Captain Eric Hassell
By: Will Johnson
Sometime back Allan Busby called me to enquire about a Dr. Hassell from Barbados who had been giving a lecture on St. Maarten.
Now you know that when a Saban hears or sees the name Hassell they immediately think Saba. After I explained his background, Allan regretted that he had not called me during the lecture as he surely would have recognized his Saba background.
Some years ago I was sitting on my verandah doing some writing when two lovely young ladies were dropped off by a taxi and came in my direction. When I heard the Barbados accent (to which the Saban accent is an outside sister), I said to them:” You must be related to my friend Captain Eric Hassell.” They turned out to be his great granddaughters and had been told to come to me as I would surely know if they had relatives left on Saba. We spent a couple of hours together talking about their Saba ancestors and I was able to send them on to Peggy Barnes for additional information as she is related to them.
The Hassells on Barbados are proud of their Saban heritage. Even typical Barbados well know family names like the Goddards, the Bournes, the Harts, the Evelyn’s and so on all have Saban mothers or grandmother’s.
Capt. Eric Hassell was born on Barbados in 1914. He was the son of Capt. Frank Hassell of St. John’s Saba, and Franks father Elisha Beaks Hassell, was also a Captain and took Frank at the age of 8 years by schooner to Barbados where many Saban families were migrating to at that time. Many of the white families of especially the village of St. John’s and also The Bottom migrated to Barbados. Those from Windwarside as well but also to Bermuda and especially the Hell’s Gate people and those from “Palmetto Point, (“Mary’s Point”) went to Bermuda including my father for awhile. Some of these families had had connections to Barbados from the mid sixteen hundreds when Barbados had too many people and they started going to the other Caribbean islands and South Carolina. Just one example: Mrs. Eva Simmons-Johnson was born on Barbados, her father William was born on Saba, and his father William had been born on Barbados going all the way back to the seventeen hundreds and beyond.
Capt. Frank Hassell married “a lady of colour” something unusual for that time in the white Saban/Barbados community.
I knew Eric from the days of my newspaper the “Saba Herald” and doing research for my first book “Tales from My Grandmother’s Pipe”. When one captain would tell me of another one I would try and make contact to get their story and hopefully some old photo’s of the many Saban owned schooners in the past. The Saban captains on Barbados helped their fellow islanders. On Bequia, Orton King told me how the captains would employ people from Bequia of Saban descent on their schooners. They also went out of their way to give Saba good service. They knew that Saba was isolated and needed transportation so they came here even though there was no money in it, and they did whatever they could to help those they had left behind isolated on this our beloved little rock.
As a boy I remember Capt. Frank (Eric’s father) visiting Saba to spend a few days with relatives here. I had “put off” a cow for my uncle Capt. Charles Reuben Simmons who was then retired from the sea. To “put off” a cow meant that it was about to be butchered and you had to go from house to house to get people’s signatures to buy a share of meat. If you had sixty people interested the whole cow would be chopped up, divided in sixty heaps and that was your share and it was fls. 2.50 at the time. If there were only thirty people the same procedure was applied and you lucked out with a double portion for the same price. Now this system as described by Father Jean Baptiste Labat who visited the island in 1701 and who wrote the oldest extensive description of the island, still exists, and a share is now 8lbs and by last count it was $50.—a share. We do not look at the price though, just happy to encourage local people to keep their animals. Anyway I was out rambling somewhere and when I got home my mother told me that Uncle Reuben had passed by to take me on a schooner with him for a few days. The Barbados captains and those from Saba living in the USA when visiting their families would get a local retired captain to take their schooners to sea and “lay to” for a few days. Like a bullet I took
off for the Fort Bay, but when I got to John Zagers’ ridge I saw the schooner already half way to Statia. Boy did I cry over that lost opportunity. The “lay to” lasted a few days and my uncle who had been at sea since he was 12 years old enjoyed sailing so much that he went down as far as Montserrat and back just cruising along with me on shore saying “Boy oh Boy”.
The Barbados advocate of Monday October 21, 1992 carried an article on the life of Capt. Eric entitled “Captain Hassell – veteran seafarer; A fulfilling career in the maritime sector”. Just before this article was written Capt. Eric had been to Saba with his son Frank. His sister Erla visited Saba several times even when she lived in England and was in her nineties. On that trip Eric told me that when he was a boy if you sent a telegram to Barbados addressed to Captain Hassell that it could not be delivered. In the area where he lived alone there were more than twenty Saba Hassells who were either active or retired captains from Saba. The article by Norman Faria reads as follows:
“Going in for an interview with veteran Barbadian seafarer and businessman, Capt. Eric Hassell, I was hoping to unearth some sensational information. Tidbits which would later appear under such headlines as “I was a rum smuggler in the Grenadines islands during the prohibition period” or “The West Indies schooner captain who outsmarted a German submarine commander.”
It didn’t turn out that way. Perhaps just as well because as Captain Hassell reminisced, a story unfolded of a fulfilling career in an often under-reported, yet economically important part of the island’s maritime sector. Still working full-time at the family-run shipping agents business in Bridgetown, the 77-year-old r
elated how, after leaving St. Leonard’s Boys’ School in 1926, he signed on the 65-foot-long trading schooner “Edward VII”. It was then under the command of his father, Frank, another outstanding example of the Caribbean merchant-mariner in the days when meant more than a word in a seaman’s manual.
Despite his father being the boss man, young Hassell literally learned the ropes from the bottom rung – as a deck boy doing menial chores such as swabbing the decks and splicing ropes. During his stint on the Barbadian built “Edward VII” – and indeed during most of his time at sea- the younger Hassell was on the Bridgetown-to-Georgetown run.
This involved taking limestone, sweet potatoes, imported manufactured items such as tools and other goods from the Careenage harbor here to the capital of what was then British Guyana. It usually took three or four days on average to make the voyage, although on one trip back to Barbados Captain Hassell and his crew spent 12 days at sea with the schooner’s sails hanging limp due to the lack of wind. In those days, the sailing working vessels had no auxiliary engines.
Later, after serving his apprenticeship, Hassell took over the captaincy of the “Edward VII”. His father had gone on to acquire and skipper another schooner. This was the fine Grand Banks two-master “Frances Smith”, a sister boat to the famous “Bluenose”. The younger Hassell captained other boats including “Comrade”, “Manuata” and the “Lucille Smith”, before taking over the wholly motorized and ill fated “Zipper” in 1959. Ill fated? Hassell related what happened one day in March 1963 in the only mishap with a vessel during his 27 years at sea. Heading towards Bridgetown from “BG” (as Guyana was known in the English speaking Caribbean before independence), the” Zipper” went to the bottom after taking water. Fortunately, Hassell was able to send off a “May Day” signal and he and his crew were rescued by a passing ship. “It all happened in five minutes. Nobody panicked and the evacuation went well,” Hassell who never learned to swim a stroke, said modestly. (Many of our seafarers and fishermen here on Saba never learned to swim either).
The veteran seafarer decided that the time had come for him to come ashore. Not that he was scared. “I had pledged that if a boat was to sink under me, that that would be the end of my career at sea.” In 1969, Hassell established Eric and Son Limited with the assistance of his son, Geoffrey. This firm was to serve as agents for the almost 100 inter-island freighters calling at Barbados at the time. Over the years especially with the demise of another outfit, the Schooner Owners Association, the family-owned business prospered. Captain Hassell, is, however the first to point out that the agents’ part of the business is in the doldrums now because of the decline of inter-island shipping on small vessels.
Still showing the easy-going manner and wit which made him one of the more popular Barbadian schooner captains among the many crews who sailed with him, he can be drawn out to tell you about the “good old days of sailing”. It must have been tough. There were no radios on board to get the latest weather forecast. “Not even a transistor radio. The only navigational equipment we had was the compass and you needed that to keep a course. When we took on passengers they had to rough it.”
What about hurricanes? “We were lucky. We had to sail during the hurricane season, if not you would lose a lot of business. During hurricane Janet in the mid-1950’s, we were halfway from BG to Barbados on the “Lucille Smith”. We got some rough sea but we pulled through okay. When we reached Carlisle Bay, we saw that several boats had been washed ashore. A schooner had sunk in the Careenage. Captain Hassell immediately went ashore to ascertain if his wife and eight children (girls Shirley, Jeannette, Maggie and Rose Marie and boys Albert, Geoffrey, Trevor and Frank) were okay. They were.
Before leaving the office, I couldn’t resist asking if during the war years he had met up with any German U-boats (submarines)? Replied Captain Hassell: “No, we didn’t even see one. Maybe one of them saw us and decided against attacking. Perhaps he couldn’t catch us because we were going too fast. We will never know.”
The following information is taken from the company’s website. In 1973 Eric Hassell and Son Ltd. introduced the first open-hatch bulk carriers of grain, corn and rice to Barbados. The internationally known known Carrier provides an invaluable service to Barbados. The vessels are fitted with their own conventional slewing cranes and with their own grabs, which is optimal for the discharge operation. In 1981 Eric Hassell and Son Ltd was one of the founding members of the Shipping Association of Barbados, whose role is to unite member agents on matters pertaining to the handling of ships and cargo, and to ensure positive relationships are maintained between the shipping agents, related port agencies and the unions. In 1992 the company entered containerized shipping by providing quality representation to European and U.S. based shipping lines.
In 1994 Captain Hassell passed away leaving the business in the hands of his son, Geoffrey Hassell and later another son, Frank Hassell, and granddaughter Erica Luke. In 2002 the company won the right to represent Seaboard Marine, containerized cargo from all parts of the America’s, with weekly scheduled service from their private terminal in Miami, Florida. The company handle’s over 400 vessel calls per year. These vessels vary from bulk size vessels of more than 150 meters in length with grain, steel, cement and pipes, to the inter island vessels of less than 50 meters.
Captain Eric Hassell, his father Captain Frank and his grandfather did us proud even though they established themselves on Barbados and made that lovely island their new home, they never forgot Saba and we thank them for that.