Christopher Columbus landed on this island in 1493; without any consultation of the Carib Indians living on the island, he named it for his brother Bartolomeo, St. Barthelemy was first settled by the French in 1648, then they massacred the Native Indians and imported African slaves.
History -- Saint Barthélemy –or St. Barts in English- has a particular history, different from the ones of the other islands nearby. This has to do with the fact that St. Barts, being especially difficult to exploit, often became a trading possession, changing sovereignty several times. Among the Amerindians that first inhabited the island, the Arawak Indians left the name "Ouanalao". This was most probably the very first name of the island. Today, it appears on the island's coat of arms and its meaning probably refers to the iguanas which used to live in great number in this part of the world.
As for the name "Saint-Barthélemy", it was given by its first colonizer: Christopher Columbus. During his second trip to America, in 1493, the explorer discovered the island and named it after his younger brother: Bartolomeo.
In 1784, the French sold the island to Sweden, who renamed the largest town Gustavia, after the Swedish King GUSTAV III, and made it a free port; the island prospered as a trade and supply center during the colonial wars of the 18th century.
The land being dry, agriculture was difficult and no gold-bearing deposits were ever found. The island seemed useless and did not represent any great value. The Spanish neglected it... an opportunity for the French to take it over. In 1648, about 30 settlers from the island of Saint-Christophe arrived. Three years later, in 1651, the Order of Malta purchased Saint-Barthélemy. The Order then tried to exploit its new acquisition. As sugar cane culture was not really appropriate, they tried to grow cotton and indigo. They also developed salt farming as well as fishing and breeding. In 1656, a massacre happened between Indians and settlers. Then the Order of Malta left and abandoned the island. Three years later other settlers arrived, there again from Saint-Christophe, with slaves.
Today, the tone of skin of the islanders, mostly European, tends to bring people to forget about slavery in St. Barts. Yet, although this rugged "thankless land" did not allow its inhabitants to make a living on agriculture, a great many slaves lived there. Most of them came from the neighbouring islands (the French, British and Dutch ones) and were used as servants. However, the ships bringing the slaves sometimes came directly from Africa, using the ports of Gustavia and île Fourchue as ports of call for their trade.
France repurchased the island in 1878 and placed it under the administration of Guadeloupe.
These places were also the cradle of numerous pirate stories. The natural harbour of St. Barts makes it the safest island in the West Indies… A detail that didn’t miss to interest the sea-robbers. The archipelago became a perfect hiding place for their crews and treasures… to storm ships. From this period, we still have a great number of pirate tales with their illustrious buccaneers some of whom inspired the characters of Red Rackham or Captain Hook...
St. Barthelemy retained its free port status along with various Swedish appelations such as Swedish street and town names, and the three-crown symbol on the coat of arms.
St. Barts: a trading possession -- Then came the time of ceaseless wars between France and England; wars that hindered the development of this island of the "lesser Antilles". In 1744, the British took over Saint-Barthélemy. It will then take 20 years and the "Traité de Paris" (Paris’ treaty) for the island to become French once again. But not for long... 20 years later, in 1784, the island was once again a trading possession. Louis XVI decided to exchange this possession against a storage right in the port of Gothenburg in Sweden. The King of Sweden, Gustave III, great admirer of French culture, became the happy owner of these 21km2 of land in the middle of the Atlantic. The sovereign king lavished great efforts in the hope of making profits out of his new purchase. He established a free harbour (a tax-free zone) and developed the town around the port. Between 1786 and 1787, the port changed its name "Le Carénage" into "Gustavia", to honour King Gustave III.
Developing this harbour will be particularly profitable for the island that will then enjoy prosperous years. Vessels stream from all over the Caribbean to stop over there and thus contributed greatly to develop St. Barts.
During the Swedish period a very uncommon decision was taken: in 1814, the governors announced the opening of a school for "boys and girls, black or white" where the children were able to learn French, English and Spanish, as well as several other disciplines.
Although the Swedish government ignored slave trade for a time, it nevertheless abolished slavery in 1847, a year ahead of France, buying the freedom of all the slaves in the island at the expenses of the Swedish Crown.
Saint-Barthélemy... a French territory -- In the late 1810s, prosperity declined. A great number of St. Barts inhabitants left the island for neighbouring colonies such as Demerara, Porto Rico, St. Thomas, etc… After slavery was abolished, most of the former slaves, but also former "free men of colour", took part in this exodus, which explains why today Saint-Barthélemy’s population has a majority of white people.
On August 10th 1877, Oscar II, King of Norway and Sweden, signed a treaty that retroceded the island to France for the modest sum of 320,000 francs. This measure, agreed upon by the population, took effect a year later, in 1878. Saint-Barthélemy then became an archipelago of Guadeloupe. There still remain some traces of the Swedish period near Gustavia such as the Karl and Oscar forts, two of the three castles built at that time.
After World War II, in 1946, France reorganised its former colonies. St. Barts became a district of Guadeloupe that is now a Département d’Outre Mer (Overseas Territory). It was not until 2003 that the population voted in favour of "independence". And since 2007, the islands of Saint-Barthélemy and Saint-Martin have been governed under the Collectivités d’Outre Mer statu