The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson

David Lionel Henry Donker

David Lionel Henry Donker

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The right Honorable David Lionel Henry Donker, father of among others Nurse Lizzy Hassell-Donker. He is also the uncle of Mrs. Carmen Simmons-Nicholson and her deceased brother the Hon. Max Nicholson former State Secretary, Commissioner etc. Mr. David was full of stories of his days as a young boy growing up on the island of St. Eustatius. When he passed away the family asked me to do the eulogy. He and I became great friends in his last years.

By: Will Johnson

In October 1984 after some years on Curacao he returned to Saba and I wrote about him at the time. Subsequent to that and until I did his eulogy on March 12th, 1997 in this article, I will follow up on his life story.

I wrote in 1984: “Now that he is back on Saba, we were finally able to catch up with him for an interview. Just two nights before he had put on a performance for Christian Action week in The Bottom, and many, especially the younger people, were quite surprised at the talent of Mr. David Lionel Henry Donker, also known fondly as the old “Shoe Doctor”.

He was born on Saba on April 21st, 1905. His mother was Adelaide Donker of Saba and his father was Jeremiah Leerdam of St.Eustatius. As a young man his father had joined the Dutch navy, along with five other boys from St.Eustatius. The others only stayed for six years, but Jeremiah worked as a cook for 22 years and 9 months. He worked on the Man-of-Wars H.M.S. “Tromp”, “Sumatra”, “Van Speijk”, “Brommel” and “Queen Emma”. He retired because of illness. He served in Surinam but also in the East Indian islands of Sumatra, Java and Celebes. Jeremiah Sr. also left a son behind on Java and Mr. David had contact with him in former years.

David’s brother the late Jeremiah Leerdam who died in a traffic accident while working as a policeman on St.Maarten in the nineteen fifties was named after his father.

Jeremiah Sr. died in 1927 at the age of 71. His father George Henson lived to be 108 years and four months, and George’s father poor fellow, he died young, he only made it to 104.

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Mr. David was a frequent traveler among the islands, by schooner and other means of transportation. He told me that once he went on one of those large four masted schooners with Saba Captains carrying asphalt from Trinidad to the United States. They were all from the old white families of the Bottom and one of them gave him a “lift” with the schooner to the States and back to Saba.

David remembers his grandfather George Henson well. David was 9 years old when he died. He says of his grandfather: “He never smoked, never drank, never take up night dew, and was to his full senses even while dying, he was humming a Methodist hymn along with the Minister.”

He lived in what is known as the “North” on St.Eustatius. As a young boy David lived between Saba and St.Eustatius. He had three brothers and two sisters, but his father had 16 brothers and 7 sisters. George Henson must have carried an umbrella around, as with 23 children by different women he was bound to “take up a bit of night dew”.

In the days of David’s youth the people of St.Eustatius were moving out to Bermuda, the United States, Curacao and then to Aruba. The old Statia families were replaced mainly by people from St.Kitts and the other former British colonies.

Mr. David started out in school here on Saba under the nuns Sister Euphresine and sister Georgine. On St. Eustatius he continued under Sister Vitalis. These were all Dutch nuns. Sister Vitalis died in the diphtheria epidemic which struck Statia in 1915. On the day she died four other people died. A total of 108 people died. Dr. Fernandez was the physician there at the time. David says he remembers vividly that the bells were tolling every morning, and funerals had become commonplace. The population of Statia then was 1431. His sister Polly Geraldine (mother of Mr. Max Nicholson and Mrs. Carmen Simmons born Nicholson) was afflicted with the disease but she was among the lucky few who survived.

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On the 25th anniversary of the WIPM party Mr. David was honored by the party for his contribution to the first Island elections on Saba. He was not a member of my party, just a good friend.

David left school at the age of 11 as was customary in those days. We must say he left school in body but not in spirit. At heart Mr. David is still a schoolboy and can recite in perfect Dutch and pull out of the top of his hat, the verses and poems taught to him by the Dutch nuns so long ago. He can even remember by heart some of the Dutch speeches made during the Second World War.

The trade, for which he later became widely known, namely that of shoemaker, was acquired at the age of 13. He learned the trade in three months from a Mr. James Henry of Goodwill, Dominica. Mr. Henry had come to St.Eustatius on a boat, but it got destroyed and it remained on the island. David says that he worked along with Mr. Henry even after he fully mastered the trade, and even though he did not get paid one cent. He did this at the insistence of his mother who kept reminding him that one day he would be a man and would need some kind of trade.

After that he learned carpentry with Mr. Milton Timber and also did some farming while he remained on Statia. He then moved to Saba, and lived in the Pfaffhauser house at the Gap which he rented from Capt. Gilbert Simmons, who used to own the home across the street from it which now belongs to the family of Mr. Nederville Heyliger.

David got married at the age of 22. His wife Florestine Simmons was the daughter of Caroline Ellory Simmons and Hamilton Simmons. They had 6 children (5 sons and 1 daughter).

The daughter, better known to all as “Nurse Lizzie”, is Mrs. Elizabeth Hassell. She said that her father was proud to be a shoemaker. He was also proud of his five sons. They would help to deliver shoes all over the island. And when she was a little girl he would carry her on his shoulder when he was visiting his customers. As a young man he used to play the guitar and he loved to sing.

Capt. Lockland Heyliger's schooner

The schooner E.Starr Jones with Captain Lockland Heyliger of Saba with which Mr. David caught a “lift” to New York and back. This and other schooners would transport asphalt from Trinidad to the United States and the Saba captains would make stops at Saba to pick up new crew members and to visit their families here.

After he got married he went to Curacao to look for different work for a change. He went with the schooner the “Three Sisters” and remained on Curacao for three years. He sailed for a time on the Red D. Line on the steamship “Carabobo” with Capt. Morris. This ship carried freight and passengers. He also sailed with Capt. Evan Simmons of The Bottom. The ship was caught in a gale in the Gulf Stream off Cape Hatteras, and it was a terrifying experience. The ship used to run between New York, Puerto Rico, Curacao and Venezuela and then back again via the same ports. He also remembers going to New York on the lovely four master schooner the “East Star Jones” with Captain Lockland Heyliger of The Bottom. The schooner would transport asphalt from Trinidad to New York and the Captain would stop in at Saba to see his family. He would take friends from Saba to New York where they could shop and on the way back to Trinidad he would drop them back off here.

After his years at sea David then returned to Saba, and made his living and raised his children from shoemaking. He also farmed a little around The Bottom. Only occasionally he traveled out to St.Maarten and St.Kitts to get leather. He would consider doing shoes again, but there is no way he can get the correct leather for half-soling shoes.

When the islands were granted autonomy Mr. David entered politics. As a boy I remember him coming to the house campaigning. I can hear him now telling my mother;” Now Miss Alma, your husband Johnson is a good mason, but ignorant of politics. Let your Dava explain you how the situation is.” And he would go into a long and complicated defense of his views on the politics of the island back then. My mother was not impressed with his oratorical skills. She would say:’ I don’t care what they say I am voting for Matthew (Levenstone), he can get things done and my sons need jobs.” But Mr. Dava never gave up and kept going from house to house giving his version of the “situation” on Saba.

In the 1951 elections three political parties took part in the elections on Saba. Mr. Donker was the number 2 candidate on the blue list (D.P.). He received 84 votes which were the most votes of any candidate on Saba at the time. By comparison these are some of the candidates who took part in the elections and the number of votes they received. Kenneth Peterson 81, Herman Hassell 45, Lamber Hassell 35, Rupert Sorton 23, Matthew Levenstone 12.

In the 1955 elections Mr. David Donker was the number one candidate on the red list (D.P.) which party had changed its colors and he received 54 votes. The role had reversed by then, and Mr. Donker because he was not elected as deputy the first time fell back to number three vote getter. He took part in the 1959 elections on the N.V.P. list as the number 2 candidate. By that time the D.P.was firmly entrenched, and he only obtained 22 votes. After that he withdrew from active politics, and gave his support to his nephew Mr. Max Nicholson, who became Commissioner between 1963 and 1971.

His wife died in 1970 in Curacao and is buried there in the church cemetery at Botelier. In 1972 Mr. David moved to Curacao and lived between there and Aruba. He is back on Saba now and we hope that he will stay around and that some of our young people will listen to him and learn how to live.

David knows all the old timers, Lt. Governors, doctors, priests, you name it. He has an excellent memory and is a master at remembering detail. He told me that the former Inspector of Education, Dr. Goslings, when he came to Saba used to always bring along two pairs of shoes to have repaired. He told David once: “A shoemaker is the smartest of all men, because when he is working on shoes, his mind is wandering all over the world.”

After listening to the old “Shoe Doctor” for awhile, you will say to yourself: “The Inspector was right.”

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On the left Island Council Member David Lionel Henry Donker in the greeting line for HRH Princess Beatrix then Crown Princess of The Netherlands on her visit to Saba in 1955. Since then she has visited Saba many times.

If David follows in the footsteps of his grandfather and great-grandfather then he should be around with us for a long time to come. That was 1984.

On April 30th, 1993 Mr. David was granted a medal in gold in the Order of Oranje Nassau by Her Majesty Queen Beatrix. On that occasion at the home of the Lt.Governor I made a speech honoring him. He was proud that he was a shoemaker. He never told anyone that he had once been the biggest vote getter on Saba. No he would tell them that he was a “Shoemaker”.

He died on March 10th, 1997. He was nearly 92 at the time of his death. The St.Maarten Guardian in its edition of March 12th carried an article by Dave Levenstone who said: “On several occasions I had the opportunity to sit with Uncle Dave and listen to his stories of past campaigns. He was a very good friend of Mr. Chester Wathey of St.Maarten and a very strong supporter of Senator Will Johnson and his WIPM party and he will be missed by all Sabans. Uncle Dave will be remembered on Saba for his many talents and especially for the way he brought his message door to door to the people of Saba. He was never afraid to speak his mind and he would very often sing a song to his audience to get his message home,” said Mr. Levenstone.

The family asked me to do the eulogy. I reminded those present that Shakespeare in his play “Julius Caesar” referred to “A surgeon of old shoes”, and that Mr. David had followed Biblical principal in that Scripture tells us; “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might.” His hand found the repairing and half-soling of shoes as his life’s work and he labored at it mightily for seventy five years. Even though he did other things to survive he was always proud to tell you that he was a shoemaker by profession. Yes even though he ventured into other fields of endeavor he lived first and foremost by the old Latin adage” NE SUPRA CREPIDAM SUTOR IUDICARET”, which in English means “Cobbler stick to your last.”

I end this article on his life as I ended my eulogy in the “Pilgrim Holiness Church” in The Bottom:

“Mr. David was able in his last days to say farewell to his friends and family and to depart this life in the same spirit of friendship, dignity, love and religious principles as did his ancestors. To the people of Saba we say, even though he walked in humility among you, today we are laying to rest a great son of the soil.”


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