Small, but perfectly prosperous

You probably haven't heard of St Barth in the Caribbean. But here, it is said, more foie gras is con

Saint Barthelemy is a small, unproductive barren rock in the Caribbean. It used to have the reputation for being virtually the poorest island in the Leewards. There were no springs, so no cane. No cane meant no slaves. As a result St Barth is rare in being still very largely white. The soil was so poor that it supported fewer than 2,000 French-speaking peasants: mainly hardy Bretons and Normans: Ledees, Greaux, Querard, Turbe, Questel, Aubin, Berry with a smattering of Magras, originally Irish MacGraths. These names make up the bulk of the slim telephone directory.

The island is part of the departement of Guadeloupe, about a hundred kilometres to the south. In the past St Barth was so insignificant to the French that they actually swapped it with the Swedes for a few warehouses in the port of Gothenburg. For nearly a hundred years it remained Swedish until they, too, discovered it was an expensive luxury and gave it back to the French. That was in 1878. An international treaty was signed at the time, guaranteeing the islanders immunity from "most" taxes, a document that is being anxiously studied at the moment, as St Barth's wealth has elicited some avaricious glances from the motherland.

The Swedish presence is now commemorated by a few buildings in the capital, Gustavia, a few headstones, and in Marius Stackelborough's surname. He owns Gustavia's hottest bar, Le Select. He is a Metisse, and candidly admits that he thinks his ancestors were slaves to a Swedish governor called Stackelberg.

The islanders lived poorly in the old days. They had their goats, the odd cow for milk and a vegetable plot watered from a cistern which filled up once a year during the rainy season. The women looked after the children and made hats from the local palms. The men went off to work in St Thomas in the American Virgin Islands, where they had their own colony and church. There they learnt English. A generation ago the French language had all but died out on St Barth. It is more or less extinct on St Martin across the sound.

That St Barth has changed into the Caribbean's richest island is largely the work of one man: Louis de Haenen. De Haenen arrived in St Barth on the eve of the second world war, the pilot on a fishing vessel. As he felt at odds with Leon Blum's socialist government he decided to put down roots and become a boat builder. When war broke out he used his boats to trade with the other islands. It was harmless smuggling: rum, sugar and salt for American cigarettes. The Caribbean was little affected by the conflict and there was no coastguard as such to call him to order.

De Haenen was clearly a swashbuckling sort. His love life is a local legend, his giant bed on Eden Rock a place of pilgrimage until it was sacrificed to hold up the walls during hurricane Luis's visit four years ago. He learnt to fly in 1945, and later that year became the first man to land on the island.

There were no facilities for tourists then. In November 1949 Marius Stackelborough opened his bar in the centre of Gustavia. He admits it was a rough place. Migrant workers stopped there on their way from St Thomas to Guadeloupe to cut the cane, and ate goat curry cooked by Marius on a petrol stove. De Haenen used to eat there, too, at least according to Stackelborough.

In 1954 de Haenen opened a hotel on Eden Rock, a small but dramatic outcrop on Saint Jean beach. In those days it had just six or seven rooms, but it soon attracted the jet set: Howard Hughes and Greta Garbo came to be alone; Gore Vidal to write; and finally David Rockefeller to buy land. He asked the locals how he might do that. They took him to de Haenen.

Rockefeller acquired three plots, building himself a house on the remote beach at Colombier. Seen from the ocean (which is as near as you can get), it seems an oddly dated building now, long since sold and mostly empty. A little piece of sixties modernism above an otherwise perfectly preserved beach.

Rockefeller attracted other plutocrats. A Goelet (a previous generation had refinanced the dukedom of Roxburghe) installed himself in a house on Gouverneur beach, and the Rothschilds built themselves another at Cul de Sac.

Things were going well for de Haenen. He had been on the island's council since 1947, and in 1962 he was elected mayor. He is clearly proud of his record in office. He brought electricity, telephones and schools to the island, as well as investments in the port. By now others were cashing in on the island, too, especially some of the Magras; Sully Magras in particular. You may see his empire on Public beach where St Barth is now blighted by a fully fledged industrial estate. The islanders jokingly refer to his family as the "Magrafia". The present mayor is another one.

Cruise ships began to dock in Gustavia in the mid-sixties, and American tourists bored with gambling on flat St Martin took the boat over and were enchanted by the unspoilt nature of St Barth.

More and more hotels cropped up as the islanders realised the value of land which had formerly been used only to nourish goats. De Haenen says now that he tried to restrain them from developing the island too much. He left the mairie in 1977 after a quarrel with the younger men. Yves Greaux, who is now in charge of cultural affairs, admits candidly that he could see no reason why de Haenen should have profited from tourism while the original islanders continued to live in penury. He feels de Haenen patronised them. He was just a student in Guadeloupe in 1970, enjoying the new educational possibilities that had come out of the prosperity - chiefly created by de Haenen. The generation gap yawned. He remembers de Haenen flying him home as a favour and telling him he'd be "better off looking after his goats and catching his fish. What do you want with studying?"

Greaux is sensitive to the charge of having ruined the island, but it has to be said that it has many more unspoilt bits than some. He plants the blame in Guadeloupe or Paris. St Barth, after all, is part of a sous-prefecture with St Martin, and not the master of its own destiny. Permission to build is often granted over their heads.

Prosperity was important for the islanders. After 1968 they no longer had to leave en masse for Saint Thomas. As de Haenen puts it, "the workforce could stay put". They rediscovered the French language and their own Norman patois and they put their skills to work building hotels, villas and new houses for themselves. The "cases" - those cute, multicoloured boxes that used to house the inhabitants of St Barth - are now a considerable rarity, although you may still see a good clutch at Corossol.

In the sixties and seventies St Barth was a smart place for Americans to visit, with tour operators doing good business selling the hotels and renting out villas. One happy New York stockbroker I met in Le Select told me that he had picked up ten acres of land in 1969.

The French rediscovered St Barth in 1979. Pierre Verdier at the Filao Beach Hotel remembers the occasion. He was then the manager of the El Sereno Beach hotel. The French television personality Eddie Barclay was involved with the project, and had brought various members of the St Tropez set to sun themselves at the hotel. A Paris Match team had come up from Guadeloupe to sniff around and were amazed at what they saw. They instantly pronounced St Barth "the new St Tropez". Further reports followed, leading to a little French vogue in the early eighties.

But St Barth failed to catch on with the French. It was easier for Americans. It was in the same time zone as New York and a direct flight took them to St Martin in a few hours. They came for a weekend or five days in the busy winter season. It suited the French less well. They wanted more time during the long summer school holidays when the island was less chic and the weather more capricious.

What the French did manage to do, however, was to set the tone. They ran the hotels and started the restaurants. Above all they cooked the food and waited at table. Even now that the French fashion has passed, the restaurants are impeccably French and the range of imports of luxury food and wine from the mainland is an impressive sight. There must be more foie gras consumed on St Barth than in any other six-square-mile plot on earth.

In 1995, a few days before hurricane Luis mauled the island, de Haenen sold Eden Rock to a Yorkshire businessman, David Matthews, and retired to Santo Domingo. He was already knocking 80. I saw him when he was on a rare visit to the island in March this year: he was picking up a medal from the town hall which belatedly acknowledged his contribution to the islanders' wealth and success.

There seems more harmony now that the French are threatening to tax St Barth. De Haenen, like his successor at Eden Rock, Matthews, is adamant that St Barth needs a special statute that removes Guadeloupe's authority and allows it to develop its position as an autonomous free port. Yves Greaux is frightened that the French state, desperate for money, will find some way of removing St Barth's status prior to sending in the tax inspectors. He points out that one in four Guadeloupians is unemployed while everyone who wants it has work on St Barth. He feels Guadeloupe has no relevance to the island. It is a black hole as far as the French state is concerned: they take all and give nothing.

For Greaux the tiny French islands of St Pierre et Miquelon provide the desired model. They are allowed to run their own affairs, rather like the remaining British islands in the Caribbean. What he fears most is direct taxation; that St Barth's 7,000-odd residents will be milked to pay for social policies elsewhere. He is careful to add that it would be "dishonest" to reject all taxation - after all, France pays something towards the upkeep of the island - but he would rather it took the form of a "global" contribution from all those who make money in St Barth, Americans included.

St Barth must look very different now to those early days just after de Haenen arrived. Greaux hints at moral problems caused by the tourism: vices that had never been known before "brought in by foreigners". Marius Stackelborough told me: "If I had a book in me I'd call it A Lost Paradise". French restaurateurs who have clocked up 30 years in the business tell the same tale: they have lost la douceur de la vie.

You can't help feeling their utterances are mildly pharisaic: they have all grown rich on the changes, after all.

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