The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson

A tribute to the work of Dr. Julia G. Crane


Dr. Julia G. Crane being honoured on her birthday by friends on Saba who were her constant companions when she did her research here in 1964 and in later years.

A tribute to the work of Dr. Julia Crane.

The following article was written by my deceased cousin Carl Lester Johnson a former banker in New York. I have written about Dr. Julia Gorham Crane’s work before. This article deals with it from the perspective of what effect it had on Lester and how much her work should be really appreciated by people of Saban descent. One aspect which he was unaware of was her extensive interviews with people of Saban descent and the many photographs which she took of Saba and its people while she lived here. Those interviews led to her second book “Saba Silhouettes” which preserves much of Saba’s history from the people who were interviewed for the book.

Lester’s article was written on October 24th, 1974 and was titled “THE COUPLING LINK”.

“Who am I? Where did I come from? When did I begin? How can I know? What were my forebears?

If one were faced with all these questions at once, it would mean that one knew no heritage; consequently, lacking a complete self. A coupling to our heritage, is very important to the wholeness of one’s self; self, in turn is what we perceive ourselves to be as individuals. Not to know ourselves and the hereditary factors which shape our lives, would truly be a tragedy.

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Carl Lester Johnson best man at the wedding of his cousin Will in Brookville Long Island in 1973 doing last minute adjustments before the start of the program.


Just like ,my cousin Lester, I too at the age of twelve would at times go to the Fort Bay to bring up cargo on donkeys for the merchant Mr. Carl Hassell in Windwardside.

“Self-perception and the insights that shape our lives, come to us at the most unusual times. I clearly recall my first act of self-perception. At the time I was a young man and living on Saba. It was during World War II and no ships had called to the island for quite a while. On that particular day, a ship had come in and brought the naked necessities of life. I had made five trips from the Fort Bay to The Bottom, driving five donkeys; my sixth trip had been straight through to the Windwardside. When I was finished I sat down on the path leading to our home. Suddenly, an awareness came over me. I looked down at my hands and I became aware of myself as an individual. My extremely close relationships with friends and family stood aside and for the first time I became fully aware of Carl Lester Johnson as a person, separate and distinct from all other persons. It was at this particular moment that I determined the direction that has led to where I am today. This decision was no grand design, it was the sum product of my heritage. You see, I had been educated to emigrate. This was an existential decision. It was a good decision; a decision which was the outgrowth of my cultural heritage. The heritage so important in determining how we grow and how long we live.


Dr. Julia Gorham Crane here letting children from The Bottom hear their voices for the first time on tape.

“This awareness of the importance of my heritage, over the years, made me very conscious of the heritage of others. Because of this, I have been greatly assisted in my relationships with others. Therefore, when we have been so greatly assisted in knowing our collective selves, we must feel gratitude for that assistance. I would like what follows to be an expression of a warm feeling of kinship and gratitude for a very lovely person, whom I know, but I have never met.

The first time I read ‘EDUCATED TO EMIGRATE” by Julia G. Crane, I did so without a predisposition to the acceptance of what I was about to read. I had never read anything about Saba, by a non-Saban which had ever been very objective. Although, much that was written was always done with kindness and understanding; as an Island Culture, we were always treated as curiosities. When faced with the results of a thorough intellectual process, the product of a great effort and a work of love; although I had pre consciously hoped for it, I just could not consciously accept its existence.

“Time flies and three years have passed since my last reading. Like everything else, we too undergo changes, constantly. Because of change and a period of introspection –” a fork in the road”-

I was again drawn to the book. As I read it and contemplated its bibliography, I could not help to ask myself, “What had brought a young woman from the heart of the continent to perform such a labor of love for a microcosm, our little world, our Saba.

Dorothy Palmer

Lester before he got married left his banking job in New York to follow a life at sea in the footpaths of his father and his other ancestors. He had a serious accident and after that he returned to banking. As someone on Saba gave as reasons for working in the Post office “You ever hear of anyone drowning in the Post office?” Nor in a bank I might add.

Many times throughout many years in an alien environment, in order to make adjustments, I have had to review the harshness of my beginnings to reassure myself that I possessed the inner strength to deal with the complexities of the constant mechanization and dehumanization of my adopted land. These are bad times for all of us and when we face reality, we must admit that the road ahead is not an easy one. Therefore, when our eyes pass over the words and we realize that ours was a heritage of hard times, we became aware that within us there is that ‘Hard part of the Rock’ which is the equal of present hard times. Then we know that we will overcome. So, to be reminded of this solidness in our nature, is to fortify our strength and it is for this that we are grateful.

“I am sure, a people who can stand at the monumental of their forebears which go back ten and more generations, have no doubts about their heritage. Most of it had come down by “word of mouth”; the rest was spread over many islands and several continents. To have it coupled together by the links of intellectual endeavor is the keystone that will bridge the banks of the past to the shores of the future. For this reason, we, as Sabans, cannot afford to ignore ‘EDUCATED TO EMIGRATE”. It is the ‘Coupling Link’ in the chain to the anchor of our heritage.

Educated to Emigrate, is the first meaningful, scholastic effort devoted to us as a people. It inscribes us in the journals of history. So that we not forget or appear ungrateful, I ask my fellow Sabans to join with me in a move to name a school or library on Saba for ‘JULIA G.CRANE” who forged the coupling link. She is our intellectual benefactor. The memories of her, should not dim with the yellowing pages of her wonderful work.

I, regardless of what others do, will always turn to it. If I should become lost and cry, as in my youth, I would want the warm tears on my cheek to remind me that I must, over and over, travel the happy paths of my youth.”

My cousin did travel quite a few paths in his youth. He also lived on St. Maarten while going to school there. He was born on November 30th, 1925 on Saba and in the nineteen thirties he lived on St. Maarten on the Cyrus Wathey square in a house owned by the Nadal family which my aunt Alice Johnson-Simmons used to rent. It was later the home of Norman Chester Wathey. Lester told me many stories of the people he knew there as a teenager from the leading families at the time. The Van Romondts and so on. He had loving memories of those days spent there. Before he left for the United States he also worked in the Post Office on Saba for a while. He once told me that at a certain point all foreign monies had to be turned in to government and exchanged for gulders. He said that you would be surprised as to the amount of gold doubloons which were turned in by some of the poorest families on the island descendants of the former pirates. Once in New York he gave me an old bank book to check on for him. It was from when he worked in the Post Office and had about ten guilders left on it. I made a case to the Post Office on Curacao and with interest over the years the bankbook had accumulated to over five hundred guilders.

When I started the Saba Herald in 1968 Lester would contribute articles from time to time and they were very interesting. Like many Saba men who immigrated to the United States they married women from Saba or who had Saba ancestors. His wife was Louise Johnson of Richmond Hill. Her mother was a Holm a sister of Cecile and her father was a brother of “Miss Nora” Every born Johnson. He visited Saba with her on at least one occasion.

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When Lester lived on St. Maartin he lived in the house on the right which then belonged to the Nadal family. This would have been the scene he would have grown accustomed to in the nineteen thirties.

He went into banking. I think it was the First National City Bank and he was a Manager of one of the branches out on Long Island. I remember visiting him once at this office and was quite impressed.  Before he married he went through a midlife crisis and decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and follow the familiar path to the sea like all his Saban male ancestors. This only lasted a few years and he had a serious accident on one of the ships. After his recovery he decided to go back into banking and to settle down with a wife and family. He was a man who could do anything. I remembering visiting his home in Richmond Hill and he showing me all the carpenter work he was doing in his home, and like the Sabans back home he was getting help with the electricity installation from his cousin Percy Johnson and Merrill Hassell the Saban painting contractor probably helped along with the painting of his house. There were hundreds of Sabans living there at the time. When I would visit there they somehow thought that I was missing home cooking and when I got invited to someone’s home there was always a “Saba Pot”. My cousin Bessy Richter (sister of Lester) who is 92 and sharp as a tack told me many stories about life in Richmond Hill. Both parents lived to be 99 years of age. She told me when she moved to that place, everywhere she called and told them that she was looking for work and was a Johnson from the West Indies, no jobs  to be had anywhere. Then someone told her;” Mind these people don’t know there are white people in the West Indies so you better go in person. The first place she went to they hired her on the spot. They later admitted that with her name and accent they thought she was black and they were not hiring blacks. So you see how it was back then. One story I cannot forget is that once she wanted to make a Saba Pot so she went to Jamaica (Long Island) to a butcher there. She told the lady at the counter that she wanted to buy a pig head. The lady at the counter told the butcher that there was a white woman who wanted to buy a pig head. The butcher was from Barbados and he came out to find out if the lady at the counter had heard correctly. He told my cousin that he had been a butcher at that location for more than forty years and he never expected that a white woman would come to buy a pig head. Being from Barbados he had heard about Saba and the older heads on Saba have a Barbados accent so he had a good laugh and did not need to be convinced why she needed a pig head. For added measure he probably threw in some pig tails, and feet as well.

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Visiting with his first cousins on Saba from left to right: Freddie, Eric, Guy, Will and Lester Johnson late nineteen seventies.

Lester died in May 2008 in New York and is buried there.  I will end this story with some advice he gave to our Saba people in an article he wrote for the Saba Herald. This advice is still relevant today;

“No man will ever lay his finger on the robes of his maker, if he does not accept responsibility for himself. Personal responsibility, is our greatest duty to ourselves and we exercise this responsibility, by making sure that we get what is coming to us; which is, a good education, followed by the right to not allow others to carry our burdens.

“Sir Bertrand Russell, a great British scholar wrote; “The pathways to the pinnacles of success are paved with the gravestones of past despairs.”

Be not discouraged, start the journey —right here and now—-so that someday we will be on the pathway of success together and pass by the sepulchers of man’s enemies. Yes, now is a good time to start.”


Dr. Julia Crane being honoured on her birthday. While doing research she made many friends on Saba.

Will Johnson

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