Discovered by Columbus in 1493, and named for his brother Bartolomeo, St. Barths was first settled in 1648 by French colonists from the nearby island of St. Kitts.
This original settlement was not a great success and in 1651 the island was sold to the Knights of Malta.
Five years later, a raid by Carib Indians destroyed the settlement killing all the settlers. In 1763, the island was settled again, this time by French mariners from Normandy and Brittany. This colony succeeded. French buccaneers found the place hospitable, and brightened the economy with vast quantities of plunder taken from Spanish galleons. Monbars the Exterminator, a famous buccaneer of noble French descent, reputedly maintained his headquarters in St. Barths. His treasure is believed to be still hidden among the coves of Anse du Gouverneur, or buried in the sands of Saline.
Gradually the buccaneers became tradesmen, shopkeepers, fishermen, and small farmers. The island was too small, too rocky, and too dry to become part of the sugar economy of the larger islands.
Except for a brief military takeover by the British in 1758, St. Barths remained French until 1784, when it was sold suddenly to Sweden by one of Louis XVI's ministers in exchange for trading rights in the Swedish port of Gothenburg.
As a free port under Swedish rule, St. Barths served the useful purpose of providing a trade and supply center for the various factions of the colonial wars of the 18th century. When a sea captain captured a prize or raided a settlement, he could sell the booty in St. Barths, and at the same time resupply his ship.
Overflowing warehouses surrounded a harbor packed with ships from many nations, and a mercantile tradition was established that has lingered to the present day. This period of prosperity was short-lived, however, as conflicts ended, and sailing ships were replaced with motor vessels.
France repurchased the island in 1878. The free port status remained, and does to this day, along with such Swedish mementoes as bits of architecture, a cemetery, a few street signs, and, of course, the name of the harbour and capital, Gustavia.
In 1946, Martinique and Guadeloupe, including St. Barths, were given the legal status of a Department of France with the same privileges and responsibilities as any of the Home Departments. This is analogous to the Americans conferring statehood upon Hawaii. The citizens were given French passports, and were expected to pay French taxes, and obey laws formulated in Paris.
In 1957, American millionaire David Rockefeller bought a property: the notoriety of the island quickly grew and its transformation as an upscale tourist destination was underway.
During the last twenty years the resident population of St. Barths has more than doubled. Fewer natives are leaving, and growing number of outsiders are arriving to make an island home for themselves, especially from Metropolitan France.