Romance is so intrinsic to Tintamarre that the two have been inextricably linked since the very first time the island received its name. A word so typically French it bears no translation, like bougainvillea, or turquoise. A word from the New World, the Wiki(pedia), in its commendable effort to make things simpler, affirms it stems from Acadian French. Itself the paroxysm of romance, Acadia, a linguistic corruption or evolution from the prior Arcadia, seemed so beautiful to the Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, so perfect, that it evoked in him the idyllic state of perpetual happiness associated with the pastoral dream. Not that this bore any relevance a few hundred years later when Acadia was ceded to the British together with the rest of the French territories in modern Canada, in exchange for Martinique and Guadeloupe (those were the days!) as part of the Peace that put an end to the Seven Year War.
But I digress. Tintamarre, pure cacophony at its best, has a confused origin (then again, what, allow me to ask, hasn’t, at this point in time). Three syllables that allude to the foreign mystery of the new territories, to the muddled hierarchies of unknown lands, to the rattling noise of romance in the distance. Tintamarre, a small piece of flat land located some two nautical miles away from St. Martin’s quarter of Orleans, would have remained deserted and unnoticed just about anywhere else in the world. But not in the Caribbean.
In the Caribbean, where the English, the French and, for a brief period, the Dutch ploughed the seas in search of viable places where to assert their individual claims as Master of the region, even small, little Tintamarre had a role to play.
This role, however, would be substantially increased with the arrival in Sint Maarten of the young Diederik Johannes van Romondt, sometime in the early days of the nineteenth century. Escaping Europe on the eve of the Napoleonic Wars, Diederik Johannes excelled in the colonial setting, where he climbed the social ladder with such ease that he was appointed Governor to the island in 1820, before his fortieth birthday. Thus began the tale of a local dynasty that obtained as much land and power as could be had in the island. Fast forward the family saga by three generations and we come to the figure of Diederik Christian van Romondt, great-grandchild to the original Diederik Johannes.
Legend has it that Diederik Christian, fed up with the payment of taxes in Sint Maarten, boarded up the property at his “Mary’s Fancy” estate and set off to the neighboring Tintamarre, sometime near the turn of the twentieth century. There he engaged a number of workers from Anguilla and Sint Maarten to built a large Manor House with a farm, where he cultivated Sea Island cotton and raised cattle and goats. Indeed, the construction of the house, together with the adjoining stone walls that most likely signaled the perimeter of the farm, must have taken a number of years to complete. So much so, that still today some Anguillian descendants of the men involved in the construction of the buildings tell in bewilderment the story of the crazy man who wanted a wall built around his island for no reason.
Eventually the farm was up and running, and, if you go by the information contained in St. Martin’s official website, Mr. van Romondt managed to raise as many as 70 heads of cattle and over 500 goats. While Sea Island cotton was certainly a successful enterprise in the island, it seems like the export of local diary products was already an important source of income for Mr. van Romondt. In a story that will be implausibly affected by the presence of a certain milk boy, this would make more than just a trivial fact.
Tintamarre’s notoriety as a fairytale location reached its climax in 1913, when an entry in the Parisian newspaper Le Journal described Diederik Christian van Romondt as the King of Tintamarre. Apparently the story hit the nail of escapism right on its head at a time when Europe was well on its course to battle it all out in a war to end all wars, because Mr. van Romondt received letters from admirers courting him all the way from France, Italy and Germany. Alas, in D.C. van Romondt suitors found a tough customer, as would be proven at last when he died, unmarried and without legitimate children, in 1948, no longer in Tintamarre, but back in his estate in Cul-de-Sac, “Mary’s Fancy”, which he left to his long-time partner, a native of St. Kitts whom everyone knew as Miss Josie.
Much in the tradition of the earliest Dutch families in Sint Maarten, when it came to selling Tintamarre D.C. van Romondt chose to sell, not to competing members of the island’s high society, but to someone from the outside, in this case L.C. Fleming, a trader from French St. Martin who eventually would purchase a good portion of the van Romondt properties. Mr. Fleming, in turn, leased the island to an intrepid adventurer called Rémy de Haenen. Half French, half Dutch, born in London and residing in St. Barths since 1938, de Haenen owned a shipyard, traded fish in the French Caribbean and had a passion for flying. His Rearwin Sporster was the first aircraft ever to land in what later became Gustav III Airport in St. Barths, and many years later he would be responsible for the development of the airport at Saba.
However, back in the 1940s, long before anyone in Saba even dreamt of having a car, let alone a landing facility, rumor has it that de Haenen was already linked to Tintamarre as he engaged together with the collaborationist Vichy government of French St. Martin in operations of supply of provisions, ostensibly brought from other French islands, and replenishment of German U-boats in one of the few Nazi “R&R” stations in the Caribbean.
Be that as it may, de Haenen found himself in the perfect position at the end of World War II to pursue his aeronautical dream. While the Destroyers-For-Bases and later the Lend-Lease agreements between the British and US governments had secured the creation of airport facilities in Sint Maarten (later Juliana Airport) and several other islands in the region, the French islands remained entirely dependant on the one airport in Martinique, where de Haenen had obtained his license. Given the natural advantage provided by the terrain in Tintamarre, de Haenen set out to establish a local airline, Compagnie Aerienne Antillaise, equipped with single engine, high-winged Stinson Detroiters (6-seaters) for the shorter trips and larger (10-seat) Stinson Trimotors for the longer journey to Guadeloupe.
This mad adventure too would come to a sudden halt shortly thereafter, as recurrent accidents depleted CAA’s fleet within a short period of time. By 1948, the year of D.C. van Romondt’s death, Rémy de Haenen had given up on his air travel venture and had moved on to real estate. A few years later he would purchase a useless piece of land in the area of St. Jean in St. Barths for a few hundred dollars (the amount varies according to whom you ask, but the highest I have ever heard is US $300). There he went on to build one of the most iconic and exclusive properties in the entire Caribbean: Eden Rock.
Meanwhile, back in “Mary’s Fancy”, Miss Josie kept the farm running and the patrimony of D.C. van Romondt very much alive. Helping her on the day-to-day running of affairs were two young men, Andy Peterson and Ronald Webster. Ronald had first arrived in St. Martin as a ten-year-old boy looking for a job. He worked at “Mary’s Fancy” for over twenty years, most famously delivering the farm’s renowned fresh milk to customers around the island. When Miss Josie passed away, in 1958 her entire estate was divided between Andy Paterson and, low and behold, the milk boy, Ronald Webster.
The hectic days of Quixotic delusions in Tintamarre were gone, but directly or indirectly, its influence could still be traced ten years later, when amid haphazard steps to attain secession from St. Kitts the people of Anguilla started a revolution. At the end of 1967, the first year of the island’s self-determination, the books in Anguilla showed a balance of EC $805.22 in hand, thanks to a loan by Ronald Webster, revolutionary leader and Minister of Defense, of EC $34,222.75, which he had been able to provide by sectioning his land and selling plots individually. More plots would have to be sold for the same purpose over the following two years. However, this, the most extravagant, the most romantic of all dreams connected in any way to the island of Tintamarre, would eventually come to a happy ending. Perhaps, after all, D.C. van Romondt knew something about fairytales most of us forget once we grow out of childhood. Perhaps Rémy de Haenen knew something about it, too. Who knows. But next time you plan a getaway weekend out there, just remember there is a lot more to the island than long beaches and healing mud baths.
PUBLISHED IN THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S DAILY HERALD ON SEPTEMBER 12, 2009.