On Sandy Ground

Anyone in search of a deeper understanding of the recent protests would do well to read the book Saint-Martin: Destabilization of the French Caribbean by the late Daniella Jeffry. It focuses primarily on a period of great change on the island, from the late 1970s to the early 1990s.

Jeffry set the stage with an overview of colonial history, and what she called the “Traditional Period” between 1848 and 1963. In her view, the collapse of the sugar industry, the end of slavery and the departure of white plantation owners led to a time of relative peace during this period. People farmed, fished and did seasonal salt work. People were poor, but largely free to do as they wished. France had little interest in St. Martin, giving the island a kind of independence.

Sandy Ground resident and her home circa 1980. (Photo from Yves Monnier)

Things began to change as tourism developed. The Dutch side began first, building the new airport and pier and the first hotels. By the beginning of the 1980s and feeling 20 years behind, France was in a rush to develop their side of the island. 

The 1980s were a turbulent time, even though tourists might remember it as a golden age. There was massive development, immigration tripled the population of French St. Martin, and the French state increased its involvement in local affairs. Laws and zoning plans were changed to facilitate tourism development. 

Jeffry’s book describes one series of events in March of 1980 may help us better understand the current conflict over today’s natural disaster risk prevention plan (PPRN). In early 1980, there was a development plan to transform Sandy Ground into a tourist area. The homes there where people lived and raised their families were largely built without permits on land that they did not have clear title to. One of the first steps was to knock down buildings that the state considered illegal.

Sandy Ground from above around 1980. (Photo by REGNAM)

In response to the first houses being bulldozed, 2nd Deputy Mayor Albert Romney-Burnett bulldozed the French security police barracks in the same area. The next Saturday, March 8th, a meeting was held to discuss the transfer of Sandy Ground land to the government.

Mayor Elie Fleming explained to the the tense crowd that due to the position of Sandy Ground, between lagoon and sea, and the distance between the high water marks on each side, the land actually belonged to the state. He said “Sandy Ground, for those who do not know, is the result of the abuses of those people who came here to work but could not find a place to live.” He said that these “greedy and selfish people” would not be allowed to continue living there. The area to be retaken by the state would be marked by the following Monday.

Mrs. Berry Gumbs, who owned a home in Sandy Ground, spoke up to say that no one could take her property. Albert Romney-Burnett encouraged residents to get their property ownership legalized. He also said, “St. Martin people are a very understanding people. But one thing is for sure, we are going to stand up for what is rightfully ours. I feel that St. Martin people have been pushed in a corner and we are going to stand up and defend ourselves.” He also made a call to “protest in a peaceful way.”

The comments from the crowd and the heated atmosphere seemed to change the mind of government. The plan to take Sandy Ground was not implemented in 1980. Since then, questions of land ownership and zoning have often caused dispute. And the echoes of March 8th, 1980 can still be heard.

What are your memories of unrest in the 1980s? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or [email protected].

You can read Saint-Martin: Destabilization of the French Caribbean at Soualibra. You can buy it on Amazon or at Arnia Bookstore.

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