To understand today’s St. Martin it is worth examining its fascinating history. English, Portuguese, Dutch, Flemish, Spanish and French wanted to take possession of the island because of its protected waters and salt deposits in the 16th century. Today St. Martin’s population presents a melting pot of a 100 different nations, all living peacefully side by side.
The island of today is 30 million years old. During the ice ages the sea level dropped, and Anguilla, St. Barth and St. Martin surfaced as one big island.
First inhabitants arrived from the Latin-American mainland, island hopping their way up the chain of the Caribbean islands. Known as Amerindians, they were thought to have arrived in 1200 BC, settled in the Hope Estate area, on the Baie Rouge and the Low Lands. Later on in 1400 AD the Karibs arrived, cannibalistic warriors who displaced the Arawaks. The last American Indians arrived 1500 AD; they died out with the arrival of the European colonists, due to viruses and diseases that they brought with them.
On November 11, 1493, Christopher Columbus discovered the island and named it after St. Martin of Tours.
In 1631, Dutch settlers arrived and settled in Great Bay, interested in the saltpans. French settlers came from St. Kitts and established themselves in Quartier d’Orleans. The dominance of settlers often changed - Spain, England, France and Holland all took turns in dominating St. Martin.
A period of stability was established in 1648 with the signing of the ‘Treaty of Concordia’, which divided the island into 2 nations: St. Martin – French, and Sint Maarten – Dutch.
Tobacco and sugar plantations and factories appeared around 1730, slaves deported from Africa provided the workforce. British settlers were invited to set up home; English became the lingua franca of St. Martin/Sint Maarten. The French population moved their main settlement to Marigot, which was more suitable for trade. The Dutch moved their village to a more convenient location, which was called Philipsburg after John Philips, the Commander who built the first house there.
Slavery was abolished in 1848 on St. Martin, and in 1863 on Sint Maarten. During these 15 years, Dutch ‘slaves’ only had to cross the border to become free citizens. After becoming less and less profitable, the 35 sugar plantations closed down one after the other, the last one closing in 1920. The economic decline forced many St. Martiners to emigrate to Aruba and Curacao, where oil refineries had been set up by the Dutch - British oil company Shell.
In 1943, during the Second World War, the United States built Princess Juliana Airport in order to have an airbase from which to fight against German submarines. This helped to Americanize the population of Saint Martin/Sint Maarten, and English became the working language for both, the French and the Dutch side.
A monument celebrating three centuries of peaceful coexistence was raised in 1948, on Union Road, Bellevue. With the opening of the airport to civil traffic and the construction of hotels between 1950 and 1970, the island began to dabble in tourism, mainly Americans drawn by the sun, who saw the island as the perfect getaway.
Due to favorable dollar rate, and the short flight of 4 hours from the USA, Tourism became the major economic force on the island in the 80s. Luxury Tourism was promoted, and Tax Exemption laws lead to a property boom. With more than 7000 rooms in hotels, it became one of the most frequented tourist destinations in the Caribbean.