The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson

Dr. Julia Gorham Crane Remembered




Dr. Julia G. Crane with Dr. Sjouke Bakker, 1964 at the Windwardside Guesthouse.

Dr. Julia G. Crane Remembered

By; Will Johnson

In 1971, Dr. Julia G. Crane’s book “Educated to Emigrate” was published by Van Gorcum and Co. N.V. in Assen, Holland with a grant from the Prince Bernhard Fund. She later went on to write “Saba Silhouettes” and “Statia Silhouettes”.  In doing so she made an enormous contribution to these two islands. Her books contain a treasure trove of information from native islanders on the history and culture of these two small Dutch Caribbean colonies.

Her research about patterns of emigration by Sabans over the years was done for her doctoral dissertation presented at Columbia University in 1966. Her research was funded by the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

She arrived on Saba on April 3rd 1964 and already started working by telling something about each of the other five passengers on the 6 passenger Dornier plane. In reading her Journal on her very first day walking around The Bottom from the guesthouse where she stayed you get the feeling that you are accompanying her on her walk and talking to old friends now long dead but brought alive in her interviews with them.

In her introduction to “Educated to Emigrate” she states the following; “Every anthropologist who works and lives in a community inevitably incurs obligations to the community and individuals within it; but this is particularly true for the person who is so fortunate to work among the people of Saba. The officials of the island adopted me as an honorary ‘Sabian’ and were unfailingly helpful, especially Mr. R.O. van Delden, who was Administrator of Saba during the first portion of my field work. Teachers in all the schools, the doctors and nurses, the police, and the clergy of all three denominations were generous in giving useful advice, information and warm hospitality. To the native Sabians themselves I owe an immense debt of gratitude. Their great interest in teaching me, to know their island, and in helping the investigation made them excellent amateur anthropologists, sensitive in presenting relevant data for my use, and constantly alert to see that no event of possible interest was missed.

Since my return from the field, hundreds of letters from Sabians have kept me informed about present conditions in their life, of which they consider me still a part. To select individual Sabians for special thanks is impossible because thanks are due so many, for so many reasons.”


Dr. Julia Crane with friends on her Birthday at The Guesthouse in The Bottom 1964.

The Chairperson of her dissertation committee was Professor Margaret Mead of international fame and I have correspondence between the two of them. There is a joke among anthropologists as to the composition of a typical San family of the Kalahari Desert and it consists of a husband, wife, four children and one anthropologist. Saba seems to be like that. For such a small island we have been lied about, studied, vilified and condemned by people not from here so that Julia Crane’s work was like a breath of fresh air. She let the people do the talking. Instead of reading an old document and giving it her own interpretation she let her subjects totodo explain and inform about their lives and that of their ancestors who had been here for ten generations and more. Therefore her books are so valuable and are such a pleasure to go through and to know that here was a woman who certainly knew what she was doing.

I became close with her even though I was not living on Saba at the time and we corresponded back and forth and her Journals were made available to me by the late Frank Hassell. She wanted me to have them for my archive and not for distribution. I was with her on St. Eustatius for part of the time when she was doing research there for her book “Statia Silhouettes” and I learned a great deal from her. She lived among the people for almost a year on Saba the first time, and then came back later on when she was a teacher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A number of her students from that University assisted her on Saba with her field work doing interviews with the old people, which in itself was of great importance to our small islands true history.

Over the years she made many friends on Saba and on Statia. She carried on her research even though she suffered with ill health during most of her research years. She took photos of the land and the people, so many in fact that it would seem that everyone living on Saba in 1964 as well as each goat on the island was photographed by her and in themselves form a valuable collection for the present generation of Sabians to admire.

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Left to right Bill Renz Jr., Me and my best man Carl Lester Johnson giving me a last minute check before the wedding ceremonies start, then Eddie Hassell and Garvice Johnson, Brookville, Long Island, N.Y. September 22nd, 1973.

She made a great impression on many people. This is best expressed in an article written by my late first cousin Carl Lester Johnson of New York, twenty years my senior, and published in the “Saba Herald” of Thursday October 24th, 1974 and entitled “The Coupling Link.”

“Who am I? Where did I come from? What were my forebears? How can I know?

If one was faced with all these questions at once, it would mean that one knew no heritage; consequently lacking a complete self. A coupling to our heritage is very important to the wholeness of one’s self; self in turn is what we perceive ourselves to be as individuals. Not to know ourselves and the hereditary factors which shape our lives, would truly be a tragedy.

Self-perception and the insights that shape our lives, come to us at the most unusual times. I clearly recall my first act of self-perception. At the time I was a young man and living on Saba. It was during World War II and no ships had called to the island for quite a while. On that particular day, a ship had come in and brought the naked necessities of life. I had made five trips from the Fort Bay to The Bottom, driving five donkeys; my sixth trip had been straight through to the Windwardside. When I was finished I sat down on the path leading to our home.

Suddenly, an awareness came over me. I looked down at my hands and I became aware of myself as an individual. My extremely close relationship with friends and family stood aside and for the first time I became fully aware of Carl Lester Johnson as a person, separate and distinct from all other persons. It was at this particular moment that I determined the direction that has led me to where I am today. This decision was no grand design; it was the sum product of my heritage. You see, I had been educated to emigrate. This was an existential decision. It was a good decision; a decision which was the outgrowth of my cultural heritage. The heritage, so important in determining how we grow and how long we live.

This awareness of the importance of my heritage, over the years, made me very conscious of the heritage. Because of this, I have been greatly assisted in my relationships with others. Therefore when we have been so greatly assisted in knowing our collective selves, we must feel gratitude for that assistance. I would like what follows to be an expression of a warm feeling of kinship and gratitude for a very lovely person, of whom I know, but I have never met.

The first time I read “EDUCATED TO EMIGRATE” by Julia G. Crane, I did so without a predisposition to the acceptance of what I was about to read. I had never read anything about Saba, by a non-Saban, which had ever been very objective. Although, much that was written was always done with kindness and understanding; as an Island Culture, we were always treated as curiosities. When faced with the results of a thorough intellectual process, the product of a great effort and work of love; although I had precociously hoped for it, I just could not consciously accept its existence.

Time flies and three years have passed since my last reading. Like everything else, we too undergo changes, constantly. Because of change and a period of introspection ‘a fork in the road’, I was again drawn to the book. As I read it and contemplated its bibliography, I could not help but ask myself, ‘What had brought a young woman from the heart of the continent to perform such a labor of love for a microcosm, our little world, our Saba?

Many times throughout many years in an alien environment, in order to make adjustments, I have had to review the harshness of my beginnings to reassure myself that I possessed the inner strength to deal with the complexities of the constant mechanization and dehumanization of my adopted land. These are bad times for all of us and when we face reality, we must admit that the road ahead, is not an easy one. Therefore when our eyes pass over the words and we realize that ours was a heritage of hard times, we become aware that within us there is that ‘Hard part of the Rock’ which is the equal of present hard times. Then we know that we will overcome. So, to be reminded of this solidness in our nature, is to fortify our strength and it is for this that we are grateful.

I am sure, a people who can stand at the monuments of their forebears which go back five and six generations, have no doubts about their heritage. Most of it had come down by “word of mouth”; the rest was spread over many islands and several continents. To have it coupled together by the links of intellectual endeavor is the keystone that will bridge the banks of the past to the shores of the future. For this reason, we cannot afford to ignore “EDUCATED TO EMIGRATE”. It is the ‘Coupling Link’ in the chain to the anchor of our heritage.

Educated to Emigrate, is the first meaningful, scholastic effort devoted to us as a people. It inscribes us in the journals of history. So that we not forget or appear ungrateful, I ask my fellow Sabans to join with me in a move to name a school or library on Saba for ‘JULIA G.CRANE’ who forged the coupling link. She is our intellectual benefactor. The memories of her should not dim with the yellowing pages of her wonderful work.

I, regardless of what others do, will always turn to it. If I should become lost and cry, as in my youth, I would want the warm tears on my cheek to remind me that I must, over and over, travel once again the happy paths of my youth.”

For some reason we used to call Saba people by their second name and so we called him Lester. He was a banker in New York and lived on Long Island. He knew the islands well. Grew up on Saba and St. Maarten and worked for a time in the Post office like I did. In New York he met a girl born there from Saba parents and they married and had four children. Some people will want to know who the person was who writes so well and I surely will write something about him later on.

Dr. Julia Crane remained in contact with her people on Saba as her health continued to deteriorate and she passed away on June 19th, 2001 at Chapel Hill North Carolina and was buried in New York where she was born on November 8th, 1925.

We want to ask God to bless her memory for the good work she did in providing the coupling link to our heritage and may she continue to rest softly.


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