Caribbean paradise holds on to its Swedish past

While Sweden's Caribbean colonial ambitions ended long ago, a group on the island of Saint Barthélemy is working to preserve the former colony's Swedish heritage, contributor Carina Chela discovers.

Caribbean paradise holds on to its Swedish past
A view of the port of Gustavia on Saint Barthélemy

The crystal blue waters, warm temperatures, and jet-setting tourists of Saint Barthélemy bear little resemblance to Sweden’s forested landscape and sometimes bone-chilling climate.

When first hearing mention of this small Caribbean island with a French sounding name, commonly known as St. Barts, one is hard pressed to make any connection to Sweden whatsoever.

Discovered in 1493 by Christopher Columbus, who named it after his younger brother, this roughly 20 square kilometre patch of land was taken over by the French in 1648.

But in 1784, Sweden’s King Gustav III managed to negotiate the acquisition of what would end up being Sweden’s longest-held colony in the western hemisphere by offering France’s Louis XVI warehousing rights in Gothenburg.

On March 7th, 1758, St. Barts officially became a Swedish colony, ushering in almost a century of Swedish rule.

According to Leos Müller, professor of marine history at Stockholm University, Gustav III had ambitious colonial dreams for Sweden.

Apart from commercial interests, Gustav III also had a big political agenda for his growing empire, believing a colony in the Caribbean would “confirm Sweden’s status among the great European nations”, Müller explains.

While Gustav III had his eye on the more prosperous island of Tobago, which Sweden had unsuccessfully attempted to colonise back in 1733, he ultimately settled for St Barts.

The Swedes set about developing St. Barts’ main harbour and turned the city into a free port to facilitate Sweden’s ability to participate in the flourishing West Indies economy.

“The port of Gustavia –named after Gustav III—attracted trade under different flags between North America, the West Indies, and Europe,” Müller explains.

“Though St. Barts was unsuitable for agricultural products, its success was based on the free port idea.”

While the island developed into a prosperous colony for about a half a century, transatlantic trade and the West Indies economy eventually collapsed in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars.

“There was a change in the economic structure. Perhaps the main reasons were that Europe started its own sugar production and newly independent Latin American states started developing their own economies,” says Müller.

Yellow fever also plagued the island, which was also battered by hurricanes, causing Sweden to rethink the colonial dreams it had pinned on its Caribbean colony.

In 1878, at the urging of parliament and following a referendum by the island’s residents, Sweden’s King Oscar II agreed to sell St. Barts back to the French for about 300,000 riksdaler, the equivalent of about 12 million kronor ($1.9 million) today.

Today, a steady flow of well-heeled international tourists has helped usher in an era of economic prosperity reminiscent of St. Barts’ time as a bustling Swedish colony.

Despite its new found prosperity, the most chic island of the Caribbean is still working hard to rescue its Swedish heritage.

Although St. Barts is definitely a French island – most islanders are French-speaking descendants of the first settlers – its history under Swedish rule is reflected in many aspects of its culture and infrastructure.

Gustavia has retained its free port status, and many of the town’s buildings feature Swedish architectural design from Sweden’s colonial period.

In addition, the island’s coat of arms has the Swedish three crowns and official buildings still hoist both the French and the Swedish flags.

St. Barts resident Nils Dufau, president of the St. Barts Association of Friends of Sweden (ASBAS) explains that the island’s ties to Sweden remain important to many residents.

“The islanders don’t want to neglect their Swedish heritage,” he says.

As a child Dufau and his French-Swedish parents left Stockholm in a sail boat bound for the Caribbean.

After having lived many years in their boat, the family finally landed at St. Barts and decided to make it their home.

According to Dufau the best part of the island is that “everyone is treated as an equal. Even visitors can feel like a local over here!”

For years, Dufau has been the island’s Swedish spokesperson and a key figure in rescuing St. Barts’ Swedish heritage.

“In February, we received new street name plates that we have specially ordered from a manufacturer in Sweden that manually produces enamel street signs,” he gushes.

“Soon all our streets will be in both languages: Swedish and French!”

According to Dufau, it has become easier for islanders to celebrate their Swedish heritage since St. Barts became a separate entity from France in February 2007.

“We can make many more decisions on our own,” he explains.

In addition, there is a “Gustavialoppet” marathon in November, which is celebrated throughout the island as “Swedish Month”. The town of Piteå in northern Sweden has also had a twin-cities relationship with St. Barts for more than thirty years.

And for Swedes in the Caribbean feeling nostalgic for their motherland, the unofficial Swedish meeting place is Le Select, a restaurant-bar found on the corner of Nygatan and Östra Strandgatan in Gustavia.

“Swedes were friendly colonizers, they didn’t mistreat the locals. In this way, Sweden has no colonial guilt. It might be easier to be proud of a country’s history with this past,” says Müller.

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IN IMAGES: Spain’s ‘scrap cathedral’ lives on after creator’s death

For over 60 years, former monk Justo Gallego almost single-handedly built a cathedral out of scrap materials on the outskirts of Madrid. Here is a picture-based ode to his remarkable labour of love.

IN IMAGES: Spain's 'scrap cathedral' lives on after creator's death
File photo taken on August 3, 1999 shows Justo Gallego Martinez, then 73, posing in front of his cathedral. Photo: ERIC CABANIS / AFP

The 96-year-old died over the weekend, but left the unfinished complex in Mejorada del Campo to a charity run by a priest that has vowed to complete his labour of love.

Gallego began the project in 1961 when he was in his mid-30s on land inherited from his family after a bout of tuberculosis forced him to leave an order of Trappist monks.

Today, the “Cathedral of Justo” features a crypt, two cloisters and 12 towers spread over 4,700 square metres (50,600 square feet), although the central dome still does not have a cover.

He used bricks, wood and other material scavenged from old building sites, as well as through donations that began to arrive once the project became better known.

A woman prays at the Cathedral of Justo on November 26, 2021. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
A woman prays at the Cathedral of Justo on November 26, 2021. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)

The building’s pillars are made from stacked oil drums while windows have been cobbled and glued together from shards of coloured glass.

“Recycling is fashionable now, but he used it 60 years ago when nobody talked about it,” said Juan Carlos Arroyo, an engineer and architect with engineering firm Calter.

Men work at the Cathedral of Justo on November 26, 2021 in Mejorada del Campo, 20km east of Madrid.
Men work at the Cathedral of Justo on November 26, 2021 in Mejorada del Campo, 20km east of Madrid. Photo: (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)

The charity that is taking over the project, “Messengers of Peace”, hired the firm to assess the structural soundness of the building, which lacks a permit.

No blueprint

“The structure has withstood significant weather events throughout its construction,” Arroyo told AFP, predicting it will only need some “small surgical interventions”.

Renowned British architect Norman Foster visited the site in 2009 — when he came to Spain to collect a prize — telling Gallego that he should be the one getting the award, Arroyo added.

Religious murals on a walls of Justo's cathedral. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
Religious murals on a walls of Justo’s cathedral. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)

The sturdiness of the project is surprising given that Gallego had no formal training as a builder, and he worked without a blueprint.

In interviews, he repeatedly said that the details for the cathedral were “in his head” and “it all comes from above”.

Builders work on the dome of the Cathedral of Justo on November 26th. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
Builders work on the dome of the Cathedral of Justo on November 26th. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)

The complex stands in a street called Avenida Antoni Gaudi, named after the architect behind Barcelona’s iconic Sagrada Familia basilica which has been under construction since 1883.

But unlike the Sagrada Familia, the Cathedral of Justo Gallego as it is known is not recognised by the Roman Catholic Church as a place of worship.

Visit gaze at the stained glass and busts in of the cathedral's completed sections. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
Visit gaze at the stained glass and busts in of the cathedral’s completed sections. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)

‘Worth visiting’

Father Angel Garcia Rodriguez, the maverick priest who heads Messengers of Peace, wants to turn Gallego’s building into an inclusive space for all faiths and one that is used to help the poor.

“There are already too many cathedrals and too many churches, that sometimes lack people,” he said.

“It will not be a typical cathedral, but a social centre where people can come to pray or if they are facing difficulties,” he added.

A photo of Justo Gallego Martinez on display at his cathedral following his passing. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
A photo of Justo Gallego Martinez on display at his cathedral following his passing. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)

Father Angel is famous in Spain for running a restaurant offering meals to the homeless and for running a church in central Madrid where pets are welcome and the faithful can confess via iPad.

Inside the Cathedral of Justo, volunteers continued working on the structure while a steady stream of visitors walked around the grounds admiring the building in the nondescript suburb.

“If the means are put in, especially materials and money, to finish it, then it will be a very beautiful place of worship,” said Ramon Calvo, 74, who was visiting the grounds with friends.

FIND OUT MORE: How to get to Justo’s Cathedral and more amazing images