Sweden In The Tropics

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.

Sweden in the tropics

Louis XVI ceded the island to King Gustav III of Sweden in 1784, in exchange for warehousing rights in Gothenburg. The latter, who was a great Francophile, wanted to exploit his acquisition by making Carénage, which was to become Gustavia, a free port. Its tax-exempt status made it a base for ships replenishing their stores en route to the West Indies and a haven for pirates. The population of the island rose from approximately 600 in 1785 to about 5,500 slaves and white inhabitants in 1812. Gustavia, which was developing separately from the indigenous French and black population, became very cosmopolitan, which had the effect of promoting flourishing multilingualism, even in education.

However, in about 1830, when peace between France and Britain was restored, fewer ships called in to Gustavia harbor and it began to experience an economic recession. Many colonial settlers left the island in favor of the American Virgin Islands, especially St Thomas, where they founded Frenchtown and Northside. In 1852, the ravages caused by cyclones were compounded by a major fire in Gustavia, which was then deserted by its inhabitants. According to travelers, in about 1870 the local population looked poor or even starving.

In the face of stubborn economic recession, Sweden considered retrocession to France. In a referendum, the motion to return the island to France was passed by a huge majority of 351 votes to 1! The island was therefore retroceded in exchange for 80,000 francs under a treaty signed in 1877, with effect from 16th March 1878. However the French government was very far away and to all intents and purposes purely theoretical and so the island eventually came to rely on itself for its own economic and administrative life…

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