St. Martin history

History of St. Martin

Like most other Caribbean islands, St. Martin was first inhabited by a succession of native indian groups, most notably the Arawak and Carib tribes from South America, before European exploration began in the 15th century. Christopher Columbus was the first European to set eyes on St. Martin, though he never landed there, during his second voyage in 1493. Naming the island after the day he first spotted it, the feast day of St. Martin, Columbus claimed St. Martin for Spain and kept on sailing. Initially, Spain took little interest in their new territory, leaving St. Martin to be occupied by the Dutch who used it as an outpost between their New World holdings in Brazil and New Amsterdam (now New York). It was also at this time that a small band of French families set up a colony on St. Martin, beginning what would become a centuries-long history of peaceful coexistence between the two cultures. It was only when the Spanish realized St. Martin was being successfully mined for salt by the Dutch that they renewed their interest in the island and expelled the Dutch in the early 17th century.

Dutch and French forces made several attempts to reclaim St. Martin over the course of the 17th century, finally convincing the Spanish commander in charge of St. Martin to request a leave from the island. In 1648 a treaty was signed by the Netherlands and France, splitting St. Martin between the two powers. Because of its superior navy, France received 21 square miles of territory, while the Netherlands took charge of the remaining 16 square miles. Squabbles over the next decades, however, meant that today's borders on St. Martin were only implemented in 1817.

A plantation-based economy brought African laborers to St. Martin throughout the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries, from whom most of today's residents of St. Martin descend. Though spiraling economic conditions brought an end to slavery in St. Martin in 1848, with St. Maarten following suit in 1863, the entire island remained in a depression until midway through the 20th century. It was then that St. Martin began focusing on tourism for economic revitalization; by rescinding import and export taxes the island became a duty-free port and visitors started to trickle in. The construction of an international airport on St. Martin opened the floodgates and tourism flourished over the next few decades, propelling the creation of new restaurants, hotels, and gift stores. The population of St. Martin rose dramatically as new jobs in the industry encouraged former residents to move back and lured residents of other Caribbean islands seeking economic opportunity. Today, the multicultural people of St. Martin enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the region, buoyed in most part by the thousands of tourists who now visit St. Martin every year.

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