Saint Barthélemy, a French Diamond in the Caribbean

Saint Barthélemy has been a luxury destination since David Rockefeller built a villa there in the 1950s. But St. Barts is in fact part of France, which many French people are unaware of since years of tourism have blurred the island's origins.
© Guirec Pouliquen/Comité territorial de tourisme de Saint Barthélemy

”Nowhere else in our Antilles, even in individual communities […] is the population as white or as French by blood,” wrote geographer Charles Robequain in 1949. And he was not wrong, as half of the 9,500 inhabitants of Saint Barthélemy (known colloquially as St. Barts), descend from French colonists who arrived in the 17th century.

Most of these descendants own a considerable amount of property and control key economic sectors from aviation to construction. Some French last names are so common on the island that certain inhabitants have to collect their mail directly from the capital, Gustavia, to avoid it being misplaced. Local records contain no fewer than 239 people called Gréaux, 122 called Lédée, and 79 called Magras.

Everyone knows one another and greetings are spoken in the local patois − Comment té ki va ? − or in Creole − Sa ou fé ? These local languages are reminiscent of a bygone age when the island was divided into one half “in the wind” and another ”under the wind.“ At this time there was little interaction between the two, and both have since kept their individual patois along with French spoken in an archaic accent. The French people in St. Barts are older on average than the population in mainland France and traditionally vote for right-wing parties in one of the four polling places across the territory.

A French-Caribbean Island

Once known as Ouanalao (“Where the iguanas live”) by the Arawak native peoples, Saint Barthélemy was discovered in 1493 by Christopher Columbus who renamed it after his brother Bartholomew. For some time it was owned by the Knights of Malta, who were then followed by Breton and Norman sailors from the then French and now British island of Saint Christopher some 25 miles away. The resulting communities of buccaneers and merchants made a living through fishing, trade, and smuggling alcohol and cigarettes.

St. Barts was given over to Sweden in 1784 before being returned to the French in 1878, but has kept the three Swedish crowns on its coat of arms. Today, a few buildings, the square layout of the port of Gustavia, and a few street names offer a reminder of this fleeting Scandinavian era.

St. Barts does not promote its Creole background as local exoticism is more international than Afro-Caribbean. The island was also hardly affected by slavery. “Our roots are in France, even though the mainland forgot us for many years,” says Françoise Gréaux, a local writer. Originally from St. Barts, she defines herself as ”French, Caribbean, and proud to have been born on this rock.”

David Rockefeller was the first American to develop an interest in the island, in 1957, and had a villa built. The Rothschild family and the New York jet-set soon followed suit. However, access to the island by boat or plane is difficult and expensive, requiring a stop in Saint Martin some 17 miles to the northwest.

A Unique French Département

Colorful seaside villages and beaches line the winding rocky roads. And despite the passage of Hurricane Irma in 2017, the untrained eye will see very little damage caused by the storm as the island drew on its own resources to rebuild at lightning speed.

The island’s hotels are small-scale to conserve a family atmosphere. It is also proud to offer the very best in French gastronomy and hospitality. The menu at the Sand Bar was developed by renowned Alsace-born chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten and the staff are recruited from the finest hospitality schools in mainland France.

Gustavia is the island’s only town. The neighborhood of Lorient is home to one of the two Catholic churches twinned with the diocese of Basse-Terre in Guadeloupe. The remaining cows graze on the hilly pastures of Pointe Milou, where Hollywood-style second homes have been built. ”There are only around 50 typical huts left clad with wood or whitewash,” says Hélène Bernier, an inhabitant of the island and founder of the Saint-Barth Autrement association, which works to protect local heritage.

For a long time, Saint Barthélemy was a territory attached to Guadeloupe before being granted an independent Overseas Collectivity status in 2007. Its local council has 19 members and is presided by Bruno Magras. Nicknamed the “sheriff of St. Barts,” he insists on the inhabitants’ ”desire to remain French but with a specific status.” None of the residents pay taxes, for example, and the island is financed by a 5% ”dock tax” on imported products – which make up almost all consumable goods. In exchange for an annual contribution of three million euros, the French government provides a number of civil servants, teachers, and police officers.

”Teachers come from Saint Martin to St. Barts to lead dual-language programs, but they struggle to find accommodation as rents are so high,” says Sylvie Pollien, principal of the kindergarten in Gustavia. Two kindergartens and three elementary schools (two private, one public) currently welcome Francophone children, and the island also has a middle-school. After ninth grade, students continue their studies in Guadeloupe, Canada, the United States, or mainland France.

“The St. Barts Spirit”

Food is shipped or flown to the island, which also forces up prices. The aisles in the Super U grocery store are overflowing with AOP-label cheeses and an impressive selection of French wines. The rosé wine cellar is packed with rare bottles, and caviar – unlike yoghurt – is rarely out of stock.

Regular visitors come to St. Barts for anonymity and peace and quiet. While Saint Tropez is a bling-bling hub, the Caribbean island is a place to relax with one’s own. The easygoing inhabitants – known as the ”Saint Barths” – are now used to bumping into actor Jean Reno and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen at the supermarket. Locals, tourists, and superstars can all be found on the terrace of the island’s oldest bar – the Select – whose menu features a “Cheeseburger in Paradise“ in homage to the hit by American crooner Jimmy Buffett, who composed the album Songs from St. Somewhere at the local Eden Rock hotel in 2013.

In February 2018, French singer Johnny Hallyday was buried in the Lorient cemetery where white cement crosses are lined up facing the sea. The rock star spent family holidays on the island where he built his Jade Villa, which is now available to rent for 40,000 euros per week. Many still remember seeing him at Jojo Burger and Nikki Beach, and fans continue to travel to his final resting place to leave shells and pebbles inscribed with their name or a song title.

Despite its villas and increasing population density, St. Barts has retained its simple nature. A modest basketry sector can still be found in the fishing village of Corossol to the north and opposite Toiny Bay in the southeast. Elderly inhabitants weave hats and baskets from latania palm leaves, acting as the guardians of “the St. Barts spirit.”

Article published in the September 2018 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.