Get to know a bit more about the exciting history of the island.
Before European first contact, the island was presumably inhabited by Eastern Caribbean Taíno people who might have named it in arawak language Ouanalao (litterally: “the place with iguanas on it”). Christopher Columbus was the first European to encounter the island in 1493 and named it after his brother Bartolomeo, claimed it for Spain, but the Spanish’s disinterest allowed the French to settle.
In 1648, the island was occupied by the first French settlers (about 50 to 60 people), encouraged by Lonvilliers de Poincy, the lieutenant-governor of the French West India Company. Although it had a very poor soil, a dry climate, and didn’t offer any economic potential, it had a major strategic stake due to its geographic position in the North Lesser Antilles and the naturally-protected harbor of Carénage (nowadays known as Gustavia). Led by Jacques Gentes, the new arrivals developped fishing, goat farming, salt harvesting, and cotton, cacao and indigo growing. In 1656, a deadly Carib attack forced the settlers to retreat to St Christophe (St Kitts), but 3 years after, 30 French settlers came back with a few slaves and repossessed the island. Eventually, it was bought by the French West India Company along with the Order’s other possessions in the Caribbean, and by 1674, the company was dissolved and the islands became part of the French Kingdom.
There was a very brief takeover by the British in 1758, but the island quickly went back to the French. But, Governor Claude Charles de Marillac (previously Governor of St-Martin, Guadeloupe then Martinique), qualified it as “a small hilly and isolated island where people endeaver in vain to survive”, French King Louis XVI decided to give the island to Sweden King Gustaf III in 1784, in exchange for trade rights in Gothenburg. Sweden declared Gustavia a free port, convenient for trading the European goods, a hosting place for pirates, and a sheltered harbour for thousands of ships: the island started to experience progress and prosperity.
Circa 1830, peace being back between England and France, less and less ships were docking in St Barts, which started to loose its interets due to the economic recession it was followed with. The colons started to emigrate to United States Virgin Islands, mainly in St Thomas. The Swedish colony of St. Barthélemy granted their freedom to the slaves in 1847, and since the island was not a sustainable plantation area, the freed slaves suffered economic hardships due to lack of opportunities for employment. In 1852, hurricanes and a major fire in Gustavia chased away the inhabitants. Having become more of a burden than an asset, following a referendum in 1877, Sweden gave the island back to France in 1878, after which it was administered as part of Guadeloupe.
On the 19th of March 1946, the people of the island became French citizens with full rights. Many men from St. Barthélemy took jobs on St Thomas in order to support their families, but as tourism began in the 1960s, really started to develop in the 1970s, and led to considerable international popularity at the beginning of the 1980s, the inhabitants began to find wealthy opportunities through these new sources and markets. Today the island is known for its exclusivity and swanky tourism.
Saint Barthélemy was for many years a French commune forming part of Guadeloupe, which is an overseas region and department of France (DOM). Through a referendum in 2003, island residents sought separation from the administrative jurisdiction of Guadeloupe, and it was finally accomplished in 2007. The island of Saint Barthélemy became an Overseas Collectivity (COM). A governing territorial council was elected for its administration, which has provided the island with a certain degree of autonomy. The former city hall was replaced by the Hotel de la Collectivité and a senator represents the island in Paris. St. Barthélemy has retained its free port status. An island with lots of privileges for the one who knows how to take advantage of it!