The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson



1890-1910 Church Bottom - Tropenmuseum

The Roman Catholic Church bought this property which had formerly been owned by the Reverend John Toland.It was owned by Edward Simmons who was married to a daughter of Toland.

By: Will Johnson

As he was the ancestor of a number of prominent families like the Vanterpools on Saba and some of the Richardson’s on St. Martin, the late Gosta Simmons and I have been trying to solve the mystery surrounding the origins of the Reverend John Toland. One of his well-known grandsons Capt. Ernest Hugh Toland Vanterpool in his name bears witness to his descent and has passed on the Toland genes to his descendants.

In my research I found that he was described by different people as either being a Presbyterian,  or an Episcopalian . The diocese for the Anglican Church on Antigua has no record of him and neither does the headquarters in London.

When the Dutch historian M.D. Teenstra visited Saba on February 13th, 1829 he wrote that the only religious instructor who was on the island was named John Toland and “is a Presbyterian.” “The church building after the hurricane of 1772 has been completely rebuilt. In 1821 it was shingled again. It is a square building, not very large, of which the solid walls are built of cut stone. The same building serves as Council Hall and school.” The building which Teenstra describes can only be the Anglican Church in The Bottom.

When the first Roman Catholic priest visited Saba on May 31st 1836, Mgr. Niewindt, he said that John Toland “Protestant Religious Teacher” had left Saba. However this proved to be of a temporary nature. Niewindt also said that “Mr. Tolands moral conduct left much to be desired.”

From the Roman Catholic archives on Saba one of our priests claimed that John Toland was baptized a Roman Catholic but had converted to the Anglican Church later on.

In 1857 he was still living on Saba but had a meager existence. Very few people went to church and he survived off the charity of the very few churchgoers.

1825-dinzey-thomas-bapthemJohn Toland died on Saba on December 4th, 1863 and was buried on the property which later was purchased by the Roman Catholic church on which a church and school was built. Father J.C. Gast referred to him as the Episcopal Minister.

In a Brief Outline of History and Data on the work of the Anglican Church in Saba (1777 -1977) they write:” In the early 1800,s, a Saban, the Rev. John Toland who apparently had had some theological training, served the church in Saba until about 1860. In 1829 and again in 1834 a visiting Dutch journalist, Teenstra, wrote that the only clergyman active on Saba was John Toland, who was minister of the “Episcopal Church” on the island. A Baptismal Certificate of Elenor Elizabeth Hassell, dating from 21st October 1851 bears witness to this fact.

Dr. Johan Hartog in his “Geschiedenis van de Bovenwindse Eilanden” writes that Tolands grave was demolished by Father G.J.M. Dalhaus in 1908 as that Roman Catholic priest considered Toland a heretic and his remains were a blemish on the property of the Roman Catholic church.  I wonder though if he is correct in that, as in a photo of the hurricane damage in 1932 the grave it still pictured there. Furthermore Toland was the grandfather of the powerful Vanterpool family and I doubt if they would have allowed that to happen.

Hurricane Sept. 26, 1932

Photo from the hurricane of September 26th, 1932. According to me the white grave on the left was that of the Rev, John Toland. It was removed probably in the late nineteen forties.

In checking on data of the births and marriages of his children I was able to find out more about him. His daughter Margaret who was married to Edward Simmons on August 15th, 1832 was born on Antigua on August 25th, 1809 and her mother was Ann Rodgers. The family moved on to St. Maarten as the daughter Maria who married Thomas Dinzey Horton on August 26th, 1833 was born on St. Martin in 1811.

Another daughter Susanna Rebecca, on July 22nd, 1835 married Richard Robinson Richardson of St. Maarten. His father was also Richard R. Richardson a white planter who owned the Madam Estate and also had the concession for the exploitation of the salt pans.

Yet another daughter Annie married  Thomas Charles Vanterpool from Virgin Gordo and introduced the Vanterpool name and family to Saba when they moved to Saba.

Dr. Thomas Coke in his history of the Methodist church in the West Indies refers to a Toland as a Methodist missionary preacher in Tortola around 1790 to 1800. We are not sure if this could have been him given the information we found after our first research from some thirty years ago.

The name survived in the grandchildren as when the birth of William Donald Vanterpool was given in he was described as being the son of Ernest Hugh Toland Vanterpool and Elizabeth Simmons, Windfield Leverock.

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Marie Senior- Hughes, right in the photo, with two aunts and an uncle who were children of Capt. Ernest Hugh Toland Vanterpool so they are descended from the Reverend John Toland, (whose father was Hugh).

Nieuwindt may have been correct in his assessment of the morals of the Reverend John Toland. A mystery which has puzzled people like Gosta Simmons remained unsolved because of the following. Of great confusion and importance is the passenger manifest of the schooner “Eli Hoyt” arriving at Washington N.C. in 1837. The conclusion was reached that this was the second family of the “Reverend” John Toland, age 56, Minister from St. Martins”, based on the name of Mrs. Mary L. Toland age 56 and three children as “Master James O. Toland, age 14, Miss Rachel J. Toland, age 12” and “Master Hugh Toland, age 8”.

John Tolands family as traditionally known consisted of his wife Ann Louisa Rodgers from Antigua and their five children (Annie, Margaret, Maria, Edward and Susan Rebecca) probably born between 1808 and 1818. I say probably because we don’t know when daughter Annie, who married Thomas C. Vanterpool, was born. None of these people are found in connection with John aboard the “Eli Hoyt”. Furthermore there is a distinct break in time between the two groups of children.

If this is true John’s first wife should have died around 1820, in order for him to start a new family with “Mrs. Mary.” So far there is no indication of such a death. Quite the contrary when the Saba death records state the death of one “Ann Louise Toland; V (i.e.female)”, who passed away on 17 June, 1863. Who was she if not the wife of the Rev. John Toland? The answer has to wait but we can keep in mind that James Osborne Toland died on Saba on 12 May, 1870! (Gosta Simmons).


Former State ecretary Mrs. Amelia Nicholson-Linzey’s grandmother Christeen was a daughter of Capt. Ernest Hugh Toland Vanterpool, so Amelia is the great-great-great-granddaughter of the Reverend John Toland born in Ireland in the year 1781, so she can follow one branch of her family back quite a ways back in time.

Gosta tried to find a trace of “Mrs. Mary” to be able to give substance for the hypothesis of a second family. In the marriage act of Tolands daughter Susanna Rebecca Toland on July 22, 1835 as witnesses for the bride appeared the Reverend John Toland and one Mary Skinner. If Ann Louisa Rodgers was already dead then why was Mary Skinner not listed as Mrs. Toland? In Gosta’s letter he asks: “Will- your opinion will be appreciated. And I want to inform Gosta in the great beyond that on one of the islands I had a friend who kept his two former wives in the same house with him along with the third wife. He told me: “ Meh boy, where were the two poor souls supposed to go? So I told them they could stay on and we all live good together.” Well I think that applied to the Reverend Toland who started a second family and kept the first wife as well. Who was this Mary Skinner? The name was not unfamiliar in the Caribbean. Based on my early research of Saba history in the old Saba records I found two Skinners indexed both females. Elizabeth Skinner, who died in 1858 and Mary Skinner who died in 1869. If Mary Skinner was the 2nd wife of Reverend John Toland, why was she listed as Mary Skinner?

The Reverend John Tolands life on Saba was controversial in more ways than keeping two wives. Back then Saba had its own Court of Justice. I remember when Mr. Adrian Simmons would be visiting from New York he would come to the office to see the Kings Attorney who happened to be my brother Thomas Eric. Now the title is the Public Prosecutor and so the King seems to have lost his attorney on Saba. I used to like the name “Kings Attorney”. I can see the King now coming to his trial in Court with head bowed down, and his attorney all dressed up in his ceremonial robes, leading the King and his following into the Court Hall. However the title meant that the person who was Kings Attorney would bring cases to Court on behalf of the King who back then was de facto the government.

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A baptismal certificate signed by the Rev. John Toland, Episcopal Minister.

There are a number of cases in which John Toland was involved and had to appear in Court one of which was on January 14th, 1829 in which he was the plaintiff against Miss Elizabeth Hassell (free mulatto woman) for defamation of character, in calling Mrs. Toland’ blood of a whore’ and many other vile expressions to that effect. Court condemns defendant to retract accusations and to make ample apology.

Another case on June 23 1842 was one vs. Mr. John G. Every, who had beaten the Reverend in the public road for which defendant was fined fls.35.—quite a sum of money for those days. On May 11th, 1843 there was a case by the Reverend John Toland vs. Mr. Hercules Hassell Sr. for having accosted him when passing opposite his dwelling in company with Jacob Every. By the request of the widow of the late deceased, that the said Mr. Hercules Hassell Sr. gave him several blows with a stick in the presence of said Jacob Every, without the least provocation. This case was referred to the appeals court on St. Eustatius.

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Mrs. Lilias Pfanstiehl born Vanterpool was a granddaughter of the Reverend John Toland.

And there were other cases which are too extensive for this article but which could be part of a book on the life and times of the apparently not so reverend John Toland.

Toland was born around 1781. He was such a mysterious person to modern researchers that even his own church on Saba referred to him as a Saban. In “The Life of Daniel Gateward Davis. “Walker (1992; 141) it is also claimed that he was a Saban. However in the annual reports of the state of the island of Saba Governor Edward Beaks listed Toland among the European inhabitants as Episcopal Minister from 1853 to 1863.

His European background seems solid and supported by the fact that he was admitted on trial by the annual Methodist Conference in Ireland. Furthermore in the Consecutive Minutes from the English Conference he was explicitly listed as Irish.

On July 2nd, 1807, Rev. Dr. Thomas Coke, the General Superintendent came to Dublin to preside over the Irish Conference. Five candidates were admitted on trial among them John Toland for service to the West Indies. The minutes of Conferences (1808-1812) in England listed Tolands assignments as a travelling missionary. In a report from Pastor Hodgson of Tortola it was stated that two missionaries Toland and Joseph Taylor arrived on March 1st 1808 to help preaching the Gospel in the Virgin Islands. In 1809 he was in Antigua, St. Maarten 1811, and St. Barths 1812 and also travelled to Jamaica in between 1810 and 1811 but in 1812 he desisted from travel and was excluded from the Methodist Society. In Saba from 1829 to 1834 and from 1853 to 1863.

The Methodist Conference 0f 1812 held in Leeds was a turning point for Toland as a Methodist. In question 6 of the minutes his fate was described as “Desisted from travelling and excluded from their (MMS) connexion. Two letters from Toland to the Rev. Coke gives a brief account of sad tidings. The letters written from Nevis in 1813 show that charges had been made against Toland from one Miss Moore in Antigua.

One person who met Toland personally and described him was the Roman Catholic Priest Kistemaker who visited Saba in 1843. He also solved the mystery of Tolands place of birth. We quote Kistemaker: “Each religion is good. The Anglican priest was exactly in those days on a journey, but came back from the outing on the same day that the priest was to depart. The boat delayed the departure however until the following day and the elderly clergyman came immediately to pay a visit to the priest, who had time to repay the visit. The clergyman told him that he was already forty years in the West Indies and was born in Ireland and was originally an orthodox Anglican, but as time went by he became more liberal in his opinions; each Christian religion according to him was good; especially against the Catholics he harbored no grudges. He had just been received very friendly by the Catholic priest on St. Thomas and some years ago had enjoyed the hospitality of different priests on Guadeloupe and even by the bishop of Basseterre of that island. He had constantly gone to Mass by the Catholics there and he regretted very much that he had not had the opportunity to attend the services of Father Kistemaker. He complained of the stubbornness of the Sabans and urgently appealed to the priest to take them to task once and for all. After that they said a hearty farewell to each other.

And these many years later the preachers are still trying to take the Sabans to task.

Sources: Besides my own research, that of Gosta Simmons and Ryan Espersen both of whom have generously shared their research with me.

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