Due to its inhospitable landscape and lack of fresh water, 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 Bartolomeo. 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 in 1659 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.
In 1784, the French king Louis XVI gave St-Barth to the Swedish king Gustaf III in exchange for trading rights in Göteborg. There are still many reminders of Swedish rule on the island – such as the name Gustavia, St-Barth’s continuing duty-free status, and several buildings and forts. However, Sweden sold St-Barth back to France in 1878 after declining trade, increasing 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 1946, St-Barth, as a member of Guadeloupe, was part of an overseas région and département. By the 1950s tourists slowly started arriving at the tiny airport on small planes and private jets. The rugged 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 unspoiled atmosphere.
An overwhelming 90% of St-Barth’s population voted in a referendum for more fiscal and political independence from France and Guadeloupe in 2003, which was achieved in 2007. After separation, the island became an ‘overseas collectivity’, which meant that the island gained a municipal council rather than having a single island-wide mayor. Despite the separation, the island has remained part of the EU, but retains its duty-free port status.
Montbars ‘The Exterminator’
Monsieur the Exterminator (Daniel Montbars) was a French-born pirate – and a fearsome one at that. He was present when his uncle was killed in a battle with Spanish conquistadors, and he spent the rest of his life exacting revenge (and borrowing a bit of plunder). Legend has it that Montbars buried treasure somewhere between Anse de Gouverneur and Anse de Grande Saline, but it has never been found...