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History of St. Barthelemy Island

Arawak Indians gave the island its first name as "Ouanalao", which may refer to the iguanas that resided on the island. When Christopher Columbus discovered the island in 1493, it was given the name of Saint Barthélemy, named after his younger brother Bartolomeo.


The first attempt to settle was made by the French, who came in 1648. The settlement was not a great success; in part because the island has no source of fresh water, and has very little level ground for farming, two years later the island was sold to the Knights of Malta who attempted to grow indigo and cotton there, and developed salt farming, fishing, and livestock breeding programs. Their colony struggled, and in 1656 the Carib Indians destroyed the settlements.


It was not until 1763 that French mariners from Normandy and Brittany reclaimed the island. French buccaneers enhanced the economy by providing plunder taken from Spanish galleons.


Tales of piracy arose, which later inspired the characters of Red Rackham and Captain Hook. There was also Monbars the Exterminator, a famous buccaneer who maintained his headquarters in St. Barths. It is believed that his hidden treasure rests somewhere on the island; either in the coves of Anse de Gouverneur or in the sands of Saline.


The French then found themselves continuously fighting for ownership of St. Barths. In 1744, the British took over the island, and it took 20 years for it to be returned to the French. But the French lost the island again when King Louis XVI sold it to Sweden as a trading possession in 1784.


As a tax-free port under Swedish rule, it provided a trade & supply center. The port was named Gustavia to honor King Gustave III. Vessels from all around the world would come to the port. Sea captains would sell their booty to St. Barths, as well as replenishing their cargos. Business thrived, until natural disasters struck and weakened the economy.


In 1878, France finally reclaimed St. Barths by repurchasing the island for a modest 320,000 francs. Fragments of St. Barths' fascinating Swedish history still remains on the island today, in the form of remaining “case” buildings, as well as the Swedish capital Gustavia and streets that bear Swedish names there.


In 1946, Martinique and Guadeloupe, including St. Barths, were given the legal status of a Department of France with the same privileges and responsibilities as any of the Home Departments. This is analogous to the Americans conferring statehood upon Hawaii. The citizens were given French passports, and were expected to pay French taxes, and obey laws formulated in Paris. After the turn of the century, the islands of Saint Barthélemy and Saint Martin worked to gain further independence from Guadeloupe and earn greater control over budgets. Those efforts came to fruition on February 2007 with adoption of a new status, and after a succession of milestones were achieved, St Barths became the Overseas Collectivity of Saint Barthélemy on July 15, 2007 and its first territorial council was elected. The 19 members of the council then elected Bruno Magras, former mayor of Gustavia, as the first president of the island council of St Barthelemy.


The so-called modern era of the island was facilitated when St. Barths’ petite airport, Gustaf III was inaugurated in 1984. Before that the airstrip was a dirt road in a former goat pasture, and the “terminal” was a small hut with a single window for ticketing. With a short landing 2,100’ landing strip, fronted by a mountain and ending in the sea, the signature landings and departures make this airport an attraction for thrill seeking aviation enthusiasts.


This Caribbean island became a favored vacation destination in part due to the culture of fine dining on the island, the unspoiled beaches, the picturesque mountains and coves, and the strict commercial and residential zoning rules which prohibited the development of larger resorts and condominiums. Another aspect of the island’s allure may have something to do with the island’s many monikers. While the official title of the island is Collectivité territoriale de Saint-Barthélemy, the French, Brits and Americans have all created their own tweaks on nicknames for the island. U.S. visitors prefer St. Barts, while the those from France and elsewhere in the E.U. opt for St. Barth or St. Barths, and in some instances an apostrophe is used, where that came from is anyone’s guess.


Regardless of what one calls the island, St. Barths has historically drawn high profile personalities to its shores. Eden Rock, a small hotel looking out over Baie de Saint Jean has been welcoming A-listers like Greta Garbo and Howard Hughes since its opening in 1950.


David Rockefeller, the longtime patriarch of the American oil dynasty bought property in Colombier in 1957, building a house and shining the spotlight on this little piece of paradise.


Benjamin de Rothschild bought land in Marigot in the ‘60’s, and built a Girasol, a sprawling estate complete with a private beach and coconut grove overlooking Marigot bay.


Since the 1970s, a steady stream of artists, musicians and actors have been holidaying in St. Barth’s. Mikhail Baryshnikov bought a villa in 1972, the same year that Justin Collin, president of the American Ballet Theatre opened Les Castelets, a boutique hotel and fine dining destination attracting a celebrity clientele.


Lorne Michaels and two of his Saturday Night Live proteges, Steve Martin and Chevy Chase are no strangers to St. Barths, vacationing there for years starting in the late 70’s.


Jimmy Buffett, the Caribbean’s adopted son, has been visiting since 1978, and invested in the island’s first disco called AuTour de Rocher. When hurricane Irma hit St Barths in 2017, Buffett helped to airfreight in relief supplies, and organized a charity concert to bring tourists back to the island.


France’s beloved pop icon, Johnny Hallyday spent years vacationing at a villa called Jade, named for one of his daughters. Before his passing in 2017, Hallyday was so taken with the island that one of his final wishes was to be buried in the cemetery close to his villa.


Unlike several neighboring islands, St. Barths has made a speedy recovery from the devastating hurricanes of 2017. The private villas that provide the majority of the tourist accommodations on the island were largely all back on line within 6 months. Hotels including Eden Rock, Le Toiny and Cheval Blanc all set reopening dates in time for the 2018 holiday season.


St. Barths General Information and Villa Rentals


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