The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson

Tribute to Velma Bontenbal-Johnson



Henk Bontenbal and Velma Johnson on their wedding day.


We are gathered here today to take Velma to her last resting place. She was born as Velma Juliana Johnson in the village of Zions Hill here on Saba on April 15th, 1936 as one of fifty six (56) children born of Saba parents in that year. That alone shows how different the island was back then to nowadays. She passed away on Tuesday March 8th, 2016. It is no secret to hold back that she suffered much and her family along with her when she was struck with Alzheimer.

Velma’s parents were Richard Austin Johnson and Peter Ann Emeline Zagers.

Life was difficult back when she was a young girl growing up here. Her father Austin had to go to Bermuda before he married to find work there as did so many of our men from Saba. He was an only child and to survive back then there was sharing among families. When he got married he tried to survive however he could and then he joined the old police force which consisted of constables.


From left to right Patsy, Aileen and Velma Johnson all three good on the guitar.

Velma was only three years old when the Great War, the Second World War broke out. After 1941 it only got worse when many other countries got involved and it made life much more difficult here on our little island. There was a great scarcity of everything here and the most felt was the lack of flour for long periods at a time. One had to go back to the baking of cassava bread and take to the soil and the sea for our survival. Velma’s family was no different. The times were hard for everyone. I am reminded of a description of that period from an article by Roland Richardson about St. Maarten which equally counts for life on Saba and the changes in recent years.

‘There were years of suspicion and guilt. Years of ferment. Years when hardship and scarcity, the common denominator, attempted to reweave the fabric of human decency through equality.


Velma pictured here in The Bottom where the family lived for awhile. She was also a Kindergarten teacher.

On a small island this process is different from a large territory. New bonds were established through the mingling of blood. Deep wounds of the past were soothed. Years when the ‘force’ was withdrawn, suspended, waiting with everyone simply struggling to survive.

These were years when Saba was un-exploitable, unwanted and forgotten by all, save those who stayed, or had left families behind while they sought work in other cane fields, or oil fields and construction sites.

For those who remained this period here was peaceful, even though two World Wars were fought across the ocean. The land produced according to scripture, by the sweat of our brows. This was the slow period when an island traps you, when its particularity subtly affects and molds you; when the fugue of rippling sunlight and sea-surge transforms monotony into dreams of paradise.’


Police Officer Richard Austin Johnson and his four children while serving duty on St. Eustatius around 1947.

Velma had more than one troubling experience in her young life when her father Austin was transferred to work on Statia. The family went there in 1946 and remained until 1948. In 1955 Austin was again transferred to Statia for two years. Back then a policeman was not supposed to be involved in politics, even to let on with a simple gesture that he favored a certain party. Austin who had been a Member of the Local council of policy liked his politics of course and at the polling station when he learned that his party had won he seemed glad. Not euphoric. Just glad. But that was enough. Someone complained that he had smiled and that was enough reason to tear him away from his family and send him again to Statia for several years, this time without his family.

Time heals many wounds and in later years they could recall fondly some of the people whom they had known there.

I became personally involved when relief finally came and the family could go to Barbados for a long six month vacation. Their family home had been transferred from Zions Hill to Windward Side and along with the house came Velma’s Grandmother Annie. Velma’s grandfather Frederick Zagers had been lost at sea on the ‘Saba Bank’ on December 22nd, 1943 when she was 7 years old. Among others lost in that storm was also Fernandus Jones, father of Miss Cornelia Jones. Emeline being Annie’s only child was a big worry for Emeline and she asked me to promise her that I would sleep in the home until they got back. I was 8 years old at the time but I stayed there until the family came back from Barbados.


Austin, Emmeline and family headed up to Holland for vacation in 1967 or so.

Velma went through school here on Saba and was a Kindergarten teacher for some time before going to Holland on vacation with her family in 1960. Before her brother Ronny passed away I asked him as to why his family were such dedicated church members. He said they got it from his grandmother Annie who in turn was brought up in the church by her devoted father George Rodney Johnson. They lived on Zions Hill where at the time there was no church. George Rodney would parade his seven children every Sunday morning to attend church here in Windward side. A church which became the church of the entire family and the same church in which today we are remembering Velma.


Henk Bontenbal now in retirement on Saba.

In 1960 the family went to Holland on vacation. That was a life changing experience for Velma as there she met her husband to be Mr. Henk Bontenbal who is here today to lead us to carry Velma to her last resting place. Henk was a devoted husband and the entire community can bear witness to that especially when Velma was taken with Alzheimer and he kept her at home for as long as possible. Only when it became necessary for her to get professional hourly supervision did he relent for her to go to the Home for the Aged. He was by her side every opportunity he got and his soothing voice would immediately calm her down in times of distress.

In Holland Velma had two children, Linda and Robbie, who are here today as well. I used to visit the family both in Hoogvliet and in Kirkdriel and they would take me to see the ‘Koemarkten’ and other farming activity of the family of their friends Marie and Annie.

I use my computer on various sites as my personal newspaper. After I posted Velma’s passing a friend of mine for nearly fifty years teacher Reint Laan who came to see me in The Hague in September sent me a message to pass on his sympathy and he said: Rob and Linda were pupils of the Blinker School in Hoogvliet when I was Head Master. Velma volunteered in the school library. Her sister Janice told me that Velma volunteered on a radio station as well while living in Holland.

We all should remember how many years she volunteered as Chairperson of the Home for the Aged here on Saba.

The writer Paulo Coelho describes two types of work. The first is the work we do because we have to in order to earn our daily bread. In that case people are merely selling their time, not realizing that they can never buy it back.

They spend their entire existence dreaming of the day when they can finally rest. When that day comes, they will be too old to enjoy everything life has to offer. Such people never take responsibility for their actions. They say:’ I have no choice.’

However, there is another type of work, which people also do in order to earn their daily bread but in which they try to fill each minute with dedication and love for others.

This second type of work we call the Offering.

For example, two people might be cooking the same meal and using exactly the same ingredients, but one is pouring Love into what he does and the other is merely trying to fill his belly. The result will be completely different, even though Love is not something that can be seen or weighed.

The person making the offering is always rewarded. The more he shares out his affection, the more his affection grows.

The poet would die of hunger if there were no shepherds. The shepherd would die of sadness if he could not sing the words of the poet.

Through the Offering you are allowing others to love you. And you are teaching others to love through what you offer them.


Velma, Patsy, Janice and Ronnie Johnson.

Velma was surrounded by the love of her family and friends in her last years. They may not have always understood why a dedicated woman in the service of others could be imprisoned in her brain by this new disease known as Alzheimer. However she was not alone. Her loving husband Henk and her siblings Patsy, Janice, Ronnie and the extended family would be at her side as often as they could. And her children and grandchildren living all the way in Holland tried to visit her as often as they could. How happy Velma would have been to be able to see and to know her great grandchild recently arrived in this world of ours. But it was not meant to be.

And so through her Offering, through her volunteer work she allowed others to love her. The family can look back with satisfaction to the life and contributions which Velma made to society wherever she lived.

To her family and friends we extend our deepest sympathy. May she rest in peace.


Written and researched by Will Johnson.

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