On the origins of St. Martin Day

POSTED: 11/8/13 3:02 PM

St. Maarten / By Jason Lista – The popular misconception is that St. Maarten Day (originally spelled St. Martin Day, but more on that later) celebrates the sighting of the island by Christopher Columbus when he sailed past on 11 November 1493 on his second voyage to the western hemisphere, over 500 years ago. 11 November is the day of the Catholic patron saint, St. Martin of Tours, and since Columbus was in the habit of naming all these small islands after Catholic saints, it was his choice for the next island he would have spotted.

According to the historical records it is impossible that he sailed past this island on that date because he was reportedly off the southern coast of what is now Nevis on the morning of November 11, near the small rocky island of Redonda. Nevis in all likelihood was supposed to be called St. Martin; however, there is no evidence that the reverse is true, that St. Maarten was supposed to be called Nevis.  In the drift of history, it seems, with the inevitable folly of human hands and the slow passage of time, names and places almost always get mixed up or lost along the way.

It’s even doubtful, according to historians, that Columbus ever saw our island at all, given what we know of the approximate trajectory of his second voyage through this part of the world and the distance he would have been south of St. Maarten while sailing past it. Was it a clear day when he sailed? Was it hazy, enough to obscure a view of the island? We will never know.

What we do know, then, is that the island did not get its name from Columbus. Who exactly gave it the name of St. Martin, though, is another mystery we will likely never know either. But it does appear on maps with that name as early as 1516.

The origin of formal St. Maarten Day celebrations as we now know them had Catholic roots, according to historians like the late Dr. J. Hartog. It was a French Saint Martin initiative in 1959, to celebrate the cultural unity of the island that transcended the artificial boundaries of political borders. Bonds of friendship, intermarriage, and kinship needed to be celebrated it was felt, with a symbol common to both sides, a day reserved for all St. Martiners.

And that symbol was the patron saint of the island, St. Martin of Tours. Both sides had large Catholic communities that celebrated the day of the saint, especially on French St. Martin. But the French had something else in mind as well:  November 11 was the signing of the armistice of 1918, formally ending the First World War. A significant date which everyone could celebrate, regardless of religious denomination, like Methodists, into the island wide festivities.

So it appears there was a dual aspect to the choice of November 11 as our national day: one religious and the other political.

Originally, the name for the holiday was St. Martin Day for both sides, not St. Maarten/St. Martin Day. For centuries, and even under times of Dutch control, the island was almost always spelled St. Martin on maps. Up until relatively recently, English was the everyday language of the inhabitants of both sides. This is because the majority of early European settlers to the island during the 1700s, especially on the Dutch side, were of British origin.  It was not until 1936, that the Dutch Empire – it was a formal European empire then – unilaterally, and formally, changed the island’s name to St. Maarten as we know it today.

The spirit of November 11, though, is to celebrate a day about what unites the island, not what divides it.




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