The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson

The Great Hurricane of 1772

By: Will Johnson

As a boy I used to hear the old timers saying that in the great hurricane of 1772 the doors of the Dutch Reformed Church on Statia had been found in The Level where I now live. Before writing this article I checked with my brother Guy and my cousin Bernard as to what they knew about it. Bernard said right away;”Yes my father told me that story several times.” And my brother Guy confirmed that he had heard the old folks back then often talking about it.

The Level, Saba after hurricane George in 1998. Here is where the church doors of the Dutch Reformed Church of St. Eustatius reportedly landed in the Great Hurricane of 1772.

The Level, Saba after hurricane George in 1998. Here is where the church doors of the Dutch Reformed Church of St. Eustatius reportedly landed in the Great Hurricane of 1772.

From all accounts it must have been a category five hurricane. Besides the damage done on Statia and Saba there are numerous reports of damage done on all the islands of the Lesser Antilles.

Hurricanes are a constant concern to our people on these islands, and in recent years they seem to be an ever present threat to those of us living here. I will share some newspaper articles from England after the great hurricane of 1772. Also, a story written by Richard Austin Johnson, about how his grandfather Cohone had to deal with a hurricane some one hundred years after the Great Hurricane of 1772. There was also another very strong hurricane in 1780 which also did a lot of damage to these islands, but it may have been of lesser intensity. In the eighteen nineties in one year three hurricanes struck Saba. Claudia Whitfield (80) used to tell me that her grandmother had told her so, and later on in the Journal of the Lt. Governor I was able to confirm that it was indeed so. The newspapers in England at the time also carried articles of other natural disasters, slave uprisings and so on. One such report is from the Oxford Journal of 11 August 1770. “By letters from Amsterdam, there are accounts of an Earthquake having lately been felt at the island of St. Eustatia, in the West Indies, which considerably damaged the Dutch plantations.”

As for the hurricane we would like to share several articles from newspapers in England at the time:

Derby Mercury 13 November 1772:

Extract of a letter from Dominica, September 19th.The ruins of the Dutch Reformed Church on St Eustatius

“We have the most melancholy accounts from our sister islands, Barbados only excepted. At Antigua, by the Hurricane, their towns and plantations are almost destroyed, and not more than two schooners escaped undamaged of the great number of ships in their harbor; at St. Christopher’s the damage was rather greater; and at St. Eustatia still more melancholy. Not the least detriment was done to this island.”

Leeds Intelligencer 17 November 1772

Sept. 5th. “The horrible picture of this islands general distress, represented in our last day’s print, is greatly inferior to the original, the general loss sustained cannot possibly be computed at less than 500,000 [pounds sterling]. A subscription is set on foot by the Gentlemen of this town and neighborhood, for the immediate relief of the poor. Nothing crowds in upon us from this perilous day, but the same tragic scene from our sister island, St. Eustatia; many houses and families have been taken from the summit, and have not been heard of, and what has not been effected by the violence above, was completely so by the other below, by a cruel violence of the waves, which particulars we have not learned.

Caledonian Mercury 18 November 1772

New York, September 28th. “Saturday last arrived here from St. Martin’s, Capt. Harris, who informs us, that on the 29th of August last, a most violent hurricane happened there, which drove several vessels from their anchors, three of whom were lost. While Capt. Harris lay at St. Martin’s, advice was received there from St. Eustatia, that they had the most violent hurricane ever remembered there; that the greatest part of the houses on a place called Statia-Hill, were blown down, whereby a great number of lives were lost; that four large Dutch ships in the harbor foundered as they lay at anchor, and all the people on board drowned; that a number of other vessels were driven on shore, and some put out to sea.”

Caledonian Mercury 18 November 1782

A letter from Eustatia, dated September 3rd, giving an account of the destruction of a great part of that island by a hurricane and whirlwind, says “What adds to our distress is, that there is not a barrel of flour on the island for sale; the country provisions are all out, as yams &c. and expected till Christmas; no vessels to fetch foreign provisions; five Joes are asked for a barrel of flour by a person who has a few for his own use. Rice sells at seven pieces of eight per hundred. Unless the hand of Providence interposes, a famine must ensue. At present it is terrible to hear the cries and lamentations of those who think themselves the objects of Almighty vengeance.”

Oxford Journal 28 November 1772

“From the advices just come to hand from America, is selected the following melancholy account of the effects of the Great Storm on August 31st, at the Caribbean islands.—St. Eustatia, 400 houses on the higher grounds destroyed, or rendered untenantable ; many houses carried ten or twelve yards, and others quite into the sea. Plantation-houses all down, except two, and the canes on the ground all twisted up. The Dutch church blown into the sea.—At Saba, 180 houses blown down, and the cattle carried away from their stakes.- At. St.Martin’s scarce a house standing, all their plantations destroyed. —St. Croix a every house almost at Christianstad, and all the plantations and negro houses leveled. Only three houses left standing at Frederickstadt, and numbers of people killed. At St. Kitts’s, almost all the estates are destroyed, there being scarce a mill or boiling house left standing.”

As you can read this hurricane was indeed a great one. With a relatively small population in the islands as compared to now there were more than twenty thousand (20.000) deaths of people reported and much loss of livestock and ruined plantations all over.

Here on Saba when a hurricane was coming, our forefathers had to go by signs of animals and how they behaved. Also, frequent small showers coming in, the sea getting rougher, and the skies darker. At the time Saba was very much dependent on its schooners owned by local people. I was fortunate to come across a story written by Richard Austin Johnson about a hurricane of 1871 and his grandfather Cohone having to leave his family behind to go and take a schooner anchored at the Fort Bay out to sea to weather the storm.

A schooner at sea

A schooner at sea similar to the one in this story.

“The last day of September 1871, a day long to be remembered by the inhabitants of Saba, broke with an overcast sky and a light drizzle. Mountainous easterly ground swells pounded the coast line, throwing spume in the air to be blown away by the increasing Northeast winds.

My grandfather, Cohone Johnson, was awake at daybreak and for a while listened to the roar of the waves 15 hundred feet below, then hastily dressing himself, he went outside and noted with a seaman’s eye, the signs which clearly heralded an approaching Hurricane.

Going back inside the house he wakened his wife Betsy and said, “I don’t want to alarm you, Betsy, but I believe a hurricane is coming, see to it that the children are dressed and fed, while I secure the loose things and batten down some of the windows.

At the time, Cohone was sailing on a two master 90 foot vessel, which was at anchor in the Ladder Bay.

Her owner and captain was at home, recuperating from a severe grippe and in no fit condition to take the vessel to sea. Cohone’s mind turned to the vessel as he worked and wondered what old Captain Richard Simmons would decide to do. At that moment my grandfather had no premonition, that before the day ended, he would be fighting for his life, on a sea gone mad with hurricane force winds.

As the morning wore on, Cohone’s neighbors, came to him for advice about the weather. To one and all he said “Prepare for a hurricane, which I expect to reach us before nightfall”.

About 10 o’clock, a boy, breathless from running, came to Cohone with a message from Capt. Simmons, saying “There is a hurricane approaching and I need you to help take the vessel to sea. Come at once.” After instructing his wife to have one of her cousins stay with her during the hurricane, Cohone took leave of his family and hastened to the Ladder Bay, where a boat was waiting to take him to the ship. After being nearly swamped because of the increasing wind and sea, Cohone managed to board the vessel, where he found to his dismay that only the captain, the mate, the cabin boy and himself were aboard.

Going to the cabin, Cohone confronted the captain, who sat at the cabin table, reading the Bible and demanded to know why he had been sent for and none of the other sailors.

With tears in his eyes, Captain Simmons said “The cowards refused to leave home. Just plain scared to risk their lives in a hurricane at sea. Pointing to the mate, who lay snoring in his bunk, with a half empty bottle of rum at his side”, he said. “Just look at that drunken slob there.  Don’t expect any help from him. If I come out of this alive it will be my pleasure to kick him off my vessel. Now I just don’t know what to do.”

Dorothy Palmer

The schooner “Dorothy Palmer” in rough seas. Our Saban ancestors who survived these storms had many tales to pass on to their descendants.

Cohone thought for a minute and said “Captain, we cannot abandon the ship, even if we wanted to because we cannot get back to the shore. If we stay here any longer and the wind moves farther north, this will be open harbor and then nothing can save us. I suggest that we slip the anchor hoist the staysail and run south.” Then he added as an afterthought;” but we need your help at the wheel, until we can get the vessel underway.” To this plan the Captain agreed. Going on deck he said to the cabin boy, a sturdy youth of sixteen years, “Boy, you and I are the only ones to get this vessel under way. I want you to begin hoisting the staysail when I give you the word. Can I depend on you?” The boy nodded wordlessly. Cohone went forward, unshackled the chain and said to the cabin boy, “Now stand to hoist away.” Looking aft he saw that the Captain was at the wheel. Waiting until the vessels bow swung to port, he yelled “Now” and released the anchor chain, which went out of the hosepipe with a roar and was gone. Leaping to the assistance of the cabin boy he hoisted the staysail. The vessel released from her anchor surged forward, driven by a wind that had increased to gale force.

The Captain was glad to have Cohone relieve him at the wheel because he was a sick man and had the chills, brought on by the wind driven rain.

All afternoon and far into the night, the vessel fled Southward, driven by the wind which had increased to hurricane force, while Cohone fought the wheel to keep her on course. Shortly before midnight the cabin boy, who acted as lookout, yelled” Breakers on the port bow.” Cohone  immediately, heaved on the wheel swinging the vessel’s bow away and to starboard. Shortly afterward, during a lightning flash, Cohone saw that they had narrowly missed piling up on Aves island also known as Bird Island, which is situated about 110 miles South and West of Montserrat.

About one hour later, the wind veered to the South. Cohone again changed course and fled before the wind. It was shortly after this that a mountainous wave loomed up amidships on the vessels starboard side. Yelling to the Cabin boy to jump for the riggings, Cohone let go of the wheel and did the same. With a thunderous roar the wave crashed down on the vessel, smothering her under tons of water and heaving her over on her beam ends. There she stayed until Cohone jumped to the deck in knee-deep water and seizing an axe, chopped away part of the bulwark, allowing the water to pour off. Slowly the vessel came back to even keel. Both the galley and the ships boat had vanished in the darkness.

During the early morning hours, the wind, which was now blowing from the South-Southwest, lessened and the sky began clearing. The island of Santa Cruz could now be seen ahead. Cohone again changed course, this time to Eastward. On the day after the hurricane, which was afterwards known as the Great Storm, Cohone dropped anchor at the Ladder Bay. The island that Cohone had left the day before was devastated, but luckily for my Grandfather, both he and his family were very much alive.”

And so you can read from a firsthand account what our people went through during a hurricane, and only then the worries as to how you would be able to feed yourself had only begun as all the crops on the island had been destroyed by the hurricane. We hope that our merchants will stock up on supplies when the hurricane season starts up as it can take weeks before a new shipment of foodstuff can come in from the United States and elsewhere.

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