In The Soup
There are places in the world that, due to their geographic location, always seem to find themselves in the middle of things—not always of their own doing. Saint-Pierre & Miquelon, two islands forming an overseas territory of France, are just such a place. They could have been a sleepy tropical paradise like French Polynesia, or a jet-setter’s playground like St. Barts. But no, they had to find themselves at the crossroads between the Old World and the New, between the fishing fleets of Canada and the United States, between the Vichy and the Free French, and between Prohibition and Canadian Whisky.
As a result, this otherwise unspectacular little archipelago in the Gulf of St. Lawrence has a rich history rivaling any in Metropolitan France—nearly 2,400 miles to the east.
Another intersection in the neighborhood is created by the warm waters of the Gulf Stream and the cold of the Labrador Current. As anyone living near the sea can appreciate, the result is a nearly daily fog of the pea soup variety. So why are we here you may ask? Because when you add fog to a handful of low lying, completely barren and infertile, climatically severe, windswept islands, peopled by a grizzled bunch of seafarers, you have the stuff of romance, legend, mystery… and more than 600 shipwrecks. In fact the waters between the two main islands are known as “the Mouth of Hell”.
Citizens of Saint-Pierre & Miquelon trace their lineage to some of the more rugged areas of France and North America—fisherfolk from the Basque region to Brittany, and from Maine to the Acadian Peninsula have populated the islands. Economic times have not always been kind to them but they have found ways to survive and sometimes prosper in spite of the obstacles.
War was one such obstacle contributing to the boom/bust cycle. Between 1713 and 1816 the French and British were involved, directly or indirectly, in a number of wars—the War of the Spanish Succession, the Seven Years War, the American Revolutionary War, the French Revolutionary Wars, and the Hundred Days War. Each time the islands were occupied and reoccupied and the population moved off to make way for the other nation’s settlers.
World Wars I and II, threw another obstacle into the mix—U-Boats. It took a brave captain to venture out into the fishing grounds knowing he might catch a torpedo instead of a codfish.
In World War II, the administrators of Saint Pierre and Miquelon sided with the Nazi-supporting Vichy government, which for a time was recognized as the official representative of the French nation. But the Free French government in exile took exception to allowing the Nazis a foothold in North America to run U-Boat operations from, and on Christmas Day in 1941 a force under the command of Admiral Émile Muselier occupied the islands.
Also in World War II a number of young islanders were recruited to man a French Naval Corvette, which accompanied Allied convoys headed for Europe. In 1942, she was torpedoed and sunk with the loss of 65 of her 69-man crew, a significant blow to the local population.
Between the World Wars there were the Whiskey Wars spawned by the advent of Prohibition in the U.S. in 1920. The islanders had already become accomplished smugglers in order to see them through other tough times, but in the late 20s and early 30s they made smuggling an art form. It is claimed that a hat belonging to Al Capone hangs in a local bar. Whiskey from Canada (nearly two million gallons at the peak), rum from the Caribbean, wine and cognac from the continent all made their way to the laxly regulated islands to be transshipped to the U.S. by an innocent-looking fishing fleet.
Most recently, Saint-Pierre & Miquelon have been embroiled in the EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) Wars. As the fishing grounds have played out, the U.S. and Canada have placed stricter regulations on commercial operations in the surrounding waters. And in 1992 Canada banned all cod fishing in the area. That same year, a special arbitration panel awarded a 4,700 square mile EEZ to the islands. It is hoped that potential oil reserves in the zone may help replace lost revenue from fishing.
What A Visitor Should Know
Where there are Basques or Basque descendents, there is usually a Basque Festival. These festivals often feature stone heaving (Scots are good at this, too), lumberjack skills (think Monty Python), and pelota, a form of jai alai. You may be lucky enough to find some local athletes practicing these skills.
These resilient citizens have decided that tourism may help make up for the loss of revenue from fishing, so a few enterprising folk have decided to do a restoration project on Isle-aux-Marins, or Sailors Island, a scallop throw from Saint-Pierre.
The Saint-Pierre & Miquelon men’s hockey team played an exhibition game against the French national team in 2008. They lost 8-6 and have not played an international match since.
The State Museum in Saint-Pierre houses the only guillotine ever used in North America—to dispatch the unfortunate Joseph Neel on August 24, 1889. The event is rarely celebrated.
You can discuss all the above with locals who’ll be happy welcome you to their island home.