BEFORE MASS TOURISM
By. Will Johnson
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century there was no mass tourism to the Eastern Caribbean. Only an occasional travel writer would come around and wealthy people like J.P. Morgan and others would stop by in their yachts. The Lady boats of the Canadian Lines serviced the island and carried some passengers. It was not until after 1960 that North American tourists started coming in their numbers building up to the millions who visit the North Eastern Caribbean today.
And there were no large hotels as we know them now on most of the larger islands. At best you could lodge with single old ladies who would take you into their homes and some small inns with no more than ten rooms.
However there was a need for local people to travel among the islands. St. Kitts was the principal island for people living on Anguilla, St. Martin, St. Barth’s, St. Eustatius and Saba.
People went there for various reasons. The Dutch and French of the North Eastern Caribbean used St. Kitts as a transit point for their onward journeys to Bermuda and the United States with lines such as the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. St. Kitts with its then modern Cunningham hospital which was started in 1848 functioned as a regional hospital. Doctors like Dr. Shaw first worked on the Dutch islands before moving on to St. Kitts where he was the general surgeon.
The Royal Bank of Canada also started the first real bank in the North Eastern Caribbean when they opened a branch in Basseterre in 1915.
And so because of the economic importance of St. Kitts there was a need to travel to that island in particular. While many people had either relatives or friends on St. Kitts others had to lodge in guesthouses. Captain Ernest A. Johnson in his Memoirs speaks for many former Dutch Windward Islanders when describing his first trip to St. Kitts in 1900. ‘On the 2nd May, 2 am the weather was moderate and we were close to West of Brimstone Hill. Two tacks and a hitch, and the good sloop “Lillie” was safely anchored in Basseterre, St. Kitts. There my maiden passage ended. I was stopping at the Montesaires Hotel waiting for the steamship “Tiber” to arrive, for Bermuda was the second part of my voyage. On the 15th of May the “Tiber” arrived to sail that day.
In Basseterre there were several other small hotels such as Shorty’s Hotel, Barclays Hotel and so on. I recently had a request from Mr. G.P. van der Vorst for more information on Walter Strisiver known as “Shorty” who ran Shorty’s Hotel on St. Kitts. I thought he was of Portuguese descent but Mr. van der Vorst said there was a person with an identical name who lived in Berlin in 1938 and left Germany. If anyone on St. Kitts reading this knows anything about where Shorty came from I would appreciate it if they would let me know. And they did. Since I wrote this Mrs. Stephanie Voges-Every contacted her aunt Mrs. Agnes Skerritt who provided the information that indeed Mr. Striviser came from Germany and that he had a brother who was a doctor at the old Cunningham hospital on St. Kitts.
Mrs. Ada Edmead was also in the hotel business on St. Kitts and many people from the neighboring islands enjoyed her hospitality.
We have here an article from the Windward Islands Opinion of Saturday Nov, 19th, 1960. At that time I myself was living in Captain Hodge’s Guesthouse on the beach in Philipsburg a place where many from Saba used to stay as well. Besides that one Miss Browlia Maillard and Miss Zilah Richardson on the Backstreet used to take in guests from the surrounding islands. I remember in the nineteen forties when my brother Freddie was going to school on St. Maarten he stayed with some Davis sisters who had a home next to the Methodist Church on St. Maarten and they too would take in the occasional guest from the surrounding islands.
Here follows the article in the Windward Islands Opinion of Saturday November 19th, 1960.
MRS. J.K. Edmead Opens Hotel in St. Eustatius
Mrs. J.K. Edmead, well-known hotel proprietress, who has been managing three hotels at the island of St. Kitts, B.W.I. for many years, have turned the business over to her daughter Mrs. Ruby De Freitas, who has been assisting her for the past four years after her return from Aruba, where she worked in the Accounting Office as Senior clerk for the Lago, for many years, and has opened her first hotel on the evening of November 1st on the island of St. Eustatius.
A grand reception was held for the occasion to which 123 guests attended. Deputy V.A. Lopes presided as Master of Ceremonies, and after his opening address, the Hon. Mr. van Delden, Administrator of St. Eustatius responded with a stimulating speech in which he congratulated Mrs. Edmead very strongly for her establishment in the hotel business here at St. Eustatius, and after wishing her all success in the future, concluded by saying that Mrs. Edmead’s efficiency in the managing of hotels is no surprise nor secret to him as he had been told by persons at Curacao who lodged and boarded at her hotels when they visited St. Kitts, about the adequate service, luxury, and comfort they enjoyed while there, so that he was sure that the island will benefit greatly by her project.
Deputy Sadler also gave a wonderful speech, substantiating the information the Hon. Mr. van Delden had obtained at Curacao, for Deputy Sadler stated that he had spent his honey-moon at Hotel Royal at St. Kitts, and declared that comfort was divine, and service de-lux.
After this, champagne was served, then other drinks followed, including eating of chicken and souse. The rhythm of the steel-band became so impellent that the urge for dancing could no longer be available, chairs were placed to the side and dancing continued until the early hours of 2 am the following morning when the reception came to an end.
Mrs. Edmead is a native of St. Eustatius, and is the daughter of Mr. Jacob Simon van Putten, well-known businessman, social worker, and who held the position as Leader Senior Circuit Steward, and local preacher of the Methodist Church at St. Eustatius for over fifty-nine years. He died on the 17th. Of November 1958, in the home of his daughter Mrs. Alice Lopes, at the honorable age of 95.
This hotel is an annex to the Antillean Caribbean Hotel which Mrs. Edmead hopes to renovate and establish in the near future.”
I remember my brother Guy telling me that he was staying at the Hotel Royal in Basseterre when President John Kennedy was shot and killed. He was advised by Mrs. Edmead who in the meantime was back on St. Kitts. At least she was there when he stayed in the hotel. He was advised to stay in the hotel and not wander around the town until tensions calmed down, as people were blaming the whites for killing Kennedy because of his support for human rights in the United States. In 1961 I spent the months of October and November in the Government Guesthouse on St. Eustatius. I walked away from that stay with wonderful memories of the island and the people. I also established lifelong relations with certain families I met there at the time. I had seen the island in the nineteen fifties when I stopped there briefly on the government schooner the “Blue Peter” but in 1961 I really got to know the island well. I worked in the Post office there and my boss was Miss Louise van Putten and the Act. Administrator was Mr. Carl Buncamper. I also got to know Mr. Vincent Lopes and Mr. Sadler, and Mr. Austin Woodley worked in the same building with me. My room in the government guesthouse for the last years has been the meeting room of the Island Council of St. Eustatius. Wonderful memories I have of those days taking in the way of life and relatively unspoiled atmosphere of sweet St. Eustatius.
The first hotel strictly aimed at Tourists built in the Eastern Caribbean was the Little Bay Hotel in 1955. Even so the hotel started with only twenty rooms. In 1962 it was expanded to forty rooms. A group of Dutch contractors who were established on Aruba built the Roman Catholic Church and the Convent in Philipsburg and then saw an opportunity to start the Little Bay Hotel. That same group were responsible for the establishment of the Banco Popular on the Front Street in the nineteen sixties as well. Mr. Kolaard was part of that group and managed the Little Bay Hotel when it first started up and remained on in various functions for a number of years.
On Anguilla there is Lloyd’s guesthouse operated by the Lloyd family for many years. In former times on St. Barth’s there was a guesthouse in the former Richard Dinzey mansion in Gustavia. I remember staying there on a trip with Bobby Every. A number of young men from Saba worked there. I learned from Mr. Franklin Every who worked there that the operator was Mr. Arthur Hanson who before that had operated the former Government Guesthouse in Windwardside. Besides Franklin there was also Carl Hassell, Kenneth Every and Al Hassell. This was in the mid nineteen sixties and Franklin also worked with Mr. Hanson for a couple of years at the Government Guesthouse on St. Eustatius. The building is now a Swedish museum. It was built by Sir Richard Dinzey of Saba who moved to St. Barth’s in the early eighteen hundreds. He was a son of Governor Thomas Dinzey of Saba. The last person to live there was Julia Dinzey and she left the property to her Saba neighbor Capt. Charles Barnes. The building was rented to a Mr. Hanson who turned it into a guesthouse. And there was a Mr. Ledee who had a guesthouse in town. I remember staying there and a full breakfast was only a dollar. If I can drift away to Aruba for a while I used to stay at the Seaman’s Club in San Nicolas for five guilders a night and a hearty breakfast included. Astoria Hotel not too far from that location was ten guilders a night and no breakfast included and the Victoria Hotel was fifteen guilders a night. It belonged to Fan Fan Croes and his daughter Lucy was married to a Saban , Vivian Hassell and since Fan Fan Croes’ death the hotel is managed by Marilyn Hassell granddaughter of “Fan Fan” Croes.
On Curacao I lived in Hotel Washington for a year and after I wrote the history of my stay there which appeared on the front page of the NAPA magazine someone decided to restore it and now it is a hotel training school. Irma Hassell of Saba was the Matron there and such a jolly character that she and I remained friends until she passed away on Aruba years later. The article was in Dutch so I will have to translate it sometime for my English speaking readers.
Over the years I have had the good fortune to transit from the era before mass tourism. Because of holding various political and advisory functions I have stayed in most of the hotels in the Dutch islands and elsewhere in the Caribbean from Mallihouana in Anguilla to Young Island in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, from the Hilton in Trinidad to the Hemingway Marina Hotel in Cuba. But I must admit that I long back for the days of the five guilder a night accommodations with two fried eggs, large amounts of bacon and a couple of Johnny Cakes included in that price.