The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson



Saba an unknown Eden of the American Islands

Mountaineers Build Ships

A Wonderful, Simple Community Descended from the Most Desperate Pirates of the Old Caribbean Sea.

By: Will Johnson

The above headlines are taken from an article in the New York Times dated July 31st, 1898. The person who wrote the article had actually visited Saba nineteen years before,in 1879. Because of the uniqueness of this story I want to present it to the readers of today and embellish it with a few old photos to suit. I had this posted in the nineteen seventies+ in my newspaper The Saba Herald.

KINGSTON, Jamaica, July 19th.—With the exception of a few of the olden school of New England or “Down Easter” traders, and possibly a clerk or two in the State Department, there are not perhaps a dozen persons in the United States who could answer correctly the simple question, “How many republics are there in the West Indies?” Haiti and Santo Domingo are supposed to be the only independent Governments, and it will be something of a National surprise on a mild scale at this late date to learn that there is another –without of course, any flippant reference to the heroic Cuban Republic in support of which the United States is now generously pouring out its blood and treasure.

Such, however, is the case.

Besides France and Switzerland, Europe has her modest but ancient little republics of Andorra and San Marino, of which we seldom or never hear, and which the world is, therefore, prone to forget. And in like manner, besides the turbulent black and brown republic of Haiti the West Indies can (but do not ever) boast of a veritable little “Andorran” republic on the northern confines of the Caribbean Sea, which antedates the United States itself. For it dates its freedom, away back sometime in the twenties of the last century. A hundred years afterward it was described by the good Abbe Raynal in characteristically extravagant eulogy, as a very “temple of peace” whence its people looked forth from its towering heights between sky and sea on the turmoil of contending nations which went on around it.

The subject of this sketch is but a tiny dot on the best of contemporary maps. It will be found north of the British island of St. Kitts, just a little past the Swedish island of St. Eustatia, named in tiny italics “Saba” and usually under the name is the legend “Dutch.” Nor does contemporary geography or literature throw any more light on its singular and interesting history and institutions. But it is in reality no more a Dutch colony than Andorra is a Spanish province, and, although it does fly the flag of Holland on Sundays and holidays, the design is modified by the patriotic addition of a green cabbage in the upper left corner – executed with very indifferent art. For the island of Saba, W.I. is an independent republic, albeit it is but a dozen miles in circumference, and its population numbers something less than 2.000 souls. But what the isle lacks in longitudinal extent it amply makes up in altitude, soaring, as it does, up into the very clouds to a maximum height of nearly 3,000 feet. And what its people lack in numbers they make up for in independence of spirit only comparable to that of the Swiss and Scots.

Image (535)


The island rises with startling abruptness from the encircling sea, its general aspect leaving no palpable sign of its being inhabited. Indeed, the entire twelve miles of its coast is so sheer in its rise from the waves, rising to a considerable height of from 800 to 1200 feet before being broken by crag or slope, that no one would conceive it accessible to any foot but that of a sea bird. But on the south side there is a practicable break in the cliffs which gives access to a somewhat less sheer or utterly perpendicular face, along which a series of giddy stairs have been cut in the rock.


This is the port of Saba. The road aptly called the ‘ladder” consisting of nearly 1,000 steps of irregular height and breadth, and necessarily narrow, leads to a steeply sloping shelf, or gallery, that, in its turn, leads between perpendicular walls through the heart of the mountain to its summit. From this elevation, when one gets somewhat accustomed to the thin atmosphere and the giddy situation, a magnificent view is had of the surrounding islands – St. Eustatia, St. Martin, Anegada, St. Barts, Anguilla, St. Kitts, and Nevis, and, away to the westward, the blue caps of Virgin Gorda,s soaring peaks.

And at one’s feet lies a lovely valley, or, more properly, a series of valleys, buried in the heart of this ocean mountain, which is now seen to be hollow, its towering ridges or serrated peaks inclosing like mighty ramparts as fair a tropical Eden as ever left the hands of the Creator. Coming as we do from the bosom of the deep, climbing stairs and causeways, such as would delight the heart of Rider Haggard, this view bursts upon us like some vision of enchantment. Yet it is all perfectly real.

This was my first impression of Saba when I visited the little island republic some nineteen years ago, and to-day it is not to be doubted that it is little changed. It was then what it was in the grandiloquent old Abbe Raynal’s day, and in the nature of things it will continue so. For time treads lightly there.

On account of intermarriages, the population is practically one vast family. Certainly they are “neighbours” in a sense not familiar to the world at large, for they live in a state of ideal communism. They are an agricultural and piscatorial folk, and, incredible as it may seem, are famous boat builders.

Image (423)

in former times even large schooners were built on Saba.




Launching Boats from Hilltops.

They have a shipyard on the summit where they construct boats, and even sloops and schooners of considerable size, some as large as forty or fifty tons. These they slide down the sheer face of the southern cliffs, or lower by means of primitive but immense and effective derricks and tackling, and then tow them into the little cove where they are fitted out for sea. In these vessels they make voyages throughout the West Indies, trafficking in their island produce. Indeed, until the great American fruit companies and steam transit hut them out they even competed with the Bahama traders for the New York fruit and vegetable market.

Image (151)

Schooners from Saba like the Esther Antia of Capt. Ben Hassell were trading with New York for over a hundred years. It was a normal thing back one hundred years ago to take a Saba schooner anywhere in the Northern Eastern Caribbean and head to New York.


The principal products are cotton, which is manufactured on the island into slippers, hammocks, and other articles; and all tropical fruits and vegetables, especially cabbages which are regarded as par excellence the national staple. The cabbage is the coat of arms of the republic, and finds a place in its flag, as already mentioned. Every inch of the valley not occupied by habitations is well cultivated, making a lovely garden, the cultivation rising along the slopes of the mountain until the bare rock of the encircling crests is met. There are no streams, or even springs; but the rainy seasons are regular and the moisture is perpetual at that altitude. Moreover, nature aided partly by art, has made a peculiar arrangement for the water supply.

The rainfall is immense, and ordinarily one good tropical storm would suffice to convert the valley into a vast lake. But the water courses of the interior slopes find a common outlet in an immense cavern that occupies a place in the northern side of the mountain. This cavern, in turn, has an outlet to the outer face of the island through which the water escapes when the cavern overflows. After an overflow the lower chamber retains enough water to supply the inhabitants from one season to another and possibly for a much longer period did the occasion arise. But the seasons have never been known to fail.

The Sabans are all pure-blooded white people, without a stain of “colour” They are the descendants of a number of Dutch, Swedish, and Danish pirates of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, who, discovering the little island and being at once impressed with its matchless possibilities as a stronghold, settled their families upon it and fortified its naturally inaccessible heights. In the course of time piracy fell off in that locality, and the island was abandoned by its masters. But the families remained, and they increased and multiplied in their aerial valley almost forgotten by the world that then made the West Indies the arena of naval warfare. Thus the Sabans grew up through a few generations of independence and had forgotten to owe allegiance to State or sovereign.

Only in the present century they were to all intents and purposes “discovered” by the Europeans in the neighbouring colonies. They declined to be claimed and governed by strangers, however, and the problem arose how to subdue them. English, French, Swedish, Dutch, and Danish warships vainly strove to dislodge the islanders and plant their several flags, but the Sabans stood them off. Eventually the islanders surrendered to the Dutch Governor of the nearest colony, St. Martin, on conditions set forth by themselves. These conditions were that in consideration of Dutch protection they would fly the flag of Holland with the addition of a cabbage to distinguish their independence. They were to be exempted from all taxes and to appoint their own Governor, and pay him themselves. In fact, the Island’s affairs were to go on just as formerly. To this treaty the home Government consented.

The affairs of the island are conducted by a Governor, who is appointed for life, assisted by a council of seven. Very like Andorra, Saba has no written laws, and there is little litigation and less crime to call for them. Possible disputes are settled by the Governor according to his judgment and conscience. Criminal charges could, without any doubt, be laid in the courts of St. Martin legally, but it is a doubt that the event has never settled whether the “free and independent” republic would recognize jurisdiction, and if not, one may well wonder how it could be enforced. As said, no taxes are paid by the Sabans, except their voluntary contributions in labour or in kind to maintain their own modest municipality. Andorra pays a customs tribute to France, and another to Spain, of 969 francs annually on its imports; but Saba pays nothing to Holland, if we except register licenses for the shipping and the price that is charged when a new flag is to be got.

The Sabans are known throughout the West Indies for their exceedingly fair and indeed, ruddy complexions, blue eyes, and flaxen hair. All seem to be cast in the same mould, which is no doubt accountable to the incessant intermarriages above mentioned. Yet like all mountaineer tribes, they are a hardy and stalwart race, which characteristic is not modified by their marine habits. Mentally they are of a very high type, being exceedingly simple in thought as in manners, “the ordinary speculations of their minds seldom extend the confines of their sea girt citadel,” to once more quote Raynal. Their religion is Lutheran, and although they have no resident minister, their spiritual welfare is well looked after by the clergy of St. Martin.

Altogether a more extraordinary, and in many senses model, commonwealth does not exist on the face of the earth. That these people, the direct descendants of the dread pirates of the Caribbean without admixture, should today make the nearest approach to Edenic simplicity and purity extant is one of the semi-cynical lessons of history that a civilization may well pause to ponder. For is it not pregnant with prophesy?”

The New York Times prides itself on the accuracy of its reporting so if the New York Times says it is so then it must be so!! (Partly so, but back in the day so many of these fanciful articles were written about Saba that you have to take most of them with a grain of salt.)

Image (857)

This is a copy of a photo taken from the Knickerbocker Magazine. The photo was taken before 1877 as the Anglican Church (built in 1877) is not in the photo. This is how the village of Windwardside and the Mountain would have looked like when the writer of the New York Times article visited Saba in 1879.


Single Post Navigation

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: