Tintamarre: Unlikely Island

Tiny Tintamarre is the haunt of beach-loving daytrippers. But, there's more to the little island off the coast of St Martin

Photograph by Fabi FliervoetPhotograph by Fabi FliervoetPhotograph by Fabi Fliervoet

The morning sun is not yet hot, even if last night’s dew has long evaporated, so there is still a freshness in the breeze that blows your hair as the catamaran hugs the north-eastern shore of French St Martin.

To the right, the quaint buildings of Grand Case, the picturesque harbour of Anse Marcel, and the gorgeous hills behind Petites Cayes follow each other in quick succession. To the left, the effect of thousands upon thousands of tiny suns on the rippled surface of the Caribbean Sea is only faintly disrupted by a distant shadow on the horizon: Anguilla.

The day’s destination, Île Tintamarre, is a miniature version of Anguilla, both of them referred to as “Flat Island” by S’martiners. A hundred times smaller and twice as flat as Anguilla, Tintamarre is a popular destination for day-trippers to spend a relaxing afternoon on its blinding white-sand beaches. Recently a burst of hype revolved around the purportedly healing mud that could be found along Tintamarre’s southern coastline, but since the French authorities banned the mudbaths (claiming that they are poisonous, rather than curative) few visitors have ventured beyond the beauty of the two romantic beaches overlooking Orient Bay.

But just a few steps away from Tintamarre’s shore — not terribly concealed or far removed — are the rusting remains of one of the Caribbean’s most eccentric schemes.

Outside its cluster of five neighbours — Anguilla, St Martin, St Bart’s, Saba and St Eustatius — Tintamarre is just about unknown. The island — at less than two hundred acres — would likely have remained anonymous forever, except for its location at the northern end of the Caribbean chain, where the English, the French, and the Dutch ploughed the seas in search of viable enclaves. As these colonial powers asserted their claims to mastery of the Caribbean, even this small cay had a role to play.

It’s unclear who were the first settlers, though records show that some time in the eighteenth century the islet housed a colony of Frenchmen who harvested local Sea Island cotton. But Tintamarre did not achieve prominence until the beginning of the twentieth century, when Diederik Christian van Romondt — the great-grandson of the patriarch of a Sint Maarten dynasty, originally arrived from Amsterdam a century before — made the island his home. Legend has it that van Romondt, fed up with paying taxes in Sint Maarten, boarded up his “Mary’s Fancy” estate and sailed off to neighbouring Tintamarre sometime around 1907. There he hired workers from Anguilla and Sint Maarten to build him a large manor house with a farm, where he cultivated Sea Island cotton and raised cattle and goats.

The whole enterprise must have seemed outlandish to the local population — some Anguillan descendants of van Romondt’s employees still tell in bewilderment the story of the crazy man who wanted a wall built around his island for no reason. The ruins of the original structure can be found near the bay side, leading to the remains of the old house. The overgrown shrubbery and the poor state of the ruins, however, make it hard to discern the layout of a property that featured one large field for cotton on the lee side of the island, and several smaller pastures facing east, for the animals.

Tintamarre’s notoriety as a fairytale location reached its climax in 1913, when an article in the Paris newspaper Le Journal described van Romondt as the King of Tintamarre. Apparently the story hit the nail of escapism right on its head — “King” Diederik Christian received letters from admirers courting him all the way from France, Italy, and Germany. But his suitors found him a tough customer, as was proven when he died unmarried and without legitimate children in 1948 — no longer in Tintamarre, but back in “Mary’s Fancy”, his estate in Dutch Cul-de-Sac.

Van Romondt sold Tintamarre to a trader from French St Martin by the name of Louis Fleming, who in turn leased the island to an intrepid adventurer whose mark remains indelible in the five-island cluster: Rémy de Haenen. Half French, half Dutch, born in London and residing in St Bart’s since 1938, de Haenen owned a shipyard, traded fish in the French Caribbean, and had a passion for flying. In 1945, his Rearwin Sportster was the first aircraft ever to land in what later became Gustav III Airport in St Bart’s, and many years later he was also responsible for the development of the airport in Saba.

De Haenen’s personality always attracted attention and notoriety, and even today rumour has it he engaged in supplying provisions to German U-boats during the Second World War. (Highly unlikely, given the strict observation by Admiral Georges Robert, the French High Commissioner for the Antilles, of the neutrality stipulated in the 1940 Franco-German armistice.)

Be that as it may, de Haenen found himself in the perfect position at the end of the war to pursue his aeronautical dream. While the Lend-Lease agreements between the British and US governments had secured the creation of numerous airport facilities in the British West Indies, the French islands still had no landing strips and depended on the use of flying boats. So de Haenen took advantage of the natural characteristics of Flat Island and made it the base for his own local airline, Compagnie Aérienne Antillaise.

CAA’s fleet at first consisted of de Haenen’s Sportster, as well as a Vought OS2U Kingfisher, a small seaplane with which he delivered Saba’s post; a Stinson Junior S six-seater; and a larger Stinson Trimotor ten-seater, which serviced Guadeloupe. He bought a second Kingfisher later in 1946, together with a Stinson Reliant and a Sikorsky S-41B. For a short time, CAA connected St Martin and Guadeloupe to its neighbours as far west as Puerto Rico and as far south as Martinique, with Tintamarre as its hub. But a spate of accidents decimated the airline’s resources and claimed the lives of three of its pilots, signalling the end of de Haenen’s air travel venture in 1950.

Little remains of CAA’s fleet in Tintamarre, though a walk along the former 1,500-foot airstrip will present you with scattered bits and pieces of what used to be de Haenen’s aircraft: the remains of a landing gear here, the fuselage of a large plane there — maybe the Trimotor, or the Sikorsky.

The days of such quixotic enterprises in Tintamarre are past. But as you negotiate the strait between Anguilla and St Martin on the way back to your hotel — with the sun hastily making its way down the late afternoon sky to mark the end of a relaxing day of idleness — you may yet feel a twinge of mad inspiration, of the kind that prompted those long-ago visionaries to imagine Tintamarre as a kingdom in the waves.

 

Island fantasies

Tintamarre isn’t the only Caribbean island to inspire fantasies of private fiefdoms.

Navy Island
Once owned by Hollywood star Errol Flynn — who may or may not have won it in a card game — the sixty-four–acre island near Port Antonio on Jamaica’s north coast is now popular with day-trippers and divers.

Necker Island
Mogul Richard Branson was just twenty-eight when he bought this uninhabited fragment of the British Virgin Islands in 1979. Today it hosts his ultra-luxurious private retreat — and a rare species of gecko.

Mustique
Once a pirate hideout and later home to sugar estates, this tiny island in the Grenadine chain was bought by the Scottish aristocrat Colin Tennant — also known as the third Baron Glenconner — in 1958, and transformed into a holiday getaway for royalty and rock stars.

Goat Island
This ten-acre islet off the tip of Tobago doesn’t have the most romantic name, but the views and the snorkelling are incredible. As is the utterly baseless rumour that it was once owned by writer Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond.

Ring Bang Island
Famously, there are islands in Guyana’s mighty Essequibo River bigger than some inhabited Antillean cays. Guyanese musician Eddie Grant renamed his personal river island resort after the style of music he invented in the 1980s.


Caribbean Airlines operates regular flights to Sint Maarten’s Princess Juliana International Airport from Port of Spain, Trinidad and Kingston, Jamaica