The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson

Archive for the month “January, 2016”



By: Will Johnson

Police Constables, Jeremiah Leerdam & Clement Sorton

Respect! Police constables Clement Sorton (against the wall) and Jeremiah Leerdam on patrol. When these old timers from Saba were on patrol the town shook and you gave them the respect due to them.



Nowadays with so much talk about law and order and the police force there has been much discussion on life in these islands in former times. Anthony Weller wrote in  ‘A childhood in Nassau’ the following: “For a writer, childhood is the treasure chest; one has the rest of life to measure out by the fistful the amazing, gleaming pirate’s hoard buried many layers deep in the imagination.”

I came across an old photo of three Johnson’s in uniform who served as country constables in the Windward Islands. My intention was to write an article based on their lives. However the more I thought about it I thought it would be better to write a short history on the country constables and those from Saba who served in that function when I was a child growing up on Saba.

In Curacao and on the other islands the maintenance of internal law and order from the beginning of the colony was a task of armed civilians.

An ordinance of Jan Gales of August 31st, 1739 decreed for Curacao in article 2, among other things, that each citizen in turn would have to do evening duty patrolling the streets of the town.

Only at the start of the 19th century can it be said that a modest police-force came in to being. In 1826 a regulation for the police force was approved by the King. After various changes in the functioning of the force, in 1873 (Publication Sheet # 6) it was determined that the armed police force for all the islands would consist of a brigade  is of Mr. Roelf Westers (born Martinshoek on October 11th, 1866) who was married to my great – aunt Sarah Ellen Johnson. She was born on October 6th, 1871. She died in Wittem (South Limburg) on April 21st, 1962. He was a marechaussee on Saba. They had three children, one born on St.Maarten, one on St.Eustatius and one on Curacao. Henry the one born on St.Maarten had twelve children so that I have a whole set of red head cousins in Groningen. If you come across a Westers and he or she is from Groningen you can tell them that their cousin Will sends greetings.

There were other marechaussees who married Saban women. The Jonkhout family on Curacao and other families trace their ancestry back to Saba via the marechaussees. Mr. Eert Sloterdijk was a country constable and also produced a large Saban family.

Some of the natives who served as country constables on Saba but also in the other Windward Islands were:


Constable Clement Sorton ringing the bell on the hour to give the people of the town the time of day.

Clement Sydney Oliver Sorton , born September 2nd, 1907. In ‘Saba Silhouettes’ by Dr. Julia Crane there is a long interview with Clement on his life on Saba. His sons Sydney and Rudolph followed in his footsteps and Sydney eventually became Lt. Governor of Saba. Clement joined the police force when the old country constables were abolished.

Jeremiah Warboef Leerdam, born June 20th, 1911.

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Constable Jeremiah Leerdam here at Windward Side on his horse. The constables had horses and men to take care of them do messages and so on.

He served on Saba and then was transferred to St.Maarten. He was a well known photographer. He is the uncle of Mr. Max Nicholson and his sister Carmen Simmons born Nicholson. He died in a tragic accident on Cole Bay Hill. His colleagues on Saba were always upset that because of political reasons they felt he had been transferred to  St.Maarten. He was married to Amy Hassell and has a son by his marriage residing on Curacao. But being a field man in uniform and with a camera to booth a number of people in the islands will tell you that ‘Leerdam from Saba is me father.’

Osmar Ralph Simmons born October 24th, 1922 joined the Police force as a young man, and like the others worked on St.Maarten for some years. He spent most of his career on Saba though and eventually was Police Commander here. He had a large family. His wife is the well known Mrs. Carmen Simmons. His children are making a name for themselves as well. He passed away some years ago and remained active in Saban society until he took in ill and died.

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Some of the constables entered the Netherlands Antilles police force such as Major Osmar R. Simmons.

Lucius Bernard Halley, was born September 30th, 1907. He was from Simpsons bay and was married to Sydney Dowling of St.John’s. They had 12 children and produced an important Antillean family. Halley owned the home in The Bottom where Philipsburg Utilities used to be. He bought it from my uncle Capt. Reuben Simmons. When he died his family moved to Curacao and the property was sold to Senator Claude Wathey whose children still own it.


Chief Constable Bernard Halley on his horse on patrol and headed to Windward Side.

Richard Austin Johnson was born October 16th, 1908 and died April 19th, 1990. As a young man he served as one of the two local councilors. He was an only child and his wife as well, something unusual for Saba at the time where large families were the norm.

Their four children are all staunch Roman Catholics and can be seen every Sunday in church. Austin was moved twice to St.Eustatius for political reasons. He loved to read. He told me that when he was on Statia the last time in the nineteen fifties he read every book in the library. The day he read the last book when he returned to the Fort the Administrator called out to him and told him the good news that a telegram had arrived giving permission for him to return to Saba and to his family.

Richard Austin Johnson

Constable Richard Austin Johnson, later also a policeman. Was transferred to Statia because he ventured a small political opinion. Nowadays we all know or have felt the  police presence in our local politics.

Harry Luke, Johnson was born November 19th, 1913. He had a terrible youth. His father was lost off Cape Hatteras on a four master schooner the ‘Benjamin F. Poole’ which was lost January 19th, 1914. His mother died of cancer when he was four. He and his three brothers were raised by an old aunt who was dirt poor and who died when he was eleven. At the age of 13 he went on a 100ft schooner from Saba the “Maisie Hassell” on which he sailed for 8 months between Barbados, Guyana and so on. At the age of 18 he went to Bermuda and married there to Doris Every also from Saba and his first two children were born there. He returned to Saba and became a police constable. He was an artist at heart. He built model boats, painted and wrote poetry. He started his own museum. Just before he died I promised him that I would start a museum to carry on his work. The Harry L. Johnson museum is a proud legacy of his work. Of all the things I have done for Saba I am most proud of having been able to acquire this lovely property for the people of Saba.


Harry L. Johnson walking down the steps from the old Police Station. Sitting above are Freddy Jones on the right and Hubert Zagers on the left. They did an assortment of jobs for the constables. They took care of the horses, ran messages between the villages and accompanied lone  constables on patrol.

Arthur Harold, Johnson, was born on April 12th, 1906.

As a young man he went to New York and sailed out from there for some years. He returned to Saba, started working for the Post office and later became a constable. He did not join the Police Force as the Dutch language was required and he did not feel up to it. He was a life long bachelor and worked for Public Works. He died in his nineties.

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People liked their constables back then. Here Harold Johnson sitting for a Sunday morning chat with Algernon Hassell, standing and Carl Hassell seated.

Lester Peterson.

One tough Police officer. As boys we knew to clear the road when Lester was on patrol. He had a large family and when threatened with a transfer to Curacao he decided to leave the force and join Public Works. He was a good foreman and many roads were built under his supervision. His sons Harris, Eddie, George, Wayne and Ray are all active in the Windward Islands.

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Before you ventured out on the street to play marbles or spin tops you would first find out if constable Lester Peterson was on duty. However he seemed to always be on duty. Here he is in his civilian clothes helping Harry Johnson leading a parade of the Anglican church.

Many old timers remember with pride the days when the force consisted of Saba policemen. Halley the Chief Constable though from Simpsonbay, was considered by all to be a Saban. (The same goes for the merchant Joe Vlaun). Later on Major Osmar Ralph Simmons headed the force for many years. Clement Sorton was a no-nonsense constable. Whereas Lester Peterson kept the Windwardside calm, Sorton was the man of The Bottom. He was a big man and when he was on patrol the town literally trembled.

Finally, to my old aunt. Her daughter who was a Roman Catholic nun told me that her mother never spoke Dutch. She said the Dutch government had treated Saba badly. For those times she was right. Things have changed. Now we are going in to a new relationship with the Dutch. Perhaps the constables can be brought back in to play. Many of the young people who would want to join the force have a problem with the police training being all in Dutch. In any event Saba can be proud of those who served us as Constables in the past. *** This article was written several years ago. Sadly the Dutch have made absolutely no effort to involve Sabans either in the Police Force or as Customs Officer and they make so many foolish rules that ones gets the impression that they are trying to root out a traditional English speaking people. In the beginning of the last century many people left Saba to live on Barbados because the Dutch introduced their language as the language of instruction. It would seem that they have plans to do this again.


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A short voyage to remember

By Will Johnson


Selfie of the famous photographer Willem van de Poll who made many wonderful photographs of the islands of the Netherlands Antilles.

I was a bit confused as how to introduce this article. It is a tribute to the famous photographer Willem van de Poll. However in the past I have written so much about the government owned schooner the “Blue Peter” that I thought it would be good to read about Mr. van de Poll’s trip on her and to see some of the excellent photographs he made while visiting the islands. He was preparing for the publication of his book; The Netherlands Antilles (The islands and their people) published in 1951.  He was born in Amsterdam on April 13th, 1895 and passed away on December 10th, 1970.

He was an independent Dutch photographer who belonged to the most important of his generation. He followed a course in photography in Vienna in 1917 and worked as an independent photographer in Europe, the Middle East, Indonesia and the Antilles.

He was here in the Windward Islands around 1950 and describes his visit to Saba from St. Maarten.

038 - Saba-1956-58 - Blue Peter - Ready to sail

Looking over the railing on another trip years later are  captains John “Butchie Craane” and Matthew Levenston.

“A sailor from the” Blue Peter” has fetched me by rowing boat from the quayside at De Ruyter Square. Bright orange flames rising above a saddle between two hills in the range near Pointe Blanche exultantly greet the coming of a new dawn. Captain Hodge and his sailors Nasha (Jones), George and Marcel greet the few passengers for Saba and St. Eustace and busy themselves with storing the growing pile of cardboard boxes, baskets and bags. We have only women and children this time, returning from visits to families and relative on St. Martin and the neighboring French islands. The little ones, their cotton dresses starched stiff and their frizzy plaits upright and adorned with colorful ribbons, clasp mutely staring dolls in their chubby black arms and follow every movement of their highly agitated mothers with anxious eyes, as they try to suppress their travel fever with the aid of huge handkerchiefs drenched with eau-de-Cologne. When, after counting the luggage ten times and a lot of running backwards and forwards, everything seems to be in order, the whole female company disappears via a highly perilous flight of steps into the dark, dank deckhouse that harbours them until journey’s end.

In the meantime Hodge and his men have weighed anchor and the “Blue Peter” turns seaward. It is a nice 36-ton vessel of the common Caribbean yawl-type, and its great white sails billow out in the fresh morning breeze as we set off.

A few years ago the Antilles Government bought it from an American tourist visiting Curacao, and since then the slender silhouette of the “Blue Peter” has become a regular sight on its weekly trip along the Windward Islands. Captain Hodge, his fine, sunburnt head under his inseparable sun helmet, is a perfect type of the almost legendary figure of the sailing skipper, doomed to extinction. Not a single length of faulty coiled rope escapes his attention. Now and again, when necessary, he directs his men with a few words. Soon after departure there is plenty to do aboard a sailing ship. Once at sea, there is a good wind blowing and with well-filled sails we make good speed. Nasha has his hands full with the helm, for here, near the shore, the square-rolling surf breakers try over and over again to push the “Blue Peter” a few points off course. But after another half hour we are in smooth water and cutting sharply through the green-blue swell. Even the flying fishes seem to take pleasure in it and shoals of them keep fliting about us, disappearing abruptly in the white top of a roller.

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Passengers on board of the Blue Peter.

We have about five hours in front of us and, since there is nothing much more to polish or arrange, George settles down at the stern with a fishing line. With great care he baits each one of the hooks attached at regular intervals and then bit by bit the whole lot goes overboard. He does not need a float, for his practiced hands, paying out and pulling in, feel exactly what’s going on down below. After half an hour or so, just as I am beginning to believe that the fishes are on holiday, I see him pulling in the line in long strokes. There seems no end to it, but with a wink George signals me “All O.K.”. Well, let’s have it. He has to get up, so I expect something more than a tiny bream or sprat from a Dutch canal. Marcel, reclining leisurely on the foredeck up till, comes aft to give a hand. How long that line is!


George showing off one of the fish which he caught.

But finally there is a lot of furious motion in the water and at long last first a piece of back, then a head and then again a piece of tail appear in the swirling foam. Before pulling a heavy one like that on board the boys want to tire him out as much as possible, because a bite from such a big mouth or a stroke from that strong tail gets you before you can count three. After a quarter of an hour the slimy mass almost seems to jump aboard by itself, but then the fun only starts, for our latest arrival is as lively as any fish could be. With a thumping lurch he shoots under the deckchair I vacated only a few seconds ago to have a look at the proceedings. The next moment fish and chair land together in the gutter along the rails. Fortunately the line stands the strain and for the time being George and Marcel can do little else but keep it as short as possible and right down on the deck with their feet. More or less safe in the deck house entrance, I am just waiting for the moment that the monster, still beating and furiously with head and tail, will jump over the wheel on top of frightened Nasha.


George getting his fishing line ready as the boat leaves St. Maarten.


By now Marcel has executed an enveloping moment and he approaches the battle area from the other side armed with a great steel splice nail. Just as in bullfighting the show now enters a new phase and it falls to Marcel to deliver, at the right moment, an effective knock on the head and so put the ever coiling fish out of action. A pity that there are so few spectators! In his first attempt Marcel lands a heavy blow…right into the deck, since the monster obligingly has just moved over to the other side. The second one comes nearer, but lands just “under the belt” as boxers call it and in fishes that place seems to be very elastic and not so vulnerable. George, anxious to begin on his second fish, shouts directions, but Marcel is now as tired as the fish and so the score is 1-1. But there is one difference: the fish is at the end of the line which George cautiously starts to pull in. Then, rather unexpectedly, comes the end with one well-aimed blow right on the fish cranium. The repulsive mouth, showing several rows of formidable barbed hook teeth, falls open even more and so, stretched out on the deck, the monster seems even bigger than I had thought. The total length comes to over five feet and I quite believe the boys when they tell me that the strength of that tail may well break an arm or a leg. As is customary with the hunters and fishermen in these regions, as soon as the catch is landed a lively discussion starts when someone asks the name of the fish. The names locally used have little or no connection with the scientific ones and I don’t see why they should; after all, do the boys in our own home town care about that? In the end most votes are cast in favor of “Albeco”, but I cannot guarantee that. Possibly it is derived from “Albicore”, the name of a rather common type of Caribbean fish. While fishing and talking fish in general, Captain Hodge gave me some details which I might mention here. The local fishermen hereabouts know that certain kinds of fish caught in the waters round these islands are poisonous during certain periods. Some say this is so especially in the hurricane season, others think the mating and breeding period to be the critical time. Apart from the possibility of these two periods coinciding the mating time specialists contend that they have an additional explanation in the fact that during mating the fish migrate and are obliged to adapt themselves to a different diet. Thus, should they have to eat certain poisonous seaweeds, their own organs produce an antidote which in turn is also a poison. Fish caught during that period would seem to be poisonous to human beings. And then there are, of course, certain kinds of fish that are always poisonous, which in 1922 cause the St. Eustace Government to forbid the sale of certain specified types. Further it is interesting to note that these native fishermen know and use certain antidotes of their own making, such as an extract of white cedar flowers mixed with gin, an alcohol mixture mainly of gin and potato juice, as well as the more generally used antidote of milk and charcoal.


Captain Austin Hodge scanning Saba in the distance.

In the meantime George is feeling his line again for the next catch and we are approaching the volcano-like silhouette of Saba. We pass along the completely inhospitable north coast and must sail on westward to reach the only suitable landing site on the southern shore, Fort Bay. At a distance a greyish mass of solid rock, from nearer by the island shows more line and colour and detail in the bright sunshine. There is more green than one would have thought at first, but still the main complexion of the mountain face varies little between dark reddish brown and purple-blue, broken by the black of vertical fissures and deep ravines reaching down to sea level. There is practically nothing to be seen of any sign of human habitation; only far high up to the left the tiny white spots of a few houses seem to hand – heaven knows how –against the steep rocky slopes. A little further on we pass the old landing site with the apt name of Ladder Bay from where an almost vertical flight of stairs climbs some 700 feet up the stone wall.


Captain Austin Hodge checking a fish. This is not the five foot one for sure. 

At Fort Bay, the official landing place used nowadays, we find a narrow, sloping stone-strewn beach with a zigzag path leading up to a concrete platform. Against the rocks stands a small building for the performance of police and customs formalities, if any. On the beach a few rowing boats lie on their side and thre is some movement of people who all have something or other to do with the arrival of the “Blue Peter”, always a noteworthy event.


Saba coming into view as the sailors look  on.

Already Captain Hodge has had the sails lowered and for a while the deck is covered by the bubbling white cloth. George and Marcel jump about like cats with a ball of knitting wool, gathering up the floundering sails by the armful. We continue under a bulging foresail until some 200 yards off shore and then, on a signal from Captain Hodge, Nasha shifts the helm right over. At the same moment the “Blue Peter” obediently turns off, the anchor rolls out and “That’s that”, says Hodge, scratching his head approvingly. Disembarkation can start!


Nasha Jones leaving the wheel behind to check that everything is going smooth with the anchorage at Fort Bay.

In the meantime a small dinghy has been launched from the beach and two dark-skinned Sabans take up the fight against the very choppy surf. Just leave it to them, they can manage, these Sabans who have earned a high reputation for seamanship the world over and are gladly engaged by merchant ships. First the mail goes ashore and then follow the women and children. That gives me an excellent opportunity of watching the manoeuvres of the oarsmen, full-muscled fllows who throw the whole weight of their heavy strong bodies on the oars. Their tactics remind me of the methods employed by the Surinam Bush negroes negotiating swollen currents with dangerous rapids and falls; here I see that same unequalled instinct, the same acrobatic skill. Of course, once in a while a trip miscarries. The unlucky grown-ups get over it with a drenching and some abrasions, but with women and children on board it is a different matter and I feel really relieved when I see the last breakers push the boat with one heave safely up the beach. But then, there is no choice, since there is no other way of getting ashore at Saba!

After saying farewell for a time to Captain Hodge and his men, I, too, finally reach the safety of the shore together with my cameras and the rest of my luggage.”


Unloading the “Blue Peter”. On deck Fred “Dadda” Hassell my English Quarter neighbor, taking the Package in the boat Isaac Hassell (father of engineer Hilton Hassell) and in the back of the boat John Wilson of St. John’s.





So many times as a teenager I have made this same trip and on the “Blue Peter” mostly than I can identify with this story and it brings back fond memories of those days.







Road from Fort Bay


Transportation by donkey down the old step road leading to the Fort Bay.

I would like to give a mainly history in a series of photo’s on the building of the road on Saba. For generations Sabans climbed the slopes of the mountain to get up to the main village. As more and more Sabans visited the United States on schooners from Saba they experienced the transition from the horse and buggy era into the motorized world of the rising power the United States. There were a number of prominent people among the Simmons’ family and others at the start of the twentieth century who felt that better could be done. They questioned if it was not possible to build a decent harbour and others wanted to know why Saba could not have a dream one day of having roads on which motor vehicles could be driven.


Construction of the S-curve. Designed by the Department of Public Works on Curacao.

As with so many other aspects of the history of our little island many fanciful stories were and still are being written which have no real basis in truth. And so it is with the road. Mr. Errol Hassell who was a local councillor in the ninteen thirties is the man who made it possible to get funding to start this road. He had lived and worked in New York like so many other Sabans at the time. He had seen the changes in New York  when motor vehicles took over from the horse and buggy period and the rapid progress taking place in that place.

Erroll Hassells besides grandfathers grave

Local Councillor Errol Hassell cleaning up the Saba Cabbage’s next to his grandfather’s grave.

The other group who deserve a lot of credit for the road  were the men from the village of Hell’s Gate. For them it was a mission to get the road to their village which was at the end of the line. They received extremely small wages and worked hard and without any mechanized help to build most of the main road.


Here is the proof of Erroll Hassell’s involvement with making the road possible. Rudolph Johnson found this engraving on the way to the Fort Bay with the name of Erroll and dated July 1938. Proof that he was rightfully proud of his contribution to make the first part of the road possible.

While it is said that there was no help, the first part of the road from the Fort Bay to The Bottom was engineered by the Department of Public Works on Curacao. I once saw the plans and they should have been in the government archives, but between hurricanes and different people making decisions on what should be kept and what should end up on the dump many documents valuable to the history of our island have been lost. But trust me I did not dream this up.


This is how it was for a couple of centuries. Porters had to head everything up the step road  to the villages up in the mountain.

Mr. Josephus Lambert Hassell was living on Aruba at the time and came to his native Saba after that portion of the road had been built. Giving credit where it is due he engineered the road from The Bottom to Flat Point and a number of side roads leading off the main road, like the ones to Booby Hill and the Rendez Vous and so on. He deserves a great deal of credit. But it was not so that any Dutchman told Sabans that a road was impossible to build. It is true though that Island Administrators, at least those who were Dutch and the Governors on Curacao tried their utmost to spend as little as possible on the islands outside of Curacao. From 1816 when the Dutch took over Saba from the English the island was left to its own resources for the most part. More than a hundred years after that event Saba had a very minimal budget most of which was brought up locally from a limited number of taxes imposed on the population

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Mr. Josephus Lambert Hassell pictured here with a tourist friend in front of the home of his brother Peter and the next house is his own home. Early nineteen seventies.

Started in 1938. First steps broken up by Thomas Hassell, Norman Hassell and James Horton Simmons all three were laborers from Hell’s Gate and were paid f 0.65 cents per day.

Road stopped for some years and restarted in December 1941. The S was designed by the Department of Public Works on Curacao.

October 16th, 1943 Road from Fort Bay to The Bottom was finished. 1150 meters long, 4 meters wide and with a height differential of /99 meters. Grading (hilling) 20%

Cost of this part of the road (Fort Bay to The Bottom) f. 33.600.—

18 March 1947 first Jeep for the Administrator arrived with the M.V. “Kralendijk”.

Gez. Bov. Eil. P.H. van Leeuwen accompanied the Jeep.

Administrator then was Max Huith.Image (12)

Driver who landed the first Jeep was Oliver Zagers of Hell’s Gate.

Two cargo boats were strapped together and a platform was placed on top of the two boats. Another row boat rowed the two boats with the Jeep on top to shore and then a rope was used to pull it in. Then two smaller ramps were placed against the boats carrying the Jeep and the driver then drove the vehicle off the boats and onto the small landing place at Fort Bay. This method of landing motor vehicles was continued all the way to November 8th, 1972 at the completion of the Capt. Leo A.I. Chance pier at Fort Bay.

In 1951 the road reached St. John’s. At that time there were three motor vehicles on the island.


Island Administrator Max Huith  on horseback inspecting the progress of the road headed to the village of St. John’s around 1949

In 1952 there were 9 motor vehicles on the island.

In 1961 there were 30 motor vehicles on the island.

In 1964 there were 46 motor vehicles on the island.

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Traditional porters bringing up luggage and also freight on their heads for centuries and then got help from donkeys imported from Statia and this continued into the nineteen fifties.

The Local Councilor Mr. Erroll Hassell of Windwardside deserves much credit for the coming about of this road. When he was a Local Councilor he objected to monies being put on the budget every year to clean the old paths between the villages. Instead he said that f.10.000.—should be put on the budget to start a motor vehicular road from the Fort Bay to The Bottom and then on from there to connect the other villages. The Act. Governor objected but was overruled by the two local councilors. For some reason that amount on the Saba budget must have escaped the attention of the Governor on Curacao and the budget was approved by the Colonial Council on Curacao. With this money a start was made on the road and this was the largest Public Works project for the next twenty five years and more. After the road was finished to The Bottom the rest of the road was engineered and laid out by Mr. Josephus Lambert Hassell who took a correspondence course in engineering.

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Here I am as Lt. Governor ad interim giving a speech on the occasion of the opening of the shopping arcade called “Lambee’s Place” in the location of his former home. I happen to also own his self made mahogany dining room table and several other items of furniture made by him.



Plaque by monument dedicated to Josephus Lambert Hassell.

William S. “Will” Johnson

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