The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson

Opening Saba Health Care Office


Speech for the opening of Saba Health Care Foundation Administration Building, February 21st, 2014.


Will Johnson making speech as honoured guest.

Dignitaries, Members of staff, Ladies and Gentlemen,

When asked to say a few words for this occasion I reflected on how much health care has changed in recent years. It is no longer necessary for the government to call on President Hugo Chavez to help send three patients to St. Maarten as I had to do once. Saba’s total budget for a long time was 3.5 million guilders with another million or so collected locally. After putting up an enormous fight the grant from the Solidarity Fund was increased to around seven million a year. However one must remember that the Saba Island Government had to finance not only health care but education, fire department, tax department, receiver’s office and many other things which are now financed by the Government of the Netherlands. Monetary wise this has been a very positive development for the island since our new status went into effect. My party started running the government of this island since 1971. Back then we were part of the Island Territory the Windward Islands.

I remember once walking into the Receivers Office and Kenneth Peterson slamming his fist on his desk saying; ‘Two thousand guilders more would do it and we will never need Curacao again. At that time we were running the island with a budget of fls.28.000.—per month.

When we look back in history there were long periods when Saba did not even have a doctor, but when we had one there were locals doctors such as Dr. Dinzey in the early eighteen hundreds.

For those interested in doing further research into the history of Medical Services and Care on Saba I would suggest that they read Dr. Robert Mol’s book entitled “Doctor on Saba”. A very indebt history of medical care on Saba, through the centuries. I also recently wrote an article in my column “Under the Sea Grape Tree” about Nurse Lizzie Hassell born Doncker and her nursing career in which she gave much information on her career as a Nurse and the doctors she served under. I am looking forward to the day when Nurse Naomi Wilson writes her own book as that should be of a great deal of interest to the new generation of people seeking medical care.

In about 1818, the then Commander of the island of St. Maarten and Saba wrote in a report, “generally the air on these islands and in particular on Saba is very clear and the climate is healthier than on the other islands of the Antilles.

The historian M.D. Teenstra, who visited Saba in 1829, noted in his book of 1834 that “epidemic illnesses are virtually unknown on Saba, which is attributed to the freshening sea winds. There is no Doctor of Medicine on the entire island. A very small amount of leprosy is found here and jaws and elephantiasis is totally unknown here.”

The first case of leprosy on Saba was seen in 1840 and was probably imported from St. kitts.

The Roman Catholic Priest Father J.C. Gast, in 1857, wrote. “The primary illnesses among the population are leprosy and elephantiasis, the last of which they call “The Rose” and of which very few families are completely free. In special cases they call in one or another of their friends who have the knowledge of herbs and several drugs which they import from St. Thomas, where they are further known. There is also a man who knows the art of bleeding. This is the only medical therapy which is found here. Because of the lack of good rain barrels there is, when it has not rained recently, a lack of good drinking water. I do not see that anything is being done to stop the spread of leprosy.”

Only in 1863 did the colonial government appoint physicians for the three Windward Islands. These physicians became important in the lives of the people of these islands. I remember reading in a book published by Dr. Jules van Bockhove, on his stay on Statia in the early nineteen fifties that one of his patients had told him;”After God it is only you Doc.”

Saba’s population increased from 1883 persons in 1890 to 2488 in 1915, 99.9% of whom had ancestors going back to living here from the early sixteen hundreds. Except for a few periods in the early nineteen hundreds Saba has always had an on island physician. Some of these took bold moves to save the lives of their patients. I just wrote a story about a former slave girl who at the age of fifty had both legs amputated and yet she lived to the age of 102. There was no anesthesia back then so the patient was loaded up with a bottle of strong rum called “kill devil” and the butcher with his sharpened hatchet would do what had to be done. She survived and with the care of her three daughters she lived to be 102 and died in 1954.

Later on when Dr.M.W.R.B. Berkenveld of Surinam was doctor here he would do appendicitis operations.

Image (853)

Receipt for operation.

I have a receipt for fls. 250.—paid for an operation done on my aunt Mrs. Sylvia Simmons and she too lived another forty years after her appendix was removed here on Saba. Many of our doctors when I growing up were from Surinam some of whom had Chinese and also Jewish backgrounds. A daughter of one of these Jewish doctors died in a Nazi concentration camp I recently read somewhere. And let us not forget our local midwives. I was the last person delivered by Mrs. Rosita Lynch born Hassell. Mrs. E. Douglas who replaced Yeath in a letter had the following to say; “The day after I arrived, an old crone came to introduce herself as the person who had done the work for years. When I asked her about her work, she showed me a small handbag, in which, in the middle of some prune tobacco, there was a small scissors, a few pieces of navel string, and a piece of cotton wool.’’ And before reading that letter all these years I had been bragging; “my navel string buried Behind-The-Ridge.’ No such thing as my navel string was buried in Yeats purse in the middle of some prune tobacco.”

This doctoring business had its scandals attached to it as well. Since they happened more than one hundred years ago I will mention but two cases. A friend of mine would tell me that the doctor had taken advantage of her mother when she went to visit him.  I asked her:”What happened?” “Me”, she answered. His photo is in Dr. Mol’s book and a noble looking doctor he was.

Another friend’s mother went to the doctor and while waiting on him, the doctor’s son had his way with her and this resulted in a daughter. This one has always intrigued me ‘Was she really ill? “In those old wooden houses how did he pull that one off without his father knowing what was going on in the waiting room, which would have been the hall of his home. Mysteries yet to be solved for someone like me so interested in history.

As for the history of this building, it goes along with the growth of government over the years.


Police Station and Post office The Bottom 1890

Up until around 1890 the Commander of Saba would use his home as his office and if need be his cellar was used as a jail. There were no government services as such. Once a year in my grandfather James Horton Simmons’ time the able bodied men of the island were called up to clean the public pathways. They were paid either five cents in cash or the equivalent in rum or tobacco. Horton chose the five cents of course as he had a flock of daughters who at the time were considered useless as it was thought they could not run behind a goat and catch it or go fishing on the Saba Bank and so on.


View of Police station and Post office 1920’s.

Image (1712)

Photo 1925. Administrator WFM Lampe holding straw hat. Left policeman Bentley Heyliger of St.Eustatius and right policeman George Halley of St.Martin.

I have a photo of the first government buildings on this street which consisted of a police station with some prison cells underneath and what is the Culture building now was the Post office and Administration building. I have photos of when it was in use with Policemen and the Public standing outside of the building.

Around 1934 there was quite a bit of government construction going on, and so it was decided to construct this building to serve as Post office, Court Hall and office of the Administrator and his small staff. In the early sixties an addition was made to house the Commissioners.

This building has seen many joyous occasions like weddings and inscription of births, and also sad ones when people had to appear in front of the Judge. When I was a boy there were no movies and so, on the days when the Judge would be on island you would see scores of people headed to this building to hear cases which would be very entertaining. The English Quarter people even had their own lawyer in the person of Peter Parrot.

Image (588)

Town of The Bottom around 1923.

He once advised a client that before the Judge throws his hammer on the desk and condemns you, throw yourself on your knees and beg mercy in the name of the Queen and he cannot refuse you. This happened and the Judge was flabbergasted as in case he did not grant mercy in the name of the Queen it would make her look small and so the case was dismissed.

I was present the last time Cecil Woods appeared before the Judge. He liked his rum and his cases were always one of drunk and disorderly conduct. The Judge looked at his record and said;”Cecil, I have to make a decision as you have been here so many times. I will have to either give you two weeks in jail or fine you fl.30.—“Cecil said “Your Honour let me think about it.” After thinking Cecil said “I will take the two weeks, Your Honour. Thirty guilders can buy me a whole lot of rum.” Even the Judge had to laugh at that one.

The Island Council also used to meet in this building in the Court Hall.

I served in this building for a few months in 1962 when I was sent here from St. Maarten to work in the Post office and to campaign for Claude Wathey at the same time. In later years I served here as Commissioner and Administrator, and Island Council Member. Many well known politicians in former times passed through this building, like Kenneth Peterson, David Donker, Matthew Levenstone, Max Nicholson, Arthur Anslyn and a number of others. People who worked here in the Receivers and Post office were my brothers Eric and Guy, Ramon Hassell, Carmen Medero and so on. Administrators like Henry Every, Eugenius Johnson, George Sleeswijk and George Larmonie and many more. When Dave Levenstone would get on too rude I would exile him to this building as well.

It was on my watch in 1981 that we decided to build a new Administration Building at its present location. This building was then converted into a library. The other concrete building which was incorporated in the Home for the Aged was built as a Home for the Receiver, but was later used by the Administrator when the present Lt. Governor’s home was under reconstruction. Where all of these buildings are now located was used as farm lands by the Simmons family, one of the former white families who owned nearly all of The Bottom and who in the nineteen twenties moved to Barbados, Bermuda and the United States. I have old photos showing the land farmed out.


Princess Irene Hospital St. John’s. As Commissioner I made a decision in 1977 to relocate the hospital to The Bottom.

I remember as if today discussing with architect Raymond Peterson the need to relocate the hospital in my office when I   was Administrator/Commissioner in 1977. Eugenius in passing through my office had no qualms about taking a letter out of my hands and reading it. So it was that day when he overheard my discussion. At the time there was a government garage on the property and the area was littered with some old wrecks of Jeeps which was the vehicle of choice back then. Eugenius said;”Put it here and get rid of that old garage.” I asked Peterson to make some measurements and he said there was enough room and in a few months time we started the hospital with Public Works and Howard Johnson as foreman. He had also been foreman for the Home for the Aged and we also built that with Public Works. By the way Howard was paid thirty guilders a day. Even though he was Eugenius’ brother I fired him when work slowed down on the hospital in 1978 and I then hired Franklin Johnson to complete the project.I remember with deep remorse the night Howards sister Loreen called me and said “My God, Will of all people you to fire poor Howard??” The old age home we built for 450.000 guilders and furnished it as well and the hospital’s total costs including furnishing was around one million three hundred thousand guilders, probably less than what has been spent on the reconstruction of this building.


Newly restored old Administration Building 2014. Now Administration Centre Health Care.

I would like to express my thanks for being invited to say a few words here today on this grand occasion. I have also made suggestions to relocate the Home for the Aged to a location where they can enjoy a “Room with a View.” This entire complex can then be used as a hospital and I am really looking forward to the day when that will take place. Many people in the nineteen seventies contributed funds to the Saba Benevolent Foundation in order to make this facility a reality. The time has again come to put out the begging bowl, and start a collection for a new home for the aged in a better location.

May this office building continue its historic role of guidance and service to the people of Saba.

Thank you.

Single Post Navigation

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: