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st barthelemy, Lorient, cimetière

The beautiul cemetery at Lorient in St. Barthélemy

ST. BARTHELEMY / A Brief History

The historical significance of St. Barthélemy is far out of proportion to its tiny size. Discovered by Columbus in 1493 and named for his brother Bartolomeo, it was settled around 1648 by French colonists who were living on the nearby island of St. Kitts. This early settlement did not prosper and in 1651 the island was sold to the Knights of Malta. Five years later it was raided by the fierce Carib Indians, then abandoned until 1673, when it was again settled by Frenchmen from Normandy and Brittany. This time the colony was successful and the source of much of that prosperity were French buccaneers who swarmed to the island, bringing with them vast quantities of plunder taken from Spanish galleons. Monbars the Exterminator, a famous buccaneer, reputedly maintained headquarters in St. Barthélemy and his treasure is believed to still be hidden somewhere between Anse du Gouverneur and Grande Saline.

Many of the people of St. Barthélemy were tradesmen and shopkeepers, while others maintained farms. The farms were generally of a modest size and the topography and climate never were not appropriate to create a sugar economy. Except for a brief takeover by the British in 1758, St. Barthélemy remained French until 1784 when it was sold suddenly to Sweden by one of Louis XVI's ministers in exchange for trading rights. While the permanent population continued to till the soil, the Swedes took over, renamed the harbor Gustavia in honor of their King, declared it a neutral free port, and made fortunes in trade. When Europe's wars subsided, France repurchased the island in 1878, but this time there was no more trading with warring nations and little agriculture to speak of. The free port status remained, and still does, along with such Swedish mementos as a bit of architecture, a cemetery, a couple of street signs, and, of course, the name of the harbor and capital, Gustavia.

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