The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson

Bird Island or “Aves”.


Bird Island


Quite a lot has been written about Aves Island known to us on Saba as “Bird Island” as well. That does not mean that the last word has been said on the former Dutch claim to the island. I hope that perhaps Walter Hillebrand can write a book about Aves with nice photographs and so on. I am willing to share the documentation I have found with him.
The last time I can remember anyone going to ‘Bird Island’ was a mixed crew from Hell’s Gate and The Bottom with Capt. Matthew Levenston. That would have been in the early nineteen fifties and I remember them with some large turtles, corned fish and even birds.
Saba did not give up its rights to the island without a fight. The Dutch did. At his own expense Lt. Governor Edward beaks financed several expeditions to the island when citizens of the United States were taking away the guano that was there. Lt. Governor Beaks had a hard time to get reimbursed for the expenses he had. Some years after Lt. Governor Edward Beaks was fighting to save the island, the Dutch put a Venezuelan challenge to the island up for arbitration with Spain. Of course Spain ruled in favour of Venezuela.
Sabans by that same decision were granted the right to continue to fish there and they did so until the nineteen fifties. Even though we do not use that right Venezuela should be reminded by the Dutch of that. Perhaps we can trade that right for some cheap oil and cooking gas for our people.
My grandfather James Horton Simmons got stranded there around 1880. A schooner had dropped them off but got lost on the way to Guyana and it was several weeks before another schooner picked them up. My grandfather was credited with introducing canned corned beef to the island. A steamer passing by Aves on its way to Europe left some cases of corned beef with them. They had seen a distress flag and stopped at the island to investigate. When my grandfather and the others introduced the remaining canned corned beef to the island it became a hit on Saba and has remained so to this day.


Venezuelan research station on Aves, south of Saba.

Lt. Governor Beaks correspondence with the Governor on Curacao as well as the supporting reports from Captains and old Saba residents give an interesting history from the Saba perspective. Very old charts showed the island as connected to the Saba Bank. Severe hurricanes such as the category 5 hurricane of 31 August 1772 known as the ‘Great Hurricane’ may have broken through the sandbank connecting the two. Also remarkable is the fact that Sabans were birding and turtling there even before that hurricane as is evidenced from the correspondence.
Once I was a guest at the military headquarters in Caracas Venezuela. I saw a booklet in Spanish on the Aves Island on the desk of the Commander and asked where I could buy a copy. On leaving the reception the General called me aside and gave me something gift wrapped. On arriving at my hotel when I opened the gift it was the booklet signed by the General himself. Nowadays much information on Aves can be found on the internet I guess.
For the record here follows some of the correspondence between Saba and the Governor on Curacao.
Saba, 5th February 1859
To His Excellency
The Governor of Curacao and Dependencies
I have the honour to acknowledge the receipt of Your Excellency’s communication of the 8th ulto. Accompanying copy of a letter to Your Excellency of the 28th December 1858 from P. van Rees Esq. H. M. Commissioner, whereby information is asked on certain points, of the eldest inhabitants of this island and myself relative to the Isle of Aves, in order to establish the right of the Netherlands to said island etc.etc.
In reply thereto, I beg leave respectfully, to send herewith to Your Excellency, copies of nine declarations given in my presence, by persons residing in different districts, which I trust will be found satisfactory, as answers to questions No. 1 to 3.
Concerning question No. 4 I regret that I cannot further reply to, than by forwarding herewith to Your Excellency a chart of 1754, by which will be seen a Bank which I presume, is the one alluded to, in said question No. 4 there being no documents, in the archives relative to the Isle of Aves.
With regard to question No. 5 I ask leave to state to Your Excellency, that to the best of my knowledge, persons of this island, have annually for many years, been visiting the Isle of Aves, for the purpose of obtaining eggs, turtles and fish, and have never been prevented doing so by any person, of any nation whatsoever. And that I have always understood, that there exists a Bank that unites this island with the Isle of Aves.
The inhabitants of this island, that followed the aforesaid employment, found it, in general, a lucrative one.
I respectfully trust that the documents, which I have the honour of forwarding herewith, to Your Excellency, will materially aid, in establishing the right of the Netherlands to the Isle of Aves.
With the highest respect, I have the honour to be, Your Excellency’s most obedient and very humble servant, The Lt. Governor of Saba. Edward Beaks.
Excerpts from some of the nine declarations made.
District; Windwardside. No. 1
I the undersigned, Peter James Every, aged 81 years, native and resident of this island. Do hereby certify and declare, that I sailed on board the Dutch sloop ‘Suffererdonda’ Commanded by Matthew Winfield, in the year 1778 and we visited the Isle of Aves in said year, and from thence to this island several persons who were placed there for the purpose of obtaining eggs, turtles and fish, from here.
I also declare that my uncles John Every, Peter Hassell, and Henry Hassell (deceased) informed me, that they also attended persons from this island, placed on said island, during the time they sailed on board certain vessels from this island, previous to the time above stated 1788, and to the best of my knowledge, persons from this island have been visiting the said Isle of Aves annually for 55 years or upwards


My grandfather James Horton Simmons and many other Saba men would sleep here for weeks on end catching turtles, fish and birds.

And, further to my perfect knowledge that the persons placed on said island, were never molested by any person of any nation pursuing the aforesaid employment.
I likewise certify and declare, that I have always understood, that there exists a Bank from this island, which unites it to the Isle of Aves. Saba 1st February 1859. Signed Peter James Every. Witnesses, Hercules Hassell and J.E. Hassell.
No. 2 District: Windwardside.
I the undersigned Josiah Peterson aged 75 years, native and resident of this Island.
Do hereby certify and declare that I sailed on board the Dutch schooner,’ Sisters’, commanded by Moses Leverock as mate in the year 1799, and in said year we carried persons from this island to the Isle of Aves, for the purpose of obtaining Eggs, Turtles, and fish which we continued to follow with said vessel until 1808.
When I became Master of the sloop ‘Aid’ owned by a resident of this island, I continued for some time following said business. We generally placed persons there in the early part of January and they continued there until April according to their success.
And further to the best of my knowledge that persons from this island have pursued said employment for fifty years annually.
I further certify and declare that my Grand father John Peterson (dec’d) informed me that in the year 1772 he was on the Isle of Aves with other persons from this island, turtling, etc.etc., when the severe hurricane of the 31st August same year was experienced in this island, and that he had previous to said year been on that Island obtaining eggs, turtles and fish.
And I also declare that never to my perfect knowledge that the persons placed on said Island, were prevented, following the aforesaid employment. And that I have always understood that there exists a Bank which unites this Island with the Isle of Aves. Saba 1st February 1859 signed Josiah Peterson. A Member of the, Delegated Bench of Justice.
There were 9 such declarations in all. One from Henry Hassell (72) ‘Henny Plunkie’,of Booby Hill, who stated that his father had informed him that in the year 1772 he was on Aves during the Great Hurricane and previous to that. Also Daniel Hassell (72) of the Windwardside stated that in the year 1799 he and many other persons had been placed there by Captain John Doncker of the Dutch schooner “Flying Fish” .He had followed this employment for a few years, after which he sailed on the sloop ‘Aid’ Commanded by Josiah Peterson, and attended persons that were on said island from this island for some time. He further certified that his father had informed him that he was on said island in the year 1772 when a severe hurricane was experienced in these islands, in the same year on August 31st, and also that he had been there previous to that time.
Abram Heyliger Hassell (68) of district Windwardside declared that he had sailed on board the sloop ‘Persevering’ with friends in the year 1816 commanded by Moses Leverock, owned by persons residing in this island, and we were placed in the Isle of Aves for two years in succession. And from the year 1818 to 1840 I commanded two vessels, the ‘Edward’ and the ‘Friendship’, sloops owned by persons residing on this island, and annually for 22 years I carried persons from this island to the Isle of Aves, for the purpose of turtling, fishing and gathering eggs, in said vessels. And from the information derived of persons more aged than myself, who are now no longer in existence, that the aforesaid employment, have been pursued by persons of this island upwards of 80 years.
And during their stay, they never were prosecuted by any person of any nation whatsoever.


THE Venezuelan research station which was taken out in one of the many hurricanes in the past thirty years.

They all declared that they would remain there from January to April and that they would have a Dutch flag hoisted while they were there.
One lady of The Town, Letecia Horton (83) declared that at least from the year 1785 she could remember people from Saba going their annually.
John James Simmons (62) of The Town declared that while there in the year 1824, ‘I was on shore for three (3) months, and during my stay there was visited by His Britannic Majesty’s Frigate ‘Forte (?)’ commanded by Sir Thomas Cockrane, and that Sir Thomas and four officers landed, and that as soon as the ship came in sight, a Dutch flag, was displayed on the island and remained hoisted until the ships departure.
He also declared that his father born 1768 and died 1848, in his youth, had been a captain, and had carried people there.
By the way I have John James’ Bible at home. He was married to Anne Fantose Taylor of Scotland who he met in St. Thomas when she was a young woman.
The old timers used to tell me that they would also row with a longboat from Saba to Statia. They would then row for twelve hours in the direction of Aves Island. If after twelve hours of rowing they would not find Aves they would turn around and row another twelve hours back to Statia. My grandfather was one of the men who used to row the boat.
A, letter to His Excellency the Governor of Curacao and Dependencies.
Saba, 8th November 1859.
I have the Honour to acknowledge the receipt of Your Excellency’s dispatch of the 5th September no. 32, 4/9 containing a request by order of His Excellency the Minister for the Colonies, that at least, once every month, to order an investigation to take place, of what may happen to occur in the Isle of Aves, and to forward a report thereof to Your Excellency, with particular instruction, not to assume the least authority whatever over said Isle etc.etc.
With much respect, I beg leave to inform Your Excellency, that in order to obtain the requested information relative to the Isle of Aves, I chartered the English schooner “Casket” Commanded by Richard Simmons, on the 3rd instant, not being able to obtain a vessel sooner, to proceed to the Isle of Aves, and to return to the island, and desirous always of being serviceable to the Government, as much as possible, I deemed it advisable, to charge myself with the mission to said island, leaving in my stead, the Senior Member of the advising council, persuaded, that the same would be approved by Your Excellency.
I have therefore the honour of handing herewith to Your Excellency a report of my mission to the Isle of Aves, assuring Your Excellency, that I followed strictly your request, not to assume the least authority whatever over said Isle, and I trust that my mission will be quite satisfactory to Your Excellency.
Herewith Your Excellency, will please permit me, to forward an account for the charter of the English schooner ‘Casket’, to the Isle of Aves and back to this island f.125.—which I beg leave with submission to solicit Your Excellency’s attention to as early as may be convenient to Your Excellency, and further to make known to Your Excellency, that an equal sum will be requested monthly, to defray the expense of chartering a vessel to send to the Isle of Aves, presuming that vessels, are not likely to be obtained at a cheaper rate, added to which, what may be deemed right, to allow the person charged with the mission monthly.
I assure Your Excellency, that it will afford me infinite satisfaction to hear of Your Excellency, that my proceedings have been approved of by Your Excellency.
With much respect, I have the honour to be, Your Excellency’s, Most obedient and very humble servant. The Lt. Governor, Edward Beaks.
Report, of my mission to the Isle of Aves.
Departed, from the island Thursday, 3rd November at 5 o’clock P.M. with the English schooner ‘Casket’, Commanded by Richard Simmons.
At 7 o’clock AM the 4th made the Isle of Aves quickly after, discovered an American flag flying on said island. Anchored, at half past seven o’clock. Soon after anchorage a boat with five men visited us, Messrs J.E. Gammage and G.M. Keen of Baltimore; the others were Negroes from St. Thomas.
In a short time after, I landed, and made known to said Gentlemen particularly, the nature of my mission, to the Island, and obtained from them the following information.
That Mr. J,E. Gamage, had an interest in the concern of Messrs. Green, Keen and Co. who were the shippers from said island, of about 5500 tons of guano from the month of January to August past, and that since August, Mr. J.E. Gammage had become the sole proprietor of the business, and that in the month of September, he exported 120 tons of guano, and has now in readiness for exportation about 400 tons and that he is momently expecting vessels to ship it with – that he has been obliged for 12 days past to stop working, for want of provisions.
But as soon as he obtains a supply will commence again. That he is not certain, whether he will leave the island after with the labourers after exporting all the guano that he may have obtained up to the time of the arrival of the vessels expected.
With regards to the further importance of the island, Mr. Gammage is of the opinion, that a considerable quantity of Guano of different qualities, is yet obtainable.
The first quality of guano it appears is found even as low as five feet or deeper, below the surface of the land, and near the beach in some places. Much of the island has been searched by the excavations and the guano obtained there from.
The length of the island is about 1800 feet, the breadth 160 to 180 feet and the height about 12 feet.
The number of persons on the island are 10 including Messrs. Gammage and Keen, the others are Negroes, 6 from St. Thomas and 2 from St. Martin.
Mr. Gammage took passage with me, from the Isle of Aves, to this Island, to obtain provisions, and having done so, left this yesterday, for the Isle of Aves.
Saba 8th November 1859, the Lieutenant Governor of Saba, Edward Beaks.
The correspondence goes on and is much too long for an article such as this. However several things are remarkable that even then certain nations automatically assumed that the world and its resources belongs to them, and other nations then as now are nothing but lapdogs to this creed, and therefore surrender before putting up a fight. In the end Venezuela laid claim to Aves and now has some kind of military installation there. My friend Commissioner Hooker wants off shore property. I hereby give him Aves island to fight for along with Dominica.
And finally who in their right mind would name a schooner “Casket”? I would have on a life vest and sit in the lifeboat all the time .Casket? What a name for a schooner.
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