If you are craving a taste of France, you may be surprised to know that you can get a bite sized version much closer to home than you think. Only a quarter of the flight distance of New York City to Paris, the tiny French overseas territory of Saint Pierre and Miquelon sits off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada's easternmost province.
Despite the seemingly secluded nature of the islands, Saint Pierre and Miquelon has a long history, rubbing shoulders with smugglers, sailors and imperial powers. Only 300 kilometers from Newfoundland's capital, St. Johns, these islands offer the culture of Metropoilitan France in North America.
From Discovery to the Fall of New France
The storied history of Saint Pierre and Miquelon begins soon after the begining of the Age of Exploration; the series of European voyages to the Americas after 1492. Initially discovered in 1520 by the Portuguese, Saint Pierre and Miquelon was first christened “The Islands of the 11,000 Virgins,” as the day of discovery fell on the feast of St. Ursula and her virgin companions.
Despite being claimed for France by Jacques Cartier in 1536, the islands remained uninhabited until 1670 when just four permanent residents were listed by French authorities. France formally annexed the islands in 1670, likely to keep them out of the hands of the British. Despite this move, the islands were soon again found uninhabited, and subsequently control ceded to Britain in 1713.
After the end of the Seven Years War - known as the French-Indian War in the United States – France lost its empire. The 1763 Treaty of Paris formally ended French dominion in North America, with one interesting exception – Saint Pierre and Miquelon – which Britain gave back to France.
Unfortunately for Saint Pierre and Miquelon, this reunion did not herald an era of peace, with the islands being invaded five more times in as many decades. A particularly devastating attack came in 1778 when Britain razed the island and sent all 2000 inhabitants back to France in response to French support for American rebels. In the 19th century, Saint Pierre and Miquelon was once again punished for the deeds of its parent nation, with Britain invading in 1803 and 1814, as a result of the Napoleonic Wars.
Whether, European dynastic conflicts, American rebellions, or Anglo-French imperial struggles, the islands have been at the mercy of foreign wars for centuries. Once part of the vast territory known as New France, Saint Pierre and Miquelon retains the distinction of being the only extant piece of this huge empire.
Shipwrecks, Smugglers & Sympathizers
As imperial conflict disappeared from North America during the 19th century, the islands became an important fishing port, populated by hardy fisher-folk, who braved the windswept isles. Rich fishing also attracted many foreign sailors, who, together with the islanders, pursued a risky enterprise. Tellingly, until the turn of the 20th century, the waters around the islands were known as the “Mouth of Hell”, with over 600 shipwrecks having occurred there since 1800.
Moreover, if the anyone doubted the French pedigree of the islands, Saint Pierre and Miquelon holds the macabre distinction of being the only place ever to use a guillotine in North America. The guillotine was imported from the French colony of Martinique in 1889. Used only once, on convicterd murderer Joseph Néel, it now resides in the island's museum.
During the 20th century, foreign entanglements once again threatened the islands. Durring World War I, Saint Pierre and Miquelon again suffered due to France's overseas conflicts. The island's military age males were drafted into the French Military, with 400 serving and a staggering 25% killed, a serious blow to such a small community.
In the interwar years, Saint Pierre and Miquelon added a new chapter to its colourful history, serving as a major smuggling port during the era of American Prohibition. The islands underwent a boom, smuggling vast quantities of whiskey from Canada into the U.S. For instance, in 1931 alone, Saint Pierre and Miquelon shipped 6,871,550 litres of alcohol to the United States.
While the islands (unlike mainland France) remained free during WWII, they did witness politcal intreague and the effects of the war. Following the fall of France in 1940, the islanders favoured the Free French led by Charles de Gaulle, but Saint Pierre and Miquelon's colonial administrator sided with the Nazi-backed Vichy government. Consequently, De Gaulle ordered Free French forces to storm the islands, resulting in a successful coup on Christmas Day 1941.
Following the war, the islands transitioned from colony to an integral part of France. Saint Pierre and Miquelon became a department of France in 1976, before acquiring the title of territorial collective in 1985. No longer just a far-flung remnant of past imperial glory, Saint Pierre and Miquelon now sends a senator and deputy to the National Assembly of France. The islanders are full citizens, enjoying French suffrage and protection.
Visiting Saint Pierre and Miquelon Today
Today, the islands are only a 45 minute flight from St. John's, but make sure to exchange Canadian and US dollars for euros, if you wish to stroll the small streets, enjoying artisan delights from various local stores. Rustic island sights include small fishing hamlets, as well as the historical ghost-town of Île aux Marins – an abandoned village on a small island next to St. Pierre harbour.
After exploring St. Pierre, where 5500 of the islands' 6000 inhabitants live, visit the island of Miquelon-Langlade; which at over 200 square kilometres, is almost ten times bigger than St. Pierre. Miquelon & Langlade boasts a rugged beauty where visitors can admire the wildlife, notably birds and deer, as well as a population of wild horses and seals. As an added bonus, in spring, visitors to the islands can see whales migrating to Greenland.
St. Pierre and Miquelon has had a larger-than-life imprint on the history of North America, having been at the heart of many wars and imperial struggles. This history, combined with the islands' natural and cultural assets, make this little slice of France a must if you are seeking a unique holiday destination.