St. Martin Day (1959-2012)

The following synopsis by Lasana M. Sekou was written for the 53rd anniversary of St. Martin Day, November 11, 2012, at the invitation of the Department of Culture and Heritage (Service Culture), Collectivity of St. Martin. Lasana M. Sekou is a poet, historian, author, and publisher.


by Lasana M. Sekou

St. Martin Day, on November 11, celebrates the culture, unity, and industry of St. Martin, a nation that constitutes all of the people from the North and South of the island.

The annual St. Martin Day is the principal "nation" day, and the only St. Martin holiday that could be said to "officially" join together the people that tenant the French territory (North) and the Dutch territory (South) to celebrate this Caribbean island as their one homeland.

The emphasis on the unity of the St. Martin people began to manifest more strongly as the basis for St. Martin Day in the late 1980s. That emphasis has been sustained with an increasing determination since the early 1990s, in both the official speeches and programs and in the ever-expanding popular culture activities.

However, a founding principal that launched the first St. Martin Day celebration in 1959, had as a stated aim the celebration of "the anniversary of the discovery of the island by Christopher Columbus.” 1.This thematic aim was a benchmark throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and held some directional sway up to the early 1980s for organizers of St. Martin Day in Philipsburg (Great Bay) and Marigot. Also, "This coming together of the population of both sides of the island was not based on the Treaty of Concordia as many think.” 2.The competing idea of the Concordia accord remains in staunch pockets of the popular imagination and in some official statements, well into the first decade of the new century, as the basis for celebrating St. Martin Day. The Columbus "reason" has all but disappeared.

Then there is the Oral Tradition account, that sometime between 1958 and 1959, two young political leaders, Commissioner Claude Wathey from the South and Mayor Dr. Hubert Petit from the North, got together to discuss the nascent tourism industry. Both were already totally committed to it. Pastoral and postwissel St. Martin was about to be thrust into modernity in an unprecedented way. Somehow the idea came up for a holiday unique to the St. Martin people, to remind them of and to celebrate their long, shared, and active history and traditions of family, friendship, labor, succession lands, trade, and culture that crisscrossed the frontier for centuries.

What is in need of more research, is that November 11 was agreed upon by these gentlemen but less for the supposed, yet unproven, sighting of the island by the Admiral of the Sea – on the birthday of the noble soldier/monk/saint, Martin of Tours. November 1 is thought to have been chosen more so because of the difficulty the administration in Marigot would have had, or suspected it would have had, to convince state authorities, at a politically sensitive period for colonial regimes, that "their" 21-square-mile colony deserved its own day to "join together" with a contiguous Dutch territory of 16 square miles, to celebrate the people’s oneness, their living in harmony and mostly by their own ways and wills, certainly since 1848.

The North was already bound to the Republic’s Armistice Day on November 11 – a French holiday since 1922, to honor the heroic "Ancien Combattant" (St. Martin sons included). The distant Netherlands might as well have thought that the day had more to do with Columbus, Saint Martin of Tours, and its own Martinstag or Martinmas, which is the Feast of St. Martin of Tours, or Martin le Miséricordieux, also on November 11. A perfect storm of "days" converged to allow both territories on the 37-square-mile island to bypass the likely long, drawn-out obstacles that would be posed by distant governments, and "mek a local" decision in record time, to realize one day for the "specificity" of the People of Sweet St. Martin Land? Perhaps.

According to Jocelyn Arndell, treasurer of the "Committee of 11th November, 1963.” 3."The idea of the border celebration" came from Dr. Petit, Felix Choisy, and Clem Labega. One of the earliest well circulated photographs of the ceremony at the "Monument of Friendship” 4. was taken in 1964.

As a postcard it shows Lt. Governor Jan Beaujon delivering his St. Martin Day address before dignitaries, French troops, gendarmes, police (KPNA), scouts, and throngs of St. Martin people standing on the road and the rockwall – all well dressed. The national flags of France and the Netherlands are in the foreground. A short distance away flies the flag of the Territory of the Netherlands Antilles. 5

It should be noted that the Antillean or Central Government decision or legislation (Landsbesluit) in Willemstad, equating November 11 "with Sunday," thus a holiday, "voor wat betreft het eilandgebeid Sint Maarten" (for what regards the island territory of St. Maarten) was signed into law on December 10, 1984, and published on December 11, 1984. 6

From the very beginning, the responsibility for St. Martin Day was alternated between the governments in both capitals. The committee appointed by the host administration organized the official program, e.g.: Church services (Four church services in 1963. The "Programme des festivites du 11 novembre 1980" chaired by Sous-Prefet Guy Maillard, indicated one church service); official speeches, wreath laying, official toast and lunch, parades with marching bands and costumed floats, cultural shows, games for children and adults, boat races, a North-South sports match, and a public dance.

The unwritten tug-of-war as to whether the elected officials or the state representatives should be the main speakers at the border ceremony is also not new. Reputedly, in 1959, Mayor Petit, thought by some as radical or progressive for his time, was the main speaker for the North while the Lt. Governor spoke on behalf of the South (We are still working on the research to confirm this). To their credit, or to the confident and disarming hospitality born of the Traditional St. Martin way of life, the state representatives that tended to express or actually have some affinity or filialty with the St. Martin people, generally spoke in terms of the "unity," "friendship," and "harmony" of the people as opposed to the French and Dutch nationality or authority in either territory.

One example of this expression would be the theme of the St. Martin Day address in 2011, by Gov. drs. Eugene Holiday, emphasizing, "one island, one people, one destiny.” 7 At a time when both territories are plunging ahead, each with a newly obtained and separate autonomous status. In an earlier example, Sous-Prefect S. Thirioux asked permission of his audience at the Frontier, to "break with this tradition" of speaking about "what has been done that year, … and the year to come." It was November 11, 1963, at the very dawn of Modern St. Martin. The speech was published in English in the Windward Islands Opinion. The French state official called directly on "All St. Martiners," to be vigilant "in front of progress. We have to get up out of our rockingchairs and look at our doors finding again the ardour of our fathers" to develop the island, "chasing away the harmful who may it be."

"We have to make ourselves the labourers of this progress and promote it in order to remain master. From passive we become active. From being in debt we become ambitious[,] from being discovered people we become explorers. All St. Martiners possess these virtues so why not exhibit them? Progress solicits the pride, the courage and the vigilance. … Right here, swear before your ancestors to remain worthy of them. …"

"Keep high heart St. Martiners, the task is new and immense. It is up to you.” 8