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 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 the 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!
On March 23, 1648, France and the Dutch Republic agreed to divide the island between their two nations, with the signing of the Treaty of Concordia.
Folklore surrounds the history of the once ever-changing border division between Sint Maarten and St. Martin, and a popular story among locals narrates that “to divide the island in two sections, (in 1648) the inhabitants were told to choose two walkers, one chosen by the French-dominated community and the other one by the Dutch-dominated community, who were put back to back in one extreme of the island, making them walk in opposite directions while stuck to the litoral line, and not allowing them to run. The point where they eventually met was set as the other extreme of the island, and the subsequently created line was chosen as the frontier, dividing Saint-Martin from Sint Maarten.
Seemingly, the French walker had walked more than his Dutch counterpart (each one earned his land, respectively, 54 km² and 32 km²). As the first man chose wine as his stimulant prior to the race, while the latter chose Jenever (Dutch Gin), the difference between such beverages’ lightness was said to be the cause of the territorial differences by French locals, while Dutch locals tended to blame the French walker for running.”
In 1994, the Kingdom of the Netherlands and France signed the Franco-Dutch treaty on Saint Martin border controls, which allows for joint Franco-Dutch border controls on so-called “risk flights”. After some delay, the treaty was ratified in November 2006 in the Netherlands, and subsequently entered into force on 1 August 2007. Though the treaty is now in force, its provisions are not yet implemented as the working group specified in the treaty is not yet installed.