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Die Geschichte von Sint Maarten/Saint Martin – ein Splitter von Europa

Wie ein kleines Eiland zu seiner facettenreichen Historie kam

The discovery of St. Maarten

The history of Sint Maarten/Saint Martin begins with a great explorer:

A suitable beginning, since at first Columbus had considered this small piece of land (only 94 square kilometres) and the natives who lived on it, rather squalid. Apparently, there were no rivers, no gold or anything else Columbus’ contractors in Castile could profit from. The island was just good enough to exile prisoners – which is exactly what he did. Thus, he did not even bother to go ashore, and consequently, the newly baptized island lived in peace for another century. Only later, things turned quite tempestuous – but read on, because there is a happy ending.

The myth of the Caribbean rises

The native island population – the Arawaks and the Caribs – called the island Sualouiga and Oualichi, which means salt island, because of the possibility for salt extraction. Meanwhile, also in other parts of the world, the white gold became very popular – thus, in the 17th century, world history took notice of St. Maarten.
While Spaniards, Portuguese, English, Dutch and French fought over Central and South America, less influential states, trading companies and adventurers invaded the islands of the Caribbean. Danes, Swedes, Kurland, pirates and the West India Companies of several countries gambolled here. To say that the situation was pretty confusing would be a huge understatement. Until today, hidden treasures and sunken ships are waiting to be discovered. And who knows? During a vacation in Sint Maarten you might find a little more than just relaxation.

St. Maarten under changing rule

While looking for new salt deposits and safe havens, the Dutch West India Company discovered St. Maarten. Starting from 1624, ever more ships run into port. Soon after, a permanent establishment with its own island governor was formed. In the years 1631/32, a defensive system was built; it later turned into Fort Amsterdam, which caused great resentment among the Spaniards, who had settled only a day's journey away, in Puerto Rico.

In 1633, an armada of almost 100 ships moved off and conquered the island, which thus once again was called "St. Martín". In 1629, the French tried to take over the island – without success. The Spaniards prevailed, but only with great difficulty. The garrison had to be supplied rather badly from the outside. Meanwhile – starting from 1634 – the Dutch strengthened their position on the neighbouring islands of Curaçao and Sint Eustatius. In 1644, they were ready to strike out. Guided by the director of the Dutch West India Company, Peter Stuyvesant, they hit the target. It took a while until the last Spaniards withdrew, however, soon St. Martin was back to St. Maarten. Of course, the French didn’t like this turn of events, and a few years later they tried their luck once again.

The Border Legend of St. Maarten/Saint-Martin – A story about red wine and gin

Legend has it that – for a change – the challengers decided to regulate the territorial claims without bloodshed. On March 23, 1648, delegations of the two countries met on Concordia Hill. Each side was to choose one man – these two men would then run along the coast in opposite directions. The two representatives probably started on the east coast, at Oyster Pond: Standing back to back, the Frenchman ran off towards the North and the Dutchman towards the South. At the meeting point, the countries would draw a line to the starting point, and thus divide the island into two halves. The fact that the French part of the island is significantly bigger is ascribed to the thirst quenchers that the two men had brought along: red wine for the French, and gin for the Dutchman. If you visit the island, we strongly advise you not to revive this event – the beaches are much nicer when you’re not completely drunk.

Whether the legend is true or not, the entire matter was not simply a crackpot idea: The parties finally found an agreement and signed the Treaty of Concordia, which (with intermissions) is still valid today. They did not only agree to respect the borders, but also to live together as friends and allies.
Now, the island had two names: In the North it was called Saint-Martin, in the South it kept its old name Sint Maarten.

The English want St. Martin

After the Dutch-French agreement, British troops occupied the neighbouring island of Anguilla – which was only 2-3 hours by sailing boat – in order to carefully observe the ongoing in the new community. For almost twenty years, the people lived together peacefully – until 1667, when the British raided the island several times. However, this was only a prelude to the Anglo-Dutch War 1672-1674, where Denmark-Norway took sides with the Netherlands and France stood by England – As already mentioned above, the situation was rather confusing. The beleaguered Dutch fled from St. Maarten to Tobago, but came back in 1676 with a large fleet. However, the island could not be regained from the French, who in the meantime had taken control. In 1690, the English managed the coup, but in 1697, with the Treaty of Breda, they had to give the island back to the French. Since the French soldiers stationed on the island were urgently needed somewhere else, most of them were moved in 1702, and the Dutch could once again take over part of the island.

St. Maarten in the 18th and 19th century – and the tax exemption

In 1715, there were about 43 Dutch and 350 French living on the island – together with their slaves. Next to salt, sugar cane was the main export good, and the trade was flourishing in the following – relatively quiet – decades. Thus, until 1789, the population grew to more than 1,000 people of Western descent. Over the same period, however, also the number of slaves multiplied to over 4,000.

Meanwhile, the Englishman industriously expanded their Empire and refused to be intimidated by the Dutch and the French, who in 1798 built the fortress of Fort Louis. From there, they could keep an eye on the island of Anguilla, which was occupied by the British.

Starting from 1779, the British regularly dropped in on St. Maarten, and from 1784, they took control over a large part of the island. In 1810, they took over completely. In 1816, at the Congress of Vienna, the island was returned to the French and the Dutch.

However, since the trading business was declining, both nations declared their provinces free ports and refrained from collecting taxes from incoming ships. Salt and sugar cane had become less important, and since also tobacco, indigo, cattle, cotton and rum yielded very little money, peace and tranquillity returned to St. Maarten. Things became so quiet that despite the tax exemption ever more people migrated. Until today, the island profits from tax exemption – to the delight of the inhabitants and the many tourists, who take advantage of this benefit by happily shopping in the luxury shops and boutiques.

St. Maarten in the 20th century

Only the 2nd World War shook the island again. During the war, the Americans occupied the island, and in 1943, they built a 1,200-meter runway at Simpson Baai. It later was turned into the Princess Juliana International Airport, and quite a few GIs remembered Sint Maarten as a beautiful vacation location.

After the war, the administration was reorganized and more Americans discovered "the friendly island" as a holiday destination. Hotels were built, and in 1972, the new airport was inaugurated. This positive development continued until 1995, when after Hurricane Luis, the entire island had to start over once again.

Since 10.10.2010, Sint Maarten is an independent country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Since 22.02.2007, the French part is a French overseas territory with the competencies of a municipality, a department and a region. Saint-Martin is part of the European Union and of the Euro Zone, but not of the Schengen area.

Thus, the situation remains somewhat unclear: Nonetheless, tourists on St. Maarten agree that they can easily live with that.

Discover the history of St. Maarten/Saint-Martin

All over the island you come across historic buildings that were lovingly restored or rebuilt after the hurricanes Donna and Luis. Besides Fort Louis, Fort Amsterdam and Fort Willem, there is also the old prison of Marigot (easily accessible on the way to Fort Louis and from approximately the same period). It was used as a prison until 1968, and then converted into a fire station.

The historic Courthouse of Philipsburg was the seat of the island governors and is today used for justice administration. It was built in 1793 by Commander John Phillips, the founder of the city, and radiates plenty of colonial charm. The pineapple on the bell tower is in point of fact a welcome symbol that is known throughout the Caribbean.

Concordia Hill and the Border Obelisk are other highlights not to be missed. The monument was erected to commemorate the 300th anniversary in 1948 and is one of the few visible signs that right here you step from one country into another.

Details on the history of the island are available at the "Museum on the Trail of the Arawaks" (museesaintmartin.e-monsite.com) and the "St. Maarten National Heritage Foundation (www.museumsintmaarten.org).

If you wish to find out how life looked like across generations on St. Maarten, in the Old House at Route de Quartier d'Orléans you’ll find memorabilia dating back to the times of plantations.