The Saba Photographs
The Saba Photographs
By: Will Johnson
A friend from St. Martin recently expressed her amazement as to how many photographs there are of Saba people. At the same time she said that there is nothing like that of the people of St. Martin. It would be nice to have something similar as Saba has of those Of Saban Descent.
So I thought I should record for the future a bit of history of photography as well as those from Saba and elsewhere who in photos have recorded the people and the changing scenes on Saba since photography was invented.
After 1860 when photography was new and complicated still, several entrepreneurs seeing a novelty for postcards traveled the islands in search of photographs to turn into postcards. At the same time while on island they would get extra business by people wanting to have photographs made of their families. At least those families who could afford that. And there were not many back then. So many of the photographs from before nineteen hundred are either scenes of the islands or of the more wealthy class of people.
Some people today might think that photography always existed. There are so many world class cameras today and not to mention cell phones which can also take quality photographs so easily that no wonder people believe it was always this easy.
Just for your information here is a photography time line.
Year Name Particulars
1839 Daguerreotype Louis Daguerre. A latent
Image on a prepared
Plate which could not be
After 1839 Tintype/Ferrotype Improved type based on a
Prepared plate to give an
1841 Mr. Jeremiah Leerdam (left) and Mr. Clement Sorton , here on patrol in front of the old police station in The Bottom.
As far as I can remember the first photographer I knew was the police officer Jeremiah Leerdam . He was born on Saba on Tuesday June 20th, 1911 and died in a tragic accident on St. Maarten coming over the hill in a Police Jeep. He was married to Amy Alextia Hassell of Windward side. His full name was Jeremiah Worboeff Launcelot Leerdam and his mother was Adelay Donker. His father was Jeremiah Worboeff Leerdam of St. Eustatius. Jeremiah’s father had served in the Dutch Navy in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) for many years. Before marrying at the age of 54 he had children by Adelay Donker such as the late Mr. David Lionel Henry Donker and he also had left a son behind in Indonesia.
Somehow our Jermiah in this article had developed a love of photography from an early age. As a small boy I can remember him in his police uniform or without it travelling through the villages on Saba taking photographs. His nephew the Honorable Mr. Max Nicholson told me that he had a box of his photographs in the ceiling of his home but with the loss of his roof in hurricane George in 1999 everything in his ceiling was destroyed including his uncle’s photographs. I still hope that someone in his family will have some of the photographs he took. I have one which is posted with this article. He took me on the day of my official first Holy Communion on the steps of the home of the legendary Josephus Lambert Hassell, the man who built the road which could not be built. I say official because on my birthday a year before the priest had given me communion by mistake. I was an altar boy and my teacher Miss Una Johnson who also shared a birthday with me declared it a miracle, and what a too do over that incident. Also the shoes I have on were borrowed from a neighbor whose son was scheduled for first communion a few weeks later. Under instructions to be extremely careful not to soil the shoes I fell on my way to church.
On the footpath next to Judge Herman Hassell,s house. What a commotion, but thank God my mother was able to polish away the damage to the shoes. There was another joke with John Selix Sr. from English Quarter better known as “Nix.” The men on the breadline wanted to have a photo taken with Nix for posterity. He would have none of it. One night just after the sun went down Jeremiah came along with a flash camera and took the photo. After a short while Nix got up and started for home. The men asked him why he was leaving. “Debbil in hell,” Nix said, “When you see lightning without thunder it means trouble.”
After Jeremiah there were a number of locals who tried their hand at photography, mostly for fun and a few tried it commercially for passport photos, weddings, funerals and so on.
I want to recall here my brother Walter Frederick Martinus Johnson better known as “Mijnheer” or teacher Freddie. Went to school on St. Martin and after that taught in Bernard College in San Nicolas Aruba for five years and then returned to Saba in 1956 to teach. He was always proud that he had been a teacher for more than thirty years before the class. His family has his collection of photo’s he took over the years and there should be many.
Eugenius Achilles Johnson, Government official and Administrator and Lions Governor also took a number of photos especially of activities of the Lions Club members and their many functions here on Saba and abroad. His collection is kept by the Lions Club of Saba. An effort should be made to have these collections copied. Raymond Simmons on his recent visit to the island went around scanning as many photos and slides as he could.
The teacher Thomas Frank Hassell also took photos and was quite a collector of photographs of all three Dutch Windward Islands. I have a number of his collection and cherish them very much.
The other photographer was Benjamin Ambrose Johnson. While he came into this world a midget and did not improve on his height during his lifetime he left this worldly existence a giant. When he passed away my brother Eric wrote an article on “Gilly” as he was known and highlighted the many things “Gilly” had tried in his lifetime, from keeping honeybees, to milk cows, pigs, and baking bread and having a bar, making hot pepper you name it and he tried his hand at it. He also took photos and printed his own photos and made postcards.
The other one was Mr. Carl Mervin Hassell a government official who in his spare time did photography as a hobby and also if I remember correctly developed his own photos. I am sure that some of his photographs survive with members of his family.
Also we cannot forget those who came here to teach and to do research. In the nineteen fifties from 1956 through 1958 the Public School teacher Mr. H.L. van Scheepen took many photos of Saba and its people. He told me that he was one of the few people with a camera on the island and the government kept calling on him to take photos of visiting dignitaries. He returned to Saba in 2013 to see former pupils and together with his son they took a large number of photos once again with better equipment than he had in the fifties.
Another great contribution to the history of photography of Saba’s people was done by Dr. Julia Crane and who was assisted by some students who were helping her out. Her research for her two books “Educated to Emigrate” and “Saba Silhouettes” and her long stay on Saba in 1964 followed up by other visits gave her the opportunity to make many photos of people of Saba especially. And so thanks to her I have a couple of hundred photos which I regularly share on Facebook to the joy of the families of those who appear in these photos.
There were also government photographers on Curacao and in Holland who traveled along with members of the Dutch Royal family. They too took a number of photos which are now in Dutch archives. One who comes to mind is Willem van der Pol who visited here in 1948 or so and took many nice photos of people. In his archive we find photos of many of the old time colorful characters in their day who are now long gone.
I cannot forget Administrator Max Huith who was also an avid photographer and in the late nineteen forties would have many people assembled in large groups for a picture taking session at the home of the Administrator.
I have tried my best to identify as many people as possible who made it possible to have so many photos of Saba available to the people of today. And now that everyone is a photographer thanks to the cell phones and modern camera’s people like Ms. Voltaire Simmons, niece of the well-known Jeremiah Leerdam have brought us full circle and there will be no lack of excellent photographs in future of events taking place on Saba in recent years.