3000 BC to the 1500s. In total, more than 70 sites have been discovered suggesting human life on the island during pre-Colombian times.

Between 3000 BC and 100 AD, the first groups of Meso Indians arrived by canoe from the coast of Venezuela and the Yucatan peninsula, and settled amongst the island’s dunes and many marshes. The lived mostly off fish and shellfish, notably the queen conch, tiger lucine and eared ark clam.

From 400 BC to 960 AD, early Neo Indian populations left the Orinoco River region to conquer the Caribbean islands. These large groups of families settled mainly at Hope Estate, Anse des Pères, Pointe du Canonnier, and on Pinel Island. They mastered the production of terracotta pots, which they sometimes painted and shaped in reference to their beliefs and mythology. They wove baskets, worked with wood and polished stone, and spun cotton, from which they produced their hammocks. They slept sheltered in wooden huts, which they made from Gaiac trees, and created their rooves from fan palm leaves. These hunters and fishers also cultivated sweet potato, cassava, papaya, pineapple, maracuja, and pepper as well as tobacco and cotton.

From 660 AD, these populations originating from the Amazon rainforest developed a Caribbean island culture. Their ceramics became simpler, with more concern for utility than decoration.

1600 AD marks the end of the late New Indian era, and the disappearance of these indigenous populations, which were decimated during the first centuries of the Spanish conquest of America. The last Taino Amerindians, who spoke Arawak, still lived atop the dune at Baie Rouge just 30 years before the first French and Dutch settlers landed on the island of Soualiga (St.Martin’s first moniker).  

On November 11, 1493, sailor Christopher Columbus set foot on the island during his explorations of the West. November 11 is the day of patron Saint Martin, and Columbus therefore baptized the island with this name. In the 16th century, a time when privateers and buccaneers were aplenty, the Spanish, French, Dutch, Portuguese, English, and Flemish all coveted the island for its protected anchoring spots and abundant salt deposits. In fact, the latter is how the island got its nickname Soualiga, the Land of Salt.

Between 1627 and 1631, the Dutch moved into St. Martin on a mission to exploit the natural salt deposits. On March 23, 1648, the French and the Dutch signed the Treaty of Mount Concordia, on the mountain that bears the same name. The treaty divided the island into two parts: the northern part (52 km2), to be occupied by the French, and the southern part (34 km2), by the Dutch. The treaty recognized both the island’s double nationality as well as its unity: no physical borders were formed and the circulation of people and goods was completely open between the two nations. In the centuries that followed, English colonists and privateers, along with black slaves, populated the island, which remained under French-Dutch dual administration. The French and the Dutch, however, had to defend themselves against endless attacks from the English.

Through the 18th and 19th centuries, St. Martin island was occupied, abandoned, evacuated, pillaged, attacked, taken and returned with the Treaty of Versailles, occupied again, then freed during the Revolution. Between 1648, when the Treaty of Mount Concordia was established, and 1816, year the Treaty of Vienna was signed, St. Martin had changed hands seven times between the French, Dutch, and English. Three centuries of cultural shifts and influences—from France, the Dutch and English Caribbean, the American Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, America and Sweden— have formed the multilingual and multicultural characteristics of St. Martin today.

On May 27, 1848, France ended slavery in accordance with the abolition decree of April 27, 1848. The leader of Guadeloupe, Laryle, decided to apply the decree to the entire archipelago. On February 11, 1850, the island’s isolation and lack of resources led Guadeloupe’s private council to give St. Martin free port status, and lifted customs charges.
In 1863, 15 years after the French side had abolished slavery, the Dutch side followed suit. This led to a decline in commercial trade, forcing many French and Dutch locals to leave the island.

World War II took St. Martin out of its isolation. In fact, the Vichy Regime (1940-1944) resulted in a blockade from the allied forces. During and after the war, trade with the United States intensified, and the US became the island’s only supplier. It was a prosperous period for many businesses that made their fortune selling cigarettes, fabrics, and food stuffs to Guadeloupe and Martinique. A period of self-governance transpired, which developed into a hybrid of local customs regulations, a juridical vacuum, and the borrowing of foreign business practices.

In 1943, the current location of Princess Juliana International Airport on the Dutch side became an important air base for the United States, and a key element of its combat scheme against German submarines. This is how the war contributed to Americanizing and anglicizing the St. Martin population. It’s also how English became the main working language for the whole of the island, competing with French in the North and Dutch in the South.

From 1965 onward, America’s newfound passion for sunshine made St. Martin a paradise island for many. Between 1950 and 1970, the hotels on the Dutch side of the island began to thrive, and by 1980, the tourism economy was in full swing. The dollar’s strong purchasing power and the short distance of less than four hours between the US and St. Martin were two major assets for the industry. This influenced how economic and political strategists played the cards they were dealt: the Friendly Island would become a luxury tourist destination. Simultaneously, a succession of detaxation laws enabled a building boom on the French side. Today, St. Martin has a hotel infrastructure of approximately 7,000 rooms, making it one of the Caribbean’s most desirable destinations. The island of St. Martin became the tourist hotspot synonymous with sun and warm sea, events and festivities of all kinds, duty free and luxury shopping, and top-notch French gastronomy.

St. Martin’s economic prosperity was brutally interrupted by Hurricane Luis. On September 5, 1995, Luis devastated the entire island, which was economically flourishing at the time. After the island had rebuilt itself, 22 years later, Hurricane Irma, the most powerful ever recorded in the area, ravaged St. Martin on September 6, 2017. Eleven deaths were officially recorded, hundreds were wounded, and thousands of people were rendered homeless. Aside from the harm done to human life, Irma left a wasteland in her wake, with heaps of roofs and sheet metal, boats and trees, and detritus of all kinds. Most hotels and other tourist accommodations were destroyed and obliged to close their doors, leaving hundreds of people unemployed.

2017 will remain a year forever etched in the island’s history. For the people of St. Martin, there had always been a “before and after Luis,” and now there is a “before Irma” and an “after Irma”. Since that date, local players have amplified their efforts to rebuild the island to all of its splendor. And despite the dampened world economy, the Friendly Island remains matchless among its Caribbean neighbors. St. Martin’s local flair mixed with a genuine love for living life gracefully, not to mention one of the warmest welcomes imaginable, still attracts thousands of tourists from all over the world.

St. Martin’s Economy Over Time

  • 1630 - 1674: Tobacco
  • 1680 - 1700: Indigo
  • End of the 17th century to the 1820s: Cotton
  • 18th century to early 20th century: Sugar
  • End of the 19th century to the 1960s: Salt
  • 1980s: Tourism

A Simplified Chronology of the Island of St. Martin

  • Pre-Columbian Era
    • 3000 BC - 100 AD: Meso Indians
    • 400 BC - 960 AD: Early Neo Indians
    • 660 AD - 1600 AD: Late Neo Indians
  • Colonial Era
    • 1493 – 1627: Pre-Colonial period, Christopher Columbus’ second voyage, arrival of the buccaneers
    • 1627 – 1648: Arrival of the first Franco-Dutch colonists
    • 1648 – 1764: Start of the indigo and cotton plantations
    • 1764 – 1848: Sugar cane agriculture and industry
    • 1848 – 1930: End of slavery and the decline of agricultural production
    • 1930 – 1960: End of the salt mines exploitation
  • Contemporary / Modern Era
    • 1960 – 1985: Start of the tourism economy
    • 1985 – 2018: Abandon of agriculture for tourism, heavy urban development