St. Martin St. Maarten history

St.Maarten - St.Martin is the smallest country in the world to be divided between two sovereign powers, the current boundary a result of numerous wars between the great European powers in the 17th century. Ownership of the island is split between the Dutch and French, yet no rift exists between the peoples of these two cultures. In fact, the island's inhabitants are quite proud of their nearly 350-year history of peaceful co-existence.

According to legend, Christopher Columbus discovered the island in 1493 on the feast day of St.Martin of Tours. During the 140 years that followed, the Spanish, French and Dutch disputed possession, or at least the right to use the resources of St.Maarten/St.Martin. In the late 1620s, the Dutch first began to ply the island's ponds for salt, so important to the herring industry back home.

Despite the Dutch presence on the island, the Spaniards recaptured St.Maarten/St.Martin in 1633 and one year later built a fort at Point Blanche to assert their claim. Eleven years later, Peter Stuyvesant, director of the Dutch West India Company based on Curacao, led an attack on the Spanish position on St.Maarten/ St.Martin. He lost a leg in the battle, earning the nick name Peg Leg, and later went on to become the Governor of the New Amsterdam, better known today as New York. After a month of futile fighting, the Dutch retreated.

As a reward for successfully defending the island, the Spanish commander was granted his request that he and his men be allowed to leave. Legend has it that five French and five Dutch prisoners escaped and stayed behind. These Frenchmen and Dutchmen were the first of their respective countrymen to share the island. They contacted their home governments through settlements on St.Eustastius and St.Kitts, bringing contingents from both countries to St.Maarten/St.Martin. After a period of uneasiness with neither side really gaining the military advantage, a truce was enjoined.

On March 23, 1648, a treaty was concluded atop Mount Concordia delineating the boundaries of the island. The Dutch received 16 square miles and the French received 21 square miles, owing to the latter's naval presence in the region when the treaty was signed.

The French and Dutch were not always as neighborly as they are today - the territory underwent 16 changes of flags from 1648 to 1816, with France, Holland and even Britain claiming it at times.

The establishment of sugarcane plantations during the late 1700s inevitably brought with it slavery. The exploitative colonial system remained intact and prospered so long as there were slaves; however, once slavery was abolished (in 1848 on the French side and in 1863 on the Dutch), St.Maarten/St.Martin's economy suffered greatly. The island became mired in a depression that lasted until 1939, when all import and export taxes were rescinded and the island became a free port.

Thereafter, St.Maarten/St.Martin developed as a hub of trade in the Caribbean; the most dramatic advances came in the 1950s, made possible by the opening of the Princess Juliana Airport a decade earlier. The next few decades saw the development of many large-scale properties and casinos on the Dutch side of the island. The French side began to develop rapidly in the 1980s with the passage of a new tax law known as fiscalization. Naturally, more cruise ships began to visit and today, the island's appeal is stronger than ever.

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