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Origins

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Channel Islanders/Yves Frenette

The Channel Islands are located on the south side of the English Channel just off the coast of France. They have a total area of 194 square kilometres and consist of four major islands: Jersey, Guernsey, Sark, and Alderney. Beginning in about 300 B.C.E, the Channel Islands entered a period of nearly six centuries as part of the Roman Empire’s province of Gaul. With the decline of Roman rule in the fifth century, the islands were settled by refugees from England, and in the ninth century Bretons arrived. It was under Breton influence that the inhabitants accepted Christianity.

The Channel Islands were conquered in 933 by the Normans; and in 1066, when William II of Normandy became king of England, they came under the English crown. During succeeding centuries marked by wars between England and France, the Channel Islands remained for the most part under British rule. Today they are dependencies of the United Kingdom but not part of it, being administered under their own laws and customs through two governments or bailiwicks: Jersey and Guernsey. In contrast to the rest of the United Kingdom, Jersey and Guernsey are not part of the European Union (although some EU policies apply in the islands); this status is indicated on their citizens’ distinct passports. In 1990 the Channel Islands had a population of 143,683.

Even though the islands became attached to the English crown, their links with Normandy persisted, notably through migration in both directions. English influence, superimposed on Norman and French influence, was felt initially in urban areas and increased over time, especially with the development of communications and tourism. Traditionally, French was the language of the upper classes, and Norman patois, a dialect of French with numerous expressions borrowed from English as well as words derived from Scandinavian languages, was the language of the masses. In the twentieth century, both French and Norman French have increasingly given way to English, which today is the common spoken language of the islands. Nevertheless, French is still the official language of Jersey, and in both Jersey and Guernsey one can still hear Norman French spoken by some older people. Anglicanism is the official religion, although other Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic Church are also present.

Early in their history, Channel Islanders became skilled at protecting their islands during the long and virtually incessant wars between France and England. Economically, they learned how to take advantage of their geographical situation. By the sixteenth century, Jersey and Guernsey enjoyed prosperity as a result of their semiofficial status as commercial entrepôts between France and England, their licit and illicit trade, and their participation in both English and French commercial adventures in the New World. The economy of the Channel Islands was directed towards the sea: fishing, trade, smuggling, and piracy. In the twentieth century, the islands have found new vocations in dairy farming and tourism.