My friend the former slave girl.
-My friend the former slave girl.
By Will Johnson
Once, when giving a lecture in the elementary school on Saba on slavery a student asked me if I had ever met a slave. Another one asked me if I had ever owned a slave. On the second question I hesitated as in our West Indian societies we treat our wives and our children as well, at best as indentured servants.
On the first question I answered NO without giving it much thought at the time. As we grow older we remember more things from our youth than from our immediate past. And so it was just recently I was remembering things about growing up in Windwardside and how different it was then and now. When school was over and after foraging dry wood for my mother to cook with, cutting some grass for the cattle and looking after my goats Over-the-Peak, there was little left to do but hanging out.
My hanging out consisted a lot in listening in on the breadlines to the men not only bragging about the most and the biggest fish they had caught, but also telling stories about going around Cape Horn, where they had been in Africa, China and so on. My hanging out also consisted in visiting the old ladies many of whom had either lost a husband at sea or had died in Cayenne from the yellow fever in the gold fields and who were buried in an unmarked grave in some foreign jungle. They would tell me stories while doing their “Spanish Work” which in some cases was their only means of survival. A number of them were befriended by relatives or correspondents who lived in the United States, Barbados or Bermuda, The correspondents would sell their work and befriend them in other ways by mailing “love packages” with canned goods, clothing and so on.
I remember once Norman Hassell telling me that on his visit with his father to St. Johns village, to see an old lady relative, she had told his father that she was a blessed woman as she had a niece in the United States who sent her two dollars every month and she could survive from that. Two dollars mind you. My parents would loan me out to sleep in the home of older people when their relatives were either off-island or the person had no close relatives but was a friend of the family. This was necessary in case if the person took in ill during the night and a doctor had to be called or a relative or neighbour had to be alerted. I was dead scared that one of these old ladies would die while I slept. The need for this never happened on my watch. If it had taken place I would not have known as I was a heavy sleeper. Having a curious mind about the past of these older folks, and as I progressed in school, I would ask them many questions. Having supper under an old oil lamp these old folks were happy to have a young person in their home who wanted to talk about how life was when they were growing up on this isolated island. How isolated we were at the time only became apparent when I left the island to go away to school in 1955
And so my memory took me back to my friend the former slave girl. She and her husband both had been fathered by a liaison between a slave woman and her white owner. They were from the Every, Mardenborough and Peterson families.
She lived in the Windwardside with her three daughters. Her husband had died some years before. For this article I will include an interview with one of her daughters many years after her death. I remember the night she died and went to the wake at her home with my mother. On the way back we thought it strange that Marinus and Percy ten Holt were sticking so close to us as if we were a caravan passing through enemy territory. When we passed Gabo’s house we understood why. They had been teasing him, calling him “The man on the barrel hoop”. He, Joseph Kock Johnson was a first cousin of my father’s. He got that teaser when he first visited New York on a schooner from Saba and saw a man on a bicycle and said it looked like a man on a barrel hoop. Those were the metal rings on the potato barrels which we would use with a forked stick to run around and play with. Anyway when poor Gabo struck out with his stick he struck my mother on her shoulder, while the Ten Holt posse took off and disappeared in the dark. Poor “GABO” was so upset he nearly cried. My mother assured him that it was not too bad in order to comfort him but the next day her shoulder was black and blue.
We were coming from the wake of Sarah Ann Elizabeth Every born Peterson age 102. The year was 1954. She was born in 1852 or eleven years before slavery was abolished in 1863. Her parents were Sarah Mardenborough and John Peterson and they were “rank” Roman Catholics. She was the widow of Thomas Lovelace Every whose parents were John William Every and Mary Peterson. The couple had five children in all four girls and a boy, the latter who went to the United States and died there. They lived in three small wooden houses given to them for their lifetime, amidst the white folks who had fathered them, namely the Petersons the Every’s and the Mardenboroughs. The houses have disappeared since they all passed away and are now incorporated in the museum property. They lived in peace there except for one local character” Lee Rat” who said they should put these mulatto people to live Over-the-Peak. The “Lee Rat” was the same one who set a rat trap in the road when there was a rumor that Venezuelans were about to invade Saba in 1929.He thought that was the least he could do and would send one of those Venezuelans back home with a sore toe. One of her daughters Mercelita was badly burnt in a fire caused by an old oil lamp which burned down her little house. She died on St. Maarten and the only ones to bury her in the Roman Catholic cemetery down street were Frederick Froston and I.
One of the reasons I used to visit Elizabeth or “Mamma” was the fact that she had no legs and for me, a young boy then, this was a source of great curiosity. Yes they had diabetes back then and at the age of 50 in the year 1902, without anesthesia of any kind both her legs were amputated. This was done by sharpening an old hatchet, giving the patient a quantity of rum, “kill devil”, to drink and with a butchers sharp eye it was off with the offending part of the body. With the love of her three daughters who never married or had any children, she survived another fifty two years. They even had wheels put on a regular chair so that she could slip around the house. She lived just above the house of Mrs. Marguerite Hassell the post mistress which before then had belonged to the merchant Bloomfield Hassell.
In all her 102 years she had never left Saba and had only visited The Bottom once. I never realized that she had been born into slavery. For this article I researched the old property registers and found out the following information. On June 20th, 1861 Mr. Josiah Peterson Esq. frees mulatto boy Thomas aged 19. Witnesses were John Peterson and Jacob E. Hassell. This was her future husband Thomas Lovelace Every who was born in 1843. Also I found the following transaction of November 11th, 1853 whereby Mr. Peter Mardenborough sold to Mr. Thomas Mardenborough house and land in “Shallops Quarter” and slaves.viz.Sarah a mulatto woman, Sarah a sambo woman, her child Sarah Elizabeth, the negro man Yankey and the boy William Thomas for f.420.–.
I am one hundred percent certain that Sarah Elizabeth daughter of the Sambo woman Sarah is our Sarah Ann Elizabeth Peterson as she was darker than her mulatto husband Thomas Lovelace Every. Also Sarah the sambo woman was given the name Mardenborough and who married John Peterson and so the daughter became Sarah Ann Elizabeth Peterson.
We did not discuss slavery much as at the time I was unaware that she had been born a slave. She did tell me some stories about the day of emancipation. In the eighteen fifties when many slaves were being sold to American slave traders as there were rumors that the Dutch was finally planning to do away with the slave trade. However the mulatto’s in most cases were spared the fate of once more being sold into slavery from what had now become their homeland. In the old registers there are many instances of this taking place like this one;” December 24th, 1856. Miss Elizabeth Peterson frees her slaves Rose Genette and John Henry, leaves her house and lot including cistern to them, but not to be sold. To be used until their deaths. Executor her brother Josiah Peterson. Witnesses; Jacob E.Hassell and John Hassell.
A pity that all of the songs made by former slaves have been lost. The black local midwife Rosita Lynch, born Hassell who delivered me, had a daughter Wemely who could compose a waltz at the drop of a hat and put it to music. One of those remembered is “The “Maisy” is mine, she can sail anytime etc.” On St. Maarten there was one now only remembered by a few. The “Occasionals band” used to sing it when I would enter the Lido Bar here when Claude Wathey sent me to Saba in 1962 to campaign for him; “What a night Wathey had to the front, Oh the young girl dressed in red killed poor Wathey dead” etc. They still will play that song if you ask them. That was a great uncle of Claude’s who “went down street great joy to reap and was brought back home wrapped in a sheet”. Something like that.
In an interview with Eulalie Peterson-Every daughter, on February 24th, 1978 in the Saba Herald the interview was entitled;” A visit with Miss Lillie”.
Miss Eulalie Every, who was born June 15th, 1888 never left Saba except on one occasion when she was in her twenties, she took a trip out on the Saba Bank. During her nearly 90 years Miss Lillie never made any other landfall, but the island on which she was born and raised, and on which she hopes to die.
Miss Lillie’s brother James was a sailor on the ”Cobb” an American three master schooner under the command of Donald Simmons of The Bottom. Donald’s father James Simmons, who was also a captain, took the vessel out to sea for a brief layover while Capt. Donald and the other members of his crew visited with their families on Saba. Donald’s brother, Peter was also a captain, and under his command was the “Sprague” another American three master.
Although Miss Lillie will be 90 this year she has an excellent memory. On the day of her three hour adventure out into the unknown Miss Lillie can still remember that the “M.V. Christiansted” the government steamer was in port. Her grandparents from her mother’s side were John Peterson and Sarah Mardenborough. Both of them died at the age of 86. According to Miss Lillie her father “Pappy” died young, he was only 79. Of course. Seeing that her sister Johanna also lived well into her nineties, 79 would be considered young in that family. I spent quite an afternoon trying to convince Miss Lillie that she should consider moving into the old age home when it opens, but she is adamant about remaining independent and swears that she doesn’t like people around her. Her home is in such bad condition that it cannot be reap aired, and the government cannot build her a new home since the Home for the Aged will soon be available. What to do with Miss Lillie? Force her to give up her independence?”
Well, Miss Lillie solved that problem herself. Just after making her 90th birthday, she passed away in her home on July 7th, 1978, just four months after we had the interview with her.
And so, as for her mother the answer is YES, I did know a former slave and she was a friend of the family and perhaps family as well. She has no descendants on Saba and perhaps none in the United States as her son only had one child and the child died without having any children himself. May she and hers continue to rest in peace.