With Zimmerman on vacation in St. Eustatius (1792)
By; Will Johnson
Without knowledge of the Dutch language many researchers are not privileged to a wealth of information about our islands in the Dutch archives. Such a letter is printed in the second volume of the West Indische Gids, 1919 II, pages 144-150, with an introduction by Dr. J. de Hullu, who was Archivist of the Algemeen Rijksarchief in The Hague.
This was translated into English by Mr. Siegfried Lampe. Zimmerman the elder (as he signs himself) was a young man from the mercantile class, who was sent to St. Eustatius and who took up his pen to tell one of his friends in the Fatherland what had happened to him in the four weeks he was there. Space will only allow a few choice quotes from the letter but there is much more to it.
His first impression of the land and the people, as it appears from his letter, was favorable. The only objectionable part is like some men today who think that their wives love to be beaten up; he too was of the opinion of the day that the same applied for slaves. Other than that his long letter gives a very good impression of life on St .Eustatius in 1792. He found the heat burdensome and the mosquitoes a nuisance, but for the rest his new home pleased him greatly. “I am very lucky here he wrote. What particularly struck him about St. Eustatius was the free and easy atmosphere that prevailed there, the liberal pace of life that made him always a welcome guest at the parties to which the inhabitants gave themselves up so lustily. From this it appeared that in a manner of speaking he didn’t have eyes enough to look at all the strange and note-worthy that the island had to offer. Nature, climate, the way of life of the people, especially of the mulattos and the blacks, all awoke his interest and made him take up his writing tools to sketch the variegated scene for his friend. A lucky chance provided that his letter would not be lost. The unknown friend to whom it was addressed apparently considered it interesting enough that he provided a copy for the Pensioner Van de Spiegel, and the latter in turn found it too interesting not to give it a place among his papers, which, as is well known, have rested in the Algemeen Rijksarchief since 1895.
That Zimmerman’s letter deserved the honor no one who reads it can deny, it provides an appendix to the history of St. Eustatius of a sort that is unrepresented especially in official documents, and throws light on just what official papers all too often leave in the dark.
We will quote for our readers’ parts from the letter to give an idea of life on Statia in 1792.
“Honored Sir and valued friend:
I will not neglect my promise to send you this. Your Honor will have learned from the letter that I sent your honored father that we had a very speedy and prosperous passage. Thanks to God I enjoy the best of health, and hope to learn the same of you.
Once again, many thanks, my good friend, for the cakes that you provided for my trip, which spared me many dull moments, and I shall attempt to repay your kindness.
I will limit myself to giving you a short account of the situation of this island and of the way of life here. The island is about 2 hours long and a good mile across. All around, the sea washes against the rocky mountain, which is quite high and I should guess sticks up about half an hour’s above the sea. The so called “Punt” or “Punch Bowl” is the highest and is quite hollow inside for which reason it was a volcano. One morning I rode out there with my friends and went down to the bottom – or rather, clambered down through the stillness. In this deep cavern it is twilight and very little of the ground down there is touched by the sun except between 12 and 2 o’clock. In this hollow it is pretty cool. Nature reaches her highest peak of productivity there. Growing wild in this hole are grapes of excellent flavor, oval in shape, resembling little plums. You can find watermelons there of 20 to 30 pounds, rose –colored inside, shading toward the heart to light silver-white, and as 2/3 of the way speckled with black seeds, making a lovely appearance when you cut the melon open. Also ordinary melons, of exceptionally fine flavor, being much riper than any that I’ve ever had in Italy. Also there is mamee, as large as an ordinary melon and tasting like the Persian melon of Europe. Coconuts are plentiful; I’ve seen some that I’d guess weighed 18 pounds. The milk of this fruit is very delicious and is cool in the hot sun. Also cherries, a wonderful fruit, on the top of which a nut grows, but I can’t really describe it. Pomegranates are found in abundance, papayas, oranges, lemons, limes, medlars and a lot of other fruits that I don’t know. One can find wild coffee here, sugar cane, cotton, and wild pod-peas. Also a kind of string beans; 4 or 5 sorts of pepper, of which one kind is frightfully strong, much more so than the so-called Spanish pepper. I saw fig trees there too, but they don’t have the same fruit that I’ve eaten in Italy. On this island the pineapples are the best of the entire West Indies. I’ve seen them of 10 or 12 pounds’ weight, and very ripe. For 5 or 6 Dutch stivers you can buy one from the blacks, and they cost them, so to speak, only the cutting.
There are many sugar plantations here. On each plantation there is usually a village of 30 to 40 little huts, as in sketch #4, where the poor wretched slaves live. I visited a good number of them; most of the friends to whom I had been recommended are plantation owners, through whom I had the good fortune to examine everything minutely, which was very interesting for an inquiring sort of person.
He goes on to describe the houses, the way they are built and furnished and then he continues;” It is horribly hot here as it can possibly be, if it weren’t for the daily east wind I don’t believe I could live long. For instance, I have to change my linen 4 times a day and my other clothes twice a day. Sometimes the sweat runs in streams down my hands and face. I have one comfort; I’ve been told that once I’ve sweated out it’s all over. In the four weeks that I’ve been here I’ve become very thin and have become half Creole in color. I rather like it. I don’t know myself anymore.
At 4 o’clock each day I go with friends for a horseback ride making a tour of 2 or 3 hours, and torment the planters who lie on the high land. About 7 we usually come back to dine or else we stay with one or another friend. After that, from 8 o’clock to 1 every one goes about his business and I go from the mountain to the bay, where all the warehouses are – about 600, I should think. This makes a small city in itself. Down there it’s a good three times as hot as up on the mountain; the breeze being cut off by the mountain it is blazing hot. The roadstead is always full of Spanish, American, French and English barks that come and go every day and with whom we do business; the Bay is Little Amsterdam. I am quite fortunate to be able to speak with all these nations. The local language of the natives, as well as the mulattos and blacks, is English. So I’m beginning to be quite an Englishman and speak no Dutch except only with Lans, who knows little or no English.
About 1 o’clock some friend will send me a riding horse and I go up the mountain with it and stop here or there to eat. I’m always invited to 3 or 4 places. Little is accomplished in the afternoon. About six o’clock, or when it is dark, people go to look up friends and stay to be sociable or retire about 8 or 9 o’clock, and by 10 or 11 every one is at rest.
They hold many dances here. Recently I was invited to a ball where I found 64 ladies, all brilliantly dressed. The women here are not beautiful, but are good-hearted, which is the most important thing.
There are many mulattoes here. Many of the women are kept by Europeans as mistresses. Those are well dressed, commonly in white lawn with linen edging of various colors and on their heads extra fine English beaver hats, and they have their slaves following behind with parasols. Among these mulattoes are very fine and well made women.
Day before yesterday the captain commandant came to fetch me and asked if I would like to see a Negro company and how they amused themselves. I don’t know that I’ve ever laughed so much. It was a Negro ballet. I wish you could have seen what wondrous and bizarre figures these gentlemen made. They were quite honored with our company and showed us all friendship. They were drinking their punch and grog, which the leader offered us and we accepted. Their music consisted of 2 tambourines, 2 vocalists and one piece of old iron that was beaten with a tenpin, and then a violinist who had probably never played before. There were some mulatto women there in that illustrious company, most of them doing English contra-dances. We danced 2 or 3 dances with them. After we brave ones were worn out we left the company and they thanked us greatly for the honor that we had done them.
From St. Kitts – I mean St. Christopher – vegetables are brought in daily; Saba provides excellent veal and mutton; St. Maarten can be seen in clear weather quite well, and provisions come from there too every day. In a word they have here all necessary food in abundance, and quite cheap. Bread is better on this island than in Europe; it is baked from good rich American grain. A 6 stiver loaf weighs the same as a 2 stiver loaf in Europe. There is excellent fish here which is a pleasure to behold, blood-red and swimming around in the water like goldfish; they are called “hang.” I have seen fish of blue and silver that could be mistaken for enamel ware. Lobsters here are four times as large as in Europe, but not so tender and delicious.
Potatoes come from the English islands and are much better than in Europe and are yellow as egg yolks. Lettuce is not of the best, not at all tender, but indeed we have plenty of other things to make up for the lettuce.
Every day I see new things here. Little or no sickness is known here. As soon as someone is sick he is either better or dead in 3 or 4 days; everything goes expeditiously here. It is so with burying; dead in the evening; buried the next day. The sorrow for a deceased friend is washed away with Madeira wine. Remarkable customs! There is a church here but no Minister!
About two weeks before my arrival there was a terrible cloudburst here. Part of the mountain was washed away and the old road to the top was entirely ruined. Damage at the Bay was reckoned at a million guilders. Perhaps your Honor read about it in the papers. It can rain unbelievably here. I once thought I was going to be swept away, house and all, and it never let up, but the burning hot sun dried up the water that a quarter of an hour previously had been running in rivers. It can thunder mighty hard here too, terrifying to hear, but people are used to it because they hear it every day.
I shall now bring this to a close, hoping that your Honor can make out my writing. I have written somewhat in haste, and will simply add that I am very lucky and am loved by everyone and am everywhere welcome, which is a great satisfaction for me and makes me content with everything.
I am respectfully,
Zimmerman the elder
St. Eustatius 10 July 1792.