About St. Martin/St. Maarten
Christopher Columbus sighted and may have anchored on St. Martin on November 11, 1493, the feast day of Saint Martin of Tours. Columbus named the island San Martin in his honor. The island may have been populated by Arawak or Carib Indians at that time. The fierce Caribs were able to suppress the Arawaks before the arrival of the Spanish who followed in Columbus’ wake. While the Arawaks were a relatively cultured, agricultural people, the Caribs concentrated on warfare. They killed and, according to legend, ate the Arawak men, and then married the Arawak women.
As the Spanish overtook the island, they put the “Indians” to work. The Caribs’ territory was completely conquered by the mid-17th century, when most of them perished in the struggle between the French, English, Dutch, Danes, and Spanish for control of the West Indies. Over the next fifteen years, the Dutch attempted to reclaim their possession a number of times. In one notable assault led by Peter Stuyvesant in 1644, the future governor of New Amsterdam (now New York) lost his leg. The Spanish Commander asked permission after his last victory to abandon the island, and in 1647 this request was granted by the King of Spain. The Spanish set sail, and, according to legend, left behind a small contingent of Dutch and French who had hid on the island.
On March 23, 1648, the French and Dutch agreed to divide the island in the Treaty of Concordia, which has the distinction of being the oldest treaty still in force today. According to legend, the island was divided by a contest. The two groups started at Oyster Pond on the east coast, and each walked westward – the French along the northern coast, and the Dutch along the southern – and where they met would draw a dividing line across the island. The French set off with a stock of wine, and the Dutch with gin. The ill effects of the gin caused the Dutch to stop along the way to sleep off their drink, which allowed the French to cover a much greater distance. In reality, the French were able to win more land by threat of force from their naval presence in the region. The Dutch received 16 square miles, and the French received 21 square miles. The boundaries changed another 16 times until 1815 when the Treaty of Paris fixed the boundaries for good.
A major influx of African slaves took place in the late 1700s to support St. Martin’s sugar cane plantations. The island’s economy thrived as long as the colonial slave system was intact, but when slavery was abolished (in 1848 on the French side, 1863 on the Dutch side), St. Martin entered a serious depression. In 1939 the island was declared a duty-free port, and in the 1950s the Dutch began to develop their tourism industry.
The opening of Princess Juliana Airport a decade later greatly increased travel to the island, and many large-scale properties and casinos were developed over the next few decades. Thankfully, most of the construction projects have been completed now, and great care has been taken to preserve the island’s natural resources.