Activities and Emigration

The old-time St Martiners were constituted mostly of a materially poor people and a very small group of wealthy natives. The small population base was not entirely stable since emigration in search of work or to live permanently abroad was not infrequent after Emancipation in July 1848. During the hated slave system, from the early 1600s to the mid-1800s, the island’s Black majority toiled as slaves, mostly in the salt ponds and to a lesser degree on the sugar cane, cotton and minor export crop plantations. At various times within the Traditional Period the majority of St Martiners worked seasonally picking salt in the Great Salt Pond and Grand Case Salt Pond. Some of the folk farmed their own small grounds or gardens or leased smaller plots from mid-size to larger land owners or from government for basic food stuff. Others worked for the few very large estate-owning families in agriculture and animal husbandry. The majority of the masses included fishermen, maids, market vendors, small shopkeepers, teachers, and folk musicians. Often one person worked in one or more fields according to his or her talent and skills and the community’s needs.

From the late 1800s to the early 1960s, the income of many families was supplemented by monies from relatives that worked seasonally or for years as unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled migrant laborers and employees on sugarcane estates, at shipyards, in factories and in wealthy homes, in construction, at oil refineries, in stores, hospitals, hotels, schools and as bus drivers and mechanics in transportation among other job areas in the Dominican Republic, Curaçao, St Croix, Aruba, Guadeloupe, the United states, and the Netherlands.

In old St Martin, the well-do natives tended to own shops, raise cattle on their comparatively larger estates for domestic milk and meat and for export. Government officials such as the mayor and high ranking civil servants, whether native or sent from France, the Netherlands, Guadeloupe or Curaçao were part of the materially better-off folk. More often than not, business people and officials were related by blood or socially—and not infrequently by blood to the less well off majority. The business people and government officials enjoyed some form of the available and affordable services and material comforts such as housemaids, a greater abundance of domestic and imported foodstuff, household utensils and toys for their children, a more fashionable variety of clothing both from the island’s clothes makers and from countries and territories such as the United States of America(USA), the Dominicn Republic, Cuba and Trinidad, and more than one means of transportation. The richer folks were able to travel more often for business and pleasure, and send their children to Guadeloupe, Curaçao, Puerto Rico and elsewhere in the Caribbean, the USA, Canada and Europe to boarding schools and universities or to follow career-training courses at technical college The islanders went to sleep between eight and nine o’clock at night in Great Bay and Marigot, and even earlier in some villages and hamlets. At dusk, the lamps were lit in the house and following dinnertime, which was around seven o’clock in the evening, families, sometimes joined by neighbors, gathered in the living room, on the porch, steps or in the front doorway or yard of the house for nansi stories.

Each village and each family had its best or favourite storyteller who brought alive the traditional folktales. Many of the very entertaining morality-based stories, like those about the exploits of brer rabbit, had travelled from Africa with the enslaved ancestors of the majority of St Martin’s people or had survived the evils of slavery as variations of the original tales. The variations and new story constructs, such as the tale of the champion sticklicker or stick-fighter from Rambaud and the still popular souccanaire and other jumbie stories, had in fact become the new original folktales from St Martin and other Caribbean nations. The traditional storytime, whether inside the home, on the porch, on the rockwall, under a tree in the village or at a larger gathering on full moon nights, was also an ideal social etting in which family and village histories and customs were passed on to successive generations.

Dissemination of News

The dissemination of news and information, whether it was personal, familial, professional, trade or official, was not only passed on to successive generations of the small population during the old storytime. In the North, from the 1930s until his transfer to Guadeloupe in 1946, the policeman, Mr Jean Charles Delaney, travelled between the town of Marigot and the villages to make government announcements. He would summon the people by beating a marching band-type drum that was strapped around his neck. The policeman struck the drum with two sticks until the villagers had gathered around him for the news, which he would read from an official document or deliver from memory. Throughout the first half of the 1900s, and even well into the 1960s, the place for men together in the afternoon and discuss just about everything from the latest melee to world news, was on the Lazy Bay rockwall, across from the beginning of Main Street, Marigot. After the 1950s and into the 1960s, anyone in possession of a Zenith brand radio made sure to catch the news on a daily basis in order to share with friends and family. Apart from the short-lived and intermittent newspapers in the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, the island’s news about birth, festive and sporting activity, politics, travel, educational and social achievements, marriage, illness and death circulated mostly by word of mouth from 1848 right up to 1959, the year that the Windward Islands’ Opinion was founded as the island’s first modern and long-lived newspaper.

Monrey, Work, and Solidarity

In traditional St Martin, cash money, such as the French franc, US dollar and the guilder, was in short supply. The people exchanged or bartered much, especially food stuff and work skills, and particularly so during the last half of the 1800s—following the Emancipation from slavery in July 1848.

The St Martin people were hard working and resourceful for their families and helpful to each other. A major and practical part of the people’s work ethic and cooperative society was Jollification, the tradition that combined work and merriment for the benefit of a family member, friend, the community as a whole or one’s self. Jollification often took place on a Sunday, when men from one or more villages would come together to help a neighbour, friend or family member build his home while the women cooked the food for the workers. Jollification represented the most consistent and practical highpoint of the prevailing sense of communal togetherness where the give-and-take custom and “law for one law for all” philosophy were much in practice. Even while the little cash that was circulating began to increase noticeably as exchange for goods and services after the 1930s, Jollification continued as a force well up to the 1950s, and variations of it remain a rare but meaningful feature of modern St Martin.

The unity and feeling of solidarity within and between villages extended integrally between the people from the French-side (North) and Dutch-side (South) in a striking way, but it was not an accident of history, nor a creation of the European colonialism that still control the island. The people from the Northern and Southern parts of St Martin were intermarrying, even if without the sanction of church and government during slavery days, what Sekou calls the Survivalist Period (1648-1848). Throughout the Traditional Period, the mass of the people continued to follow the same destiny, forming one big family, the close-knit Caribbean village society. People from both sides sailed to the Dominican Republic, Curaçao and Aruba to seek employment. A number of St Martiners with the Dutch nationality acknowledged St Martiners with the French nationality between the 1920s and the 1950s in order for them to travel for schooling and work in Curaçao and Aruba, both Dutch colonies in the Caribbean. During the first quarter of the 1900s, St Martiners from the South in search of work walked over Marigot Hill to the Marigot wharf to catch boats sailing to the Dominican Republic and the US Virgin Islands.

As far as travelling was concerned, even in sports St Martiners “plunged the ocean” together when football and cricket players and cockfighters from the North and South united to represent their island during competitions abroad. But the traditional St Martin sense and practice of that communal togetherness that crisscrossed the French and Dutch frontier began to change significantly when boths parts of the island became far more dependent on or involved in the constitutional and political laws and structures and economic activities linking Marigot and Philipsburg respectively to Basse-Terre, Guadeloupe and Willemstad, Curaçao—both subject territories themselves and the colonial administrative centers in the region for France and the Netherlands respectively. The post-World War II changes that were being forced on European colonialism by world events, also meant that France and the Netherlands had to devise new administrative systems for their colonies, and the unique cooperativeness of the St Martin people would be adversely affected from at least the 1950s onward.

The people of old St Martin were mostly poor in their physical or material living standards, yet they lived and expressed a high quality of social relationships with one another for over 100 years following Emancipation and during the absence of the full weight of dependency on French and Dutch colonial administrations. The year 1963 would mark the last moments of the island’s pastoral period. The gradual emergence of “Modern St Martin” was becoming materially more visible and the old way of life was about to become past history.

kquote> Daniella JEFFRY
From 1963: A Landmark Year in St Martin (2003)