This demi-paradise

Welcome to Mustique, the Caribbean’s most exclusive and glamorous private island. Mary Wellesley goes in search of its ignored history. Photography by Alice Zoo

Mary Wellesley is a writer and PhD student in English medieval literature at University College London. 

Alice Zoo is a photographer based in London.


Since 1958, Mustique, a small private island in the Grenadines, has become synonymous with private luxury and exclusivity. 

Country: Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
Area: 6 km2 (2.2 sq mi)
Population: 500 (total), 1,300 (peak)
Time zone: GMT -4

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A statue of Colin Tennant, Lord Glenconner, the founder of Mustique as a holiday destination, looms over the island. 

In April last year, I found myself in a graveyard on the tiny Caribbean island of Mustique. The private, insular playground of rock stars and royals, a tropical haven of pristine, paparazzi-free beaches and tasteful villas, Mustique is a kind of ocean-bound gated community, a mile and a half wide and three miles long, set in a glittering sea.

There was something incongruous about this graveyard – a largely empty plot of land near the tiny airport (into which only private planes or those chartered by the privately owned Mustique Company may fly). In it were seven pristine graves, each with almost identical white marble headstones on which were painted a series of simple inscriptions, often in an oddly functional Arial font. All had died in the past 10 years; all were of advanced years. I asked around and apparently it’s the only graveyard on the island. It spoke of a place where people do not really live because when they die they desire to be buried elsewhere: a kind of glorified holiday camp. Aside from the well-heeled itinerant population that winters in Mustique, the island’s “locals” are all from Saint Vincent or nearby islands. They come to Mustique for work, but it is not their home.

In ancient Greece the island of Delos was venerated as a holy sanctuary. It was believed to be the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis, and in the sixth century BC the tyrant Pisistratus ordered a purge: all graves were removed. And then, in the fifth century BC, it was decreed that henceforth nobody could die or be born on the island. Holy ground could not be subject to the passage of human life. This was the province of the gods alone. Something similar appears to be true of Mustique, where there is a single doctor and, one would imagine, not much else that could accompany a woman in labour. At the end of the Greek period in Delos – when it moved into Roman control – the island became the largest slave-trading port in the region. Islands, it would seem, lend themselves to being prisons or sanctuaries. 

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Above left, a view from one of the highest points on Mustique; behind the photographer was a forest of satellite dishes. 

Mustique as an entity operates in liminal space. The island is technically in the dominion of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (itself a commonwealth nation of which the Queen is the head of state); but in practice it is a private island, a law unto itself. It is no coincidence that the paparazzi don’t go here. They can’t get in. The island is owned by a holding company made up of the 100 owners of the island’s villas. Mustique sits in a hazy legal state and a crystal Caribbean ocean.

Mustique isn’t just a tropical playground for the rich and the compulsively private; it is also a playground for the mind, because the island as it is today has so consciously erased the visible remnants of its own history. I wondered how many people had died on Mustique in the course of its history, how many human remains were actually interred in its soil, if only seven seemed to have been visibly marked.

So I visited the small two-room museum in an old sugar mill, not far from the graveyard. The story it tells of the island’s history is patchy. In it there are several cabinets of artefacts produced by the island’s indigenous Amerindian population, while its 20th-century transformation from deserted scrubland to celebrity hangout receives prominent treatment. Mustique’s 18th- and 19th-century history as a slave island is less tangible in the glass display cases, much as on its website and Wikipedia page, where the legacy of slavery is decorously omitted. There are references to “European planters” of sugar cane, but no delineation of how these “planters” operated their estates.  

History is not so easily erased, however. Before the arrival of Europeans, the island was home to an Amerindian population. These people were mainly Island Caribs, who had wiped out an earlier Arawak population. Radiocarbon dating suggests that pre-Columbian people first occupied Mustique around 300 AD, but the material remains of their culture – shards of their pottery, the bones of the shellfish, finfish and turtles they ate – suggests that their settlement activity intensified around 700 AD.

However, from the 15th century, the arrival of European sailors and slavers in the Grenadines spelled the end of this culture. Disease and war would all but wipe out the Carib and their customs, as they had done to the Arawak. The native population was grossly misunderstood and misrepresented as barbarous and violent: the word “cannibal” is a corruption, via Columbus, of the word, “Caribes”. From the late 17th century onwards the ethnic make-up of Mustique and its neighbouring islands began to change. In 1675 a ship carrying African slaves was wrecked off nearby Bequia Island and the survivors settled there. The Grenadines population thus became a mix of African and Carib cultures.

Throughout this period, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines were fought over by the British and the French. (The French left their mark in Mustique’s name, which comes from moustique or “mosquito”, an unpromising name for a sought-after holiday destination.) In 1763, at the end of the Seven Years War, the British signed the Treaty of Paris with the French and gained control of Saint Vincent and its adjacent islands. Shortly thereafter it began to sell off parts of its newly acquired colony. In 1834, Charles Clerk, a barrister, described this part of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines’ history and reassured his readers that the government commissioners “were directed not to dispose till further instructions should be given, of any such lands as were inhabited or claimed by the Charaibes”. Clerk was a wilful optimist because there was probably a lot of disposing, as thereafter he reported dispassionately that there was “some contest with these people”, by which he presumably means a bloody uprising.

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Above left, the construction of telephone boxes for the island, and right: a portrait of Basil at Basil’s Bar, the island’s only bar for holidaymakers. 

Ten years later, on February 27, 1773, the native population was induced to acknowledge “His Majesty to be rightful sovereign of the island and submitted themselves to his laws”. We can only wonder at what the Saint Vincent islanders must have thought of George III in his palace in distant London. It seems to have been an uneasy kind of enforced peace. Twenty-two years later, in 1795, there was another uprising. Clerk reassured his readers, however, that with the arrival of a British Army force in 1796, “tranquillity was restored.”

It was around this time that Mustique became a sugar and cotton plantation worked by slaves. In 1819 there were several slave estates on the island, with innocuous names like Aberdeen and Adelphi, which means “brotherhood” in Greek. The irony of this must have been lost on the colonialists who named it. Cheltenham, the largest estate, was owned by Christopher Punnet. In 1825 the Gazette Office in Kingstown published a dry account of the Number of Slaves Employed and the Quantity of Produce Grown on the Several Estates of the Island of Saint Vincent and its Dependencies. The report is a piece of neat accounting and moral blindness. The very use of the word “employed” in the title speaks volumes for its disregard for the human consequences of what it describes. Here, in bland accounting columns, the report lists that the Cheltenham estate had 223 slaves and produced 324,000 pounds of sugar in 1819, which equalled 9,900 gallons of rum and 9,200 gallons of molasses. Overleaf we read that also in that year, the Adelphi estate had 58 slaves and produced 4,050 pounds of cotton. The columns are simply labelled “No. of Acres”, “No. of Negroes”. On these pages, human life is a commodity, like a stolen acre or a pound of sugar.

By the 1830s ownership of these slave plantations had changed hands and several of the smaller estates had been integrated, so that there were now two estates, owned by two families – the Triminghams of Bermuda and the Alexanders of Ballochmyle House in Ayrshire. When the Slavery Abolition Act came into force on August 1, 1834, freeing slaves in British Empire territories, it was possible for the owners of slave plantations to claim compensation for their loss of income. On July 11, 1836, a claim was lodged by the Trimingham family for loss of earnings on the 113 slaves of the Adelphi estate. They were awarded £2,092 – the equivalent of around £215,000 today – while on June 12, 1841, the Alexander brothers received £6,525 – the equivalent of £757,500 today – for the loss of 257 slaves on the Cheltenham estate.

It’s unclear exactly what happened on the island after slavery was abolished, because after this Mustique momentarily disappears from the historical record. When it does crop up again, it seems that the island had been all but abandoned and now supported a small population of former slaves. A census on October 14, 1861 indicated that the island’s population was around 200.

In August 1864, Mr. D. Cowie, an appraiser sent on behalf of the Board in Aid of the Commissioners of the West India Islands Relief, inspected the island. He estimated the Cheltenham estate to be worth £300 – around £34,000 today – and reported that it had “been for many years abandoned; works all entirely destroyed; mansion house in very dilapidated condition. Informed that this estate, and the island generally, is subject to severe droughts; entirely dependent on rain-water for all purposes, there being not the smallest spring on it. The whole estate is grown up in bush.” He recommended that it be “made available as pasture for stock”.

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Access to the island is provided by private plane via the Mustique Company. Flights leave regularly from Barbados. The system provides an effective way for the Company to vet and control visitors to Mustique. The only means of transport on the island is golf cart, although horses are also available. Photos © The Mustique Company. 

Two years earlier, Nautical Magazine and Naval Chronicle had reported a similar story. Mustique was being mainly used as a place to raise animals to supply Saint Vincent. The magazine was pessimistic about the prospect of the island becoming productive: “Since the American war the question of growing cotton in them [the West Indies] has been often canvassed and the Lieut-Governor has been urging the proprietors to plant this staple, but it is generally felt by the owners of the land and those who understand the matter that is quite impossible to grow cotton paying wages, even at the high price which may reasonably be expected for it should the scarcity continue.” As the Nautical Magazine makes clear, slavery might have been bad, but it made good economic sense, at least in the minds of those who “understand the matter”.

By the 20th century it seems Mustique was all but deserted. Then, in 1958 it was bought by Scottish aristocrat Colin Tennant, Third Baron Glenconnor. He intended to create a cotton estate, but the venture failed, so he hit upon the idea of making it a holiday destination. This posed some problems, as the island had no water, electricity, roads or jetties. At the end of the Greek period in Delos, the Romans faced similar problems. Delos produced little food or timber and had limited supplies of water. But, in creating sanctuaries for slave ports, good infrastructural planning will press even the most unpromising of islands into service.

By most accounts it was a rocky few years on Mustique for Tennant. However, in 1960 he gave a plot of land on the island to Princess Margaret, which proved to be a canny business move, as she brought money and admiring friends. In 1979 Tennant sold his now successful holiday island to a holding company owned by the villa owners. To this day, the island is run by this entity, the precise nature of which is unclear to outsiders.

It’s hard to imagine someone like Tennant creating something similar ever again. In medieval dream poetry there is a common trope, the locus amoenus, a magical place closed off from the world, where extraordinary things happen. Here, in a verdant paradise separated from the rest of the world, time operates under different rules, the passage of human life appears not to leave its mark and there is no past to recall, only a future to be fashioned. Tennant brought this fictive trope to bear on the island of Mustique, building roads and villas atop its unmarked graves and erasing its inconvenient history. The results can now be rented for up to $80,000 a week. §

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Left, the island museum, a solitary monument to the existence of history. The photographer was told she was the first visitor in six years. Right, the walled garden of pleasures, or locus amoenus, was a commonplace of literature from the middle ages; above, an example from a medieval manuscript at the British Library.