Petition of 1772
By Will Johnson
Now that the islands are once again in the hurricane season it is good to look at past hurricanes. I have a copy of the petition from Saba residents presented to the West India Company for help after one of the greatest hurricanes had devastated the West Indies. Thanks to Ryan Espersen who is doing extensive research on a project of enslaved Africans he shares with me whatever he thinks can be useful to me for my writing. One of the documents I have and which I will deal with sometime are the claims for damage by the inhabitants of St. Martin after the hurricane of 1819 which left over two hundred people dead there.
This document is interesting to those who can see that many of the surnames on Saba then no longer exist. Also the islands were in a state of slavery then and these names are those of white settlers only at that time. Also years ago I published this document in the Saba Herald and the names on the document in my book “Tales From my Grandmother’s Pipe”.
The petition does not include everyone of course and many people from Saba at that time also lived on the island of St. Eustatius from where they did business and many of them were intermarried with the merchant families of that island as well. So it is not to be looked at as a sort of census. It is merely a petition signed by some of the heads of households on Saba at the time. After the economic decline of St. Eustatius a number of these St. Eustatius/Saba families moved to Saba. Families like the Holms, the Hortons and others only came to live on Saba around eighteen hundred or slightly before.
On this petition I see a number of my ancestors, Peter Johnson, Peter Simmons, Daniel Every, Richard Hassell and interesting as spelled here Jacob Valane which later became Jacob Vlaun. He was a grandson of a Jacques Valaen mentioned in a document of 1688 on St. Eustatius in which he was one of the debtors to the West India Company. From my research he was a Courlander who came out with the Dutch to these islands. At one time the Courlanders were in possession of the island of Tobago. They originated in the Baltic, which was colonized for a long time by wealthy German and Dutch merchants under the Hanseatic League. His descendants first moved to St. Maarten while a handful moved to Saba. This particular one was the grandfather of my great grandmother Sarah Elizabeth Vlaun.
He was one of those who had to take shelter in a cave on Hell’s Gate which is known as Vlaun’s Cave and is in the cliff below the house of Mr. Robert Hassell (also one of his descendants by the way). I use this story often to irritate certain people as an example as to how long my ancestors have been in the West Indies. A certain hotelier even wrote a letter to the newspapers that I wanted to take Saba back to the days of the cavemen. He did not understand the message I was sending and eventually went his own way leaving me here to contemplate if ever the need should arrive whether or not I should choose Vlaun’s cave as my new abode, like my ancestor did.
Whoever drafted this petition had an excellent handwriting. We do not know how much effect it had but we must say that despite our cultural differences with the Dutch in recent years they have been extremely generous to us in getting our island up and running after the many hurricanes we have been experiencing.
Some explanation is in place for the following. There were a number of people with the same surname and first name so we will suffice with one name and after that a number. As you can see the names are nearly all of English origin. With that we include Scotland and Ireland. Dutch historians and officials had the tendency when they could not spell an English name to turn the name into a Dutch name. Also at the time of this petition the island was under slavery laws so the names listed here are all heads of households (men in this case) and of European descent. The Governor at the time of the Great hurricane of 1772 was Governor Peter Simmons who served from 1743 to 1778 following in the footsteps of his father Charles Simmons.
The petition reads as follows:
To the Honourable the
Directors of the West India Company, the Merchants &
Other Christian Gentlemen, & Citizens of the City of Amsterdam.
The Humble Petition of the Governour, the Council, Church and the Burghers of this island.
That whereas your petitioners have been Sufferers above the Inhabitants of all their neighbouring Islands in the West Indies, most of us lost our little all. Our houses, our clothes, our furniture, our crops, and even our Coffee trees, by the late dreadful Hurricane of the 31st of August; and being reduced to the utmost distress, not only by the want of Money, but of all of the necessary’s of Life, and means of procuring them, having 140 of our dwelling houses, out of 180 which were upon the Island, dashed to Pieces, inasmuch that Numbers of our families, even at this distance of time, are obliged to Shelter themselves from the inclemency’s of the weather under Rocks and caves of the Earth, half naked and Famishing with hunger; unable to help themselves, and others by reason of the universal nature of the calamity being unable to render them any effectual relief.
And which affects us most of all whereas, God hath been pleased, no doubt as a just punishment of our sins, to smite his own house among us and Lay it in ruins – A great labour and expense which the poor Inhabitants, could hardly bear; so that we are at present without any place of worship, & have no prospect of being able to build one for many years yet to come, unless assisted in a charitable way by our Christian Friends, whose charity may prompt them and whose Prosperous and affluent Circumstances may enable them to aid us, in what we hope they will Judge so Laudable an undertaking.— And whereas we cannot with any propriety apply for such aid to any of these islands, who are all our fellow sufferers, and many of which need charity themselves, tho’ none in the measure that we do; We have thought proper, urged by the most pressing necessities, to apply in this manner to you our European friends, who by your situation are happily Exempted from these desolating Judgements.
Humbly beseeching you to take our distressed, Ruined circumstances into mature Consideration, and to do with all convenient speed what Humanity and Christianity will dictate to you for our Relief, on so melancholy an Occasion; not only in helping us to build a House for Gods Publick Worship, but for the Relief of Numbers of families among us, which are reduced to beggary, & the most heart affecting wretchedness.
We do hereby beseech and empower our Trusty and well beloved friend, Mr. Nicholas Doekscheer Merchant in Amsterdam to receive such charities as the Christian People of Amsterdam will be pleased to give, and, our Benefactors may be assured that their Charities shall be appropriated according to their benevolent design by the Governour and Council of this Island.
What, the God who hath been pleased to make himself Debtor to the Charitable may abundantly Reward all those who are please to contribute to our relief, and Restore them an hundred fold both in the temporal and Spiritual Blessings. Your Petitioners as in duty bound Shall for ever Pray.—
B: William Baker, John Beaks, Charles Bonyea, Simeon Bonyea.
C: Joshua Carter, Peter Carter 2x, Jacob Cox, William Cox.
D. Daniel Davis
E. Anthony Every 2x, Daniel Every 2x, James Every 3x, John Every, Peter Every.
H. John Haddock, Abraham Halley 3x, James Halley, Peter Halley, George Hassell 3x, Hercules Hassell, Henry Hassell 5x,, John Hassell 3x James Hassell 8x, Peter Hassell 6x, Richard Hassell 2x, Thomas Hassell 5x.
J. Peter Johnson 2x, John Johnson 2x, Oliver Johnson
K.John Keeve, Thomas Keeve 2x, William Keeve, Edmond Kelly Sr., Edmond Kelly Jr. John Kelly 2x
.L.Charles Simmons Leverock, James Leverock 5x, Moses Leverock 3x, Richard Leverock, William Leverock 4x.
M.Peter Mardenborough, Thomas Mardenborough.
N.John Nass, Thomas Nass
P.George Peterson, James Peterson, John Peterson 4x, Peter Peterson, Richard Peterson
S.Charles Simmons 2x, James Simmons 2x, John Simmons, Joshua Simmons, Peter Simmons 5x, Thomas Simmons 2x
V. Jacob Valane, Thomas William Vaughan
W. Richard Winfield, Richard Wood.
On St. Croix young Alexander Hamilton wrote the following letter to the local paper edited by the Reverend Hugh Knox who after having served 20 years on Saba had migrated to St. Croix with his wife Mary daughter of Saba’s Governor Peter Simmons and his wife Rebecca. The letter is dated September 6th, 1772.
I take up my pen just to give you an imperfect account of the most dreadful hurricane that memory or any records whatever can trace, which happened here on the 3st ultimo at night.
It began about dusk, at North, and raged very violently till ten o’clock. Then ensued a sudden and unexpected interval which lasted about an hour. Meanwhile the rain was shifting round to the South West Point, from whence it returned with redoubled fury and continued so till near three o’clock in the morning. Good God! What horror and destruction impossible for me to describe – or you to form any idea of it. It seemed as if a total dissolution of nature was taking place. The roaring of the sea and wind –fiery meteors flying about in the air – the prodigious glare of almost perpetual lightning – the crash of falling houses – and the ear piercing shrieks of the distresses, were sufficient to strike astonishment into Angels.” The letter is too long to be quoted in full for this article, however Hamilton then only fourteen guided by the Reverend Hugh Knox and financed by the businessman Cruger was sent to the United States and went on to become one of the most important founders of the Federal Government of the United States.
An even greater hurricane struck the West Indies in 1780 on October 10th which killed more than twenty thousand people. Admiral George Rodney then patrolling the West Indies with 12 ships lost eight of them in the harbor of St. Lucia killing hundreds of sailors. Rodney later wrote: “The strongest buildings and the whole of the houses most of which were stone houses and remarkable for their solidity, gave way to the fury of the wind and were torn up to their foundations; all the forts destroyed, and many of the heavy cannon carried upwards of a hundred feet from the forts. Only two houses in all of St. Lucia remained standing.”
There were even some reports that bark was stripped from trees in some locations. Generally this only occurs if winds are in excess of 200 miles per hour.
The French fared no better, losing an estimated 40 ships and four thousand soldiers. In old documents it is stated that St. Eustatius lost five thousand people in the 1780 hurricane. However historians have reduced that number to five hundred which in itself is a large number of people to be lost in a hurricane. Saba suffered as well but not as bad as Statia.
The church lost in the 1772 hurricane had been rebuilt in stone and is still standing as the Anglican Christ Church in The Bottom.
And so we can read that here have been some wicked hurricanes in these islands and as history repeats itself more will surely come.