In the year 1493, when Christopher Columbus was on his second voyage to the West Indies, upon his first sighting of the island he named it Isla de San Martín after Saint Martin of Tours because it was on November 11, St. Martin’s Day when he discovered the island. However, though he claimed it as a part of Spanish territory, Columbus never landed on the island, and Spain made the settlement of the island a very low priority.
The French and Dutch, however, on the other hand, both coveted the island. While the French wanted to colonize the islands between the islands of Trinidad and Bermuda, the Dutch found Sint Maarten / Saint Martin / San Martín a very convenient halfway point between their colonies in New Amsterdam (which is the present day New York) and Brazil. With few people inhabiting the island, the Dutch easily founded a settlement on the island around the year 1631, erecting Fort Amsterdam as protection from other invaders. Jan Claeszen Van Campen became the first governor of the island, and soon thereafter the Dutch East India Company (VOC) began their salt mining operations on the island. French and British settlements also sprang up on the island as well. Taking note of these successful colonies and wanting to maintain their control of the salt trade, the Spanish now all of a sudden found St. Martin much more appealing. The War that lasted 80 years, which had been raging between the Spanish and the Dutch, provided further incentive to attack the successful Dutch settlements on the island.
Spanish forces captured the island from the Dutch in 1633, seizing control and driving most or all of the colonists off the island. At Point Blanche, they built their very own “Old Spanish Fort” to secure the territory. Although the Dutch retaliated in several attempts to win back the island, they failed several times. Fifteen years after the Spanish conquered the island, the Eighty Years’ War ended. Since they no longer needed a base in the Caribbean and St. Martin barely turned any profit, the Spanish lost their inclination to continue defending it. In 1648, they deserted the island.
With St. Martin free again, both the Dutch and the French jumped at the chance to re-establish their settlements. Dutch colonists came from St. Eustatius, while the French came from St. Kitts. After some initial conflict, both sides realized that neither would yield easily. Preferring to avoid an all-out war, they signed the Treaty of Concordia in 1648, which divided the island in two parts, making it the smallest territory in the world divided by two different nations.
A legend grew up around the division of the island. According to legend, in order to decide on their territorial boundaries, the two sides held a contest. It began with a Frenchman drinking wine and a Dutchman drinking jenever (Dutch gin). When both had sufficiently imbibed, they embarked from Oysterpond on the island’s east coast. The Frenchman headed off along the coast to the north, while the Dutchman followed the coast south; wherever the two groups met was where they would draw the dividing line from Oysterpond. But as the Dutchman met a woman and stopped to sleep off the effects of the gin, the Frenchman was able to cover more distance, but apparently also cheated as he cut through the northeastern part of the island, and therefore ended up with more land.
Though oft-repeated, the story is not historically accurate. During the treaty’s negotiation, the French had a fleet of naval ships off shore, which they used as a threat to bargain more land for themselves. In spite of the treaty, relations between the two sides were not always cordial. Between 1648 and 1816, conflicts changed the border about sixteen times. In the end, the French came out ahead with 21 square miles (54 km2) to the 16 square miles (41 km2) of the Dutch side. Even today they are still disputing some land around the Oyster Bay area, which recently lead to a political conflict between the two nations that control the island.
In 1651, the Compagnie des Îles de l’Amérique sold the French part of the island to the Order of Saint John which was sovereign over the island of Malta. The Order’s rule lasted for fourteen years, and in the year 1665 it was sold back to the French West India Company along with the Order’s other possessions in the Caribbean region.
Although the Spanish had been the first to import slaves to the island, their numbers had been few. But with the new cultivation of cotton, tobacco, and sugar, mass numbers of slaves were imported to work on the plantations on the island and in the region. The slave population quickly grew larger than that of the land owners. Subjected to cruel treatment, slaves staged rebellions, and their overwhelming numbers made them impossible to ignore any longer. In 1848, the French abolished slavery in their colonies including the French side of St. Martin. Slaves on the Dutch side of the island protested and threatened to flee to the French side to seek asylum. The local Dutch authorities relented and emancipated the colonies’ slaves. While this decree was respected locally, it was not until the year 1863 when the Dutch abolished slavery in all of their island colonies that the slaves became legally free.