Before Columbus arrived here during his second voyage in 1493, the island had
already been inhabited for some one thousand years.
The first people to settle here were a tribe of Arawak Indians who left their homeland in the Orinoco basin of South America and kept migrating upwards along the chain of islands in the Caribbean.
They gave it the name "Sualouiga" meaning "Land of Salt" for the salt-pans and the brackish water they found here in great abundance. The few fresh water springs around Paradise Peak, Mount William, Billy Folly, and in the Lowlands could only support a small population, and this is where they mainly tended to congregate.
A number of artifacts from this period are to be found preserved in the St.Martin Museum: On the Trail of the Arawaks. The Arawaks were later supplanted by a more aggressive tribe of Indians, the Caribs, who came down from North America and for whom the entire Caribbean is named.
Columbus never actually set foot on the island, but rather claimed it for Spain as he was passing by. He sighted the island on November 11, 1493, the feast of St.Martin, thus giving the island its name. Aside from asserting title to the place, the Spanish never took much interest in St.Martin, so the Dutch, seeking an outpost halfway between their colonies in Brazil and Nieue Amsterdam (now New York), occupied the island in 1631. The Dutch West India Company installed Jan Claeszen van Campen as governor, erected their first fort on the site of Fort Amsterdam, and began to mine salt. Before long, however, the Spanish, who wished to maintain their state monopoly in this essential preservative, became aware of the incursion and in 1633 they recaptured the island, expelling all of the Dutch, who then moved on to occupy Curaçao.
Over the next fifteen years, a number of abortive attempts were made by the Dutch to reclaim their lost possession, notably an assault led by Peter Stuyvesant in 1644 in which the future governor of Nieue Amsterdam lost his leg. The Spanish Commander, who was regularly besieged during this period, asked permission after his last victory to abandon the island, and in 1647 this right was finally conceded to him by the King of Spain. Laborers were brought in from Puerto Rico to dismantle the fortress, and the Spanish set sail, leaving behind, according to legend, a small contingent of French and Dutch who hid on the island and then sent out to neighboring colonies for reinforcements.
How the Dutch and French finally partitioned the island makes for a great story. Supposedly, the two groups held a contest. Starting at Oysterpond on the east coast, they would walk westwards -- the French along the northern edge, the Dutch along the southern -- and where they met they would draw a dividing line across the island. The French set off, having fortified themselves with wine, the Dutch with gin. The ill effects of the gin, however, caused the Dutchmen to stop along the way to sleep off their drunk; consequently, the French were able to cover a much greater distance. In truth, though, the French had a large navy just off shore at the time the treaty was being negotiated, and they were able to win concessions by threat of force. The treaty was signed on top of Mount Concordia in 1648, but despite the reputation for peaceful cohabitation, the border was to change another 16 times until 1815 when the Treaty of Paris fixed the boundaries for good.
The cultivation of sugar cane introduced slavery onto the island, and hundreds of African men, women, and children were imported for this purpose. The French finally abolished slavery on July 12, 1848 -- a date now celebrated as Schoelcher Day. The Dutch slaves were emancipated 15 years later. Following the end of slavery, the island entered a serious depression that lasted until 1939, when the island was declared a duty-free port. The Dutch began developing a tourist industry in the 1950's, but the French didn't take advantage of this opportunity until the 1970's. St.Martin continued its large-scale construction projects throughout the 1980's, but now most of the development has been completed, and great care has been taken to preserve the island's natural resources.
Today, St.Martin is a commune of Guadeloupe which is an overseas department of France. Islanders are entitled to vote in French elections.