Visiting Our Islands
The story of St. Maarten begins far to the south, in a region of the Amazon jungle known as the Orinoco river basin. It was from here that the island's first inhabitants--the Arawaks--migrated about a thousand years ago. They island-hopped north through the Caribbean, living peacefully off the bounty of the surrounding sea. The Arawaks who came to St. Maarten called their new home "Sualouiga," or "Land of Salt," naming it after the island's abundant salt pans.
The tranquility of the Arawaks would not last for long. They were followed by another Amazonian group, the Caribs. A warrior people, the Caribs steadily pushed the Arawaks off St. Maarten and took the island for themselves--only to lose it in turn to the Europeans. Christopher Columbus sighted the island on November 11, 1493, the holy day of St. Martin of Tours. He claimed it for Spain the same day, and it is from this day that the island bears its name.
Obsessed with the greater conquests of Mexico and South America, the Spanish ignored St. Maarten. It was virtually forgotten by Europeans until the 1620s, when Dutch settlers began extracting salt from St. Maarten's ponds and exporting it back to the Netherlands. The island's commercial possibilities soon caught the attention of the Spanish, who drove off the Dutch in 1633 and erected a fort to assert their authority. Known as the Old Spanish Fort, this bastion still stands at Point Blanche. In 1644, a Dutch fleet under the command of Peter Stuyvesant attempted unsuccessfully to retake the island. Stuyvesant, who later became governor of New Amsterdam (present-day New York), lost a leg to a Spanish cannonball during the fighting. Although Stuyvesant was buried in New York, his leg rests in a cemetery in Curaçao.
Events in Europe soon affected the island's destiny. With the end of the Eighty Years' War between Spain and the Netherlands, the Spanish no longer needed a base in the Caribbean. They left St. Maarten, and the island was soon claimed by both the French (who sailed over from St. Kitts) and the Dutch (from St. Eustatius). After some skirmishes, the two powers signed a treaty in 1648 which divided the island between them. Although its historical truth is somewhat less than ironclad, local legend claims that a Dutchman and Frenchman stood back to back and walked in opposite directions around the shoreline, drawing the boundary from the spot where they met. As for why the French ended up with more land, the story notes the Dutchman's progress was slowed by the large quantity of Geneve that he required for the walk.
The neighbours did not coexist peacefully at first, and the territory changed hands sixteen times between 1648 and 1816. Nonetheless, the Dutch side of the island soon became an important trading center for salt, cotton, and tobacco. Wealth also arrived with the establishment of sugar plantations, worked by slave labor. When slavery was abolished in the mid-19th century, the plantations closed down and St. Maarten's prosperity ended. For the next one hundred years, the island sank into an economic depression.
The situation began to change in 1939, when all import and export taxes were rescinded and the island became a free port. Princess Juliana International Airport opened in 1943, and four years later the island's first hotel, the Sea View, welcomed its first guests. In the next few decades, St. Maarten boomed as an international trading and tourism center. Today, Dutch St. Maarten has nearly 3,000 hotel rooms and is visited by hundreds of thousands of people each year.
Philipsburg, the capital of Dutch St. Maarten, fills a narrow stretch of land between Great Bay and the Great Salt Pond. Founded in 1763 by John Philips, a Scottish captain in the Dutch navy, it soon became a bustling center of international trade. Today it is as bustling as ever, with lively shopping streets, cafes, and hotels.
Two main roads cut across the length of Philipsburg--Front Street and, yes, Back Street. Front Street, the main thoroughfare, is lined with duty-free shops offering everything from Italian leather goods and Japanese cameras to native crafts. Narrow alleyways lead in either direction to arcades and courtyards filled with flowers. Visitors will also find examples of traditional West Indian architecture, including characteristic pastel-colored houses with second-story verandas looking out over the street.
Front Street's most prominent landmark is the Courthouse, built in 1793. A grand white wooden structure topped with a cupola, it now serves as St. Maarten's courthouse. Also on Front Street is the Simartin Museum, which gives visitors an excellent introduction to local history. Among the artifacts on display are pottery from the island's original inhabitants, the Arawaks, and cargo salvaged from a British ship which sank off the coast in 1801.
The island was discovered by the famous explorer Columbus in 1493, and first colonized by the Dutch in 1657. After the Dutch departed in 1667 the island came into the hands of the British, till 1671. Thereafter it passed into the hands of the Danish West India Company, which was succeeded in 1685 by the so-called Brandenburg Company. The king of Denmark took over the island in 1754, declared it a free port, and during the European wars, the neutrality of Denmark gave a great boost to the trade of St Thomas.
In 1867, the United States agreed to buy the Virgin Islands from Britain for 75 million dollars, but the United States Senate refused to ratify the treaty. In 1902 another treaty was signed by which the United States was to buy the islands for 5 million dollars from Denmark, but the Danish parliament rejected it. However, the United States later purchased it from Denmark because of its strategic importance as a West Indian naval base. Charlotte Amalie (named named after the Danish Queen), the capital of the United States Virgin Islands and the most popular cruise port in the Caribbean, is where the ships dock and the dreamy white houses nestle in the emerald hills.
The famous 99 Steps, which lead to the summit of Government Hill, is one of the stairways built on St. Thomas in the mid-1700's as a result of planning by Danish engineers, who had not even set foot on the island. This planning blunder was the result of a decree that the city be built in a grid fashion. Consequently, many hillsides have steps running up to the top. The bricks that were used to construct the steps were originally brought from Denmark as ballast in the holds of ships.
Emancipation Park, located across from the Grand Galleria, commemorates the historic 1848 proclamation that freed the slaves. A reproduction of Philadelphia's Liberty Bell occupies a corner of the Galleria grounds
The US Virgin Islands is outside the U.S. Custom Zone. A special exemption of $1200 is allowed for each person traveling to the U.S. Virgin Islands. Family members traveling together may combine total purchases. Since the days of yore, St. Thomas has been a duty free port. As a result, Virgin Island Merchants offer lower prices and more varied product. The centuries old warehouses stretch along the downtown waterfront to Dronnigens Gade (Main Street). They once held lumber, rum, spices ceramics, gold, and gems brought from around the world. The warehouses are now tastefully converted and restored to house retail stores with jewelry and designer products with prices to satisfy the most demanding clients.
Painted a striking brick red, Fort Christian is a Danish-built fortress sitting on the waterfront, a landmark for visiting ships. It is the oldest building still in use in St. Thomas. The fort, which dates to the 1670's, was designed as a rectangular citadel with projecting bastions at each corner. The Gothic Revival clock tower and the north facade were built in the 1870's. Off the center courtyard are several small rooms that house museum displays, which offer insights into the life's and times of the fort's original inhabitants.
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