What Should I Know About Saint Martin?

Brendan McGuigan

Saint Martin is a small island in the Caribbean. It covers 37 square miles (87 sq. km), with that area split roughly in half between the countries of France and the Netherlands. The island is part of the Leeward Islands, and is located about 185 miles (300 km) from Puerto Rico.

A portrait of Christopher Columbus, who claimed Saint Martin for Spain in 1493.
A portrait of Christopher Columbus, who claimed Saint Martin for Spain in 1493.

Saint Martin was first settled around 1500 BCE by the Ciboney people, although they likely died out within a few centuries. The island was later resettled by the Arawaks in the 9th century. In the 13th century the Caribs arrived on the island, killing and displacing most of the Arawak population, and claiming Saint Martin for their own.

The waters off Saint Martin are popular with scuba divers.
The waters off Saint Martin are popular with scuba divers.

In 1493, Columbus sighted Saint Martin and claimed it for Spain, but none of his ships landed on the island. Both the French and the Dutch soon became interested in the island, the Dutch as a convenient resupplying island for the trip between what is now New York and Brazil, and the French to control the islands between Bermuda and Trinidad.

The Dutch established the first settlement on the island in the early-17th century, building a fort and beginning salt mining operations. The British and French followed suit with their own settlements, although the Dutch were the main power on the island. The Spanish and the Dutch had been at war for some time, in the Eighty Years’ War, and the Spanish used this as a pretext to attempt to reclaim the island. The Spanish drove the Dutch out, built their own fort, and lay claim to the island.

When the Eighty Years’ War ended, however, the Spanish quickly lost interest in maintaining the island, and abandoned it in the mid-17th century. Both the French and the Dutch returned to the island immediately, and both re-established bases there. After initial skirmishes, it became apparent that neither side would cede the island to the other, and as the country’s had relatively friendly relations, an arrangement was made to split the island in two. Although fairly equitable, a large French fleet off the coast ensured that the French wound up with the better end of the deal, and the larger portion of territory. For the next hundred and fifty years skirmishes would continue to occur along the border, which would shift slightly after each battle.

Slaves were soon imported to the island to foster new crops of tobacco and sugar, and the island’s economy and population boomed. When slavery was finally abolished in the mid-19th century, the economy entered a slump that lasted until the island was made a free economic port in the late 1930's.

The tourist industry on Saint Martin has been steadily developed on the Dutch side of the island since the 1950s, and on the French side since the 1970s. As a result, the island has a well-developed and substantial tourist infrastructure. Generally the Dutch side of the island is referred to as Sint Maarten, while the French side is referred to as Saint Martin.

Both sides of the island offer lush greenery, beautiful sandy beaches, and amazing diving and snorkeling. The Dutch side of the island is generally more developed, with more posh hotels, a livelier nightlife, and more guided tours. The French side offers a few unique sights, such as an educational butterfly farm where you can view huge amounts of butterflies and learn about their habits, and an archaeological museum showcasing the island’s Arawak and Carib history.

Flights arrive daily on the Dutch side of the island from a number of international hubs. Small flights also arrive regularly from other Caribbean islands, particularly Martinique and Saint Barthelemy. Ferries, catamarans, and boats also connect the island to Saint Barthelemy, Anguilla, and Saba.

Saint Martin has beautiful sandy beaches.
Saint Martin has beautiful sandy beaches.

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