The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson

Captain Penniston on a visit to St. Eustatius


View from the mountain “The Quill” on the former agricultural plain of St. Eustatius.

Many people nowadays are not aware of the trade and family relationships between St. Eustatius and Bermuda. Even after the commercial decline of St. Eustatius this connection remained. The author of this story is Captain William Hubbard Peniston known affectionately throughout Bermuda as “Bamboo Billy” of Paynter’s Vale, was typical of Bermuda’s outstanding sea-captains of his day. His obituary written in 1917, out lines his eventful life.
At the time this was written St. Eustatius was sparsely populated and the economic life of the island had declined and many people were leaving the island for the United States and yes also Bermuda to work in the Dry-docks on that island.


View of St. Eustatius from the sea.

There is still evidence of the Bermuda connection though. Many buildings were built with Bermuda stone and the wall of the Dutch Reformed cemetery is built with these stones.
This is how Captain Peniston described St. Eustatius as it was in the 1850’s:
“Situation of St. Eustatius is about six miles S/W from the island of St. Kitts. It lies nearly east and west; its length is about 5 miles and its breadth 3 and one half miles; it bears N.N.E. from the Dutch island of Saba about 14 miles. The ancient town and roadstead is on the South side and sheltered from the trade winds by St. Kitts.
Sandy Bay on the North side is only frequented in fine weather by fishermen or turtles; at its most Eastern extremity is an extinct volcano called the Quill, but known to Seamen as the Devils Punch Bowl; fruit and coffee trees abound in it. At the Western end of the Island there is a high mountain called Tumble-Down-Dick, the flaws come down its western side with great force and many a topmast has been snapped off under it. The lower town is on the beach and was once a free port. All nations could trade there and sell or exchange cargoes. The remains of the Store-houses that once stood on the beach and rocks show that a large trade must have been carried on there once. The wide steep inclined road leading to the upper town is a great piece of work and when one reaches there (mounted on a little island pony), the view is an extensive one, to the East the Quill with its steep sides (both inside and out covered with luxurious growth of fruit and other trees) on the North is an extensive plain where fine sheep are raised; and just under the Eastern side of Tumble-Down-Dick towards the west lies Sentching Hook, a large sugar estate owned by the Martiney family with its ancient walls, its large sugar mills worked by mules. To the South West are extensive yam and sweet potato fields their only substitute for bread. There are also a few Cochineal fields.


Former colonial Mansion where Capt. Penniston would probably have been entertained when he visited St. Eustatius. Now a Museum.


View of The Lower Town where in the eighteenth century there were hundreds of warehouses and homes when St. Eustatius was known as “The Golden Rock.”

The prison a little square building (with very strong and ancient looking iron bars), is the first building the visitor reaches. The government house is a fine building with marble floors, situated in the Northern part of the town and overlooking the anchorage. In 1776 Holland was added to the enemies of England. Mr. Laurens who had been President of Congress was taken by a British cruiser and the papers found in his possession proved the existence of a treaty between the Dutch and Americans. War was then declared and thus England was engaged with four enemies viz; France, Spain, American and Holland without a single ally. Admiral Romney who commanded the British fleet in the West Indies had charge of them; he had torn the Leeward Islands from the French and punished the Hollanders by taking the island of St. Eustatius and, three millions sterling of stores and money. He ran his ship the “Formidable” in near the town and ordered its surrender. The being refused the Ships guns were trained and the first shot fired entered the Governor’s Hall door, causing a speedy surrender. The town was chiefly inhabited by Bermudians Viz., Jennings, Penistons, Hills, Godets, Heyligers, Marshalls and many others, settlers from Bermuda who carried on a large and lucrative business as it was a free port. A great deal of Bermuda lime and building stone was imported. The Bermuda vessels flew what was called the Sawed-Stone-Jack, a white flag with a red cross, and when a vessel hoisted that flag the inhabitants knew she was from Bermuda with a cargo of sawn stone and Lime.
About this time the inhabitants were in great want of provisions owing to the English man-of-wars blockading the town, vessels then running were called “force traders”; many people in Bermuda were very desirous of sending their friends in St. Eustatius food and other necessities, a vessel was loaded, armed and made ready for sea, a brave Captain was wanted. After much persuasion, Captain Nicholas Trott of Walsingham, a young Bermudian, consented. He had had just been married to Miss Elizabeth Hubbard only daughter of Captain William Hubbard of the adjoining property (now known as Leamington). He soon set sail with his crew, one of whom, the gunner, a Negro named Harry Dilton, who was a good shot. On arriving off Tumble-down-Dick, an English man-of-war brig hove in sight and gave chase. She overhauled Capt. Trott’s vessel and fired into her, this was soon answered by a broadside from the “Mudian”, a sharp engagement followed. After a hard fight Capt. Trott fell mortally wounded. His gunner, Harry Dilton, then jumped on a gun, gave three cheers and, after pouring a broadside into the English brig, hauled down the flag and surrendered. The Lieutenant in charge of the brig stated afterwards that had another broadside been fired by the force trader he would had had to surrender as the last load of powder on board his ships was in his guns.
“In 1853 I visited the Island and found many descendants of old Bermuda families who vied with each other in extending hospitality to me. I was much surprised to find English spoken by almost everyone excepting the Governor on whom I called. He was living in his fine Mansion with its beautiful Marble Halls, and a garrison of 25 old Hollanders. There was a force of native troops in the Island, all fine looking men, neatly dressed, and well officered and when mounted on their tough native ponies they had a very imposing appearance. The horses are small but swift and very hardy. At that time their slaves had not been freed, and when one jumped from the boat on the dark sandy beach, a pony, saddled and neatly caparisoned, was held by a slave boy, ready for you to mount. The moment you were in the saddle it was off through the town on the beach and up the wide steep inclined road to the upper town. Your black boy attendant (who was clothed in one garment of course material with a primitive girdle around his waist) was there behind the pony hanging on to its long tail, and you may gallop as fast as you liked that swift-footed, negro boy was there at the journey’s end ready to take your pony’s bridle when you dismounted!
“I received a great deal of attention from two old gentlemen, Mr. James Hill and his brother Mr. John Hill. Any one from Bermuda could not help being forcibly struck with the style of the old buildings in the upper town, most of them being built of the Lime and Soft Sandstone brought from Bermuda in the 17th century. Many interesting accounts were given of Admiral Rodney’s proceedings after the capture of the Island. People resorted to many schemes to secrete their money and valuables. Mock funerals were the most general. Friends would procure a coffin, take it to one of their houses and put into it their gold and silver, spoons, gold and silver vessels then take it to a church and after going through certain forms place it in a vault. Rodney heard of these proceedings and sent armed men on shore with instructions to overhaul every coffin on its way to burial and also to open graves. This they did and in consequence found much of the treasure.”


Walls of the old fortifications in Oranjestad.

“In many of the houses beautiful old furniture made of cedar could be seen, cedar chairs with cane seats and some with cushioned ditto, reminded me of an anecdote often related by my Grandmother, Mrs. Elizabeth Peniston, about one Richard Jennings Peniston (who was a relative of my grandfather, John W. Peniston) doing business in the Island of St. Eustatius, and a very rich merchant at the time of its capture by Rodney and his men. They took away everything valuable that could be found belonging to him and destroyed an immense amount of Liquors by setting the taps running. His wife Rebecca, (nee Darrell) fearing the island would be captured, employed herself many days before it was taken in carefully secreting Doubloons and Joes amounting to a very large sum in the cushions of the Bermuda cedar chairs. Mr. Peniston with his family was allowed to leave the island for Bermuda and take the chairs with him. He arrived safely and took up his residence at a place in Devonshire now known as Montpelier. By his will many of his relatives were left legacies of which however, they only received one half. My grandmother, Mrs. Elizabeth Peniston, was left one hundred pounds; she received only fifty as a shortage of the Personal estate was announced by the Executors which was doubted by the legatees. The remains of the immense warehouses of Mr. Richard Jennings Penniston and those of Mr. Richard Jennings with their ponderous Iron bars and hinges were shown to me near the beach.
“I have often visited the islands to purchase Sweet Potatoes and Yams, especially on my way to Bermuda from the Windward Islands. In 1857 I called there and after laying in a supply of Yams and Sweet potatoes I was induced to buy a few Ponies since their price was low. After buying them I was at a loss to know how I should get them on board and was thinking of swimming them off to the ship when Mr. James Hill said, “We never have any trouble in shipping them, bring your boat on shore and a light rope to throw them with on the Sandy Beach, tie their hoofs together after they are turned on their backs, and my negroes will lift them up and put them in your boat, cane tops being first put in the bottom. When you get alongside hoist them as you would a pig, they will be perfectly quiet. You can then tie them on deck, as they wear no shoes they will do the deck no harm.” I went on board, had the Yawl boat hoisted out, a tackle put on the yard arm then proceeded to the shore. The Ponies were brought down and handled according to Mr. Hill’s directions. They were soon on board where they were haltered and their hoofs loosened from the ropes. They jumped up and quickly began to enjoy the cane tops and provender put on board for their voyage.
“There is a tree growing on the mountain side whose Bark the fishermen get, and after pounding it, put it in bags and take it to the fishing grounds. They lower the bags to the bottom; shake out the bark and in a little while the fish come to the surface quite stupefied when they are easily taken.”
Captain Peniston in his short story give a most complete picture of Statia’s history and how the people lived and especially the Bermuda connection with the leading families at the time.

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