Gustavia is the capital and main seaport of the island of Saint Barthélemy, also known as “St. Bart’s.” The Caribbean island is said to have been discovered by explorer Christopher Columbus in 1493, who named it after his brother Bartolomeo. The Taino Indians were the indigenous residents of the island.
The island was first claimed by French colonists in 1648 who arrived with enslaved Africans from the island of St. Kitts. In 1651, the island was sold to the Knights of Malta, an 11th-century Italian religious order. Despite European claims of discovery and ownership, the Taino Indians destroyed both the French and Italian settlements. The Taino placed the heads of their victims on poles lining the beach to warn any further intruders, a tactic that worked for several decades.
French mariners were the next invaders. They successfully settled on the island in 1763. French buccaneers, commonly known as pirates, boosted the economy by trading their plunder of gold from Spanish Galleons for food, liquor, and enslaved Indians and Africans held captive on the island. There was a brief British military takeover of the island in 1758, but it quickly returned to the French until 1784 when they sold it to Sweden in exchange for trading rights in the Swedish port of Gothenburg.
Island traders and local dwellers flourished under Swedish rule. As a free port, one could trade and sell wares and people, purchase supplies for the next voyage, all while avoiding any punishment for otherwise illegal activities. Gustavia first appears in archival records in December 1786, named after the Swedish King Gustav III. The capital city currently takes up about 1.3 square miles of the nine-square-mile island. France repurchased the island in 1878.
Gustavia sits on the Oscar (formerly Gustav Adolf) harbor. Its landmarks include the Gustav Adolf Harbor lighthouse, the Saint Bartholomew Anglican Church, built in 1855, a Royal Swedish Consulate, and numerous shops, boutiques, upscale hotels, and restaurants.
All citizens and residents of Gustavia and Saint Barthélemy as well as the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, regardless of race, were given legal status by the Department of France in 1946. The status meant all island residents are French citizens and French is the official language.
In 2007 Saint Barthélemy became an Overseas Collectivity of France which meant local residents could elect a nineteen-member territorial council. That council in turn elected Bruno Magras as its first president. Gustavia remains the capital of this island of approximately 10,000 permanent residents.