The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson

Mail Service (Four)

By: Will Johnson

Image (1939)

Capt. John “Butchie” Craane with “Sea Bean” Berkel on the “Blue Peter” in Great Bay harbour St. Maarten 1950’s.

 

 

 

 

On November 18th, 1918 the Governor of the colony Curacao wrote to the Lt. Governor of Saba in connection with plans to buy the schooner “Estelle” to enquire if there were any mortgages on the vessel. There were none. The “Estelle” had been purchased for Capt. T.C. Vanterpool by Capt. Engle Heyliger in Gloucester Massachussets. For tax purposes the sales price in 1906 was listed as being f.100.–. When Capt. Vanterpool sold the “Estelle” in 1919 to the government he did so for the sum of f.50.000.—.That was the going price in those days. About that same time in the old property registers we have a record of the purchase of the schooner the “Buena” of Providence Rhode Island. Capt. William Benjamin Hassell residing in Barbados acting as Attorney for his brother Abraham Hassell residing in Rhode Island, sold it to their brother John Clarence Hassell, on Saba. The sale took place on November 29th, 1920 for fls.40.000.—.The schooner was renamed the “Maisie Hassell”.

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A Saban schooner leaving Basseterre St. Kitts in the 1920’s.

 

The Minister of Colonies authorized the purchase of the “Estelle” in a letter dated October 4th, 1918. The Minister again expressed his preference to have two schooners instead of a steamer.

On January 10th, 1919, the Administrator of Finance stated in a letter to His Excellency the Governor that, the day before, the notarial deed had been passed in which the “Estelle” had been purchased by government.

The Governor on January 29th, 1919, informed the Minister of Colonies of the purchase. He said that the deed of transfer would be sent up later, as it had been sent to Saba to be inscribed in the register of mortgages. He also stated that the former owner Mr. T.C. Vanterpool would continue on as Captain.

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Fred Hassell (on deck) and Isaac Hassell (up front) and John Wilson unloading the “Blue Peter” 1948.

 

In 1918 the 2nd chamber of Holland of Holland bought a second schooner named the “Gladys”, which went ashore on a rock. The following schooner the “Anna” proved to be too slow. The “Estelle” which had been rented for fls.24.000.—per year, after purchase cost the government f. 50.000.—to operate, and after three years the schooner was sold for f.8.000.—

In January 1920, Governor Helfrick purchased the schooner the “Virginia” for the trade between the Windward Islands and St.Thomas.

The Governor had said that it would cost between 75 and 80 thousand guilders to build a new schooner. The “Virginia” was sold to the government for f.40.000.—by Captain Abraham Mardenborough, who remained on as Captain. He was married to Ms. Ohney Wathey and they were the owners of the former lovely old wooden home opposite the Orange School on the Front Street of Philipsburg.

The “Virginia” had been built in 1917 in Curacao. It was 70 feet long, was 55 net tons and could carry 83 tons of freight. The “Estelle” was 105 net tons.

During the year 1919 and again in 1920 there was a lively correspondence between the Governor, the Minister of Colonies and the owners of the Royal Netherlands West India Mail Company, concerning the possibility of a steamship stopping at St.Maarten on the way to and from Europe, and a connecting service from there on to Curacao, while maintaining a schooner service between the Windward Islands and St. Kitts.

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In later years (from 1947 on) cars were unloaded at Saba and placed on a ramp on two lighter boats strapped together and then pulled to shore and landed.

 

At the request of His Excellency the Governor, the Honourable Canton Judge Mr. F.G. Schalkwijk in a report dated January 6th, 1921, described his trip with the government owned schooner the “Estelle” from Curacao to St.Maarten. We include it, so that our readers of today will have some idea of what a journey from Curacao or vice versa meant back then.

“Your Excellency requested me to give a written report of my experiences and observations of my journey to the Windward Islands, where I had traveled to, in order to assume my post as Canton Judge.

I gladly comply with this invitation. Hopefully that in this manner I can assist to bring about improvements in a situation which a concerned administration can no longer allow to remain as it now exists.

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Schooner “Robert L. Bean” stranded off Florida owned by Capt. Augustine Johnson (with arm on hip) and the insurance people. She could not be salvaged.

 

We started our journey from Curacao in the afternoon of December 20th, 1920 and the 28th of December following we reached our destination St.Maarten around 12 noon. The weather during the crossing as a rule was rough, the last days in the evenings even stormy. The number of first class passengers was originally 14 of which one got off in Bonaire. These persons consisted of two families, each of three persons, four religious sisters (nuns), one female teacher, the writer of this article and his housekeeper.

Because of this large number, both huts, aft and stern, the cabin and the captains hut were all taken up for sleeping. As for the material care on board, the food in general was of good quality and not badly prepared. But it is served in the cabin which also serves as sleeping quarters. The bunks are hard, the sheets dirty; for the hand baggage there is no other place than the already packed cabin. The W.C. is in the immediate vicinity of the huts, but the sewerage system proved to be inadequate; the dirt is removed with difficulty and often the sea returns what has been given her gladly and with much trouble.

The lavatory is in the W.C. It consists of a washbasin with a fawcett and a bucket underneath.

A voyage with the “Estelle” need not be uncomfortable under all conditions. With several experienced passengers, and with good weather, a sailing voyage across the Caribbean can be an enjoyable experience. But the voyage is a painful experience when the schooner is filled to capacity with passengers of which all, myself the exception – are seasick and of which a great many have to spend the night in the same room – the cabin where the meals are also served.

I will spare Your Excellency the gory details of the filth, in the morning in the cabin, when the buckets of vomit were still not cleared and a high sea made the breakfast fly off the table, turned over the buckets and all of that swimming around the floor with the clothes and the handbags. I yoke when I think back on those scenes. (I too while translating and typing the Honourable Judges account).

Capt. Charles Reube Simmons in Demerara

Capt. Charles Reuben Simmons on the Demerara River during World War II.

 

One should also remember, that on a simple schooner as this, seasickness even with good weather is unavoidable, at least for ladies. Nearly all female passengers stayed the entire length of the voyage in their cabins.

There is also a factor which helps to dirty the “Estelle” quicker on a voyage, and which also causes this to be an unpleasant memory for all. I mean the facts that people of different sexes are forced to sleep in the same place; I shared the cabin with our housemaid, a religious sister and a young girl.

There is no question of prudishness. Seasick people do not have thoughts about sins. But the looseness of morals, which generally is the result of being together for a long time in surroundings without comfort, did not go so far, that in this case one could dress and wash up in the company of one another. Besides taking this out of consideration, with the continuous swinging and rocking of the vessel it is only possible for a born seaman, to go to the W.C. and to wash up properly

One has to be contented with the inevitable, does not bathe, does not clean up oneself and eventually reaches his destination, tired because of sleepless nights, with dirty and soiled clothing, feeling in poor health because of constipation, which occurred to several of the passengers, as a result of the obstacles to do quietly that which nature calls on us to do daily.

Image (1945)

Schooners from Bonaire from time to time also provided service to the Windward Islands.

 

Is it any wonder then, that in the hearts of many first class passengers eventually bitterness and resentment occurred against the Government, which in the matter of travel facilities show so little concern towards its servants?

How much damage do they suffer to their clothing and other goods, for which they are never compensated?

And yet we had no complaints, when we compare our fate to that of the second-class passengers. They consisted of several families of the masses (proletariat), in addition to three government passengers. They lacked everything. Accommodations for sleeping practically did not exist; the hold was such a cramped affair and dirty, so that nearly all preferred to spend the night on board in between the deck cargo. A W.C. did not exist, and the use of the one of the first class was prohibited to those of the second class.

Image (1959)

The Captain of the schooner checking on his “first class” passenger. A private cabin! What more could one ask for?

 

In the first days the food here also left much to be desired; it appears that the government only compensates the captain with a certain amount of money for each passenger, but according to him, the amount granted is far from enough. Quality and quantity of the food improved though, after complaints were lodged from that quarter,

It appears to me that the Government cannot remain indifferent to the situation as outlined herein. I know from experience that an ocean voyage has its inconveniences. But from the moment that one knows, that with modern means of transportation the distance between Curacao and the Windwards can be covered in a few days time, a journey of nine days, in a schooner beating up against the wind, is felt as a personal injustice.

Image (1960)

Life on board the old schooners trading between the islands in former times.

 

The Hon. Judge went on to give recommendations as to how the accommodations on the “Estelle” could be improved in the event the government could find no other means of transportation. He emphasized also the need and the importance to improve communications between Curacao and the Windward Islands.

The cook on board the “Estelle” was

Fifteen (15) year old Diederick Every, great uncle of Lt. Governor Jonathan Johnson. I interviewed him sixty fives years later and will give his story sometime in future.

Lt. Governor Van der Zee, of the Windward Islands, also made a report on a voyage with the schooner “Estelle” and had the same complaints as His Honour the Judge. He concluded his report on conditions on board the “Estelle” by stating that: “I must mention that a pig is still walking around on the deck of the vessel.”

Image (1814)

Mr. John Heyliger of The Bottom, Saba was one of the many men from Saba who were sailors on those old Saban owned schooners.

 

Both gentlemen though had nothing but praise for the crew who under these circumstances nevertheless managed to be extraordinarily helpful to the distressed passengers.

(To be continued).

 

 

 

 

 

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