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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How a rental car shortage in Europe could scupper summer holiday plans

After long months of lockdowns and curfews Europeans are looking forward to jetting off for a bit of sun and sand -- only to find that their long awaited holiday plans go awry due to a shortage of rental cars.

How a rental car shortage in Europe could scupper summer holiday plans
Tourists wait outside of rental car agencies in Corsica. Photo: PASCAL POCHARD-CASABIANCA / AFP

In many areas popular with tourists cars are simply not available or subcompacts are going for a stiff €500 euros.

Car rental comparison websites show just how expensive renting a vehicle has become for tourists this summer.

According to Carigami, renting a car for a week this summer will set tourists back an average of 364 euros compared to 277 euros two years ago.

For Italy, the figure is 407 euros this summer compared to 250 euros in 2019. In Spain, the average cost has jumped to 263 euros from 185 euros.

According to another website, Liligo, daily rental costs have nearly doubled on the French island of Corsica. At the resort city of Palma on the Spanish island of Mallorca, rental prices have nearly tripled.

Today’s problem is a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Faced with near absence of clients, selling off vehicles to raise cash made a lot of sense for car rental firms struggling to survive.

“Everyone drastically reduced their fleet,” said the head of Europcar, Caroline Parot.

Until the spring, most companies still had fleets roughly a third smaller than in 2019, she said.

Car rental firms are used to regularly selling their vehicles and replacing them, so rebuilding their inventory should not have been a problem.

Except the pandemic sent demand for consumer electronics surging, creating a shortage of semiconductors, or chips, that are used not only in computers but increasingly in cars.

“A key contributor to the challenge right now is the global chip shortage, which has impacted new vehicle availability across the industry at a time when demand is already high,” said a spokesman for Enterprise.

It said it was working to acquire new vehicles but that in the mean time it is shifting cars around in order to better meet demand.

No cars, try a van

“We’ve begun to warn people: if you want to come to Italy, which is finally reopening, plan and reserve ahead,” said the head of the association of Italian car rental firms, Massimiliano Archiapatti.

He said they were working hard to meet the surge in demand at vacation spots.

“But we’ve got two big islands that are major international tourism destinations,” he said, which makes it difficult to move cars around,
especially as the trip to Sardinia takes half a day.

“The ferries are already full with people bringing their cars,” he added.

“Given the law of supply and demand, there is a risk it will impact on prices,” Archiapatti said.

The increase in demand is also being seen for rentals between individuals.

GetAround, a web platform that organises such rentals, said it has seen “a sharp increases in searches and rentals” in European markets.

Since May more than 90 percent of cars available on the platform have been rented on weekends, and many have already been booked for much of the summer.

GetAround has used the surge in demand to expand the number of cities it serves.

For some, their arrival can’t come fast enough.

Bruno Riondet, a 51-year-old aeronautics technician, rents cars to attend matches of his favourite British football club, Brighton.

“Before, to rent a car I was paying between 25 and 30 euros per day. Today, it’s more than 90 euros, that’s three times more expensive,” he said.

In the United States, where prices shot higher during the spring, tourists visiting Hawaii turned to renting vans.

In France, there are still cars, according to Jean-Philippe Doyen, who handles shared mobility at the National Council of Automobile Professionals.

“Clients have a tendency to reserve at the last minute, even more so in the still somewhat uncertain situation,” he said.

They will often wait until just a few days before their trip, which means car rental firms don’t have a complete overview of upcoming demand, he added.

He said business is recovering but that revenue has yet to reach pre-pandemic levels as travel is not yet completely unfettered.

SEE ALSO: British drivers will no longer need an insurance ‘green card’ to visit Europe, EU rules