St Maarten St Martin History

First Inhabitants of the Caribbean island

St Maarten – St Martin used to be called Soualiga, salt lands, by the Amerindians.
The Caribbean island of Sint Maarten and its neighbour islands of Saint Barts and Anguilla once formed one very large island.

The Anguilla Bank outlines the shape and size of this former land mass of about 1795 square miles (4650 km2) of which only 96 square miles (250 km2 lies) above sea level.

Through the melting of the polar ice in the glacial era in the North, the sea level rose gradually to about 120 feet, flooding the lowlands and dividing this large mass into the three islands of St Martin, Anguilla and Saint Barthelemy.


Several sites on the island prove the existence of Amerindian presence on the island. Dr. Hartog mentions six known sites on St Maarten island and Mrs Conner discovered others.
The latest discoveries by the brothers Petit might shed some new light on this pre-colombian era.


The Arawaks and Caribs

The Arawaks and Caribs roamed these islands between 800 an 1500 A.D.
The Arawaks were gentle, settled, peaceful people and lived from vegetables, fruit and seafood. Beautiful pieces of pottery were found at different sites on St Martin island such as Cupecoy, Simpson Bay, French Quarter and Pic Paradis.
The Caribs who came later to the islands of Anguilla, St Barts and Sint Maarten chased the Arawaks away. They were hunters, “ate their captives and enslaved the females”. These Caribs were new to the region and had been preceded by various tribes often more advanced than they were.


Christopher Columbus and St Maarten

On November 10th, 1493 Christopher Columbus weighed anchor and sailing with his feet towards the North West from Guadeloupe in search of Hispaniola, he discovered several islands. On the 11th of November 1493, Soualiga was renamed Saint Martin in honor of Saint Martin de Tours because it was his feast day.
Other European countries such as England, Holland and France followed the example of Spain and came to the Caribbean.
In the beginning of the 17th century the French, were forced out from Saint Kitts island by the Spaniards and took refuge in St Martin.
They formed the first European permanent settlement on the island. They picked salt in Grand Case and cultivated tobacco in French Quarter. Soon they built Fort Louis in Marigot in order to protect their harvest.

Soualiga, the Amerindian name for St Maarten meaning Land of Salt is appropriate since salt has been the longest sustained industrial effort on the caribbean island.
Salt is the main reason why the Dutch settled here in 1631, making Sint Maarten the first Dutch colony in the Caribbean.
The Dutch lost no time and within a few months they had salt picked in the Great Salt Pond of Philipsburg, cleaned and ready to ship to Holland.
Their first homes were built and by 1632 they had a built Fort Amsterdam protecting the Great Bay entrance fromPirates.

The Dutch not known as settlers but as traders were doing well and soon were trading salt and tobacco produced by the French colony as well.

In 1633 the Spaniards returned and kicked out both the French and Dutch from the island.
In 1644 Peter Stuyvesant, who later became Director of New Amsterdam (now New York) led a force of 800 Dutch soldiers and tried to re capture the island, but besides loosing the battle, he also lost his leg. Spain whose main interest was gold, did very little to make life livable on the island. In 1648 the Spaniards left the island.

After a struggle between the French and the Dutch an agreement was reached on the division of the Land of Salt.
On March 23rd, 1648 on Mount Concordia (Mont des Accords), the partition Treaty was signed, justifying the presence of the French and the Dutch and dividing the Caribbean island into 2 colonies. This agreement, signed by Commander Martin Thomas and Robert de Lonvilliers, has made peaceful co-existence possible for over 3 centuries. The monument on the boundary-line commemorates the success of this event.


How St Maarten and St Martin were divided

A British satirist tells the following legend of how the French came into possession of the larger part of the island. Each commander selected a strong man from his forces. They were placed back to back at a fixed spot and ordered to march around the island in opposite directions. Where they met again would settle the opposite end of the boundary line. The Frenchman took his water bottle and stick and departed. The Dutchman also took his water bottle and stick, but carried along, on the sly, a flask of good old Dutch gin.

As they continued their journey, the Frenchman quenched his thirst with water, but the Dutchman added a rightful portion of gin to his. Overcome by the heat, he stopped to take a nap in the shade of a tree and fell sound asleep. His opponent in the meantime advanced several miles in his own direction, which proved detrimental to the Dutch. This is the reason why the northern French part of the island is larger.


Sint Maarten and Saint Martin afterwards

From the time of the Caribs, who called the island Soualiga, land of salt, Saint Martin was primarily known for its salt. Salt was badly needed for Hollands’s herring industry and after the defeat of Portugal by Spain 1580, the Portuguese salt pans were no longer available for the Dutch, due to the fact that Holland and Spain were at war with each other. This is the reason the Dutch came to Sint Maarten. Until approximately 1940 salt was the main export product, besides fish and lobster. St Maarten’s salt was exported to all parts of the world: Holland, U.S.A., Canada and South America.

The women cleaned the salt until it became white. Men broke up the salt and put it on flat-bottomed boats (flats), and pushed the flats to the edge of the pond, where-after the women carried the salt on their heads in baskets to the big piles of salt in Backstreet Philipsburg.

Afterwards workers filled bags and the salt was put on oxcarts and taken to the beach and then to small boats, which took the salt to the schooners in the Great Bay Harbour.

The same happened in Grand Case St Martin. Sometimes there were two yields a year. All depended on the rainfall. In the 18th and 19th century sugarcane and cotton were the most important crops on the island and fields of sugarcane and cotton covered the hills. Rockwell’s built from rocks obtained when the land was cleared, divided the parcels. They can still be seen in many districts on the island, such as: Dutch and French Cul de Sac, Fort Willem Hill and Upper Princess Quarter.

There were 35 sugar mills on the Dutch Side compared to 27 on the French side.


St Maarten and St Martin since the end of World War II

After the 1950’s the tourist industry grew to life. First on the Dutch side of St Maarten and later on the French side of St Martin. Tourism and tourism related activities are the main source of income for the tiny Caribbean island.

Cruise tourism and St Maarten hotels resorts tourism are steadily growing. The friendly, always sunny island of St Maarten attracts many tourists yearly through the friendliness of its people, the attractive duty free shops in Philipsburg and Marigot, the luxurious hotels and casinos, the snowy white beaches and light blue crystal clear waters. 

The official currency is the Dutch Antillean guilder on the Dutch side and the Euro on the French side, but the U.S. dollar is still the most usual means of payment on both sides of the island.


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