Every early account of St. Martin reveals something unique. During the early history of the island there were few written records, so every stray detail is of interest. Often, St. Martin appears in only a few sentences in a book about wider travels in the Caribbean. The reality of the island at the time is a great sea of possibility, shaped only vaguely by a handful of written observations.
Of course, all the early writings about the island were by European men educated enough to write. Many of those people were priests. Guillaume Coppier was an exception in some ways. Although he could write, he was not wealthy. Although he was Christian, he wasn’t part of the church.
He came to the Caribbean as an indentured servant in 1628. He lived and labored on St. Kitts, which was then shared by the English and the French. He had worked about a year and a half there before the Spanish attacked the island. While fleeing, he became stranded in St. Martin for two months. His account of this time on St. Martin was published fifteen years later, along with an account of his other travels.
His book, History and Voyage to the West Indies and to Several Other Maritime and Faraway Regions, is discussed in detail in the book Desperate in St. Martin: Notes on Guillaume Coppier by Gérard M. Hunt. Hunt describes the unique style of the text and provides and easy to read translation of most of the book.
As one might expect, Coppier did not enjoy being stranded on St. Martin, “dying of hunger and thirst; having no water but that which flowed through several minerals that made it distasteful.” For Coppier, the Caribbean was full of mosquitoes and biting flies and short on food and drinkable water.
But St. Martin was also lovely, especially “several beautiful salt marshes, located in the low land of the island.” He found St. Martin “full of tall trees different from ours” and “different sorts of birds and a good number of parakeets.” Sea turtles and their eggs were plentiful.
He also had praise for small lizards that he called anoles. He claimed that when men were sleeping on the ground, these lizards would pinch them on the ears to wake them up when snakes were nearby. He said they were “our guardians when we rested, and that we slept in peace among them.”
How much can we believe early accounts like Coppiers? We can be sure that lizards weren’t trying to protect him. We can also be sure that sea turtles were plentiful back then. We don’t have any parrot or parakeet specimens from St. Martin, but they do feature in other early writings. It may be hard to imagine a St. Martin covered in tall trees, but beautiful wetlands can still be found. His words reveal an island that is still recognizable to us today despite hundreds of years of change.
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English translations of Coppier’s text in this article are taken from Desperate in St. Martin.