St Barts Coat of Arms, history book

On the pediment of the administrative seat of the “Collectivité” (the semi-independent French status of the island), one notes “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” (Freedom, Equality, Fraternity)…the motto of France since 1798. But the Collectivité’s coat of arms tells much more of the history and ideals of Saint- Barthelemy…for those who can decode it!

When Europe was at war in the Middle Ages, the coat of arms was especially useful for differentiating friend from foe, encased in heavy armor and helmet. First adopted by the nobility, coats of arms were later taken up by lesser nobles, knights, and gentlemen. Towns and cities next adopted their own coats of arms, based on the precepts of the heraldic arts. Although codified in terms of shape, color, motif and ornament, complete with often impenetrable (to say the least!) heraldic language, they can lend themselves to varying interpretations, even among specialists.

Saint-Barthelemy’s coat of arms consists of a shield and a number of exterior ornaments. The shield’s three fleur-de-lis are reminders of the island’s allegiance to the French crown from 1648 to 1785. The three crowns in the lower third symbolize Swedish rule, from 1785 to 1878. At its center, the Maltese cross traces back to even earlier days, when the isle was claimed by the Order of Malta from 1651 to 1665.

The ornaments around the shield have their own meanings. Above, there is a “mural crown”, which in the early days of heraldry symbolized a victory over an enemy fort. Under Napoleon 1st, however, its meaning was modified for the use of towns, and came to signify due protection to their citizens. Fortuitously (?), the mural crown is comprised of three towers, echoing the three forts of Gustavia… Two emblematic pelicans stand to either side of the shield, to “support” the motto inscribed in the ribbon below. “OUANALAO” is the island’s original Caribbean name according to accounts dating back to the 17th century. For some, it means “pelican”, for other “iguana on top”!

In heraldic speak, the description, or blazon, goes something like this:

“Of azure with fess of red charged with an Argent Maltese cross, accompanied at its helm by three fleurs-de-lis of Or and its point, by three crowns of same. The mural coronet crest of three towers of Or, open, crenellated and built of Sable, supported by two pelicans of Argent, Argent of beak and Or of claw, rests on a riband of Or with furls of red, upon which figures the motto “OUANALAO” in Sabled letters…”

Rather obscure for the layman, eh? But as you can see, the island’s blazon, although not exhaustive, is a precious testimonial to its collective history and shifts in rule. Take care, though, not to confuse the coat of arms with the Collectivité’s recently developed brand, comprised of a logotype and a signature tagline “Saint-Barthelemy, the art of being an isle”: a communications tool designed to promote tourism.

Today, in the world of sports, with soccer and rugby players topping the list, modern warriors defend the honor of their towns and cities, with their clubs’ badges emblazoning their jerseys. Others wear their favorite brands, slung over the shoulder or on their feet… thus asserting their identity within a shared wearers’ code. The circle is now complete!

To further your interest in the heraldic arts, try:



Fichiers attachés