In 1493, Christopher Columbus embarked on his second voyage to the New World. According to legend, Columbus sighted and perhaps anchored at the island of Saint Martin on November 11, 1493, the feast day of Saint Martin of Tours. In his honor, Columbus named the island San Martin. This name was translated to Sint Maarten (Dutch), Saint-Martin (French) and “Saint Martin” in English.
At Columbus’s time, St. Martin was populated, if populated at all, by Carib Amerindians. The former Arawaks had been chased by the Caribs coming from the North coast of South America a short time before the arrival of the Spaniards who followed in Columbus’ wake. The Arawaks were agricultural people who fashioned pottery and whose social organization was headed by hereditary chieftains who derived their power from personal deities called zemis.
The Caribs’ territory was not completely conquered until the mid-17th century when most of them perished in the struggle between the French, English, Dutch, Danes and Spanish for control of the West Indies.
The Dutch first began to ply the island’s ponds for salt in the 1620s. Despite the Dutch presence on the island, the Spaniards recaptured St. Martin in 1633 and, one year later, built a fort (now Ft. Amsterdam) and another artillery battery at Pointe Blanche to assert their claim and control access to Great bay salt pond. The Spaniards introduced the first African slaves to the area in the 16th century but the main influx of African slaves took place in the 18th century with the development of Sugarcane plantations by the French Protestants and Dutch. Slavery was abolished in the first half of the 19th century, whereupon on some of their territories the British imported Chinese and East Indians to take the place of slaves. Thus, St. Martin and the other islands are populated by a mixture of Amerindian, European, African, Indians and Asian peoples. West Indian cultures such as in St. Martin are, consequently, exceedingly rich and varied!