The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson

St. Eustatius Historical Sketch (Part I)

Introduced by Will Johnson

As far as I can ascertain this is the first history of St. Eustatius written by a native of that island. It might even be the first attempt of putting the history of that island in writing. Prof. Dr.L. Knappert’s history of the 18th century was only published in 1932, and that of J.H.J. Hamelberg in 1901. Other historians mentioned either a short visit to Statia or mentioned it in passing. Mr. Arthur Valk, of whom I have written before, wrote this historical sketch in the year 1889 and with limited research tools available to him, he was able to give a fairly good picture as to how his island had developed since the Europeans settled the Caribbean and displaced the original Arawak and Kalinago peoples by disease and warfare. He was a teacher by profession and considered the intellectual of Statia in his day. He had a sizeable library for those times, and visiting dignitaries to the island would always pay a courtesy visit to his home in order to get acquainted with Statia’s glorious history. He was a natural child of the owner of Schotzenhoek plantation, Mr. Daniel James Hassell Every of Saba/Statia Descent. His mother was a Hodge and he chose to use the name Valk one of the surnames from the ancestry of his mother. He also did translations of the Dutch anthem and other patriotic songs. His former home belongs to Senator Kenneth van Putten and is located on the Kerkstraat.

Arthur Valk and his mother Margaret Ann Hodge

Arthur Valk and his mother Margaret Ann Hodge

The original was typed from a Xerox copy of a handwritten Manuscript supplied by the Royal Institute for Language – Country- and Ethnology, Leiden, The Netherlands.

Mr. Valk had to do research based on oral history and books available to him at the time. Nowadays researchers have so many more tools to do historical research, including the Internet, so even though everything may not be to the satisfaction of modern day historians Mr. Valk, deserves much credit for his research at the time.

…..” The Island of St. Eustatius was discovered by Christopher Columbus during his second voyage in 1493 and it is probable it was named by this celebrated navigator in honor of the day on which it was first visited.

It is not known whether any Indians were met with in this Island, no doubt on account of its small extent and the absence of springs or rivers, it was not permanently inhabited by them, although frequently resorted to as a place of temporary residence by those of the neighboring island of St. Kitts. It is said that on one of these excursions, about the middle of the sixteenth century a number of them were encountered by the Spaniards, then in possession of the Island and though defending themselves with great bravery were overpowered and destroyed. Under its Spanish masters, the island remained unknown and unnoticed for more than a hundred years, harboring at times a few adventurers, who however, discouraged by the droughts to which the island is subject, and eager to share in the prosperity of the newly acquired colonies in South America, soon abandoned it to its fate. The Dutch, who established their West India Company in 1621 and were the first to trade in the Caribbean Sea, next obtained possession, how or when their first settlement was made, we are not definitely informed. It is certain, however, that it was before 1645, as in that year, according to Du Tertre a dispute occurred between the English and Dutch inhabitants of the island of St. Croix, the Dutch returned to St. Eustatius, then already colonized by the nation.

Old chart of St. Eustatius

Old chart of St. Eustatius

The first Dutch settlement is said to have consisted of 1600 persons. It would seem that the early colonists must at once have appropriated certain portions of the island and commenced their agricultural labors and principally the cultivation of tobacco, which for some time remained the staple product. That the colony throve and prospered appears from the fact that it was one of those selected for attack by the English forces under Admiral Sir Robert Holmes in 1664 as being calculated to inflict a severe blow on Dutch commerce. In further proof of its flourishing condition at this time, we find that at the capture of St. Thomas then a possession of the Dutch, by the same forces, the colonists were compelled their effects and even their dwellings to St. Eustatius as being a more fertile island. The English remained in sole possession of the island for some time, during which the prosperity of the island continued steadily to advance. The invaders were however in their turn to be displaced. In March 1667, the Dutch and French then being confederates, united their forces in six ships under command of an Abraham Harijnszoon and appearing unexpectedly before the place, obtained possession of it without a struggle. On this occasion the French having stipulated that for the honor of their flag, they should be allowed to enter the fortress first, afterward insisted on retaining the command and it was only at the peace of Breda. In August of the same year that it was finally restored to the Dutch. In the meanwhile, the cultivation of sugar had progressed in the island with the introduction of slaves from the African coast. In the year 1672 the Dutch Reformed Congregation, which had until now regularly assembled for worship in the fort, built its first church, a wooden structure, said to have been destroyed by a hurricane in 1742. The island had indeed become a valuable acquisition to the nation not only on account of its cultivation of sugar and tobacco, which latter product was raised on its sloping sides and to the very summit, but also because it was most favorably situated for the carrying on of an advantageous trade with the Spanish Colonies in the West Indies, shut out by the exclusion of Spain from a direct trade with Europe. The trade with these Colonies consisted not only in European commodities, but in slaves as we have already said were now imported yearly from the coast of Africa and sold or bartered for the products of these colonies.

In 1686 the first Governor of whom we have any authentic record Lucas Jacobsen, died and was succeeded in the command by Johannes Salomons, an official of the West India Company, and allied with one of the most ancient and respectable Dutch families, the van Groeneveldt. Not long after this the island again passed into other hands, being taken by the French immediately after the English had declared war against France in 1689.

Fort Orange looking towards Saba

Fort Orange looking towards Saba

In the year 1690 the French troops were driven out by Sir Timothy Thornhill, with the loss of only eight men killed and wounded, although the fort they took mounted 16 guns and was in every respect very strong. Sir Timothy found it necessary for the protection of the Dutch to leave a small English garrison in the fort, but he granted the French no terms of capitulation, except for their lives and baggage. By the peace of Rijswijk in 1697, the island was once more restored to Dutch rule and a short period of tranquility followed. At this time the population is said to have numbered 11,200, “among who are people of all nations and 1600 negroes.”

In the early part of 1712, a fleet of 6 ships of the line and 2 frigates under the command of Messieurs Jacques de Caspard (Cassard) appeared in the harbor of St. Eustatius. The expedition had been fitting out at Toulon for the express purpose of plundering the colonies of the Netherlands and their allies, and their first work had been to pillage and burn the city of St. Jago in one of the Cape de Verde Islands, belonging to the Portuguese. They now demanded from the Government of St. Eustatius, a large sum with threats of immediate destruction in case of refusal. The situation was embarrassing, as the Government Treasury did not contain the required sum. But the Governor Jan Simonz Doncker volunteered to advance the deficiency himself for account of the Company and the money was paid over, the fleet sailing away the same day to the great relief of the inhabitants.

It is also said that the shrewd old Commander never recovered his money from the Company, but was directed to take over land sufficiently to discharge the debt. Governor Donker died in the year 1715 (1717). Jan Heyliger, Jacobus Steevens, Evered Raads, Isaac Faisch and Commander Coesveldt succeeded each other in the Government of this island from the year 1715 to 1740. The only event of importance which occurred during this time was the declaring of St. Eustatius a free port, which it had been in effect long before. In 1738 a dreadful hurricane visited the island and a severe drought prevailed in the years 1739 and 1740, which occasioned the removal of many people from the island. The period of depression did not, however last long. The tide of commercial prosperity again set in, and about the middle of the century, the island was as flourishing as ever. In 1752 Governor Johannes Heyliger died and the reins of administration were assumed by Jan de Windt formerly Secretary of the Company. In the same year the Dutch Episcopal Church was built, and in 1760 the foundations laid of a spacious Dutch reformed Church in place of the one which had been destroyed by the hurricane. Several grants of land are recorded at this time and the island was supposed in 1763 to contain over 10,000 inhabitants. The Bay, or Lower town, which before this time can scarcely be said to have had an existence was now built up rapidly from one end to the other, and it became necessary for the Government to limit the occupation of land in that locality. But a series of calamities was in store for the unfortunate island. On the 31st of August, 1772 a terrific hurricane occurred, known throughout the West Indies as the “Great Hurricane”. The destruction at St. Eustatius was immense, many of the buildings in the town and all the houses on the plantations with the exception of four were destroyed and the shipping in the harbor wrecked or sunk. The Record Office was swept away with all its valuable store of documents and writing. The Dutch Reformed church, which had just been completed at great expense, so totally wrecked that two years elapsed before it could again be opened for public worship and in short, the destruction was wide spread.

Activity in the Bay at St. Eustatius

Activity in the Bay at St. Eustatius

But Phoenix-like the island again emerged from its ashes, and perhaps it had never so abounded with wealth as in the years which followed. During the hostilities between England and France and England and the North American Colonies this island being a free port, was open to all the subjects of the belligerent powers, and thus a communication was established by its means. The British West Indies and Great Britain herself cut off from those supplies, which they formerly secured from North America were served from this island, then became a vast storehouse of all sorts of goods. Here the British planters in the captive island of Grenada, the Grenadines, St. Vincent and Dominica sent the greater part of their produce to be exchanged for plantation stores and other necessaries. Here the French brought yearly at least 3,000,000 pounds of coffee, from St. Domingo alone. In the years 1777 and 1778 Antigua and St. Kitts would have suffered all the miseries of famine, had it not been for this island. In one word, the trade with all the European nations added to that of America was such that very often two hundred ships might be seen lying in the harbor, and the warehouses on the Bay not being sufficient to contain the goods imported for sale, the beach and the streets were covered with hogsheads of tobacco and sugar.

But England did not long view with unconcern the unrestrained intercourse which existed between the disaffected North American States and this island. Grievous complaints were made to States General and in consequence the exporting of all warlike stores was expressly forbidden and steps taken to assure the carrying out of this prohibition such as greatly narrowed the trade of the Dutch with the colonies in the West Indies. But in spite of this friendly action the dispute had no sooner broken out than the English ports were filled with Dutch ships taken and detained, and their cargoes applied to the use of the Royal Navy, although they had been pursuing their voyages under the faith of treaties, and were laden with no other merchandise than what by treaty was declared free and lawful. Nor was this all; the very flag of the States was openly insulted by hostile attack made upon the convoy under the command of the Rear Admiral Count Bijlandt. Under these circumstances it happened that in 1776 the brigantine “Andrew Doria” bearing at her masthead the flag of the Continental Congress arrived at St. Eustatius, and on coming to in the harbor fired a salute which by orders of Governor de Graaf, was answered by the fort, with an honor salute of 13 guns.

The Andrew Doria

The Andrew Doria

End of first part of this article. Second and final part to follow.

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