St. Barths Online


Nov 7, 2001


In Swedish, "Skål" is a toast, and one you'll hear a lot of during November, especially if you happen to visit the Select, the most popular bar in St. Barths.
Indeed, November has become Swedish month in St. Barths. Visiting Scandinavians who brave the long trip to come to this corner of the world will invariably wind up at the Select. It is here, that the owner, Marius Stakelborough, their longtime friend and supporter, decided, some twenty years back, to jar the island's memory and rekindle its former tie with Sweden.
For those of you unfamiliar with island history, it is important to understand the prominent place that Sweden once occupied. At the end of the 17th century, St. Barthélemy was a French island. After some initial, albeit futile, attempts at colonization, the French were finally able to establish a settlement. It wasn't until July 1, 1784, that French St. Barths changed banners and became Swedish. Not wishing to be outdone by neighboring Denmark, a country that had already succeeded in establishing itself in the area that is now the US Virgin islands, Gustaf III approached the French with a deal. The Swedish king had little trouble convincing Louis XVI to cede his forsaken West Indian territory to Sweden in exchange for duty-free trading privileges in Göteborg, a port in western Sweden.
Under the century of Swedish rule that ensued, the island prospered in relative opulence. The population grew, the capitol of Gustavia was the home of many new businesses, and commerce flourished. What the Swedish monarch could not have known when he went to the negotiating table, was that the island would be hit with some wicked hurricanes, an outbreak of yellow fever, and a fire that would ravage Gustavia, where most of his countrymen had set up their homes and businesses. The proposition was far costlier than he could have imagined, and even the access to US maritime trading routes to which his country had aspired slowly slipped away. Once so seductive, the far-off colony had become an unmanageable, unjustifiable drain for the Swedish economy. One can only imagine that the Swedes breathed a sigh of great relief when the island was resold to France on August 10, 1877 for 80,000 francs.
In the international treaty that oversaw the retrocession, Sweden specified that St. Barths should continue to profit from its status as a duty-free island. The chapter ended, the page turned and that minor historical footnote would be tucked away into history's dusty drawer for two centuries. There it remained, more or less untouched, until the tides of political opinion in mainland France forced the island's political and business leaders to open up the past in a frantic hunt for a historical bulwark.
In the meantime, the island continued to grow and develop around the remnants of the Swedish colonial period, integrating the buildings of yore into the framework of St. Barth's unique architectural style. The Swedish style has its sentinels, those that have survived prosperity, tourism, and the 20th century. A leisurely and attentive tour of the capital will reveal these time-honored treasures: the Wall House, the clock tower, the original town hall, where the Swedish flag flies next to the French flag, and the Brigantin, a historical landmark that now serves as headquarters to the Swedish consulate in St. Barths. The Swede, Samuel Fahlberg, who originally cast the layout for Gustavia, is remembered today in a street that bears his name, one that spans the width of the harbor and runs in front of the historical Anglican church.
The Swedes who come today are only incidentally concerned with the island's most pressing political issue. That is to say, its desire to become a territorial collectivity and its demand that St. Barths be officially recognized in contemporary French and EEC law as a duty-free place where its citizens can continue to enjoy the legacy of the Swedish treaty provision: its status as a tax-free haven.
They come to participate in the 12-kilometer marathon foot race held every year on November 11. They come to escape the Scandinavian cold, to feel the gentle rays of the sun, to eat fine French food, loll on the beaches, and toast their famous "Skål" at the Select.
No history would be complete without giving credit to the two cultural archeologists who pulled the connection between St. Barths and Sweden out of the textbooks and into the vibrant stream of contemporary island life. Marius Stakelborough is one, former mayor Daniel Blanchard is the other. The two men packed their bags in the late 70's, headed for Stockholm. Their mission statement: to rekindle the ties between the two cultures, and to find a sister city in Sweden. They accomplished their tasks, were greeted like true diplomatic dignitaries, and had a private audience with King Carl Gustaf XIV. Marius was decorated with one of Sweden's highest distinctions, the Knight's Medal of the Polar Order, an honor he bears with the greatest of pride still today.
If you attend Gustavialoppet, the Swedish marathon, watch the Swedes battle it out with the locals in a grueling island run, see the winners take their place on the podium in front of the Wall House, located on the corner of Pitea street, named after the island's Swedish sister city, then head down to Marius' place, the Select, for a drink, and cheer in the only Swedish word you know, you'll have come full circle, and history will make perfect sense.

More to come,

Yves Bourel

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