This arid, volcanic rock of just eight square miles is home to an eclectic mix of iguanas, night-blooming cactus, and fabulous beaches as well as luxury yachts, designer boutiques, and VIPs… Peopled primarily by descendents of the original French settlers and transplanted Europeans, this is an island with a strong, independent personality. Through the vagaries of its history it became a duty-free port and more recently liberated itself from the administrative yoke of Guadeloupe. It is certainly the most unusual of the French West Indies islands.
Closer to Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands than to Guadeloupe (145 miles to the south), Saint Barthélemy and its neighboring island of Saint Martin are known as the “Northern Islands.” Since 2007, they have enjoyed a different political status from the other islands dependent administratively on Guadeloupe. Saint Barthélemy, like its closest neighbor, voted via referendum to evolve from a municipality in Guadeloupe into an Overseas Collectivity (COM) governed by a territorial council. With this move, the island gained a certain amount of autonomy, the Hotel de Ville (or town hall) became the Hotel de la Collectivité, and Saint Barth now has a senator representing the island in Paris.
This change in status reinforces the strong sense of community among the Saint-Barths (the name given to the descendents of the original settlers who came to the island as early as 1659 from Normandy or Brittany or other regions in France), while the island now has a population of over 8500, including recent émigrés primarily from France and Europe. The population remains 90% Caucasian, having been discovered in 1493 by Christopher Columbus, who found an island inhabited by just a few Carib Indians and pirates. Courageous and self-reliant, the early settlers in Saint Barthélemy eked out an existence with the meager agriculture possible on such a dry, rocky island (vegetables, cotton, pineapples, salt, bananas), as well as fishing and privateering. Later, the necessity of their situation taught them to become businessmen as well.
While other Caribbean islands prospered thanks to large sugar cane plantations and slavery, Saint Barthélemy—which became Swedish in 1784—flourished from commerce and contraband. Back under the French flag a century later (1878), the island maintained its penchant for business and also benefitted form the fiscal advantages allowed by Sweden. Saint Barthélemy eventually attracted international investors and tourism became the most important element of the local economy. In spite of their traditional values, the Saint Barths were able to negotiate the rapid transition to a modern lifestyle and the advent of tourism, without abandoning their destiny to strictly foreign development as might be true on other islands in the Antilles.