On Saturday, August 23, 1913, during the tense days of the Second Balkan War and the doomed prelude to The Great War, the worst armed conflict the West had experienced to that point, Le Journal, one of the most popular daily newspapers in Paris, published a long, sympathetic feature on Le Roi de Tintamarre. The monarch in question was Diederik Christian van Romondt, the heir and, ultimately, final member of one of the most prominent colonial dynasties in Sint Maarten, and the kingdom was no other than the small islet that lies just a couple of miles to the northeast of Saint-Martin: Tintamarre, a.k.a. Flat Island.
Flat, indeed, and readily accessible, Tintamarre has been populated at different times from the end of the XVII century, despite the fact that it is roughly one square mile in size. However, perhaps the greatest venture to take place on the island began when Diederik van Romondt decided to take his belongings and set up his permanent home there. The story goes that D. C. van Romondt, unwilling to pay the reformed Gebruiksbelasting (use tax) that would be levied on the Dutch colonies from 1908 onwards, departed his farm near Philipsburg and settled in his private island as early as 1907. As a matter of fact, a letter, written by van Romondt to the Receiver of the Government in May 1914, confirms that he had been away at Tintamarre for the previous 21 months and that he would be returning to his regular quarters the following month, with no intention of returning to Sint Maarten for reasons other than an occasional visit.
By that time van Romondt had already built the Manor House that for many years to come would dominate the landscape of Tintamarre. A spacious wooden structure surrounded by vast stone walls that sectioned the perimeter of the island into well-defined areas, van Romondt planted Sea Island cotton on the largest parcel, processed it in his own gin and grew copious amounts of cattle and goats in smaller plots. His labor force was largely constituted of Anguillian men who would be paid in the local currency, a hybrid made of standard one-cent Dutch coins that circulated in the island from 1913 onwards, which they could use to purchase goods in the local shop, or trade in for half the value, should they wish to leave the island.
Eventually, Diederik Christian van Romondt made his way back to “Mary’s Fancy,” his farm in Dutch Cul-de-Sac, which to this day lends its name to a neighborhood by Philipsburg. Despite all the love letters he is said to have received following the piece in Le Journal, back in 1913, he spent much of his life with Miss Josie, his West Indian partner who shared his life until his death, in 1948, and whose decision to bequeath the farm upon her own passing away, ten years later, to her two closest aides, Ronald Webster and Andy Peterson, had tremendous repercussions in the history of neighboring Anguilla.
But that is another story, and before that the fate of Tintamarre was sealed, anyway, when van Romondt, following a tradition of many centuries, sold his property, not to competing Dutch families in the island, but rather to a trader from French Saint-Martin, Louis Fleming.
Because, if the most ambitious venture ever to take place in Tintamarre was van Romondt’s estate, the most romantic was, undoubtedly, Remy de Haenen’s airline, Compagnie Aerienne Antillaise. Having leased the island from Mr. Fleming in 1946, de Haenen, a half-Dutch, half-French adventurer who resided in St. Barth since 1938, decided to operate the first airline in the French Caribbean from the naturally advantageous Tintamarre, where the flat ground required little conditioning to turn it into an airstrip, and the flat bay seemed perfect for a flying boat seaport.
Having brought aviation to St. Barth in 1945, where he landed for the first time with his Rearwyn Sportster in what many years later would become Gustaf III Airport, de Haenen was no stranger to flying. Thus, as early as 1946 he began servicing the five-island-cluster with a small fleet that included a Vought OS2U Kingfisher flying boat, with which he delivered the post into Saba, a 6-seat Stinson Junior S, and a 10-seat Stinson SM-6000 Trimotor, capable of making the longer journey to Guadeloupe.
This was all back in the day when regulation was scare and lax, and de Haenen was able to fly between Puerto Rico and Dominica with relative ease. At least one of CAA’s aircrafts, a Sikorski S-41B flying boat, was designated with the fake registration number F-WIAA (F-WI as in French West Indies), and safety measures were often totally disregarded by the airline.
Almost inevitably, it was precisely this daredevil attitude, which today enhances the whole story with the appealing hue of romance, that ultimately spelled the failure of the enterprise. More through negligence than ill fortune, CAA became involved in tragic accidents during the first six months of 1947, which cost the lives of three of its pilots, Roger Gantheaume, “Zouzou” Saintonge and Frank Griffin, as well as three of its aircrafts (one of the Kingfishers, the Stinson S, and a newly acquired Vultee BT-13). By the end of that year the airline ceased functioning and the most farfetched dream ever conceived in the island was on its way to destruction.
Today, many hurricanes and more than half a century later, the remains of a depleted fleet of aircrafts blends on the flat surface of Tintamarre with the vegetation, the former airstrip and, perchance, a lingering portion of what once was a mighty stone wall to trace the scars of its eventful history. Tintamarre – a seemingly unremarkable place that, nevertheless, carries with it the distinct scent of adventure: no wonder the latest initiative linked to the island involves a line of perfumes carrying its name – if they are anything like their namesake, expect them to be bold, passionate and risqué!
PUBLISHED IN THE FIRST ISSUE OF CARIBBEAN BEACH NEWS MAGAZINE, ON DECEMBER 2011.