story of St. Maarten begins far to the south, in a region of
the Amazon jungle known as the Orinoco river basin. It was from
here that the island's first inhabitants--the Arawaks--migrated
about a thousand years ago. They island-hopped north through
the Caribbean, living peacefully off the bounty of the surrounding
sea. The Arawaks who came to St. Maarten called their new home "Sualouiga," or "Land
of Salt," naming it after the island's abundant salt pans.
The tranquility of the Arawaks would not last
for long. They were followed by another Amazonian group, the Caribs.
A warrior people, the Caribs steadily pushed the Arawaks off St.
Maarten and took the island for themselves--only to lose it in
turn to the Europeans. Christopher Columbus sighted the island
on November 11, 1493, the holy day of St. Martin of Tours. He claimed
it for Spain the same day, and it is from this day that the island
bears its name.
with the greater conquests of Mexico and South America, the Spanish
ignored St. Maarten. It was virtually forgotten by Europeans until
the 1620s, when Dutch settlers began extracting salt from St. Maarten's
ponds and exporting it back to the Netherlands. The island's commercial
possibilities soon caught the attention of the Spanish, who drove
off the Dutch in 1633 and erected a fort to assert their authority.
Known as the Old Spanish Fort, this bastion still stands at Point
Blanche. In 1644, a Dutch fleet under the command of Peter Stuyvesant
attempted unsuccessfully to retake the island. Stuyvesant, who
later became governor of New Amsterdam (present-day New York),
lost a leg to a Spanish cannonball during the fighting. Although
Stuyvesant was buried in New York, his leg rests in a cemetery
Events in Europe soon affected the island's destiny.
With the end of the Eighty Years' War between Spain and the Netherlands,
the Spanish no longer needed a base in the Caribbean. They left
St. Maarten, and the island was soon claimed by both the French
(who sailed over from St. Kitts) and the Dutch (from St. Eustatius).
After some skirmishes, the two powers signed a treaty in 1648 which
divided the island between them. Although its historical truth
is somewhat less than ironclad, local legend claims that a Dutchman
and Frenchman stood back to back and walked in opposite directions
around the shoreline, drawing the boundary from the spot where
they met. As for why the French ended up with more land, the story
notes the Dutchman's progress was slowed by the large quantity
of Geneve that he required for the walk.
The neighbours did not coexist peacefully at
first, and the territory changed hands sixteen times between 1648
and 1816. Nonetheless, the Dutch side of the island soon became
an important trading center for salt, cotton, and tobacco. Wealth
also arrived with the establishment of sugar plantations, worked
by slave labor. When slavery was abolished in the mid-19th century,
the plantations closed down and St. Maarten's prosperity ended.
For the next one hundred years, the island sank into an economic
situation began to change in 1939, when all import and export
taxes were rescinded and the island became a free port. Princess
Juliana International Airport opened in 1943, and four years
later the island's first hotel, the Sea View, welcomed its first
guests. In the next few decades, St. Maarten boomed as an international
trading and tourism center. Today, Dutch St. Maarten has nearly
3,000 hotel rooms and is visited by hundreds of thousands of
people each year.