The Decolonial Well

Right now, there is an online petition to change the name of Philipsburg to Great Bay. Great Bay is a name many St. Martiners have used their whole life. That is, when they aren’t simply calling it Town. The petition was started by Joseph Lake, Jr. and quickly received several hundred signatures.

A view of Great Bay in 1947.

According to the petition, “Great Bay is the traditional and historic name given to our capital by “Our” People. Philipsburg is the name forced on our capital by the slave master John Philips. To officially name Great Bay is to claim it as our own.” There are similar movements all over the world to decolonize and reclaim public spaces.

John Philips was a slaveholder and the Commander of the Dutch part of St. Martin. He was an active part of a colonial system that enslaved people. He is often credited with increasing the population and prosperity of the island. Population gains came mostly through increases in number of enslaved persons. And they did not share in any prosperity. The town was named after him by the Council, another part of the colonial power structure. Slavery continued on St. Martin for over 100 years after his death.

A view of Great Bay in the 1940s. (Beaux Arts photo)

The movement to rename Great Bay makes us reconsider John Philips. It also suggests we rethink other names drawn from history. St. Martin is blessed with monuments to salt pickers, bus drivers and other non-colonial figures, but many places still bear the names of slaveholder estates.

Colonialism persists in these place names. It also persists in the written histories of the island that draw from colonial archives. It persists in narratives presenting the island as French and Dutch.

Decolonizing thought and culture on St. Martin is an ongoing task. Old stories must be examined. False stories must be corrected. And new stories must be added to what we present as the history and culture of the island.

Living memory, oral history and personal collections of photos and belongings are the decolonial well. That is where we will find the stories and images that better represent the island. We will need to draw from it to tell the peoples’ story. Without this well of human knowledge, we are left with the official archives that have showcased the few and ignored the many for far too long.

The name Great Bay was kept by the people. It didn’t have to be on a map or a sign. Personal, family and community heritage are the building blocks of a newer, truer history. Saving this heritage helps us build a better future. With it, the children of tomorrow will finally be able to look at their heritage and see themselves.

What local names, places and people do would you like to recognize? Send a message to [email protected] or to The Daily Herald.


  1. This was an article about a petition to rename the south side capital from Philipsburg to Great Bay. There isn’t a petition to rename St. Martin right now, but we might write an article about it if there was one. I would guess Soualiga would be a front-runner for a renaming of St. Martin. It is worth noting that St. Martin is named after a bishop from the 4th century who cut a cloak in half to clothe a beggar. Philipsburg is named after a man who enslaved other people. It is not very hard to see why one name change might be a higher priority than the other.

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