The Story of Rebecca
By Will Johnson
Contributed from “Of Saban Descent”
This story was written in September 1985. The lady in question has so many descendents and young people who want to know more about her life and times that I would like to pass it on to the public one more time. Holland is talking about a project for “Strong Women”. When these islands had it most difficult we produced strong women. We should not have to look around to find them. They have always been with us and always will. Here is one of the many strong women I have known in my lifetime and whose lives I would like to project to a wider reading public.
The Story of Rebecca
When an old person dies it is like a library burning down.
The day I interviewed her was Sept.6th, 1985. She was 87, still making coal pits, working in the ground, doing crochet work, and selling lottery tickets. Working hard, as she had been doing all her life. She had walked up to The Level looking for me and then back down to Windwardside. I said to her: “You must be tired.” She laughed and said: “This ain’t nothing.” And then she told me her story
Rebecca Levenstone, born Jones, was born in Saba’s St. John’s on July 9th, 1898. She lived just above the “Chaulk Hole.” Her mother was Elizabeth Jones, whose parents were Ann and George Jones. Her father was Lawrence Riley.
Rebecca’s mother also had five sons. One died between the age of 2 and 3. Her mother had been grating cassava and went outside briefly to feed her sister’s cow. The little boy drank the cassava water which had salt in it. This prevented vomiting and the child died almost immediately. Rebecca is now the only one surviving from her mother’s children.
Rebecca said she never remembered her old grandparents telling anything about where they had come from in Africa. They had been born on Saba, but her grandmother did tell her many stories from the slavery days.
In 1911, Rebecca went to St. Barths with Mrs. Annie Dowling in the sloop the “Muriel.” She stayed there 3 months, but said she just wanted to get back home and she came back in the “Challenge” which was nothing more than a large rowboat.
IN THOSE DAYS there were several Saban families living in St. Barths. She remembers a Rogers family living there related to Capt. Engle Simmons of The Bottom, as well as the Barnes, Dinzey, and Dowling families. She said in those days the trade was all with St. Kitts. There were two sloops, the “Ethel” and the “Muriel.” The Ethel was owned by “Red Head” Joe Simmons and the Captain was Willie Hassell. They used to call at St. Kitts two or three times a week. The sloop Muriel, which belonged to Capt. John Simmons, also used to trade with St. Thomas.
In the hurricane season these sloops would go to St. Barths, along with two large rowboats the “Challenge” and the “Surprise” which also belonged to “Red Head” Joe Simmons. By the way, there were two merchants from The Bottom named Joseph Simmons. To distinguish one from the other they were known by the colour of their hair “Red Head” and “Black Head.” In any event, when a hurricane threatened, these boats could be hauled up on land, loaded up with rocks, and thus weather out the storm.
IN LATER YEARS Rebecca used to travel with the government-owned schooner the “Blue Peter” and other schooners would bring down cloth, heaters, and other merchandise from Mr. Stanley Gumbs whose wife was from Saba. These items would be sold on Saba.
As a young girl, 9 to 10 years of age she started carrying loads on her head from Ladder Bay or Fort Bay. In the beginning the loads consisted of 5lbs of butter. As she got older the loads increased. She used to bring a 100 lb bag of flour on her head to Windwardside for f.0.65 cash money and a pint of flour or cornmeal. The most trips she ever made in one day was 7 trips once from Fort Bay to St. John’s. The last trip of the day she was carrying a large trunk and she was so exhausted when she reached the pasture on St. John’s that the trunk fell and “burst open.” Rebecca said: “You know she refused to pay me?” Then she pauses for a long time and said “Never mind, though, she gone long time and your old Becca is still here!” For all those trips she made, the most she ever received in a single days work was fls.5.—(five guilders.)
On December 14th, 1921, Rebecca got married to Mr. Richard Andrew Levenstone, also known as “Bullie.” Although her husband was 24 years older than her, they had 15 children together, two of whom died as children, the others are all alive.
In between the births of her children, Rebecca continued her life of hard work. She told me that once she went to Mary’s Point to trade with my great uncle, Henry Johnson. In those days when water was scarce, she would either carry drinking water from The Bottom, or corned fish and so forth. These she would trade for potatoes, tannias, bananas etc. On that occasion she brought back a barrel bag with 560 bananas from Betsy Horton’s ghaut to The Bottom to sell.
AT THE FORT BAY AND LADDER BAY she helped to haul up the boats, sometimes to row them out through the breakers. She then started to bring up the mail from the Fort Bay. This she did for the next 33 years. She used to bring up everything on her head at first, later on she started to get donkeys to help out. She owned 17 donkeys in all over the years of hauling cargo from the Fort Bay, until the jeeps and the trucks started doing this job in the early nineteen fifties.
Her husband died in 1955 at the age of 81. Rebecca said that she had a happy life and that she enjoyed the hard work. In her youth Saba had well over two thousand people living here ,Rebecca said, and that there were “loads of people living in Cow Pasture, Middle Island and Palmetto Point (Mary’s Point). She was born an Anglican, but she went to the Roman Catholic School when it started up in 1909 and she converted to Catholicism.
She said in the hurricane of 1928, she had a bag of flour and a pail of lard at Susan Laura’s home, which belonged to the shopkeeper Ralph Sagers of Hell’s Gate. She received a message from Susan Laura Johnson telling her that a hurricane was coming and that she had better come and pick up these things, as she could not be responsible for them if the hurricane blew down her house.
REBECCA TELLS how “Phillie” helped her load the bag of flour on her head and she carried the pail of lard in her hand. He said, “Becca, girl, you must be crazy, you’ll never make it up the hill with that load.” Rebecca said that when she got by the Chaulk Hole her head was burning, but she didn’t give up. Neither at John Sagers’ Ridge, but at the “Dancing Place” she decided to rest her burden on a wall. Then her husband, “Bullie,” and son, Edward, came along from the direction of Windwardside. She told “Bullie” to rush down and secure the children. “Edward and I will continue.” She then continued carrying the flour, while Edward carried the lard.
Arriving on Hell’s Gate she delivered her load and purchased a bag of vegetables, to take back with her to The Bottom to sell there. She said the hurricane hit at 10 o’clock that night. They weathered it in the home of “Aunt Maude” Linzey. In the 1932 hurricane they again went to “Aunt” Maude’s house.
“Did Ned pass all your house yet?”
Rebecca’s home had a thatched roof made from the stalks of the sugar cane and it received some damage in the 1928 hurricane, but was quickly repaired.
Rebecca said that she used to go look in at parties but never danced herself. She drank a glass of liquor only once when she was in pain, and smoked a cigarette once for a toothache, but did not like either one and never bothered with them again. She said her main meal consisted of roast sweet potatoes and milk mixed with water. Sometimes they would have hard crackers which were 6 for 1 cent. Many nights she would go asleep hungry. During the “Kaisers War” her friends would shout out to one another “Did Ned pass all your house yet?” “Ned” was an old Saba expression which meant hunger. Rebecca’s mother used to make 12 cents a day working for people. In later years her brother “Bishop” used to sail out of Barbados with a Saba captain and send back money for his mother.
THE BIGGEST DISASTER she remembers was when Mathias’ brother “Stephen” and his three sons, Joseph, John Thomas and Stephen Jr. were lost on the Saba Bank while fishing in a boat called the “Ruby”. People claimed that they would see the boat coming, with oars rowing with no men in it. One Sunday night the schooner “Estelle” was in the harbour. People in St. John’s claimed they heard the voices of the men who had lost their lives calling out: “Come down, we come, we come.” They went down, but no boat came in. For months people claimed they saw the boat trying to reach the shore in vain. This happened around 1914.
She said that at Christmas she would receive a suit of clothes from Miss Anne Catherine Hazel of St. John’s – Jim Hazel’s mother. The rest of the time she wore hand downs. Regarding her health, Rebecca told me that all her life she used salt, was not a heavy eater and never had a problem with high blood pressure.
When I was a young boy coming up we used to sit down and listen to the old people. An old African saying is that when an old person dies it is like a “library burning down.”
People like Rebecca are disappearing. Her generation, knew the hard life and were not embittered by it. The luxury and easy living today seems to make people greedy, make tattle-tales out of people who want to destroy all with their tongue who they think stand in their way to fortune. They are only interested in making money for the love of money only. The scorn old people with a history of honest and hard work like Rebecca. Her life of hard work is the best example we can use to pass on to our children. God has blessed her hard work and honesty with the privilege of a long and useful life.
At 87, Becca can still walk from Below-The-Ladder to The Level. She says she could go to the top of the mountain, only she ain’t got no business up there. She has no bitterness about her and is justly proud of the hard work she has done in her lifetime. She has 55 grandchildren and 56 great-grandchildren. Some years ago she was honoured with a Medal from Her Majesty, The Queen. Our young people would do well to sit down and let “Becca,” as she is fondly called, tell them what life is all about. Rebecca, we salute you, and all we can say is “Carry on the good work.”
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Balthazar Gracian (16th century) tells us: “Turn the hand first to achievement, and then to the pen, from the blade of the sword to the blade of history, for there is such a thing as the blessing of the biographers, for it makes immortal.”
Rebecca passed away on August 11th 1988 shortly after her 90th birthday. Remarkably enough, ten of her children still survive 23 years after this article was first written. Five girls and five boys. They are Beatrice, Agnes and Vivienne on Aruba, Marguerite on Bonaire, Bernadette on Saba. The boys are: Joe on Saba, Martinus on St. Maarten, Alphonse in Florida, Mathias on Aruba and Paul on Curacao. Once when she was trying to locate her son in the USA she brought me two marriage books. One was full and the other was on its way to being full. I said “Becca” you had nearly filled up two. She answered that “Bullie” had want to fill up the other one you know. Well I told “Bullie” if you want to full up another book, you will have to do that outside. Your Becca has done her share.”