The History of Saint Martin, an Island Divided

Bienvenue, Welkom, Welcome to the unique dual nation island of Saint Martin, otherwise known as Sint Marteen. An enticing and friendly island of white sands, turquoise waters and hidden coves, divided and now shared peacefully between the Dutch and the French. An island with a turbulent and unique history, a story of indians and cannibals, pirates and slavery, affluence and poverty, gun battles and stone forts. A story of two nations who now live together as peaceful neighbours on this unique vacation destination with a diverse blend of flavor and culture.

Island of Saint Martin Map

Indians & cannibals

It all began around 800 AD when the Arawak Indians settled on the island from South America. They lived peacefully in straw-roofed villages going about their farming, until the descent of the cannibalistic warriors, the Carib Indians, on the island. The Caribs killed the men, enslaved the woman and completely displaced the Arawaks.

Changing hands

Fast forward to November 11th, 1493, the holy day of St. Martin of Tours, when Christopher Columbus took his second voyage to the West Indies and claimed the island for the Spanish, naming it Isla de San Martin. The Spanish never took much interest in the small 37 square miles of land already coveted by both the French and the Dutch. The next 150 years saw the island changing hands between Holland, England, France and Spain. In 1631 the Dutch erected Fort Amsterdam and their struggle with the Spanish begins. By 1633 the Spanish had driven out both its adversaries and built the Old Spanish Fort at Point Blanche, claiming their territory. The French and Dutch, however, joined forces repelling the Spanish, and victory was achieved as the French established their Compagnie des Iles d'Amerique in 1635. The Spanish abandoned their claim to the island in 1644, and in 1648, the joint rule between the French and Dutch began.

The Dutch and the French become neighbours

According to a colorful legend, the French and Dutch held a walking contest to establish their territorial boundaries, although the facts note that the French had a fleet of naval ships used to bargain more land by threat of force. The Treaty of Concordia was signed and the island divided. Conflict between the two caused the border to be changed 16 times until finally the 1815 Treaty of Paris fixed the boundaries - the French gaining 21 square miles in the north and the Dutch 16 square miles in the south.

Philipsburg Sint Maarten Courthouse

The cultivation of sugar, cotton, tobacco and coffee in the 18th century introduced slavery on the island with the import of African men, women and children until July 21, 1848 when the French abolished slavery, still celebrated today as Schoelcher Day. The Dutch slaves were emancipated 15 years later taking the island from colonial power to poverty. Plantations died leaving no industry, people migrated to other islands and the island entered a long and deep depression lasting until 1939, when it was declared a duty-free port. World War II added another boost to the island with the US Army building runways bringing commercial airplanes and, best of all, the tourists.

Finally, a vacation destination rich in culture, history and natural beauty

The Dutch were the first to focus on tourism in 1950 with the French following suit in the 1970’s. A vacation destination unparalleled in the Caribbean was born. A tale of two nations, dual heritage and a two-in-one cultural destination. A perfect blend of cosmopolitan Europe and cultural Caribbean.

The Friendly Island had finally found its place in the sun!