St Martin: A Short History of the World at War

The history of Saint-Martin/Sint Maarten in the centuries immediately before and after Columbus’ first voyage could be taken to illustrate the fate of most of the Lesser Antilles: the island was inhabited by Amerindians, likely, Eastern Taínos, who called the place Sualouiga, apparently “Land of Salt.” On his second voyage, Columbus landed with a 17-boat, 1000-man strong fleet on November 3, 1493 in what he named Santa María la Galante, (present-day Marie-Galante), from where he sailed northwesterly along the Caribbean atoll. He would not stop on every island, but he did claim each sighted place for the Spanish Crown, giving them Christian names. On November 12, the feast of Martin of Tours, he named an island after the saint. Today, it is generally thought that such island was actually Nevis, and that the name was given to present-day Saint-Martin/Sint Maarten by mistake in a map of the region, sometime later. Be that as it may, this was of little importance towards the beginning of the 16th century, when Spain, undisputed master of the seas, was too busy colonizing mainland territories in North and South America to waste its time with the smaller islands.

Dutch West India Company flag. Photo:

It is thought that the first European settlers to reach Saint-Martin/Sint Maarten were French runaways arrived in 1629 from St. Kitts (then Sainte-Christophe), although the Dutch might already have plundered the island for salt. By then, the hegemony of Spain in Europe was in decline, and it was the Dutch Republic of the Seventeen Provinces, following its secession from the Spanish Crown in 1581, which was on the rise. The Dutch West India Company established the colony of New Amsterdam (later New York) in 1624, landed a major coup by abducting a large Spanish convoy in 1628, and seized possession of the settlement of Pernambuco, in Brazil, from Portugal in 1630. In search of a middle point between the two colonies, and of a strategic spot wherefrom to further loot Spanish naval expeditions, the Dutch established new posts in the Caribbean, the first of which was Sint Maarten. They arrived in the island in 1631, built Fort Amsterdam overlooking Great Bay, and developed a nascent salt-picking industry, before the Spanish, concerned for the safety of their convoys, raided the area and ridded it of foreign settlements.

Fort Amsterdam. Photo:

The Spanish built a fort on the other end of Great Bay, by Point Blanche, and remained in the island until 1648, when the Peace of Münster ended the 80-year conflict between Spain and the Dutch Republic. With no further strategic use for the settlement and little interest in the potential of the salt industry, the Spanish dismantled their fort and departed the island for good, leaving behind groups of Dutch and French independent laborers who had taken part in the demolition of the fort. After some negotiations, officials from Sint Eustatius and Saint-Christophe respectively signed the Partition Treaty, which still today is know as the Concordia Agreement.

Legend has it that the French and the Dutch have coexisted peacefully in Saint-Martin/Sint Maarten since. The truth, however, is far more complex, and less amenable, than that: the French portion of the island changed hands as soon as 1653, when Philippe de Longvilliers de Poincy, Lieutenant Governor of the French West Indies, acquired Saint-Christophe, Saint-Barthélemy, Saint-Martin and Saint-Croix for the Order of the Knights of Malta for 120,000 livres. Governed under a single, extravagant administration, the experiment was far from successful, at a time when the order itself was going through turmoil. Consequently, the islands were sold back to the French West India Company in 1664. Eight years later, war broke out between the Dutch Republic and France (Franco-Dutch War, 1672-1678).

Charles II from England saw the opportunity to take revenge from the Dutch for the embarrassment of the Second Anglo-Dutch War of 1665-1667, sided with France and again declared war on the Dutch. During this conflict, the Franco-English alliance took possession of Saba, Sint Eustatius and all of Saint-Martin/Sint Maarten, forcing the first Dutch West India Company to cease its trade. Although the Peace of Westminster (1674), signed by England and the Dutch Republic, stipulated the return to the status quo prior to the beginning of hostilities, Saba and Sint Eustatius were not returned to the Dutch until after the signing of the Peace of Nijmegen between France and the Dutch Republic in 1679, while Saint-Martin would remain in full control of the French until the next European war.

Which was the Nine Years’ War (1688-1697) in which a league of (largely Protestant) European countries sought to thwart the power of the Catholic King of France, Louis XIV. In the Caribbean, French and Irish Catholics raided Anguilla in 1688, then kicked the English out of St. Kitts and the Dutch out of Sint Eustatius in 1689, to which an Anglo-Dutch alliance retaliated by recovering the two islands and taking Saint-Martin and Saint-Barthélemy from the French in 1690. The Treaty of Ryswick, negotiated hastily in 1697, was more of a temporary patch than a permanent solution, but in the region it brought concrete changes to the geopolitical configuration, most notably through the recognition of the French settlers on the western part of Hispaniola in what much later would become Haiti. Meanwhile, the English returned half of Saint-Christophe and all of Saint-Martin to the French, who already had evacuated Saint-Croix for good.

But the death of Charles II of Spain, just four years later, led to a new conflict in Europe, the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714). Far more actively waged in the Caribbean through official fleets rather than privateers, this war again saw the French and the Dutch on opposite ends and, consequently, led to the next change of hands of Saint-Martin/Sint Maarten, when a force arrived from Sint Eustatius ousted the French from the island in 1703. Saint-Christophe had been taken by the English in 1702 and the French colonies of Guadeloupe and Martinique became the target of much of the fighting in years to come. But in 1706 the French raided St. Kitts and Nevis and regained control of part of Saint-Martin. The Peace of Utrecht of 1713 recognized French ownership of one half of Saint-Martin/Sint Maarten but awarded full control of St. Kitts to the English, thus leaving Saint-Barthélemy and Saint-Martin exposed to further sieges.

Following the end of the War of Spanish Succession, Saint-Martin/Sint Maarten went through the first prolonged spell of peace in two generations. This would be disrupted in 1744 by an invasion of Anguilla-British who took control of the French half of the island in the wider context of the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748). The French retaliated by attempting an invasion of Anguilla the following year but the offensive was rebuked by the local militia. Anguilla then petitioned to have St. Martin annexed to the colony in 1747 but it all came to nothing with the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748), which confirmed French and Dutch ownership of the island. Such Treaty was little more than a glorified truce, however, which provided an eight-year break before hostilities recommenced in 1756, with the Seven Years’ War. Once again, the colonial aspirations of Britain, France and Spain played a big role in the conflict, both in mainland America and the Caribbean. Britain sent a large convoy in 1759 with the intention of capturing all French Caribbean territories, and small, helpless Saint-Barthélemy and Saint-Martin stood little chance. The French half of the island was captured by the British on their way to Martinique, from where they would be initially repelled. Eventually, the British captured Guadeloupe in 1759 and Martinique in 1762, but by the Treaty of Paris (1763) France chose to keep the two in exchange of Acadia (present-day Canada). Guadeloupe immediately claimed Saint-Barthélemy and Saint-Martin back, rejecting an offer from the Dutch administration to buy the French half of the island for 100,000 piasters.

Europe would remain peaceful until the break of the French Revolution, but in America the tide of liberation began to swell and before long the War of American Independence was fully underway. The conflict would have devastating economic consequences in the region, particularly for British colonies in the Caribbean, but before that it would also lead to a period of political instability once the French officially joined the American cause in 1778. In regional terms, a French contingent from Martinique took possession of Dominica in September 1778 and the British occupied St. Lucia in December 1778 and Saint-Martin in January 1779, but a strong French offensive recovered the island in February that same year, before claiming St. Vincent in June and Grenada in July. In December 1780 Britain declared war on the Dutch Republic, on the grounds that the Dutch were illegally supplying American revolutionaries with goods, largely from their trading station in Sint Eustatius. A furious British attack in February 1781 saw the occupation and total destruction of the harbor of Sint Eustatius, with the British fleet also taking control of Saba, Saint-Barthélemy and the whole island of Sainte-Martin/Sint Maarten. The French would hit back later that year recovering the four islands in November before taking St. Kitts, Nevis and Montserrat in 1782, but the British landed a major victory in the Battle of Les Saintes which allowed them to hold on to most of their colonies when, in 1783, the Treaty of Paris legitimized the existence of the United States of America, and returned Saint-Martin/Sint Maarten to its two traditional colonial masters.

British plunder of St Eustatius (1781). Photo: Wikipedia.

The French Revolution also had a major impact in Caribbean affairs, particularly, of course, in the French colonies. Following the execution of Louis XVI, Britain declared war on France and took advantage of the conflicted atmosphere in the French West Indies to land quick victories in Martinique, Guadeloupe and Saint-Domingue. In Sainte-Martin the same sense of uncertainty contributed to the ease with which the Dutch could take control of the island in May 1793. In 1794, Victor Hugues arrived at the head of a French fleet, with a guillotine and the declaration of the abolition of slavery, and managed to seize control of Guadeloupe from the British. Martinique was not so easily recovered, mostly because of collaborationist ancient régime supporters in the island. The progress of the war in Europe meant that the Dutch Republic was absorbed by France, leading in 1795 to the transfer of power in Saint-Martin/Sint Maarten from the Dutch to the French. Then came Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup on November 19, 1799, and the subsequent War of the Second Coalition, which in the Caribbean saw renewed efforts by the British to exert control on the region. On March 1801 the British took full control of both sides of Saint-Martin/Sint Maarten, as well as Sint Eustatius, Saba and the Danish colonies of St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix, but the French were already planning to negotiate a peace, and the Treaty of Amiens, signed in 1802, stipulated the return of all the islands, including Martinique, to their previous owners, except for Trinidad which passed from Spanish to British hands.

The British left Saint-Martin/Sint Maarten on December 1, 1802 – but not for long. Peace in Europe lasted but a year, in which Napoleon turned his attention to the rebellion in Sainte-Domingue. His brother-in-law, General Leclerc, landed in present-day Haiti in February 1802 where, despite relatively favorable results at first, a combination of tropical diseases and the news that slavery would be reinstated in the French Caribbean colonies ultimately doomed the expedition. By January 1804, when Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared the independence of Haiti, war between Britain and France had broken out anew. The conflict simmered for over a decade, but this time it was more heavily waged in continental Europe. Slowly, the action was taken to the Caribbean Sea, where the British could still inflict some damage on the seemingly otherwise unbeatable French. By 1810, Britain had again occupied Martinique and Guadeloupe, Sint Eustatius, Saba and the rest of the Dutch Antilles, the Danish Virgin Islands and, of course, both sides of Saint-Martin/Sint Maarten. The 1814 Treaty of Paris returned the West Indies to their previous owners, with the exception of Tobago and St. Lucia, which would now belong to Great Britain. Except the British hardly had time to leave, before Napoleon escaped from his exile in Elba to embark on his Hundred Days. This, too, failed, and by the end of 1815 the Second Treaty of Paris ratified the stipulations of its predecessor in relation to the Caribbean. The British departed Guadeloupe on July 25, 1816, and the dual administration of Sainte-Martin/Sint Maarten was restored for the last time.

Europe would enjoy a long spell of peace until the wars of the last quarter of the 19th century – and those would not concern the Caribbean. After 150 years of plundering which saw the twilight of the Spanish rule, the rise and fall of the Dutch Republic, the reign of Louis XIV, the Sun King, the loss of the American colonies by the British, their rise as the undisputable masters of the sea, the emergence of Napoleon and his dismal end, and the first triumph of a slave rebellion in the New World, Siant-Martin/Sint Maarten could finally enjoy a period of cordial and productive coexistence.


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