The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson

Historical Sketch of the Island of St. Eustatius (Part II)

Johannes de Graeff

Johannes de Graff

In the first part of this sketch written by native historian Arthur Valk we reached as far as the recognition by Governor de Graaf of the flag of the Continental Congress of the rebel United States colonies with a 13 gun salute. It turns out that Mr. Arthur Valk was the first person to attempt at writing a concise history of his native island. It is also written in such a way that it can be easily read. God willing I want to do a history of St. Eustatius based on the lives of some leading people of the past hundred years who in one way or the other made a contribution to the island. When I started typing this article on January 1st, I did not realize until I had finished typing that Mr. Valk had written his history on January 21st, 1889. January must have been calling on me to pay a tribute to Mr. Valk this month so that contemporary Statians will know more about him. We continue now with the rest of Mr. Valk’s history written in 1889.

“ This recognition of the flag on the part of the governor, although done on his own responsibility, and against the orders of the States General, afforded additional cause of complaint, and the States, willing to do all that could consistently be done to maintain friendly relations, summoned the offending Governor to Holland, there to give an account of his conduct, and he was not allowed to return till he had succeeded in clearing himself before a Court of Justice, of all the charges which had been brought against him.

While the two nations were thus in professed amity, in February 1781 Admiral Rodney suddenly appeared before the island with such an armament of sea and land forces as in its defenseless situation was not only useless but ridiculous. The governor could scarcely credit the officer who summoned him to surrender, but being convinced how matters stood, surrendered the island with everything in it at discretion.

Naval vessels in the harbor

Naval vessels in the harbor

And now began the systematic series of acts which culminated in the ruin of this unfortunate island. 1500 men were landed the same day, some of whom were placed as guards from one extremity of the lower town to the other, evidently with the view of preventing the merchants from having access to or removing anything from their stores, subsequently the keys of their warehouses were demanded, their correspondence, books, letters, etc. taken away and everyone was compelled to give an account of all the ready money, jewels, slaves, cattle, etc. which he possessed, nor was rank age or sex spared in the general order.

The next measure was the general proscription of all the inhabitants, by which they were ordered to quit the island. Americans, Dutch, French, all without exception, “leaving behind them all their wealth, merchandise, etc., and taking with them such effects only as they had received a special license for.”

As Mr. Burke said in Parliament “the island surrendered at discretion, but the conquerors interpreted discretion into destruction for they did not leave the conquered a shilling.” The poor Jews were treated in a worse manner, if possible than all the other inhabitants, 250 of them were sent to Antigua, and numbers to St. Kitts, being first stripped of all their money and valuables. A Mr. Hoeb in particular a venerable old gentleman, nearly seventy years of age, had even his clothes searched and some money which he had concealed about him for the purpose of buying food was taken from him. Three millions of pound sterling in money alone was taken possession of, besides more than a million in property. Along with the island there fell into the hands of the captors, 250 sail of merchantmen and a frigate of 38 guns, besides a Dutch flag ship of 60 guns, the Mars which was taken off Saba, having under convoy between 20 and 30 ships bound for Europe.

Naval activity around St. Eustatius

Naval activity around St. Eustatius

The British Lion had indeed glutted its heart with vengeance and the desolation of St. Eustatius was almost complete. In the month of May the garrison was attacked by a malignant fever, which in a sort time swept away more than two hundred of their number, including the Commandant of the island, Brigadier General Sir David Ogilvy. On the 20th of November of the same year the Marquis de Bouille arrived off one of the landing place of the island, deemed so inaccessible that it had been left without a guard. With much difficulty he landed 400 or 500 men during the night. The appearance of day put an end to his landing any more, and he now found himself obliged either to relinquish the enterprise or to attack. The garrison which was almost double the number of those he had on the island. He chose the latter and was favored by the negligence of his antagonists. A difficult pass had been left unguarded which the Marquis secured, and then pushed forward with the utmost expedition. The British, mistaking a body of Irish troops for their comrades, suffered them to proceed without thinking of opposing them. They were then exercising on the parade but were soon made sensible of their mistake by a close discharge from the supposed friends, by which many were killed and wounded.

Fort Orange

Fort Orange

The surprise occasioned by this sudden attack was so great that no resistance could be made especially as the Commanding Officer Colonel Cockburn, who happened at that instant to come upon the parade was made prisoner. A number of them, however, hastened to the Fort, with the intention of making head against the enemy, but the French had already taken possession of the Fort and the rest of the garrison, dispersed in various places had no choice but to submit without opposition. The actions of the French Commander were in glittering contrast to that of the English one. Among the spoils that fell into his hands was a large sum of money claimed by the British Commanding Officer as private property. This was generously restored to him. The property of the Dutch inhabitants was also reserved to them and nothing was allowed to be seized, but the produce arising from the sale of prizes that had been taken by the English when they captured this island. For nearly three years the French flag waved over this island when in 1784 it was formally restored to Holland.

Old photo of Oranjestad 1940's

Old photo of Oranjestad 1940’s

Business once again resumed its course, if not with so full a current as before. In the year 1789 we find the number of vessels cleared at the fort not less than 3050. All surrounding islands were supplied from its capacious stores, and considerable quantity of sugar and tobacco, cocoa and cotton, hides and rum were exported to Holland. The West India Company however had fallen deeply into debt and to satisfy these claims, it was obliged in 1792 to sell all its possessions. These were purchased by the government and a Council of the Colonies appointed to administer their affairs. In 1795 soon after the French occupation of Holland and to the great alarm of the quiet citizens, a body of French troops arrived in this island and the Batavian Republic was proclaimed and a Burger Daniel Roda was placed at the head of the Government.

Many families now left the island to reside elsewhere and the commerce of the island greatly declined. Under these dreary conditions, the closing year of one century and the opening of another was spent. With the decay of trade and the removal of many persons from the island, the whole lower Town had now almost fallen into ruin and many buildings on the Hill-town were in a similar condition. By an ordinance issued at this time all these were required to be taken down at once, thereby adding to the distressed aspect of the island. Still the afflicted community looked forward to the restoration of their lawful Soverign, when they hoped “under a free an unencumbered commerce” trade would revive and “houses rise like mushrooms.” In 1804 the English took possession but only held it for a short time, as by the peace of Amiens, the next year, it was restored to the Dutch. During the following years immense sums of money were spent in constructing forts and batteries and transporting there heavy pieces of ordnance but all this did not prevent the island again falling into the hands of the British, who now retained it for several years. The extinction of trade had now nearly become complete and even in 1816 when the island once more came under Dutch rule, although it seemed to revive for a short time, it never attained any considerable proportions and soon ceased altogether. In the year 1822 in an official report, the condition of the island is said to be “most unfavorable, while no prospect of improvement exists, as trade and navigation gradually decline and the British colonies cherish great hopes that direct communications with foreign ports will soon be granted them, in which case this island and St. Thomas and St. Barths will become of little value.” All these forebodings were fully realized.

Remains of Lower Town, once home to over 200 commercial establishments
with a view of Saba in the horizon

We have but little more to record of the history of St. Eustatius. In 1828 the island till then having had the islands of St. Martin and Saba under it, was placed with them under the government of Surinam. In 1843 the population of the island had sunk to 1463 of whom 1113 were slaves. A fearful earthquake occurred this year. In 1845 the island became a dependency of Curacao. In  1846 the troops which composed the garrison were removed to Curacao, an unfortunate measure and to which may in part attributed the breaking out of an insurrection among the slave population in 1848, which was promptly quelled but not without bloodshed.

Statia - Image (1566)

On the 1st of July 1863 the emancipation of the slaves took place, the day being observed as a general holiday and Divine services performed in the Churches. About the humanity of this measure there can be no doubt, but it is equally certain that it hastened the ruin of the already impoverished island. Since then the cultivation of sugar has been abandoned. The only agricultural operations carried on at the present being the cultivation of some yams (dioscarea sativa) and some potatoes (battas edulis). The population of the island is not more than 1363 persons. Of the numerous building in the Lower Town, numbering about 200 at the commencement of the century, only 12 or 13 remain. In the Upper Town not more than a hundred and fifty, most of which are in dilapidated condition. The Dutch Reformed Church, since the withdrawal of a pastor, has been suffered to fall into decay, until at the present time the greater part of the building has fallen in. In short everything bears the stamp of decadence and decay.

Group of Johnson's & other important people of Statia in the early nineteen hundreds

Group of Johnson’s & other important people of Statia in the early nineteen hundreds

And here we bring this historical sketch of St. Eustatius to a close with the hope that the clouds which have so long rested over this little island may be removed and that the future may have in store for it even a tithe of the prosperity and wealth which once earned for it the name of the “Golden Rock.”

A. Valk

St. Eustatius

21st January 1889

Gallery overtrading the road was the home of Mr. Arthur Valk.

Gallery overtrading the road was the home of Mr. Arthur Valk.

Arthur Valk in back with Irvin Mussenden in the library

Arthur Valk in back with Irvin Mussenden in the library

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