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St-Barthélemy

History

Due to its inhospitable landscape and lack of freshwater, St-Barth never had a big Arawak or Carib presence.

When Christopher Columbus sighted the island on his second voyage in 1493, he named it after his older brother Bartholomeo. The first Europeans who attempted to settle the island, in 1648, were French colonists. They were soon killed by Caribs. Norman Huguenots gave it another try about 25 years later and prospered, not due to farming (which was near impossible) or fishing, but by setting up a way station for French pirates plundering Spanish galleons. You can still hear traces of the old Norman dialect in towns such as Flamands and Corossol.

In 1784, the French king Louis XVI gave St-Barth to the Swedish king Gustaf III in exchange for trading rights in Gôteburg. There are still many reminders of the Swedish rule – such as the name Gustavia, St-Barth’s continuing duty-free status, and several buildings and forts – on the island. However, Sweden sold St-Barth back to France in 1878 after declining trade, disease and a destructive fire affected the island.

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, St-Barth wasn’t much more than a quaint French backwater, and life was tough for residents. Without the lush vegetation typical of the Caribbean, farming was difficult. Many former slaves emigrated to surrounding islands to find work, leaving St-Barth one of the only islands in the region without a substantial African population.

In the 1950s, tourists slowly started arriving at the tiny airport on small planes and private jets. The scrubby island suddenly found new natural resources: beaches, sunsets, quiet. Quick-thinking islanders created laws limiting mass tourism to guard their hard-earned lifestyle; as a result, you won’t see casinos, high-rise hotels or fast-food chains, but you will pay for the atmosphere.

On December 7, 2003, an overwhelming 90% of the population of St-Barth voted to grant themselves more fiscal and political independence from France and Guadeloupe. As a member of Guadeloupe, St-Barth was part of an overseas région and départment. After separation, the island became an ‘overseas collectivity, ’ which meant that the island gained a municipal council rather than having a single islandwide mayor. Despite the separation, the island has remained part of the EU.