The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson

Capt. Abraham Hassell

By Will Johnson

He was born on Saba on August 19, 1866. In an interview for the book “Saba Silhouettes” by Dr. Julia Crane, his brother Mr. Carl Hassell speaks about the family. Mr. Carl was a shopkeeper and had his general store in the building which now has the Swinging Doors restaurant. “There were seven brothers and one sister. All the brothers died young. We have one brother died at the age of thirty-eight, the next at fifty, next at fifty – two, next sixty-one, sixty-four; and the eldest, then, that lived In Providence, he died at eighty-nine. The oldest was Roland , then Abraham, John George,( who died in the eruption of Mt. Pele in 1902 while on a schooner in the harbour of St. Pierre) William Benjamin,(grandfather of the Goddard family in Barbados) John, Clarence, and Thomas, and myself Carl. My sister’s name was Lena. The two of us grew up together. We were the younger ones, you know. All the brothers had gone away and all such things.”

The Central Store. Maude and her husband Carl Hassell, Edith Peterson and Marion Hassell.

The Central Store. Maude and her husband Carl Hassell, Edith Peterson and Marion Hassell.

Capt. Abraham died in 1955 and the Rhode Island newspapers noted his passing with the following headlines: Capt. Abraham Hassell Dies: Was Buyer, Seller of ships.

“West Indian Native, He lived Most of Working Years in Providence.

Capt. Abraham Hassell, who for more than 25 years found purchasing and refitting vessels in this country for resale in the West Indies and Caribbean area to be highly profitable, died yesterday at Newport Hospital after a long illness. He was in his 89th year. For most of his working life Capt. Hassell lived in Providence, moving to Newport in 1947 to live with a daughter, Mrs. John L. Nolan when he became seriously ill.

Born August 19th, 1866 in Saba, Netherlands West Indies, Capt. Hassell grew up with the sea, worked on it as a boy and continued his love of it when he came to this country as a young man.

In 1906 Capt. Hassell bought the schooner “Frolic” which had been impounded by the government for illegal use in transporting Chinese from Cuba to this country. He sold the “Frolic” in French Guiana at a handsome profit and started his business.

Capt. Abe Hassell

For the next quarter century he bought various schooners, which he had repaired and refitted at Gloucester, Mass., reselling them in Puerto Rico, Barbados and the Virgin Islands. One of the craft he sold was the schooner “Virginia”, built at the Herreshoff shipyard in Bristol.

For four years Capt. Hassell sailed the three-master schooner. “Frances and Louise,” trading among the Antilles islands. The schooner “Viking” which he described as the prettiest ship he ever owned brought him his only disaster in his career. The schooner “Viking” was sent aground in a storm in the Virgin Islands, a total wreck, but with all hands saved.

Capt. Hassell’s last venture was in 1931, after which he decided to retire.

Besides Mrs. Nolan he leaves another daughter, Mrs. Adele H. Gannon of Newport: one granddaughter and one great granddaughter.”

Another newspaper “The Waterfront” carried a similar article about his life and his success at buying and selling schooners. He sold a number of these schooners to captains from Saba as well. The “Viking” was renamed the “Three Sisters”.

Mr. Carl once told me that the “Three Sisters” formerly the “Viking” was purchased in 1927. He, his brothers Abraham and Ben were the owners. The schooner was 115 feet long and 192.7 tons. Back then the SHELL and ESSO oil companies were bringing in labourers from all over the West Indies to work in their refineries on Aruba and Curacao. He said that on the very first trip they made enough money to cover the costs of the purchase of the schooner. With Capt. Abraham living in Rhode Island he could buy fishing schooners at a bargain and repair and refit them for carrying cargo and passengers in the West Indies.

Three Sisters arriving in Curacao carrying personnel for oil industry

Three Sisters arriving in Curacao carrying personnel for oil industry

Typical for  boys back then is Mr. Carl’s story which would be repeated in the life of his brothers including Capt. Abraham. “I was just past eleven when I started out, cabin boy on a schooner. There was no money, you know, so that all we lived from was the products of the land; and soon as a boy came up twelve, fourteen years or something like that, why he tries to get away to be able to do something. All the young boys used to go at early ages. The schooner I went on was from Saba. My brothers owned it. The schooner (“Lovely Lila”) came out from America in 1898, and she cruised around from St. Martin, St. Barth’s, all the Windward Islands, and as far as Turks island we used to go. We’d go to Turks Island for straw they make those straw hats from you know. We used to bring that from Turks island and up to St. Martin, and at the later part of the year we made a trip from here to Trinidad and Barbados.

Generally, we used to get ashore at night or something like that, but the daytime, of course, you had to be to your work. The people you met were about like yourself, you know; one ship here with somebody on it whom you knew, and another one there with somebody, and that was the way.” Mr. Carl also tells of a schooner of his brother Abraham’s which lost its mast on a trip to Trinidad and they put into Grenada to repair it: “We fixed her up so we got into Grenada, and then had all the rigging fixed. We started back on the way to Trinidad, and we got into Trinidad, and there my brother sold the boat then. We came from Trinidad back to Barbados by steamer and then back to Saba by schooner.”

Schooner "Three Sisters", Painting by Richard Hassell

Schooner “Three Sisters”, Painting by Richard Hassell

My brother went back on to America, and next thing he came out with another schooner (“Colombia”), and we went into the fishing business for a firm in Trinidad. We fished down the coast of Tobago, and that one was the one on which we got wrecked. Going through the Grand Bocas another vessel collided with us”. It was a large four master vessel which ran them down in the narrows of the Grand Bocas. He went on to relate:” All the crew was from Saba, there was nine of us. We had two men from down in the Ladder, their names – one was Albert and one was Arnold Blyden. We had some other ones from St. Johns and some from Windwardside. The mate Adolph Peterson (Carmelites father) was the only one lost in the accident.”

Another old sailor Peter Every also talks about going to sea at an early age: “So when I made thirteen I was thinking about going to sea.  You see I had two uncles used to sail onto those big American schooners and every couple of months, they’d pass in here, see. Every couple of months they would pass in here and remain here sometimes for two days. And I would see these big heavy, portly-looking fellahs, you know, and I always used to tell my mother that I’d like to go on a vessel to get big and fat like my uncles and they. Yeah, that always attract my nerves, you know, to see these sailors comin’ up in these big vessels, and big and fat and heavy-looking men.

My older brother, he went away when he was thirteen years old, went on a sailing schooner when he was thirteen years old. He never came back neither. He sailed around Barbados for must’ve been ten or twelve years or something; and then he shipped onto a schooner, American schooner in Barbados, and then went to the States. And he never came back. Never came back.”  By the way Peter also relates how he went to Capt. Abraham’s brother the famous Captain “Ben” to become a cabin boy in the hope of eventually fattening up like his fat uncles whom he admired so much. And although he admired fat people so much his wife was named Lean and lived up to her name as she was always lean.

Capt. John Clarence at the wheel of the 'Maisie Hassell' and his brother standing Capt. William Benjamin Hassell

Capt. John Clarence at the wheel of the ‘Maisie Hassell’ and his brother standing Capt. William Benjamin Hassell

The old property registers on Saba provide many interesting historical facts to back up my research on our former seamen. Nearly every male in property transactions, last wills and testaments and so on is listed as a Master Mariner (captain), mariner, and seaman and so on. Also the selling and buying of vessels was registered in a Notarial deed.

For this article here is one of those many transactions: “ On this the twenty fourth day of the month of June in the year one thousand nineteen hundred and twenty six. Before me William Frederick Meinhardt Lampe, Notary Public in the island of Saba residing in said island and in the presence of the herein after mentioned witnesses.

Personally came and appeared.

Mister Abram Hassell, mariner by vocation, residing in Providence Rhode Island (United States of America) at present temporary staying in this island – appearer on the first part.—and Mister John Clarence Hassell, shopkeeper by vocation residing in this island – appearer on the second part. Both appearers are well known to me Notary. The appearer on the first part Abram Hassell, declares hereby to sell, transfer, make over and deliver in full and free ownership, under warranty according to Law, unto the appearer on the second part John Clarence Hassell who declares to accept in purchase hereby from the appearer on the first part Abram Hassell in full and free ownership and under warranty according to law. All and the whole of the American schooner named “Agnes” of Taunton, Massachusetts (United States of America) and measuring according to a certificate issued at this island on this day: One hundred and sixty seven and sixteen hundredths cubic meters net equal to Fifty nine and seven hundredths tons of 2.8 m3 and such as she now lies at anchor at the Ladder anchorage of this island with her spars, sails, rigging, anchors, chains and boats nothing whatsoever excepted.

The appearers on the first and second part declare that this sale and purchase takes place for and in consideration of twenty five guilders and other valuable considerations which amount the appearer on the first part declares to have received in full from the appearer on the second part granting unto him by these presents, full receipt and acquittance for said purchase sum.”

That amount was a symbolic amount of course being that the schooner was being sold to his brother and I am sure that this must have cost a great deal more.

Also in a last will and testament of March 8th, 1927 the same John Clarence Hassell (born November 5th 1874), Abraham’s brother willed two of his schooners to Genevra Holm clerk at the store of his brother William James Benjamin Hassell (Capt. Ben), namely the “Maisie Hassell” 59.4 tons and the “Lena Hassell” of 42 tons both of which schooners were registered on Saba. Since he was a married man I have not heard of any kind of scandal here with him leaving the schooners in his will to Genevra as he died just about four years later.

Saba’s history and culture is wet with the waters of the sea . Our people even when they left, whether to Barbados, Bermuda, the Unites States or wherever found occupations linked to the sea. Whether it was a ship chandler in Portland, a purchaser of ships in Providence, captains and owners of a fleet of schooners on Barbados, wherever they went they trusted the sea to provide them with a living. Even in the past fifty years or more many of our immigrants to the USA went into dredging to which they were introduced by Leonidas Johnson of The Bottom. Those who remain on Saba went into the fishing business and when they need a new fishing boat they head up to places like Bar Harbor Maine or Gloucester Massachusetts to buy either new or used fishing boats there. And I might add at far higher prices than Captain Abe used to buy and sell his schooners for back nearly one hundred years ago. And by the way I have his parents and grandparents still with me. As is the case on Saba in many instances they are buried in the front yard of a property I own. And they are well maintained in respect for the fact that the house produced at least four important captains in all and important families like the Goddard family can trace their roots back to that yard!! May Capt. Abe and his family in my yard continue to rest in peace!!

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