Clementina Hassell, Saba’s first Correspondent
By Will Johnson
In former times lace work or “Spanish Work” kept many Saba families in hard cash. Women who were spinsters (and there were many back then) were especially dependent on the sale of this lace work. When a contact was made with someone in the United States, this contact lasted for many years. It was a lifeline for many a poor spinster here on Saba. The contact in the United States would become good friends and would sell lacework to friends, family and co-workers on behalf of the spinster on Saba. Also packages of clothing, shoes, thread, needles, and even canned foodstuff would be sent from time to time to the spinster on Saba. This was a most welcome relief for someone back then with no means of income.
I remember when working in the Post office on St. Maarten, around the year 1962. There were very few tourists back then and hardly any cruise ships. However one of the few tourists came to the Post Office to see me. She had been corresponding with my mother’s neighbour in the English Quarter on Saba for more than thirty years. The neighbour was “Kiby” (Malachi Britannia Switzerland Hassell). The tourist lady wanted to know all about “Kiby” whom she had never seen or spoken to in all those years. And when I did get the opportunity to go by boat to Saba, “Kiby” was at my mother’s house waiting to get all the details about her friend and benefactor from the United States.
In Dr. Julia Crane’s book “Saba Silhouettes” there is a long interview with “Kiby”. She informs us; “Well, this [that I’m working on now] a friend send to me for from the United States. An American friend sent to order a pair of pillow cases. I haven’t met her. I just write her just so, you know. I came in contact with her by simply writing. We used to write to a company and ask them if they could help us by selling some drawn thread work, and that’s been so for many years. She used to sell a lot of work, but now it’s come she’s retired. [I’ve had] no other job. I have never done anything else but drawn thread work, and that’s been so for many years. And “Kiby” did well. She even built her own home solely from what she earned from her drawn thread work. She willed her house to her Anglican church before she died.
I use” Kiby’s” story to introduce Clementina Hassell better known as “Clemmie” who lived with her sister Vera in a small house on Booby Hill.. She too was a spinster and had a friend, Miss Lorene Baker. I have a very bad photo copy from someone in Bermuda from many years ago of an article written about Saba by Miss Baker. I have a note that she had corresponded with Miss Clementina Hassell of Saba for eighteen years and that the newspaper was from Burlington close to Denver, Colorado. However the internet has brought me no further and I cannot find a newspaper (yet) which would have carried that article between 1932 and 1935. The article was entitled “Saba a village in a volcano”. The article was introduced as follows by the paper of which the photo copy has no name;” The following interesting article about Saba, a volcanic island in the Caribbean Sea was written by Miss Lorene Baker and was given by her at a recent P.E.O. Miss Baker obtained most of her information from Miss Clementina Hassell, a native of the island, with whom she has corresponded for the past eighteen years. Miss Baker has befriended her in many ways, sent her money, gifts and has helped her sell many pieces of handwork to Burlington folks. Beautiful drawn work (Spanish lace they call it) in handkerchiefs, towels, luncheon sets, etc., bring in pin money for the Saban women. After Miss Baker had written her article she sent it to Clementina to see if it was correct. We will print Clementina’s answer next week. In my research I would dare say that this letter from Clementina was the first published article written by a Saban in a foreign newspaper. From different clues in her letter the article was published in the early nineteen thirties.
Miss Baker’s article starts out as follows 😦 “Pirates –with a few women captives, were marooned years ago on an island in the West Indies by that master buccaneer Henry Morgan. They founded a village in the protected bowl of a volcano and formed a settlement that lives and thrives there today.)
Some people choose queer places to live in, but about the strangest of all is the town of about eighteen hundred souls, high up in the crater of an extinct volcano on the island of Saba in the Dutch West Indies. Saba is a bare, black precipitous rock rising sheer 3000 feet above sea level. The centre of the cone is to all appearances solid within 300 feet of the top, where there is a bowl or depression; and here occurs the first paradox of this amusing island, a town swung up in the air like a nest in a tree. And the inhabitants call their town Bottom! The island is quite barren on its slopes as it rises out of the ocean. Almost the entire white population consists of two families the Simmondses and the Hassells. The Simmondses are inhabitants of the capital; they are long limbed with dark hair and eyes, and of English stock, descendants of some of Morgan’s men who captured the island in 1665.”
Miss Baker’s article continues with a lot more, but of more interest to us is what” Miss Clemmie” wrote to her. However the part by Miss Clemmie is not completely legible but we will try and quote as much as possible from it. Also we have not changed any mistakes in her grammar as that is the way the newspaper in Burlington carried her article as well.
“In the house a lamp is lit with oil. Now the way they cook. Some has little stoves and some has big stoves with three burners. The poorest people has a fire heart and burns wood under the “pat”, to cook their food. Now the things they eat – tin stuff, corn beef, salt fish – I mean cod fish, fresh fish from the banks in the sea. They has some fresh meat, beef, veal, mutton, goat meat, chickens, eggs and sometimes they bake a pig – that’s the small ones, they kill big hogs. Ha. Now I think I hear you laughing at the part of those things I am laughing at myself.
They has loaf bread, fine cakes, oats, sagoe, milk, butter, green peas – there are plenty more but it will sound so funny, ha! I forgot cabbage, turnips, and onions. Their dresses and hats and shoes all look like them in the magazines. You know what I mean, the styles from the book. Titles of all kinds as Hassells, Johnsons, Simmons, Leverocks and Petersons are all white people; most of the other kind is colored folks bearing every other kind of title. In former years they had owners and when the English Queen freed them every owner got $100 for each one, then they called them slaves. Now they are free and one third of Saba is black people. Some washes clothes, some scrubs, bakes the bread, gets the wood, goes to the bank and catches fish along with the white men and goes to the bay (Ladder) and (Fort). Not so much to the Ladder that is on the condemned side. The floods washed it out so bad you are pretty near going over a large cliff. Once I was to that place and no more. I never been to the Fort as I really never had any call to.
There are two churches and two schools in The Bottom, catholic and protestant. The Sisters teaches one and another teacher teaches the other. The government pays for the one public school and the Catholic bishop pays for the other one, but the Dutch governor gives the priests and sisters and the minister a grant every month, the same for the windward side. There are 70 scholars in the catholic school at Windwardside School, but only a few in the other one. I can’t tell how many, but I don’t think there are more than 14 altogether. The church in Hell’s Gate is not quite as bad as they say only a large walk on foot and not so near Heaven as they think. I should think it is furder off. Ha! What a joke. The school children is going to have some little play for the sisters jubilee. It is 25 years since she has been a sister. I guess it will be some fun for the children they are to dress in such a funny way. (Part of the article missing). Continuing Clementina writes: “The last time I went there it took me two hours to get home all on foot and my I was tired out. You could never imagine the foolish looking place Saba is – only a solid rock surrounded by high seas, plenty high winds, and plenty warm weather. Only around Christmas it gets quite chilly then we like to wrap up. When we go indoors it is not so bad. I know it would be like I landed in another world if I was in U.S.A. Those things would seem like one from the dead. I have never seen anything burn here except wood and oil all my life.
Now about the radio. Yes there is three here; the government has a station that works from here to St. Martins and the power house is there; (communications established November 2nd, 1931)the priest has one in his house and the postmaster has one. I heard the speaking one day. I like to hear them it would be nice to have one.The teacher in the Protestant School is from here; the other lady is from St. Martins, but the sisters in the catholic school is from Holland. We do not have to go to the bottom for our mails. We has to send down to the bottom for our packages, but they send the letters over on a donkey.
I think I hear you laughing about it and then the worst of that a white man with one hand follows behind them. It got shot badly and the doctor took it off. Government gave him the mails in charge to help him as he could not work. The steamer comes in at six o’clock and we get the letters at 1, it is not so bad for such a long way.
You must try and correct my mistakes for you will see I am not very well qualified in spelling but you may manage to make it out. There was something I wanted to mention, that is the little place called Mary Point that was a queer place for people to live in and waiting to go over a large cliff at any time. The government thot it such a pity they got permission to move them to the bottom and now they are comfortable in good little homes, the place where they live is called the promise land for it was a promise for them. I always had a wish to visit the place but I never did and never will for no one will go there again.
There are also plenty of tanks in Saba. We use rain water and no other kind so we can thank God for that blessing always. Now I guess you will be tired reading about Saba and all its belongings so put all the odds and ends together and let it be OK Saba – rock is a hard rock for true that is the end of Saba.
Your faraway friend.
I doubt very much if Clementina ever did leave Saba. As so many people, especially women, back then stayed on Saba until they died Clemmie did the same thing. She was born in 1875. Her parents were Abram Hassell and Albertina Hassell. She died at the age of 86 on May 16th, 1962. She never married. Before finishing this article, via Milton and his wife Erla Johnson in Port St. Lucy I was able to get a copy of the article from Ora Johnson born Hassell who is a niece of Miss Clemmie, however the letter from Miss Clemmie is still not legible in its entirety, but given the fact that her article was published in the newspaper I would describe her as Saba’s first correspondent. Her assessment of Saba as a foolish looking place, I would dare say was sincere at the time. If Miss Clemmie could come back she would be amazed to see the changes on Saba now. Even on Booby Hill where she lived all her life in a very small house, now has two hotels and many lovely homes. But then who knows, she may still prefer the noiseless society in which she grew up in and lived so all her life. People would come here and write all kinds of foolishness about us with no one to correct them. At least Miss Baker gave her friend Clemmie the opportunity to review her story before it was published. Miss Baker also made a correction in her article by stating the following: “The myth of ships being built on the top of the island and lowered over the steep sides to the water is regarded there with mingled ridicule and resentment. Schooners have been built on Saba, but only on the narrow rocky beaches at the foot of the cliffs. The white men leave the (dear old rock) while still in their teens and go to sea. Strange that an island, where boat building can be done only on a beach, about the size of a handkerchief, should produce such marvellous navigators.”
Miss Baker’s approach to letting Miss Clemmie do her own people’s history was obviously a correct one. Saba is still burdened with people coming here and pretending they know more about our past than we do. Not so! And after a while they leave our “foolish little Saba” as Clemmie referred to it, and those who belong here are once again left to their own devices and continue to make their own history! Enough said!!