The history of St Barts, a Caribbean island
Are you planning a trip to St Barth and want to know more about this beautiful Caribbean island? Let us help you discover the history of one of the most beautiful places on earth! To help you prepare for your holidays in Saint-Barthelemy, our concierge Pierre-Bertrand is at your disposal.
How was the island of St Barts discovered?
It all began in 1493, when Christopher Columbus discovered the island on his second journey. St Barth was then called Ouanalao and was only a small wild island occupied by Amerindian and Caribbean communities. They were then forced to abandon their island, unable to compete against the weapons of European settlers. Christopher Columbus decided to rename the island Saint-Barthélemy, in homage to his brother Bartolomeo.
A history influenced by several sovereignties
In 1648, the island of St Barth was first colonized by the French. About fifty men came to settle there, following the decision of Monsieur de Longvilliers de Poincy, French colonial administrator. In 1656, these men were massacred by the Indians of the Caribbean, and the island then remained unoccupied for three years. Note that from 1651 to 1665, it was the Order of Malta that owned Saint Barth. Then in 1659, around thirty sailors from Brittany and Normandy came to settle in St Barts. The island became a French colony again.
In 1784, Louis XVI ceded the island of St Barth to the Swedish king, Gustav III, in exchange for a warehouse right in the port of Gothenburg. The island became a free port in 1785, exempt from any customs or property taxes, and its main town was renamed Gustavia in homage to the King of Sweden. During his reign, Gustav III erected forts Gustaf, Karl and Oscar to defend the island from enemy attacks. On the architectural side, he set up many stone and wooden buildings, which are still part of St Barth's heritage today.
In 1847, slavery was abolished. In 1852, Saint-Barth was completely devastated, first by a cyclone and then by a fire. The king of Sweden no longer saw any commercial interest in the island and decided to cede the island to France, which was reunited with Guadeloupe in 1878.
In July 2007, this commune of Guadeloupe finally became an Overseas Collectivity.
Today, we find on the official coat of arms of the island several symbols representative of its colonial past: three fleurs-de-lis for the kings of France, a Maltese cross, and three crowns in reference to the kings of Sweden who reigned over the island.
From a small free port to a luxury tourist destination
Since the 1980s, the tourist attraction of St Barth has continued to grow. The first visitors were prominent North American businessmen, some of whom even had luxury villas built. Thanks to the development of Saint-Jean airport, the rise of nautical activities and the appearance of numerous luxury boutiques, Saint-Barthélemy has gradually established itself as a dream destination, reserved for a rather exclusive clientele.
Nowadays, St Barts is the ultimate luxury tourist destination. With the ban on building tall buildings and an airport accessible only by small planes, the island has been able to protect itself from mass tourism.