History and legacies

An island with an extraordinary destiny

This two-faceted land is the result of an eventful history. As a result of a distant past, two countries today continue to live together on some 75 km2, where hundreds of nationalities cross daily.


Long before Christopher Columbus discovered it, the island had been inhabited for nearly 4,000 years by Arawak Indians who had left Colombia and Venezuela to migrate to the Caribbean. In Saint-Martin, these people settled near the sources of Pic Paradis, Mount Williams, Billy Folly and Terres Basses. Pacific, they were decimated by a cannibal tribe of Caribbean Indians from North America in the early 14th century. Numerous archaeological sites with exemplary vestiges allow today to retrace the daily life of these ethnic groups.

Cedaric Saldoid Ceramics

Ceramic saladoid cedrosan, arawak remains found in St. Martin, Caribbean

Shell objects.

History and legacies St. Martin, Caribbean: Arawak shell objects

Adorno Bird

History and legacies St. Martin, Caribbean: Adorno bird

Arawak women working on cotton.

History and legacies St. Martin, Caribbean: Arawak women working cotton

Arawak women preparing cassava.

History and legacies St. Martin, Caribbean: Arawak women preparing cassava

Arawak village.

History and legacies St. Martin, Caribbean: Arawak village


Discovery of the island of St. Martin in the Caribbean in November 11, 1493 by Christopher Columbus who baptizes it with the name of the holy eponymous, St. Martin of Tours

The destiny of the island – and the Caribbean – took a new turn at the end of the 15th century.
On November 11, 1493, day of the St. Martin of Tours feast, Christopher Colombus, who sails for Spanish sovereignty sees on his second journey this little island on his way back from Hispaniola and baptizes it with the name of the holy eponymous. Saint-Martin was, however, already designated by two other names in the Caribbean language: Oualichi (“the island of women”) and Soualiga (“land of salt”). The arrival of the Spaniards led to the extinction of the last representatives of pre-Columbian civilization in less than two centuries.

Christopher Columbus, Genoese navigator, discoverer of America. Portrait attributed to Domenico Ghirlandaio. (Civico Naval Museum, Pegli, Genoa.) Ph. Gustavo Tomsich © Larbor Archives

ortrait of Christopher Columbus by Domenico Ghirlandaio, discoverer of St Martin. In the Caribbean


Despite some strong demands, the Spaniards were however disinterested by Saint-Martin, subject of covetousness for the other Westerners. Dutch, French, English, Flemish, Portuguese, all looked on the protected anchorages and saline deposits which proliferated on the island and gave rise to a flourishing economy.

The Dutch, who sought a relay for their colonies in Brazil, began to settle in the 1620s to exploit the salt pans. At the same time, some French families from St. Kitts Island introduced the cultivation of sugar, coffee, cotton and tobacco as early as 1630.

On March 23rd, 1648, French and Dutch ruled on the partition of the island by the treaty of the Mont des Accords (or Concordia treaty), the legend of which stated that a running course determined the border’s tracing: 52 km2 to the north For France, 34 km2 in the south for the Netherlands. This founding text, which still prevails today, stipulates, inter alia, that “the French and the Dutch who inhabit this island will live as friends and allies”. Saint-Martin / Sint Maarten became the “Friendly island” that we know today.

War of Holland, War of Succession of Spain, war of succession of Austria, War of Seven Years, War of Independence of the United States, French Revolution, Napoleonic wars … From the 17th to the 19th century the great conflicts had repercussions on the history of the island and Saint-Martin changed hands seven times. In 1816 (Treaty of Paris) the British finally retroced the north of the island to France. A decree of November 28th, 1839, will once again confirm Franco-Dutch cohabitation.

Treaty of Concordia, St. Martin, Caribbean
Treaty of Concordia, St. Martin, Caribbean
Fort St. Louis in Marigot, St. Martin, Caribbean


Fort Louis, dominating the bay of Marigot, was erected in 1789 by the French to defend their possession under the impetus of Jean Sebastien de Durat, governor of Saint-Martin and St. Bartholomew for the King of France. Its primary vocation consisted mainly in defending the warehouses of the port of Marigot where the harvests were stored, the English landing regularly from Anguilla to plunder them.

Fort Amsterdam in Little Bay, Sint Maarten, Caribbean


Fort Amsterdam was the first of its kind built in the Caribbean in 1631 by Dutch settlers. Taken by the Spaniards in 1633, it was abandoned by the latter when they left the island in 1648.

Fort Willem in Sint Maarten, Caribbean


Built by the British then occupying Sint Maarten, Fort Willem (first called Fort Trigge) was erected in 1801 to protect Philipsburg Bay from enemy incursions. It was abandoned in 1846.

27 (or 28) May 1848: SLAVERY IS ABOLISHED

In addition to the exploitation of the salt ponds, Saint-Martin / Sint Maarten enjoyed a long period of economic prosperity thanks to the cultivation of sugarcane, tobacco, cotton and coffee, which developed during the 18th century with the deportation of Africans from slavery to slavery. On the French side, slavery would have been abolished on May 27th, 1848 as in all the Guadeloupean archipel from which the territory depended. “Would have been”, because recent archival analyzes establish that the contemporary commemorations should consider May 28th and not 27th for Saint-Martin (the Collectivity recently seized the French State to change this official date, which corresponds to a holiday on the territory).


Abolition of slavery on the island of St. Martin on May 27 (or 28) 1848

Abolition of slavery on the island of St. Martin on May 27 (or 28) 1848

It was not until 1863, that slavery was also abolished in the south of the island ; an administrative distortion that saw the servants cross the border to gather their freedom in the northern side.






The economy of the island then experienced a depression following the closure of plantations and the decline of commercial activity. In fact, people are starting to migrate to find work in Curaçao (petroleum), the Dominican Republic (sugar cane) and the US Virgin Islands or the United States. The influence of North America is increasingly marked. In 1939, customs duties were abolished between the French and the Dutch side, which favored the strengthening of economic ties between the two territories.

Great Bay Salt Ponds, Philipsburg, Sint Maarten

Great Bay Salt Ponds, Sint Maarten in the Caribbean

A sugarcane plantation

A sugarcane plantation in St. Martin, Caribbean


At the beginning of the 20th century, France was only interested in Saint-Martin to enlist soldiers who would serve the country during the two world wars. From 1943, the United States made Sint Maarten, on the site of the current airport Princess Juliana, an air base to fight German submarines. The local population became Americanized, the English language became predominant, and trade with the USA intensified.

In 1946, with the law of departmentalization, Saint-Martin is officially integrated in Guadeloupe as a commune. The French side became a sub-prefecture in 1963 and shortly afterwards, the tourist industry, the main economic vector to this day, began to take off. The regional airport of Grand-Case, on the French side, was inaugurated in 1972.

From 1943, the United States made Sint Maarten, on the site of the current airport Princess Juliana, an air base to fight German submarines.

Princess Juliana airport, Simpson Bay, Sint Maarten in the Caribbean in 1942

The regional airport of Grand-Case, on the French side, was inaugurated in 1972.

Grand-Case airport in 1972, St. Martin, French West Indies


Femmes arawaks travaillant le coton.

La Belle Creole Hotel in the 80s in St. Martin, French West Indies

In the 1980s, St. Martin | Sint Maarten experienced an extraordinary expansion, due to the increasing popularity of the Americans for this tourist destination to the 39 sandy beaches. The dollar is strong and the island only a few hours by plane from the United States. In 1986, the French tax laws, promulgated to compensate for the structural handicaps of the overseas, make it possible to explode the number of tourist infrastructures. Workers flock to the island and the shops gradually emerge from the ground. Proof of this unprecedented rise in the history of the island, the population on the French side ranges from some 7,000 souls in the late 70's to 28,000 inhabitants in 1990.

In the 1980s, tourist establishments flourished. Here the opening of La Belle Créole in St. Martin in 1985.


Nettle Bay after the passage of hurricane Luis in 1995

The power of the hurricane Luis, which devastated the island, marked a halt to this flourishing period. This natural disaster leaves dozens of deaths, thousands of homeless people and devastates most tourist infrastructures, some of which will never reopen. The island will rise gradually and continue its development, not without rapidly undergoing competition from other tourist destinations that developed in the Caribbean from the year 2000.

Nettle Bay after hurricane cyclone Luis in 1995


On December 7th 2003, citizens of the French side voted in favor of statutory change, the result of long political battles to get rid of the territory of Guadeloupe. On July 15th 2007, the first Territorial Council of the Overseas Collectivity was created, replacing the municipality of Saint-Martin, the departement and the Guadeloupe region. The COM now has many skills to self-administer, except for tax purposes.

On October 10th 2010, after the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles, Sint Maarten also changed its status to become an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Holland and also gain independence.

Hotel de la Collectivité, Saint-Martin, French West Indies
Hotel de la Collectivité, Saint-Martin, French West Indies


Orient Bay beach right after the destructive passage of hurricane Irma in September 6th 2017 on St. Martin | Sint Maarten in the Caribbean

At the dawn of the third decade of the 21st century, the island faces an unprecedented challenge in the history of development over the last 40 years: the reconstruction of the territory of which 95% of the buildings were damaged by Irma. The cataclysmic passage of this major hurricane, even more terrible than Luis, unquestionably opens a new chapter in the economic, social and demographic history of the island, whose main resource remains the tourist activity. With 1.2 million damage estimated by the Caisse Centrale de Réassurance (CCR) for the French territories of Saint-Martin and Saint-Barthélemy alone, the site that opens is titanic and will confront these islands to the need to combine their reviving with a new vision of the issues, not without leading the necessary reflections on the environmental requirements. If the tourist season 2017/2018 seems already condemned, it remains to be seen whether the measures promised by the government will be up to the challenge given the economic challenges and the trauma suffered by the population, faced with a highly degraded living environment.

All the restaurants on the Orient Bay beach have completely disappeared after the devastating passage of Irma ...

At the dawn of the 2020s, the island retains more than ever two faces, St. Martin and Sint Maarten having developed in a radically different way. While a common history binds many families and economic actors, the statutory disparities between the two entities, both at the level of their country of attachment and at European level, complicate cooperation and increase economic distortions. But the North and the South each retain their own vision of the development of their territory by multiplying tax incentives to encourage investment and by making common arrangements to improve cooperation on subjects such as security. Given the population growth, the island’s economy has nevertheless been much domesticated to meet the needs of the local population.