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The History of St. Maarten & St. Martin

History of St. Maarten and St. Martin

The history of the Caribbean is filled with stories of colonial imperialism where islands changed hands from country to country. St. Maarten was no ace in the imperial holdings, but had its share of skirmishes and smoky gun battles, which caused the island to change hands many times between the Spanish, Dutch, English and French powers.

Around 800 AD the island was inhabited by Arawak Indians who arrived from South America to settle down to a life of fishing, hunting and farming, as many of its neighbors.The Arawaks were not alone, however. They were followed in the 14th century by a much more war-like tribe, the cannibalistic Carib Indians. These new arrivals are the ones who gave the region its name, and knew St. Maarten as Soualiga, or “Land of Salt” after its main mineral deposit.

The remains of the Great Salt Pond can still be seen in Philipsburg today. According to the legend, Christopher Columbus sighted Soualiga on the 11th of November in the year 1493, the holiday of St. Martin of Tours, and he named the island after him - hence the name St. Maarten. On the 11th of November the island celebrates to this day, St. Maarten’s Day. Although Columbus sighted and named the island, the Spanish made no initial attempt to settle here. Around the year 1630 the Dutch and French established small settlements on the island. The Spanish must have not taken too well to this settlement -they saw it as a threat to their influence in the region and attacked the island- driving out both the Dutch and French settlements.The Dutch and French joined forces to repel the Spanish, and finally achieved this goal around 1644 when the Spanish finally abandoned their claims to the Eastern Caribbean altogether.

After driving out the Spanish, the Dutch and French signed an accord (in 1648) and agreed to divide the island. Over the next few years, the boundary was the subject of numerous disputes, which were not settled until 1817. In this timeframe the island changed hands between the two powers 16 times.


The cultural diversity of St. Maarten springs from its historical role as a crossroads for visitors to the New World. Dutch, French and British traders brought European traditions, while the Africans brought the language and culture of West Africa.

Today the range of influences is reflected in the number of languages spoken and the many different nationalities. St. Maarten’s premier cultural event is its annual Carnival, which includes parades, calypso competitions, reggae shows, and an endless array of stands serving traditional island food. Guavaberry is the legendary folk liqueur of Sint Maarten/St. Martin. It was first made centuries ago in private homes from fine oak-aged rum, cane sugar and wild St. Maarten Guavaberries. The rare fruit is found high in the warm hills in the center of the island. The liqueur became an integral part of local culture and tradition. It is a cherished symbol of the olden days. There are folk songs & stories about it.


The economy of St. Maarten is based almost entirely on tourism. It is estimated that 85% of all employment is related directly and/or indirectly to tourism. Nearly everyone speaks English and the U.S. Dollar is accepted everywhere. More than a dozen Cruise lines regularly call on St. Maarten and daily scheduled flights and charters from the various continents make it one of the Caribbean’s most popular destinations. In addition to tourism, the other major forms of economic activity are financial services and trade with the neighboring islands.


St. Maarten along with Curaçao, Bonaire, Saba and St. Eustatius was for years a part of the Netherlands Antilles, which was dissolved 10/10/10. St. Maarten is now an independent country within the kingdom of the Netherlands, somewhat similar to Aruba.

The French Side, formerly a Department of Guadeloupe, is moving away from that political structure and toward closer ties with the European Union. There is no discussion whatsoever about "uniting" the island as one country.

Updated August 30, 2011

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