Saint Barthélemy, officially the Territorial collectivity of Saint Barthélemy, is an overseas collectivity of France. Often abbreviated to Saint-Barth in French, or St. Barts or St. Barth's in English, the indigenous people called the island Ouanalao. St. Barts lies about 35 km (21.75 mi) southeast of Sint Maarten/Saint Martin, and north of St. Kitts. Puerto Rico is 240 km (149.1 mi) to its west in the Lesser Antilles.
The collectivity is one of four territories among the Leeward Islands in the northeastern Caribbean that comprise the French West Indies, along with Guadeloupe (200 km southeast), Martinique, and Saint Martin. Saint Barthélemy was for many years a French commune forming part of Guadeloupe, which is an overseas région and département of France and is therefore in the European Union.
Saint Barthélemy, a volcanic island fully encircled by shallow reefs, has an area of 22.1 km² (8.5 mi²) and a population of 8,902 (Jan. 2009 census). Its capital is Gustavia, which also contains the main harbour to the island. It is the only Caribbean island which was a Swedish colony for any significant length of time; Guadeloupe was under Swedish rule only briefly, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Symbolism from the Swedish national arms, the Three Crowns, still appears in the island's coat of arms. The language, cuisine and culture, however, are distinctly French. The island is a popular tourist destination during the winter holiday season, especially the rich and famous during the Christmas and New Year period.
The ancient history of the island dates to about 1000 BC when the Ciboney people attempted to settle but left due to the lack of water, either for drinking or for practicing agriculture. It was much later, around 100 AD, that Arawak Indians started living on the island. They were pushed out by the Caribs around 800 AD. There have been archaeological finds, such as pottery and crude tools, related to the Carib existence on the island.
The first European colonisation of the island began in 1623 (settlers from Dieppe) when Pierre Belain d'Esnambuc, a private operator, established a company known as Compagnie de Saint-Christophe. With financial support from Cardinal Richelieu, d'Esnambuc established hegemony of the French in the Caribbean islands including St. Barts. For this purpose, the company brought over farmers from the French provinces of Normandy and Brittany. St. Barts was claimed by France in 1648. In 1651, when the Compagnie de Saint-Christophe found it difficult to survive in the arid conditions, they sold it to the Knights of Malta as it is still visible by the Maltese cross eight-pointed cross on the coat of arms. In 1656 the Caribs rebelled against the European settlers and killed some of them.
There was a very brief takeover by the British in 1758. The island was given to Sweden in 1784 in exchange for trade rights in Gothenburg. It was only after 1784, when King Louis XVI exchanged the island to Sweden, that the island's fortunes changed for the better. This change of control saw progress and prosperity as the Swedes declared Gustavia a free port, convenient for trading by the Europeans for goods, including contraband material. However, that prosperity was short-lived and the island returned to a lean period.
Slavery was practiced in St. Barts under the "Ordinance concerning the Police of Slaves and free Coloured People" of 1787. The last legally owned slaves in the Swedish colony of St. Barts were granted their freedom by the state on 9 October 1847. Since the island was not a plantation area, the freed slave suffered economic hardships due to lack of opportunities for employment.
In 1852, a devastating hurricane hit the island and this was followed by a fire. Following a referendum in 1877, Sweden gave the island back to France in 1878, after which it was administered as part of Guadeloupe. The Swedish period left its mark in the names of many of the streets and the town Gustavia (in honour of King Gustav III), and the presence of Sweden's national arms, the Tre Kronor in the island's coat of arms. Other heraldry include the Maltese cross, the Fleur-de-lis, the mural crown and two pelicans.
On 19 March 1946, the people of the island became French citizens with full rights. The island was placed together with St. Martin and Guadeloupe and Martinique, and given legal status as a Department of France. The population of St. Barts was relatively impoverished. Since economic support was not forthcoming from France, the island developed a special relationship with US Virgin Islands.
Many men from St. Barts took jobs on St Thomas in order to support their families. The island received electricity circa 1961. Tourism began in the 1960s, developed in the 1970s, and led to considerable international popularity beginning in the 1980s. Today the island is known for its exclusivity and posh tourism.
Saint Barthélemy was for many years a French commune forming part of Guadeloupe, which is an overseas région and département of France and is therefore in the European Union. Through an referendum in 2003, island residents sought separation from the administrative jurisdiction of Guadeloupe, and it was finally accomplished in 2007. The island of Saint Barthélemy became an Overseas Collectivity (COM). A governing territorial council was elected for its administration, which has provided the island with a certain degree of autonomy. The Hotel de Ville, which was the town hall, is now the Hotel de la Collectivité. A senator represents the island in Paris. St. Barts has retained its free port status. As a result of its changed status, Saint Barthélemy left the European Union on 1 January 2012, the second area after Greenland to do so (see also Special member state territories and the European Union).