Cosmopolitan St. Barts

As is demonstrated by its national coat of arms incorporating the Caribbean pelican, French fleur-de-lys, Swedish crowns, Maltese cross and an American Indian device, the history of St Barts is made up of a long series of successive conquests and reconquests which have forged its unique character.

Originally populated by Arawak Indians who were soon exterminated by the West Indians, the island of Saint-Barthélemy was first called Ouanalao, from ioüna-lao “iguana on it” or “the place with the iguanas”, a reference to which is retained on the island’s coat of arms. Moreover, according to some sources, “ouanalao” could also mean “pelican”.

Although the pelican became a symbol of the island on a par with the iguana which gave it its primitive name, heraldic emblems also refer to the twists and turns of a rich history in which the domination of the Order of Malta and periods of French and Swedish rule are entwined. The three fleur-de-lys recall French ownership of the island from 1648 to 1785 and then again after 1878, the three crowns symbolize the Swedish era from 1785-1878 and the Maltese cross recalls its ownership by the Order of Malta from 1651 to 1665.

Columbus’ brother’s name

Saint Barts entered the Modern Era under the Spanish flag. In 1493, Christopher Columbus discovered this island populated by Caribbean Indians during his second voyage. He named it after his brother Bartolomeo and claimed it for the Catholic kings. However, the Spanish were not interested in the island, which they considered too small for profitable intensive farming.

Spanish disinterest left the way open for the French. The island’s colonization depended largely on the Compagnie des Isles d’Amérique (Company of the American Islands), which was supposed to establish bases on American islands not yet occupied by Christian kings. However, when a group of about fifty French colonial settlers arrived in 1648 from Saint Christopher, which was French at the time, the Company was bankrupt.

Philippe Longvilliers de Poincy, Commander of the Order of Malta, worked to acquire the island, which was offered for sale in 1651, for the Order. However, the colonial settlers who had scraped a living from cultivation, fishing, harvesting salt and livestock farming were massacred the West Indians in 1656. The Order of Malta abandoned the island.

Settlers from Anjou, Brittany, the Vendée … and slaves

On the orders of Colbert, the island came back under the protection of the King of France in 1659. A second wave of about thirty French colonial settlers from Saint-Christopher together with a handful of slaves took possession of the island in 1659. They came predominantly from Brittany, the Vendée, Poitou and Anjou regions and the area around Saintes.

Given the unfavorable natural conditions on the island – an arid climate, uneven ground and poor soil – large-scale cotton or sugar cane farming was not possible and this limited the number of slaves on the island and so the islanders increasingly turned towards buccaneering and fishing. The French king lost interest in the island and its main value was as a bargaining chip.

France made no effort to encourage new settlers to go to the island until the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 and the colony survived largely due to the stubbornness of its inhabitants despite difficult living conditions and endless wars between France and Britain. In 1744, the British occupied the island and the population was evacuated, returning only in 1764. However the island was viewed largely as a livestock and poultry reserve to feed the “larger islands”, which was of very little interest to Louis XVI, who ceded the island to King Gustav III of Sweden in 1784 in exchange for warehousing rights in Gothenburg.

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