An island named after an insect infestation is surely no one’s first idea of paradise. Yet since the 1960s, Mustique has been just that: a privately owned, reassuringly inaccessible castaway retreat for the jet set. This tiny landmass in the Caribbean, little more than two square miles of sand and wild cows, was transformed into an expat colony of million-dollar beachside villas, a local shop stocked with caviar and a beach bar so iconic it was mocked-up for the wedding reception of the heir to the British throne.
As the meeting point of ancient aristocratic privilege and permissive-society decadence, it has become a byword for rock-star extravagance and royal misbehaviour, a model for the new lifestyle of the super-rich and the venue for a party to which everyone, whatever their background or aspirations, would accept an invitation. And behind it all was a single man: capricious, controlling and tyrannical, prone to rage, chaos and snobbery, and with no qualification apart from a sense of entitlement bred into him by the English establishment and his innately hedonistic, bohemian spirit. His story, and Mustique’s, suggests that if paradise can be found on Earth, it will have been built on money, geography and, above all, the force of human will.
Mustique was first recorded in the 15th century, when it was seen from afar by Spanish sailors. Two centuries later, pirates used it as a treasure island for hiding ships and spoils. Next came European colonialists, planting sugar cane and giving the island buildings that survive, in name at least, to the present. When the sugar boom ended, Mustique was left to its cows and goats, and a succession of uninterested owners.
That was until 1958 and the arrival of Colin Tennant, the man who made Mustique. Later the 3rd Baron Glenconner, Tennant was a scion of one of the 20th century’s foremost bohemian aristocratic families, nephew of Stephen Tennant, one of the Bright Young People celebrated by Evelyn Waugh, and grandson of Pamela Wyndham, leading light of high-minded society group the Souls. Fortunately, there was also a practical streak in the family, and considerable wealth amassed from manufacturing chemicals that allowed Colin to indulge his aesthetic calling. A restless enthusiast unburdened by self-consciousness or shame, he loved to talk and to stand out from the crowd, exhibited in a taste for vinyl clothes and paper underwear. He saw himself as heir to the Souls and the foundation of Mustique as a continuation of that — “an entirely natural reproduction of certain aspects of my life”. He was at once the best and worst person to create a new society: relentlessly energetic on the one hand but chaotic, arrogant and extravagant on the other. The point, perhaps, is that no one else would have done it if he hadn’t.