August 10, 2008 - #93
Rest In Peace: Rémy de Haenen
During the night of July 30-31, 2008, Rémy de Haenen passed away at the age of 92.
Mayor of Saint Barth from 1962-1977, and the island’s representative in Guadeloupe for 21 years, he was the first politician to propose a special political status: “an idea that was difficult to consider back in my time,” he admitted in May 2006, during a visit by French overseas minister François Baroin. At this time, mayor Bruno Magras honored de Haenen publicly and pointed out that the island had been requesting a special status for 40 years, and that his predecessor, Rémy de Haenen, had been the first to solicit this change, in the name of his municipal council, when General de Gaulle visited St. Barthélemy in 1964.
Born in London in 1916, to a French mother and Dutch father, Rémy de Haenen spent part of his childhood on the island of Bréhat, in the Côtes d’Armor area of Brittany. At the rudder of his little sailboat, he developed a love for the sea and decided to become a skipper. Becoming a French citizen at the age of 18, he thought about enlisting in the French Navy. But the Stavisky Affair came to light in 1934 and the government refused national service to those citizens naturalized for less than 10 years. Disappointed, and almost sorry he had given up his English passport, de Haenen turned to the school for the merchant marine in Le Havre instead. He later discovered the West Indies aboard the first cruise ships that brought tourists to the islands from New York. After eight months aboard the sumptuous Normandie, he had a conflict with the sailor’s union and left, slamming the door behind him. That began his era of adventure at sea and in the air.
In early 1938 he came back to the West Indies: his job was to look for zones to fish for lobsters for a French company. Back in France, he once again set out across the Atlantic, this time on a fishing boat transformed into a research vessel. He navigated the Caribbean Sea from Guadeloupe to Cuba, from Haiti to Aruba. It was during this time that he discovered St Barthélemy. Seduced by the beauty of the island and the warm welcome of the population, he decided to unpack his bags and rented a small house in St Jean—a house that still exists. To make a living, he enlisted the help of some local carpenters and started a shipyard to build and repair boats in Gustavia, on the land where the Hôtel de la Collectivité sits today. After getting permission to import salt fish in Guadeloupe and Martinique, he set up a salting facility in the ruins of the Wall House, allowing local fisherman the opportunity to sell their catch and feed their families. He even tried to go whale hunting. To do so, he bought a few boats: Le Blénac, Le Madeleine, Le Mary, and built Le Tarpon.
Also passionate about airplanes, he decided to get his pilot’s license and bought “Cucaracha,” his first plane, a Rearwin Sportster, a small two-seater, which allowed him to get to various Caribbean islands in advance of his boats. Known for his frankness, his business sense, and extensive knowledge of the Caribbean, he also gained a reputation for his exploits with airplanes. In 1946, he made history by being the first to land a plane on the savannah in St Jean, where the Gustav III airport would eventually be built. He landed between a herd of sheep on one side and pond on the other. After this inaugural landing, the future runway was cleaned so that planes could land on the grass until the concrete was poured in the 1970s— a runway of just 2,500 feet, one of the shortest in the Caribbean, after that in Saba. Having obtained his pilot’s license in Martinique, he decided to create Compagnie Aérienne Antillaise, which was based on the flat little island of Tintamarre (next to St Martin). In Puerto Rico, he purchased several planes no longer used by the American army, and recruited the talented pilot, the late José Dormoy, nicknamed “Mr. Pipe.” In 1959, de Haenen was the first pilot to land a plane on Saba, on a strip the size of a handkerchief. He flew actively until the age of 75, when this pioneer of West Indian aviation retired with more than 18,000 hours of flying under his belt.
In 1953, for a few hundred dollars, he purchased a rocky outcropping of land that nobody wanted on the Bay of St Jean. The local residents at the time thought he was crazy, but this visionary already understood that the future of the island would depend on tourism. He built the Eden Rock hotel, one of the first hotels on the island, and began to welcome early members of the “jet set” as they discovered the island: Greta Garbo, Howard Hugues, Robert Mitchum, and de Haenen’s friend, captain Jacques Cousteau, whom he accompanied as far as the Banc d'Argent, in search of a fabulous treasure transported by a Spanish galleon that sunk during a hurricane at sea in 1641.
Not only part of the island’s economic life, De Haenen was also active on the political scene. He represented the island in the General Council of Guadeloupe as of 1953, and served as mayor from 1962 to 1977. During his years as mayor, de Haenen initiated such major advance as electricity and telephone lines in various neighborhoods. In the mid-60s, he built the first electric plant in Public in order to house the motors that the electric company from Guadeloupe had installed in Gustavia. In the early 1970s, he built the first water plant in St Jean. He instituted import duties as a means to finance all of these improvements to the infrastructure of the island. With the help of some friend who were lawyers and members of parliament, he was able to have the import duty, on all merchandise brought to St Barth by air or by sea, made official in terms of the French government as of December 27, 1974. Today, fixed at 5%, these import duties are one of the main sources of revenue for the island.
Always ready for a new adventure, he sold the Eden Rock in 1995, and moved to Santo Domingo. Yet he still loved Saint Barth and came back regularly to visit. In December 2003, a few days before the first vote to see if the population supported the change to an overseas collectivity, de Haenen spoke publicly to offer his support to Bruno Magras in the quest for a new political status for Saint Barth. On August 24, 1997, Magras made de Haenen a Citizen of Honor of St Barthélemy, and presented him with the Aeronautic Medal on August 24, 2000.
As of June 2006, de Haenen had once again lived in Saint Barth. This pioneer and adventurer passed away in his sleep, joining the other stars in the Milky Way.
More to come