Clifton College Website

Student Contributions

Jacob Dirnhuber
Lower Sixth
School House

St. Pierre and Miquelon

St. Pierre and Miquelon

On October 17th, 1520, a little-known Portuguese merchant and explorer by the name of João Álvares Fagundes stumbled across the uninhabited islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon whilst on an expedition in the North-Western Atlantic. As his discovery coincided with the feast of St. Ursula and her companions, Álvares bestowed upon them the moniker ‘The islands of 11,000 virgins’. They were gradually colonized by a combination of French, Nordic and Basque sailors, who established a small but resilient fishing community consisting of 22 people by 1691. As it was soon established that fishing was the only economically viable option for both trading and survival, the islands were soon christened ‘Les îles de St. Pierre’, translating to ‘The Islands of St. Peter’, who was of course the patron saint of fishermen. However, the islands were annexed by the empire of New France in 1670, meaning that the isolationist fishing community became a legitimate target for passing British vessels. The British repeatedly raided and pillaged the islands, culminating in the entire community emigrating in search of a more profitable and peaceful lifestyle by the fall of 1710.

The now uninhabited islands were ceded to the British as part of the 1713 treaty of Utrecht. French fishermen still visited the area, but used it only as a resting point. However, the islands were colonized again after 1763, when the French ceded all of their North American possessions, but saw the return of the two islands. As a result of the islands being the only remaining French territory in the region, they experienced a population boom, as Frenchmen and women migrated from their now-British controlled territories, preferring to reside under French control.

The next few decades consisted of several back-and-forth invasions by Britain and France respectively. Britain invaded during the American Revolutionary War, deporting the entire population of 2,000 French citizens, and attempting to resettle the islands with their own populace. However, over the years, some Frenchmen returned, and the population was raised to 1,500 people, predominantly French. As a result, in 1973, the British invaded again, deporting and replacing the population for a second time. This time, the French responded with military force, invading the islands in 1796. They regained official control of the islands in 1802 via the Treaty of Amiens, but the British once again intervened and took control in 1803. The 1814 treaty of Paris permanently returned the islands to the French, despite of a phase of temporary British occupation during the Hundred Days War.

Sadly, three decades of constant invasions, raids and pillages had left the island a gutted and burned shadow of its former self. For the final time, the island was resettled, and humanity returned to the derelict fishing towns. It appeared that the islands were on the road to recovery, with several years of profitable fishing making the islands an attractive place for fishermen. However, the years of plenty were succeeded by years of nothingness, and the cod reserves were severely depleted, leading to mass migrations to Quebec. The population was further reduced when the French army conscripted most of the male citizens for World War I.

The prohibition movement in the United States eventually saved the islands. Smuggling replaced fishing as the dominant industry, allowing the cod to return without fear of death. In a single year, 1,815,271 gallons of Canadian whiskey passed through the islands, to be smuggled into the United States. The islands were thrown into economic depression as a result of the end of prohibition in 1933. However, they were saved once more, this time during World War II, as the French seized control on Christmas Day 1941, despite opposition from the United States. A plebiscite resulted in the permanent annexation of the increasingly independent islands to France. The islands chose to remain a territory when given the option as a result of the 1958 French Constitutional Referendum.

Today, the islands are ravaged by unemployment and economic decline, a direct result of the Canadian ban on cod fishing. However, the population, as it has for three centuries, remains resilient to their hardships. Despite the French control, they retain their identity and the traditions descended from the Basque times. You will not find many official street names on the islands, the locals preferring to identify their location via nicknames and the names of local residents. They celebrate the Basque festivals as their forefathers did in northern Spain, with many demonstrations of masculinity involving the fir trees and boulders, along with copious amounts of specially-prepared seafood. Despite all the odds, the most attacked territory in the North-Western Atlantic remains the proudly unique memento of the New French Empire. Prosperity does not come easily to the people of St. Pierre and Miquelon, it never has, yet few would argue that this resilient community could live content without facing the challenges that it has for all its life.

26 October 2011

valid xhtml  |  valid css