On March 23, 1648, the Treaty of Concordia established the terms of peaceful co-existence between the French and Dutch settlements of St. Martin/St. Maarten, with the French colonizers maintaining the Northern two-thirds, facing Anguilla, and the Dutch, the southern third.
The village of Marigot appeared towards 1689 on the initiative of a few merchants who used the bay to load their ships with agricultural produce on the French side. Originally, the area was a marsh surrounded by mangroves where one could get many crabs, even in the streets. The town was baptized Marigot, from the word "maricage" meaning ponds and marshes in Old French.
Experiencing rapid growth the first half of the 18th century due to the introduction of sugar cane plantations, the little village became capital to different governors succeeding each other to develop and organize the colony. Batteries of canons and modest fortification guarded access to the port until 1789 when Fort Louis was built.
Fort Louis remains the largest historic and only military monument in St. Martin. The plans were sent over directly from Versailles at the order of the ill-fated French King Louis XVI, who soon lost his head in the French Revolution.
By the early 1800's there were 35 to 37 sugar cane plantations on each side of the island, worked by slaves brought from Africa. In 1848, slavery was abolished in the French Caribbean islands, and the sugar industry quickly waned, with the close of the last St. Martin plantation in 1915. The economy of the island from the early 20th century to the mid-1950's was very poor.
Many of the families that carried the island's heritage at the turn of the 20th century still exist today. There are those whose ancestors arrived in the 1600's, who where charged with building Fort Louis, whose great-great-great-great grandparents are buried on their old plantation grounds like Loterie Farm and Golden Grove Estates in Colombier, Bellevue and St. John's on the outskirts of Marigot.
Life was simple in the absence of electricity, telephone and cars. Nature dominated. Even currency was not readily negotiated among these colonists. Trade and sharing linked families, where Christian doctrine influenced all of their lives in their effort to survive and grow. The Marigot Church up old "Church Hill," now rue de l'Eglise, has been a central force in the French community for over 150 years.
One beautiful woman, now in her seventies, remembers the extraordinary spirit that united all. Her father's legacy includes many of the historic Creole homes in Marigot, Grand Case, French Quarter and Philipsburg. Because of his construction business, a cistern of grand proportions was built to secure water for the mixture of the island's first cement in the early 1920's, which he dug in the heart of Marigot by the now Palais de Justice, adjacent to their seaside home. In the worst of droughts, even this would run dangerously low, while many families had already lost their water reserves, and Marigot's community well had run dry.
She recalls, as a young child over sixty years ago, when she witnessed her mother's sharing from the giant cistern of their business, its water level greatly diminished.
She was afraid that they would have no water for their own family of ten children. Her mother quieted her when another mother arrived asking for water and she shared in the heat of the day. That very evening, the night skies opened and rain fell in bucketsful..
The next morning her mother took her by the hand to visit their water supply. "Imagine," her mother taught, "how I would feel today, if I had sent our friend away without water yesterday?" This is the spirit of faith and hope that kept this city alive.
While the 1920's were roaring in the United States, there were no planes for leisure travel. Air flight was just taking wing. It wasn't until the 1950's, after World War II, that St. Martin began to receive visitors by air.
Michelette (Mimi) Fleming remembers her first trip to St. Martin in October 1957 when she arrived from New York with her fiance, Elie Fleming, to visit his homeland. She remembers a dirt airstrip with a little house as the airport, and stayed with her best friend and future Maid of Honor at Little Bay, the island's first modern hotel which hosted Queen Juliana of the Netherlands on her royal visits.
Mimi was 26 years old, working in Wall Street as an interpreter for American Express, when she met Elie Fleming, an honored guest at a concert organized in a popular French club in Manhattan. Son-heir of major property owners on French St. Martin, Elie was also Mayor of Marigot, having succeeded his brother Louis Constant Fleming after his death over ten years earlier.
Elie persuaded Mimi to break her engagement with another man and marry him. Upon his return to St. Martin, he wrote to her every day. Since there was no telephone on the French side, he had to travel to Philipsburg to place a rare call, and soon hooked up with one of the first American homeowners, and tycoon, who nightly contacted Mimi for Elie on his secret ham-radio.
By the time Mimi arrived in 1958 as Elie's bride, he kept his promise by having the first phone installed on his family's estate, Loterie Farm. Mimi recalls the beauty of the garden with its glorious profusion of color. It was a whole new world for her. She remembers hosting Americans at Loterie Farm who were just arriving to the island. Private planes brought the elite, families of the Fortune 500, including the Fawcetts , Douglas's, and celebrities like Benny Goodman and Harry Belefonte, and Jasper Johns who also made their home here.
The waterfront became active with bistros and fine restaurants, small, elegant shops, enticed by the duty-free trade of jewels, fine china, crystal and tobacco. Fashion etiquette was at a high, when women dressed up for lunch and dinner. Parisian designs fancifully arrived and were sought.
The population on the French side jumped from 8,000 in 1980 to 30,000 in 2000 and is now estimated at 37,000.
The filling in of part of the bay enabled an extension of Marigot in the late 1970's, creating a larger city with a marina. In the 1980's, the restoration of Fort Louis was undertaken by a small group of civic leaders; cutting through the rough terrain of cactus grown over the centuries. Even the original canons were air-lifted from all over the island by gendarme helicopters and reunited safely overlooking Marigot's harbor. Daily it beckons the curious to climb the mount and every night it glows majestically above the harbor.
A similar spirit is driving the restoration of many of the historic Creole homes that can be found concentrated along rue de la Republique, known simply as "The Big Street" for many centuries. Families like the Richardson's, Petites, Flemings and Beauperthuys , whose ancestors were some of the first to arrive on these shores, are fueling the surge to protect and maintain the island's patrimony, whose city of Marigot, now in the 21st century, represents one of the most famous capitals in the French West Indies.
Several frequent visitors shared their favorite things to do in Marigot. Their notes recall "strolling down rue de la Republique and stopping for a chocolate at the French chocolatier, Jeff de Bruges; looking at the beautiful Impressionist paintings at the Roland Richardson gallery across the way; photographing the gorgeous French gardens behind the historic houses and ambling up the hill to see Fort Louis.
Also wonderful on the weekends is strolling through the open air spice and vegetable market and stopping for an espresso along the side streets to rest one's feet."
One family wrote, "We love Marigot for its charm, its Caribbean and European influence. The boutiques offer a variety of high end and moderate merchandise. Our favorite stores are Max Mara, Carre Blanc and Christofle. One of our favorite restaurants, Le Chanteclaire, is located on the marina."
On a personal note, twelve years ago, when I was invited to the lovely corner bistro on Marigot's harbor, famous for it fine cuisine and animated seating, I discovered in more ways than imaginable, La Vie en Rose.
This is a story without end. Marigot is a blend of past and present magic that is waiting to be experienced by all visitors to the island of St. Martin, and should not be missed by any.
International travel and tourism took another thirty years to evolve, until 1985 when the French law of defiscalization gave tax incentives for French citizens and businesses to invest in the islands of the French West Indies, thus making investment more profitable.
Many thanks to Cynthie Richardson, Mimi Fleming, Roland Richardson, the "Sur les Traces des Arawaks" Museum in Marigot, the French Office of Tourism, Linda Wellstein, Liz Lynch, Liliana Arrigoni, Randy Jones and Gina Baharani for their special contributions.
Visit their beautiful gallery at:
Roland Richardson Gallery Museum
#6 rue de la Republique, Marigot, St. Martin
Where Fine Art, History and Nature Abound!
Article by Laura Richardson
© Copyright Laura and Roland Richardson 2014