(FYI: this is the first in what will likely be many posts that explains the historical significance of a place, rather than shares a funny or enlightening anecdote or focuses on current events. Apologies in advance; sometimes teachers can’t help but teach…even (especially?) when it’s unsolicited!)
Beach vacations stress me out. I know…this is the quintessential first world problem, right? (Also, please bear with me, as high school phrases and vocab have made their way into my daily life…) What I mean to say is that doing nothing isn’t high on my priority list when I travel. I much prefer to have tangible things to see and do; walking around a city, listening to people speak a variety of languages (even better if none of them are English), taking in culture and history and centuries or millennia of those who have lived in these places.
BUT, sometimes, we all need to have nothing to do. It’s good for the soul (and increasingly, also good for the bags under my eyes…), but that’s a hard thing to reckon with, when so many incredible things exist in the world begging to be done. Several months ago, a couple high school friends and I were looking for an excuse to celebrate milestone birthdays, and passport stamps seemed like they would be a necessary part of the trip. Regardless of my initial instincts and hesitations, the Caribbean island of St. Martin was the opportunity we were looking for; historical, beautiful, and not so touristy. The vacation was great; the beaches were beautiful, and the food was a tasty fusion of European and Caribbean cuisine.
Three different perspectives of our little Bay of Grand Case
However, was really interested me was the relationships between these islands and their colonial legacies. I’m always a little uncomfortable in places where the primary source of income for locals is tourism. In locations like Venice and Orlando, where tourists drive the economy, it seems to be less of an issue for me. However, in the Caribbean, and many other places around the world, the legacy of imperialism is visible and lasting, and it was frequently in my thoughts during our time on the island.
Called “The Friendly Island” because of the amiable relationship between its French and Dutch colonizers, St. Martin (or Sint Maarten on the Dutch side) is just south of Anguilla, a British Island, and just north of St. Barth’s, a part of the French collective. As my APUSH children know all too well (Hi guys!), Spain and Portugal began the race to colonize the Caribbean, named after the primary indigenous people there when Spain arrived, the Caribs, and other European empires followed soon after. Columbus and the Spanish were the first to arrive in what would become St. Martin, named after St. Martin of Tours, because Columbus landed there on St. Martin’s feast day, November 11th. The Spanish, though, were not especially interested in maintaining a presence there, and the Dutch landed in the 17th century, to few inhabitants and a flailing Spanish grip. They wanted a stopover between New Amsterdam (soon to be taken by the British, and renamed New York), and their influence in Brazil. However, in 1633, the Spanish, seeing the potential the island offered, as illustrated by the Dutch East India Company which was using the island for salt mining, began a war for control of St. Martin, which they quickly won. The Spanish left for good when they realized 15 years in, that little profit and no great successes were to be found on the island.
Both the Dutch and the French jumped at the chance to again build a presence on the island. Wanting to prevent another prolonged war, the nations signed an agreement in 1648 which divided the island, and they’ve lived happily ever after…sort of (a few border skirmishes here and there are totally normal, right James K. Polk?!). Like many Caribbean islands, the climate of St. Martin was good for producing sugar cane, so African slavery also came to the island in the 18th century, and was abolished by both the French and Dutch sides in 1848.
The harbor from the top of Fort Louis, looking at the French capitol of Marigot
Fort Louis is the most visible reminder (in addition to the language, food, and Gendarmerie, among other things…) of the French colonial presence on half of the island. Today, St. Martin is part of the French collectivity; its citizens pay French taxes, vote in French elections, and celebrate French Independence Day (14 July 1789, in case you were wondering). The Dutch half is still a part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, but since 2010, is an independent country, with its own currency, constitution, and government (think: Canada to Great Britain). There is no “border” between the French and Dutch halves (imagine that…), and the monument to their peaceful coexistence and the island’s license plates are the only reminders that you’ve crossed from one “nation” to the other; well, those and the aforementioned passport stamps!
The French and Sint Maarten flags at the monument to peaceful coexistenceI
It is the smallest landmass in the world shared by two countries, and over 120 nationalities can be found on the island. If that’s not a case for successful recognition and tolerance of diversity, I don’t know what would be. Also, in 2014, it had more gaming machines per capita than any other country in the world.. So…I’m sure there’s a lesson in that somewhere too. 😉