The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson

Passing Big Shot

Image (1357)When the Dutch owned Indonesia, which was not that long ago, they established a series of Passangrahan, or “government stations” along the road to Lahat and then on to the West Coast port of Bencoolen. In local parlance they were referred to as “passing big shot” as they were primarily intended to house colonial officials. Each was about ten to twelve miles distant which enabled pedestrians/riders to easily attain them in a day. At each there were accommodations, a cook-house and stables. In the colonial Dutch West Indies each island had a Passangrahan. The smallest island of all, Saba, even had two. One in The Bottom, now the Dutch government’s colonial headquarters and one in Windwardside which for a number of years has been a guesthouse “Scout’s Place.”


Pasangrahan seen from the beach 1951

I was no “passing big shot” but I have many fond memories of hanging out at the Passangrahan Hotel on St. Maarten. I remember once reading an interview in a Dutch Magazine with an artist who was a member of the Van Romondt family of Aruba. They asked him if he was homesick for Aruba. He answered that “you are not homesick for a place. What is referred to as homesickness is a longing for a period in your life when you were most carefree and thought you were happy as a consequence.”

Recently I had the opportunity to stay at the Pasangrahan Hotel and it brought back a flood of memories from that period in my life when I was carefree and hanging out there. From late nineteen fifty nine on I lived just up the road at Captain Hodge’s guesthouse which was practically next door to the Passangrahan.


Tony Gumbs and his steel-band which used to play at Passangrahan hotel.

When I first knew the hotel it was still run by the government. Shortly after that Mr. Eric Lawaetz made a deal with the government to take over the hotel and add on ten guest rooms to it. The alley which led to the sea was closed off in order to accommodate that. He made the agreement in 1955 and two years later it was ready to receive guests. The ruins of the former D.C. van Romondt mansion were also included in the deal and the Windward Islander Store was established there. In the late nineteen fifties the island of St. Thomas was getting a bit too crowded for certain genteel folk and they started an exodus to St. Martin. Among them were Peter Byram and Kit Osborne. I was told that Peter had worked for Eric Lawaetz in his hotel on St. Croix. Kit Osborne came to St. Martin on a boat. I was only lately told by someone on Saba that Peter was Kit’s half brother. I don’t know that for sure. I had always heard that Kit had been an actress when she was young. They ran the Passangrahan Hotel for a while, and then started the Windward Islander Store. By that time I was living just up the street and working in the Post Office. Kit took a motherly fancy to me and supplied me with shirts which had been on the shelves too long. The hotel back then served as the preferred place to have dinner by the folks who were building their dream vacation homes in the Lowlands. The cook was Maisie Lake and could turn out a great meal even though supplies were limited and nothing available to make a gourmet meal. People like the Fawcett’s, John Goodwin and so on could be seen having dinner there. When Bud Vaz ran the place he had stacks of long play records of Johnny Mathis and Kate Smith especially, which would start being played at 6pm in the bar next to the restaurant which was on the verandah facing the sea. These records would continue playing until after nine. Back then I hated that type of music but had to suffer through it. But as with everything else in life things grow on you. Now when I hear a song by either one of those singers it brings back wonderful memories of the years I spent around the Passangrahan Hotel.

Charles "Scout" Thirkield and Albert Warner in the bar at the Passangrahan

Charles “Scout” Thirkield and Albert Warner in the bar at the Passangrahan

Charles Thirkield better known as “Scout” took over from Bud Vaz who went over to Saba to manage the newly built Captain’s Quarters Hotel. Scout had previously worked for the Windward Islander Store. I can even remember his father. He lived with Scout in the two storeys yellow building on the other side of the street from the store which belonged to a Scot. I remember together with the other Saba boys helping Frederick Froston bring the old man down the stairs on a stretcher and walking with him to the hospital. A few days later he passed away and we buried him in the big cemetery in Cul-de-Sac.


Lithograph of Passangrahan 1960’s

Bud Vaz had his own way of running the Passangrahan. A temperamental man he sure was. Once I had run up a sizeable bill at the bar. He insisted I pay it right away. The bill was well over two hundred dollars and at the time I was surviving off $15.—per month after paying room and board. No sense for Bud to threaten me. Anyway Mr. Burcher a handicapped lawyer who stayed at Capt. Hodge’s along with everyone else got fish poisoned with a cuvaly fish and needed to go to Puerto Rico. I was the only one from Up Street who had a visa. When the United States Consul visited St. Maarten my boss Alphonse O’Connor had asked me to assist the Consul upstairs in the old Courthouse. Fons did not see the Consul go upstairs. But boy when I went upstairs and saw the Consul, oh glory day. The second night Fons a famous bachelor then visited the Passangrahan and saw the Consul. He called me aside and what a barrage of bad words and threats he heaped on me. I figured my job was lost. But that was how I got my visa after beating off a host of potential suitors. Still have the name after all these years. Needles to say the Consul was young, vivacious, curvy and a redhead at that. Fons was particularly fond of redheads and would always be reminding me that I was lucky to still have a job after not telling him who the Consul really was. He reminded me with the necessary expletive delitives that he was my boss and my ignoring him would have consequences. No budging on my part. I had learned by then that Fons only put up a big mouth when he had up a few. Fons is the same one who had a heated discussion with an American tourist at the bar about the proper way to shoot ducks. Back then in the winter month’s scores of Canadian ducks would pass through St. Maarten. Fons even invited me once to go hunting ducks with him in the Lowlands and I can assure you that Fons knew how to shoot ducks. Fons decided to show the tourist that he knew a thing or two about shooting ducks and when we thought he had left returned with a double barreled shotgun from his car (always a Buick in his choice of cars and in his choice of the female of the species he preferred red heads, so you can see why he was so mad with me). Fons let go with the shotgun at the ceiling. What a commotion that followed. Tables overturned, plates flying on the ground and breaking, guests running towards the beach. Anything to escape Fons and his duck shooting demonstration. That shot was not heard around the world but it could have bankrupted the hotel.  Anyway in Puerto Rico Mr. Burcher’s secretary joined us and one night we all went to the casino. Mr. Burcher gave each of us a stack of coins. Turns out he did not realize that it was a one hundred dollar stack which we thought was five dollars. Threw a lot of those chips on number 22 and before you can realize it, I had over 900 dollars. Paid off Mr. Burcher and came back to St. Maarten fully flushed with money. First thing I did was go to Passangrahan to pay my bar bill.


November 1955. Boys Scouts lined up to greet Her Majesty Queen Juliana at Passangrahan

My bartender friend Albert Warner who had fought with the French in Algeria and used to tell me stories about that,  together with Mr. “Waas” as Albert called him looked all over the hotel, but no bill for me. They may have even checked under the hotel beds for all I know. Finally Albert in a moment of inspiration remembered where the bill had gone. “Mr. Waas,” he said;” You remember that man Mr. Johnson who quarreled so much about his bar bill? Well I must o’ put Will’s bill on his.” After winning that second lottery in the space of a week, the casino winnings went like oil on a hotplate, but at least my hotel bill was paid. Mr. “Waas” was not pleased even though most if not all of my Puerto Rico winnings were thrown behind the Passangrahan bar treating friends (besides redheads) like Evans Deher, Brother Joe Matthew, Lanman Webster, the boys from Saba and so on. No “Mr. Waas” was not pleased at all that I had got away so easy.


Passangrahan from the Frontstreet before the alley was closed off 1951

When Scout took over the management it was a relaxed form of management. That is I had the run of the place during his reign. And then suddenly everything changed. Scout went over to Saba and two young men, Rush Little and Ray Pointer came in and introduced the Rooster as the new Passangrahan emblem. Evans smelled trouble from day one. Took one look at the rooster and in unprintable language for a respectable paper like the Herald wondered aloud what was going on. Have you ever read:”Don’t stop the carnival?” The author must have been staying at the Passangrahan hotel when the rooster bearing crowd moved in. Within a week Evans stopped doing all the plumbing, changing gas tanks, you name it. Maisie the cook moved on and a regular source of revenue was nearly lost when the rooster prominently placed in the bar would give us an evil look when we entered.   Suddenly there was a decline in the supply of redheads or anyone else of the female of the species. We were like lost sailors on a remote island longing for the return of the redheads. Even Johnny Mathis and Kate Smith whom we had grown accustomed to were thrown out and replaced with some new weird form of music. The hotel went in the direction of what was later termed as “gay”. All of that we survived though. No one could discourage us from coming around. All sorts of important people we met during the years of hanging out. There was a Judge who would have Tony Gumbs put a stick with a string on an old wash tub which he would play for the full months of February and March to the annoyance of the other guests. His mission always was that his bar bill had to be more than his room bill. He welcomed any help he could get and boy did we make his stay worthwhile. Like Nero fiddling while Rome was burning, Judge Whitegrave or Gravestones would be pulling the string on the old washtub while we were drinking our way through the family fortune. It was much later that we learned we would have had to drink a lot more than we did to put a dent in the Judge’s fortune. It was at the Passangrahan too where on that flat cement terrace under the sea grape trees to the steel pan of Tony Gumbs and his boys that the Lt. Governor came to a decision that I had overreached his patience with me, by dancing not once but twice with Princess Irene. But I have told that one before and because of space I have to leave many interesting stories behind.


View of Passangrahan on the beach early 1970s

On leaving I noticed that on the building prominently displayed was the year 1905. Not in my book. When Governor Helfrick visited in November 1919 with some high officials, including the Administrator of Finance there were no hotel facilities on the island. Lt. Governor Tymstra’s wife was ill, so Governor Helfrick slept in the Roman Catholic Presbytery. Helfrick had prior experienced the Passangrahans in the Dutch East Indies. Orders were given to start a similar facility which was ready on March 28th, 1922. This is stated in the Journal of the Lt. Governor at the time. In 1938 a new building was erected, and in 1955 the Passangrahan was closed in order to facilitate the transfer to Mr. Eric Lawaetz who then expanded it with ten rooms and it remained that way for a number of years before any additional construction took place.  Before ending, this final story which Eric told me when I stayed with at his hotel St. Croix by the Sea. Dr. Levendag and the teacher Ann Lichtveld had gone sailing on his yacht parked in front of the Pasangrahan Hotel. We sometimes used it without his permission as well. The next morning the yacht had slipped the moorings and was gone. A few days later Eric and his wife saw a familiar boat heading towards the reef close to their hotel on St.Croix. They sent out one of the workers who came back towing their yacht from their hotel on St. Maarten. Eric wrote a long history of St. Croix, and called me occasionally to find out about George Seaman and to discuss history. He lived to be ninety five and made an enormous difference in the history of St. Maarten with his purchase and development of the Lowlands. Sweet memories of my days of hanging out at the Passangrahan, I still carry with me as you can read.


The terrace at Passangrahan facing the beach

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