The morning sun is still not hot, even if last night’s dew has long evaporated from the surface of the island, so there is still a freshness in the breeze that blows your hair in the wind as the sailboat or catamaran hugs the northeastern shore of St Martin. To the right, the quaint buildings of Grand Case, the picturesque harbour of Anse Marcel, the gorgeous hills behind Petites Cayes follow each other in quick succession, while to the left the effect of thousands upon thousands of tiny little suns on the rippled surface of the Caribbean Sea is only faintly disrupted by the distant shadow of a flat island on the horizon: Anguilla.
Somehow, the day’s destination, Tintamarre, is a miniature version of Anguilla, both of which are 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 in its staggering white-sand beaches. Until recently, much of the hype surrounding Tintamarre revolved around the purportedly-healing mud that could be found along its southern coastline, but since the French authorities banned the baths (claiming, ironically, that they are poisonous, rather than curative) few visitors venture beyond the beauty of the two romantic bays that overlook Orient Bay.
Nevertheless, a short journey into the hinterland of this earthly paradise truly pays off, because romance is intrinsic to Tintamarre and its history, and just a few steps away, not even terribly concealed or far removed, await some of the most eccentric tales to have taken place in the region.
Unknown just about everywhere outside the five-island cluster formed by Anguilla, St Martin, St Barth, Saba and Statia, Tintamarre would have remained anonymous forever, had it not been located where it is. But in the Caribbean, where the English, the French and, for a brief period, the Dutch ploughed the seas in search of viable enclaves wherefrom to assert their individual claims as Master of the region, even this small cay had a role to play. It is unclear who were the first settlers, but records show that sometime in the XVIII century the islet housed a considerable colony of Frenchmen who harvested local Sea Island cotton.
Tintamarre would not achieve prominence, however, before the beginning of the XX century, when Diederik Christian van Romondt, the great-grandchild of the patriarch of a local dynasty originally arrived from Amsterdam in the early 1800s, made the island his home. 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 neighbouring Tintamarre sometime around 1907. There he engaged a number of workers from Anguilla and Sint Maarten to build a large Manor House with a farm, where he cultivated Sea Island cotton and raised cattle and goats. The construction must have seemed outlandish to the local population at the time, because still today some Anguillian descendants of the men involved in the erection of the structure 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 more or less directly to the remains of the old house. The shrubbery and the poor state of the buildings, however, make it hard to fathom the layout of a property that featured one large parcel for the cotton on the lee side of the island, and several smaller parcels facing east, for the animals.
Tintamarre’s notoriety as a fairytale location would reach 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, because Mr van Romondt received letters from admirers courting him all the way from France, Italy and Germany. Alas, in D C 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 “Mary’s Fancy”, his estate in Dutch Cul-de-Sac.
Van Romondt sold Tintamarre to a trader from French St Martin called Louis Fleming, who, in turn, leased the island to an intrepid adventurer whose mark will forever remain indelible in the five-island cluster: Rémy de Haenen. Half French, half Dutch, born in London and residing in St Barth 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 Barth, and many years later he would also be responsible for the development of the airport at Saba.
De Haenen’s personality has always attracted attention, and still today rumour has it that he engaged in operations of supply of provisions and replenishment of German U-boats during the war. 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, this is highly unlikely to be the case; nevertheless, the story is symptomatic both of the nature of de Haenen’s character and of the people in the region.
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 Lend-Lease agreements between the British and US governments had secured the creation of numerous airport facilities, the French islands still had no landing strips and depended largely on the use of flying boats. Thus, De Haenen took advantage of the natural characteristics of Flat Island and established his own local airline, Compagnie Aerienne Antillaise (CAA).
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 (6-seater), and a larger Stinson Trimotor (10-seater), with which he was able to service Guadeloupe, both of which previously belonged to Caribair. A second Kingfisher was purchased later in 1946, together with a Stinson Reliant and a Sikorsky S-41B. But a spate of accidents in 1947 decimated the airline’s resources and claimed the lives of three of its pilots, signalling the end of De Haenen’s air travel venture. Little remains of CAA’s fleet in Tintamarre, though a walk along the grounds where the airstrip was, just to the south of the former farm, over The Lagoon, will present you with scattered bits and pieces of what used to be—the remains of a landing gear here, the fuselage of a large plane, maybe the Trimotor, or the Sikorsky, there.
The days of Quixotic enterprises in Tintamarre are quite obviously gone. However, as you negotiate the strait between Anguilla and St Martin on the way back to your hotel, the sun hastily making its way down the late afternoon sky to mark the end of a relaxing day of idleness, you will feel all the richer having had a taste of all the fantasies that did not really take root in a godforsaken islet in the Caribbean, but that, for some reason, at some point various madmen dared to dream.
Published by Caribbean Beat in the September /October 2012 issue.