A few years ago on Gustavia’s main street, beside the yacht-laden harbor, outside the Cartier shop, a pedestal stood. On the pedestal was a stainless, bejeweled watch sitting on a smaller pedestal of its own. No glass, no cage, just sitting there out in the open. When you reached for it, your hand was spotted by some kind of electric eye and the watch disappeared through a trap door.
Funny, of course, but the intensity of laughter generated by the slight of electronic hand was proportional to one’s ability to own such a timepiece. If the person reaching for it was wearing one just like it, very funny. If, on the other hand, the watch represented what one might expect to earn, in Euros, over the next 10 years, less funny. St. Barthelemy, the celebrated French West Indian island, is a place of wild contrasts.
The island is home to wild goats, cacti both tall and squat, and feisty blue-green lizards whose ubiquitous scurrying accounts for its original Carib Indian name, Ouanaloa (Lizard Island). Barthelemy was the much beloved brother of Christopher Columbus who made a cautious landing on the island in 1493, cautious because of the Caribs’ cannibalistic reputation.
For centuries, England and France played out a protracted tug of war over the West Indies, but because St. Barts was and is a mountainous, desert island with few natural resources other than salt — no sugar cane, no tobacco — it remained on the the fringe of colonial activity and relatively unpopulated but for a tough community of settlers from Normandy and Brittany. They are still there.
St. Barts belongs to an “overseas collectivity” of France along with the islands Guadeloupe, Martinique, and half of St. Martin-St. Maarten, very French, which is to say the islanders are proud, hard-working, with that French bearing that seems equal parts solipsism and indomitable joie de vivre.
Because it remained a place outside established trade routes as well as established law, St. Barts became home to the lawless. The pirates Laurent Graff, Jean-Baptiste Nau, the Dutchman Van Horn, Morgan, and piratical women, Anne Dieuleveut and Jacotte Delahaye hung out there. In the late 1960s and ’70s, the island became a hangout for drug-smuggling pirates. Depending on one’s definition of pirate, things haven’t changed much in some respects.
In the late-18th century, the pirate Montbars the exterminator (not a pleasant man, apparently) was said to have buried treasure at l’Anse du Gouverneur where the Russian oil oligarch Roman Abramovich now has a 70-acre retreat. The island’s reputation as a haven for the wealthy began after David Rockefeller purchased property there in the late 1950s. The transformation from old pirate haven to new pirate haven took time.
Perhaps I’m being cynical, but personal wealth on the level one confronts in Gustavia (the island turned Swedish for a time in the Napoleonic era) awakens the Jacobin within. Not all billionaires are pirates, of course. Many earned their fortunes legitimately and improved the world in one way or another, but the conspicuousness of their consumption is so over the top on St. Barth that you question the system of values from which the baubles spring.
Yachts the size of naval destroyers, $5,000 bottles of rum, villas that rent for 250,000 Euros per week, hotel rooms for $10,000 per night rented for the season — spending on a scale that would make the robber barons turn green with envy. Vast amounts of money that could be much better spent, if the celebrities and oligarchs asked me, but they didn’t.
So there we were again last month at a restaurant called Hideaway, a popular, less-tony eatery in St. Jean that features imaginative pizza toppings and meat cooked at the table on mini-grills. My wife, Kyle, speaks French, which makes a huge difference at the local boulangerie and the Marche U, a grocery store where delicious French foods can be purchased at a reasonable price to feed the island’s proletariat as well as its relatively impoverished visitors.
The table beside us was set for 20 or 30 people who began to wander in when we were halfway through dinner. Their clothes were of the special-occasion type. They looked familiar, Kyle said, and although we knew not a one, there was indeed something recognizable in them.
Kyle was eavesdropping, translating. It was someone’s birthday, she said. In walked the man of the hour greeted with warm taunts. He took his place at the head of the table. Toasts followed, kids had their cheeks pinched, women their cheeks bussed. Wine flowed along with a growing crescendo of conversation without a wisp of airs.
Yes, of course. They were St. Barts locals, the Third Estate, the shopkeepers, the men who build the island’s roadside walls out of coral and volcanic rock, the fishermen, the gendarmes. The scene was French Bonac and comforting.
Galleons and their treasures will continue to come and go on St. Barts, but the beautiful Caribbean island will always be theirs. Let them eat cake.
Russell Drumm, a senior writer for The Star, is an author of several books, including most recently “A Rogue’s Yarn,” which is set partially on St. Barts.