An Alternative Tour of St. Martin

If history is the collective narrative of a people’s journey through time, the authorities in St. Martin have encouraged over the past two decades the dissemination of a narrative that is alternative not only in its focus but also in the means used to spread it: through the erection of monuments in a number of roundabouts across the island. Commissioning statues to celebrate significant figures of any given community might hardly sound like a revolutionary concept, but the choice of the very subjects that are being highlighted in St. Martin is not only unusual, it is also commendable.

The island’s most famous sculpture is, of course, “Lady Liberty” by Bulgarian artist Theo Bonev in the Agrément roundabout. The lady in question is a full-bodied black woman, well into her adulthood—still beautiful, you might say, despite being long overdue—who leads the way guided by the light that emanates from a gas lamp. Unveiled on July 12th 2007, on the 159th anniversary of the final abolishment of slavery in all French territories in 1848, this deeply symbolic work of art occupies a special place in the hearts of S’martiners, not least because the issue of slavery was further complicated on the island by the Dutch not signing up to end the exploitative practice until 1863.

Lady Liberty. Photo: blackartinamerica.com

Lady Liberty. Photo: blackartinamerica.com

Along the same line is the statue of “One-Tété” Lohkey in the Belair roundabout, which depicts a beautifully idealized image of a brave young woman who—the legend goes—escaped captivity from a plantation on the Dutch side where she was kept as a slave. She was recaptured and mutilated, one of her breasts being cut off as punishment—hence the nickname, “One-Tété”. Rebellious, resilient and determined, Lohkey confronted the cruelty of her oppressors with dignity and above all courage, escaping to the hills above Cole Bay, where she would live the rest of her life. “One-Tété” Lohkey’s is one of the most beautiful and widely spread legends of the days of slavery in St. Martin, yet, while fitting that such an important tale of local identity should be kept alive through the oral tradition—the most genuinely S’martiner form of expression, artistic or otherwise—it is also essential that the story of a key figure in the island’s lore be acknowledged by the official narrative. This is precisely what happened in 2006 when the government commissioned Nigerian sculptor Michael Meghiro to produce this statue of young Lohkay carrying a bundle of cane sticks on her shoulders, racing back on her way to the hills.

The history of St. Martin is also the subject of one of the most attractive sculptural groups on the island, the “Salt Pickers” in the roundabout on Walter Nisbeth Road with D.A. Peterson Street, opposite the Great Salt Pond in Philipsburg. Salt is central to culture in St. Martin, of course, the island being known as Soualiga—the land of salt—by its indigenous people. Indeed, it was interest in salt picking that first brought the Dutch to the island, an industry that proved profitable for some time and that continued in some form or another until the XX century. This group composition, also created by Michael Meghiro, depicts five figures, two of them gathering salt, two others transporting it, and a man in the middle with a shovel in hand.

And yet, the most remarkable aspect of the continued efforts in St. Martin to emphasize the local specificity of its history is undoubtedly the initiative to immortalize significant members of the community whose role was more prosaic, more regular as it were, than your average role model’s. Rather than celebrating the life of politicians, soldiers or business moguls, S’martiners have taken to commemorating the feats of the unsung heroes of their communities—the salt pickers, instead of the owner of the most successful salt producer in the country.

That precisely is the purpose of the three statues on the Belvedere roundabout, depicting “Tata the Bus Driver”, “Alec the Butcher” and “Lalie”. There is no caveat to this tribute—Tata really was a school bus driver, known for his emphasis on discipline even on the bus, Alec really raised animals and sold fresh meat for a living, and Lalie was a baker, though she’s best remembered for her social calling, taking care of those in need, including local and foreign students in St. Martin. Neither has this been a whimsical initiative: the construction of the roundabout and the three sculptures took 12 years and cost the government close to three million US dollars, before coming to completion in 2009.

Similar proposals include the erection of the statue of Osborne Kruythoff, a colorful character who appointed himself as the first and only traffic warden on the island, back in the days when there were just a couple hundred cars, and the more controversial three-piece group honoring the official bird of the nation, the pelican, in the airport roundabout.

 

On the Lookout

As you drive around the island certain landmarks will inevitably catch your eye to tell you their own version of the history of St. Martin. One of them is the Methodist Church. Halfway down the commercial heartland of Philipsburg—a buzzing, searing, thrilling urban centre in the middle of your tropical fantasy—the staggering Methodist Church stands out for its trademark beauty and simplicity, living proof of the unique bond Methodism has developed with the local population on this island specifically.


573b45f2-de95-4822-910b-245708709a9a_dMethodism arrived in the Caribbean in the late XVIII century by the hand of foreign preachers concerned—among other things—with the condition of the soul of slaves. In St. Martin, however, the first experience of Methodism was orchestrated by John Hodge, a free black Anguillan convert whose work in the region proved tremendously fertile. But while in most islands Methodism was embraced enthusiastically by the slaves, in St. Martin it was the white elite which gravitated towards the reformed Anglican religion, led by Governor Diederick Johannes van Romondt.

The church in Front Street evidences how influential the new faith became in St. Martin in little time: John Hodge only brought Methodism to St Martin (to Marigot, not Philipsburg) in 1817. Van Romondt would become governor three years later and by 1851 the number of followers was such that the church in Front Street was erected.

The structure was completely restored in 1978, to such high standards that the original design is still the star of the show and one of the most emblematic buildings on the entire island. So much so that a stamp was designed in 2001 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of its construction; so much so that in recent times Queen Beatrix, Queen Máxima and King Willem-Alexander have all paid visits. Clearly, then, influence—like class—is permanent.

 

Pinel, What Is in a Name

Though the waters around St. Martin are peppered with a dozen small islets, few of contribute more to the day-to-day lives of locals than Ilet Pinel, a tiny spec of land—roughly 75 hectares—included since 2004 in the island’s protected Marine Park. But where does Pinel get its name from?

Captain Pinel was a French filibuster who in 1688 used the Nine Years’ War as an excuse to raid Saba. He seized a ship headed for the island and dropped anchor at Fort Bay, shrouded by the darkness of the night. Pinel and his men were already halfway up the path to The Bottom when his original ship reached Fort Bay—taking his crew by surprise, as he had not yet given the signal for it to approach. A skirmish ensued, which alerted the settlers of Saba that something was wrong. At the time, the island’s sole system of defense was a series of large boulders placed next to the path and held by wooden planks which could be let loose. The locals slipped the wedges out of their place and let the boulders roll downhill, chasing Pinel and his gang.

Legend has it that the captain headed back to St. Martin in the middle of the night and that, unsighted, his boat ran aground just outside the bay of Cul-de-Sac. Pinel had managed to be repelled, strand his ship and secure the legacy of his name for centuries to come, all in a single night!

 

Tintamarre, the Rogue Kingdom

dsc_7329Located just two knots east of French Cul-de-Sac, Tintamarre is a flat island of one square mile which couldn’t look much more insignificant. Nothing could be farther from the truth, though! Home to a considerable colony of Frenchmen in the XVIII century, Tintamarre was also the unlikely headquarters of the first aviation enterprise in the region, Remy de Haenen’s Compagnie Aerienne Antillaise which flew more or less regularly from 1946 to 1948.

But the real days of splendor in the small cay date back to the beginning of the XX century, when Diederik Christian van Romondt decided to quit his home in St. Martin and moved permanently to his personal island. It all started when tax legislation in Dutch St. Martin was changed, introducing a controversial Gebruiksbelasting (use tax) on all properties starting in 1908. Van Romondt refused to pay the tax, and opted instead to lock up his estate—Mary’s Fancy—and depart for Tintamarre. There he built a wooden manor house surrounded by stonewalls, raised cattle, engaged a couple dozen laborers, grew cotton, circulated his own currency and established a rogue kingdom. His move was so notorious that on Saturday August 23rd 1913 Paris’ Le Journal ran a charming little story about him titled Le Roi de Tintamarre.

 

 

This is a potpourri of texts published by Visit in its 2016 edition.

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