The Amerindians who originally settled on the island named it Sualouiga, meaning land of salt. The belief that Columbus discovered the island on his second voyage in 1493 is disputed, with historians now claiming it was Nevis he named St Martin of Tours, and that later Spanish explorers misinterpreted his maps.
Nevertheless, the Spanish were not interested in settling the island and it was not until 1629 that some French colonists arrived in the north, and then in 1631 the Dutch were attracted to the south part by the salt ponds. By this time, there were no Caribs left on the island and the two nationalities lived amicably enough together. Spain then reconsidered and occupied St Maarten from 1633 to 1648, fending off an attack by Peter Stuyvesant in 1644 which cost him his leg.
When the Spanish left, the Dutch and French settlers returned and after a few territorial skirmishes, they divided the island between them with the signing of the 23 March 1648 Treaty of Mount Concordia. Popular legend has it that the division was settled with a race starting from Oyster Pond. The Frenchman went north and the Dutchman went south, but the Frenchman walked faster because he drank only wine while the Dutchman’s penchant for Genever (a drink similar to gin) slowed him down. Since 1648, however, St Maarten has changed hands 16 times, including brief occupations by the British, but the Dutch-French accord has been peaceably honoured at least since it was last revised in 1839.
At the height of its colonial period, sugar cane and livestock were the main agricultural activities, although the poor soil and lack of rain meant they were not very profitable. The abolition of slavery in 1863 broke up the plantation system and the population began to decline as ex-slaves left to look for work elsewhere. Most of the salt produced from the Great Salt Pond behind Philipsburg was exported to the USA and neighbouring islands, but by 1949 this industry had also ended and a further exodus to other islands took place. The remaining population survived on subsistence farming, fishing and remittances from relatives abroad.
However, in 50 years the island has become unrecognizable, hotels and resorts, villas and guest houses now line the shore and there is no bay untouched by tourism. In 1997, 885,956 cruise ship passengers spent a day in St Maarten (not including yachties), while 647,721 people landed at Princess Juliana International Airport to visit St Maarten (and French St-Martin), attracted by the duty-free shopping, casinos and a wide range of accommodation, as well as the beaches and watersports. Little of historical interest remains, except the walls of Fort Amsterdam overlooking Philipsburg, and a few other ruined fortifications, but this has not hindered the tourist industry, which is among the most successful in the region. For those who want more than sun, sand and sea, St Maarten’s well-developed transport links make it an excellent jumping-off place for visiting other islands. Nearly 250,000 people are usually classified as in transit, making their way to other destinations with only a brief stop over in St Maarten.
Controversy arose in 1992 over the Dutch Government’s decision in July to introduce ‘higher supervision’ of the St Maarten Island Council following an inquiry into its administration. The change meant that expenditure decisions by the island government had to be approved by the Lieutenant-Governor.
In February 1993 supervision was tightened further with all major decisions requiring approval. There had been many reports of crime, corruption and financial maladministration and the USA was particularly concerned about suspected widespread drug smuggling through Juliana airport, where there were no customs controls. During 1993 several prominent members of government, including the hugely influential Dr Claude Wathey, leader of the St Maarten Democratic Party and former Prime Minister, his son Al Wathey, formerly the airport board chairman, Ralph Richardson, the former Lieutenant Governor, and Frank Arnell, the airport manager as well as other influential colleagues, came under judicial investigation in connection with irregularities in the airport and Great Bay harbour expansion projects. Investigations were also carried out in France, Italy and other countries.
In 1994, the four men were jailed for forgery and perjury, while two Italians were jailed for drugs trafficking (Dr Wathey died in January 1998). The St Maarten executive council agreed to introduce customs checks at seaports and Juliana airport from January 1994 in an effort to control trafficking in arms, drugs and illegal immigration. The higher supervision order was extended until 1 June 1994 and France and the Netherlands agreed jointly to monitor air and sea traffic around the island.
In 1994 the electorate were asked whether they wished to remain part of the Netherlands Antilles, have separate status within the kingdom (like Aruba), have complete integration with the Netherlands, or be independent. At the referendum in October, 59.8 percent voted for the status quo, while about 30 percent wanted separate status. This was the lowest vote in favour of remaining in the Federation, compared with 90.6 percent in St Eustatius, 86.3 percent in Saba, 88 percent in Bonaire and 73.6 percent (in 1993) in Curaçao. The island’s council election in April 1995 gave five seats each to the Democratic Party (DP) and the St Maarten Patriotic Alliance (SPA). The latter had governed since June 1994 in alliance with the Progressive Democratic Party. The Serious Alternative People’s Party (SAPP) won the remaining seat on the 11-member council and agreed with the DP to form an alliance which took office in July. The DP won 4,323 of the 9,536 votes cast against 4,177 for the SPA, while the DP’s leader, Sarah Westcott-Williams won the highest individual vote with 2,204. However, the coalition government collapsed in October 1995 following the resignation of one DP commissioner and two from the SAPP.
In May 1999 new island council elections were held which produced a majority government and marked the end of unstable coalitions. The DP won seven seats, the SPA three and the National Progressive Party (NPP) one.