Saint Barthélemy’s journey under Swedish control began with a treaty signed by Gustav III of Sweden and France, allowing Sweden to acquire the island in exchange for France’s duty-free storage privileges in Gothenburg, south west of Sweden. Initially, there was great enthusiasm about this new acquisition, however it soon became evident that the island was one of the smallest in the West Indies, lacking fertile land and fresh water. In spite of this, the island had a notable harbor which motivated King Gustav III to invest in trade.
The first Swedes arrived in early 1785 and where faced with challenges of navigating the island’s undeveloped terrain. The population at the time was estimated to be around 700 habitants of which approximately 300 where slaves. The habitants made their living by extracting salt from salt pans, cultivating cotton and raising / selling livestock.
On March 7, 1785 a party with Salomon Mauritz von Rajalin (a major and baron at the age of 27) in the lead, took possession of the island and he was appointed as the commandant (later governor) of the island. During the following years they focused on improving the island’s infrastructure. They dredged the port of Le Carénage, constructed roads, built customs houses, warehouses and wharves. A business sector was developed with administration, judiciary and a harbour town was constructed around the port. The town was named Gustavia in honor of King Gustav III. A Swedish church was also established together with an appointed Swedish priest.
In order for trade to thrive, a ‘free port’ was established allowing goods from various nations to be unloaded, stored and sold duty-free. American ships from the newly independent United States where at the time unable to enter English ports in the West Indies so found a solution by utilising the duty-free port of Saint Barthélemy. English merchants would purchase goods to then transport them to the British Isles. Consequently the port of Saint Barthélemy became a significant hub for American trade in the West Indies during those years.
A couple of years later The West Indian Company was established in Sweden, aiming to control the trade with the Swedish colony, although conflict arose between the company’s officials and the island’s governor. The company collected 75% of the island’s income and had the right to engage in the slave trade with African trading posts. A proposal to conduct slave trade on St. Barths was supported by the Swedish government and the company prepared the first slave expedition. The expedition was however abandoned due to the outbreak of Gustav III’s Russian war. The West India Company ceased it’s operations a decade later and the island was governed solely by the Governor.
The Napoleonic Wars temporarily boosted the island’s trade until after the wars when the importance of the duty-free port diminished significantly, especially when Great Britain reopened it’s West Indian ports to American ships. The golden years of the Swedish colony came to an end. In 1847 slavery was officially abandoned and the Swedish parliament allocated funds to set the slaves free.
The habitants faced increasing poverty and declining population. As a result of the increased financial support required, the Swedish authorities began negotiation with both United States of America and Italy before an agreement was made with France to return the island in 1877/78. Swedish properties were redeemed by the French state and provisions were made for repatriation and pensions for Swedish civil servants who chose not to transfer to French service. On March 16, 1878, the Swedish flag was lowered at the governor’s house in Gustavia and the French tricolor flag was raised in its place.
While the Swedish colonial era was relatively short it’s influence is still visible in St. Barth’s today. Swedish road names and places can be found throughout the island together with celebration of it’s Swedish heritage.
The history of St. Barth’s as a Swedish colony adds a unique layer to the island’s fascinating cultural heritage alongside it’s current status as a premier Caribbean yacht charter and holiday destination.