The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson


The Sulphur Mine

By: Will Johnson


Looking towards Flat Point from the main entrance of the mine.

Before Sulphur was being extracted from crude oil those locations where there had been volcanic activity became very valuable as their potential for the then scare commodity was considerable for those days.

The Sulphur mine on Saba started with Peter James Hassell and Jacob Every (from both of whom I and many others are descended), who were the original owners of the lands where the Sulphur mines on Saba are found? The colonial report of 1901 states that the two owners of the property known as the ‘Great Hole’ in 1866 rented these lands for 21 years to Albert G. Marcial with the right to transport and ship Sulphur.

On that same day this Marcial transferred his rights over to Peter F. Stout and William C. Roberts, who again transferred their obtained rights in 1867 to Charles Andrew Poizat.

The same Peter James Hassell and Jacob Every in 1861 had already transferred their rights to the Sulphur, which could be found in aforementioned lands to Daniel James Hassell Every (a Saba/Statia important merchant and landowner) In 1874 he gave half of his rights to the mother for the benefit of her minor child Thomas Nelson Cockfield Pandt . Mr. Everysold the other half to a certain George Doyle.

These last two in turn sold their rights in 1874 and 1875 this time to Nicolas Cornwall Henwood. This Henwood in 1874 bought from the before mentioned Peter James Hassell and Jacob Every the same lands, which Charles A. Poizat was renting.


Operations in 1905. My grandfather Daniel Johnson in the second row with white shirt. He lived just above the mines.

Because of this a Court Case was initiated between Poizat and Henwood which ended in 1879 with denial of the demand of Poizat against Henwood to abandon the piece of land in question, on grounds that the claimant was lacking in evidence, that he was the first to come in possession of the piece of land.

In 1876 Henwood passed over ¼ of his rights to John Godden and ¼ to G. Thomas MacNish a Scottish merchant living on St. Kitts at that time. In 1889 or 1890 they passed over their rights once again, this time to the Sulphur Mining Company at Philadelphia so that now the Sulphur mines of Saba for ¾ parts was owned by that company and ¼ part  by John Godden. (One hundred years later I was part owner in a company on Curacao owned by the heirs of John Godden and had a correspondence with them but they said that their grandfather must have sold it).

PhotoScan 684

There were lots of money sharing hands when people were speculating on the potential sulphur supplies.

In June 1876 the work at the Sulphur Mine was stopped and not started up again. Notwithstanding that in 1889 and 1890 new research on the feasibility which initially appeared that new exploitation would be undertaken, this did not take place.

The local situation where the mines are located made the exploitation nearly impossible and the owners do not seem to have found any way whereby profitable exploitation was possible.

The fact that there was Sulphur on Saba was known from ancient times. M.D. Teenstra mentions around 1834 two mines on the top of the mountain, and a pit on the Eastern side of perhaps more than 3000 feet deep, where Sulphur was supposedly found. According to Teenstra ‘the trouble and costs which would be involved with the exploitation would not be worth it. This opinion of the agricultural expert is in fact confirmed by all future experiments.

In 1860 the lands where Sulphur was found (on the North coast not far from Hell’s Gate) via all sorts of intermediaries fell in the hands of North Americans, and the MacNish Sulphur mining company. One of the principal shareholders was John Godden known from the phosphate history of Curacao, began the exploitation (J.Hartog). Two mine workers from Sicily where there are also Sulphur mines, in 1875 opened the shafts. One of them, a married man, also managed to have a daughter by a great aunt of mine who lived at Behind-the-Ridge just above the mines.


There used to be a cable from the Sulphur Mines to ‘Green Island’ pictured here. It was practically impossible for schooners to load here.

From the cliffs more than 100 meters above the sea, the Sulphur was transported by cable which joined the coast with the small key named ‘Green Island’, to vessels, for which there was no place where it was possible to anchor. There was also a lift going down the cliff to the shore. A local man named “John Pluggie’ fell with the lift down on the rocks below. He survived though severely injured and the fall affected his brain. The North Americans found out that their efforts and costs were not sufficiently rewarded and ceased the exploitation in 1876.

Repeatedly North Americans visited the island after that and even though their opinions were not unfavorable, transactions did not always go through based on the fact the landowners asked too much.10021139

The Sulphur Mines became more an object of speculation than one of exploitation. In 1900 the government started paying more attention to this underground treasure, but the result of another study was not encouraging.

From 1903 to 1905 efforts were made again (I believe it was another married Sicilian who at this time, took my great aunt out of becoming an old maid and she was shipped out by the Nuns to have her baby on Curacao and they remained there), to exploit the Sulphur deposits, but those were also discontinued. The mining engineer G. Duyfjes thought a further study in 1907 justified but because of the inaccessibility of the source nothing came out of it.

1950 - Sulphur Oven - Tropenmuseum

That oven is still there and was used in the exploitation of th sulphur.

This speculation on the actual worth of the Sulphur Mine led to quite some controversy with the death of Mr. Cornwall Henwood whose parents were from Cornwall Great Britain but who had settled on St. Eustatius and had two plantations there.

The New York Times of January 9th, 1881 carries the following article.



‘ Mr. Cornwell Henwood, a young Englishman, who came here recently from the West Indies on business, was found in his room in the Pierrepoint House, corner of Hicks and Montague streets, Brooklyn, yesterday morning with his throat cut from ear to ear. Mr. Henwood was undressed, and the razor with which he had taken his life was near him in the bed. Capt. Campbell, of the First Precinct, made an examination of the room and was satisfied that Mr. Henwood had died by his own hand. The cause of the suicide, unless the unfortunate man became suddenly insane is a mystery.

Mr. Henwood owned a Sulphur mine and two plantations in the West Indies and was in prosperous circumstances. His purpose in coming to New York was to interest some capitalists in his Sulphur mine. Among his friends in this city was Mr. F.G. Challenor, of the firm Challenor & Co., commission merchants. Mr. Challenor, with a friend, visited the Pierrepoint House on Friday, and staid with Mr. Henwood in his room until nearly midnight. Mr. Henwood, who for some days had been suffering from an intermittent fever, appeared to be much better, and was in excellent spirits. He was full of plans for developing the Sulphur mine, and showed to his friends on a map the facilities for shipping the Sulphur to the coast after it had been mined. Mr. Henwood was 30 years of age and has a wife and a family living on a small island, about ten miles from the West Indian Island of Saba, where his principal property is situated.

135 - Saba-1956-58 - Sulphur mine - Police officer Kooistra-01

Dr. Ferwerda exploring the Sulphur Mine in 1956.

After the Coroner had been notified, Mr. Challenor took charge of his friend’s body and will attend to the funeral arrangements. Capt. Campbell took charge of the dead man’s effects and papers. From the fact that Mr. Henwood’s clothes were carefully arranged on a sofa in the room, it is not believed that when retiring to rest he intended to take his life. The supposition is that he awoke during the night, and, suddenly resolving to end his life, reached his hand out and taking a razor which was lying on the bureau, cut his throat. The remains were cold when found.

The New York Times.

136 - Saba-1956-58 - Sulphur mine - Police officer Kooistra-02

The mines are not to be underestimated , they extend quite a distance into the mountain.

Now who wants to believe that story is free to do so. Nowadays you see so much history being changed to suit ones purpose and there are people who believe all kinds of versions of history. I certainly find this a very odd story.

And the saga with the mines continued.  Thomas MacNish a Scottish merchant on St. Kitts on September 7th, 1885 made a deal with Richard Cauldwell in New York City to sell on his behalf his shares in the mine to a group from the United States. These were Joseph S. Ludlam and his wife Annabella E. Ludlam, Earl A. Thissell (widower), Thomas E. Barry and his wife Helen M. Barry, (assignee of William L. Johnson of the city of Boston) and Henry J. Tram and his wife Ora R. Tram. All residing in Massachussets.

In the book ‘Our West Indian Neighbors’ by Frederick A. Ober we read the following:’ When in Kingston, the traveler will – at least he ought to – visit the mercantile establishment of ‘MacNish Limited’ founded and presided over by Mr. Thomas MacNish, a stalwart Scotchman, who has lived in the West Indies nearly forty years, acquired competency by hard and honest labour in his business, maintained himself in health through many seasons of fever and hurricane and (incidentally be it mentioned) has raised a family of sixteen children of whom any man might be proud.’

137 - Saba-1956-58 - Sulphur mine - fltr Doctor Ferwerda-Police officer Kooistra-Unknown-AM Van Scheepen

Dr. Ferwerda to the left with guests exploring the mine. 1956.

By Court Order of the Court of Appeals on St. Eustatius dated November 16th, 1886 and Bill of Sale dated November 9th 1886, this procedure took John William Godden and his 2/9’s ownership out of the picture. The MacNisch Company as it was called remained in existence and was registered in Maine. In 1904 the land was rented to Mr. Arthur H. Page for 98 years under certain conditions. On January 5th 1905 he turned over his rights to a company established on Barbados named the Saba Sulphur Company.

In March 1909 Saba Sulphur Company was dissolved and struck from the records. (Page in the meantime had also died in the United States). In my research I think I read somewhere that he had been struck down by a car in Manhattan and died there.

At the end of 1909 the MacNish Sulphur Mining Company was excused from the records in Maine.

In 1928 Governor W.F.M. Lampe in a letter recognizes the ownership of the property by MacNish Sulphur Mine Company as well as Governor Meiners in 1934.

138 - Saba-1956-58 - Sulphur mine - fltr AM Van Scheepen-Unknown-Unknown-Doctor Ferwerda-Police officer

My brother Thomas Eric Johnson in the center.

For over twenty five years I did research on the Sulphur Mines and their ownership. I reached the conclusion that Mrs. Muriel Thissell Murphy daughter of Philip E. Thissell one of the sons of Earl A. Thissell was the only surviving heir and could claim ownership to the property. She gave me the right of first refusal to the property. In my correspondence with her I made it clear that I would purchase the land with the intention of eventually making a park covering most of that part of the island. I passed over my research to the Saba Conservation Foundation. They in turn got a grant from the World Wildlife Fund to have the property measured. I was excluded from further negotiations but asked to sign the bill of sale. I refused to do so when I found out that without me knowing a company had been set up in Texas for the land to be transferred to so that the lady could get a tax break. It was my impression that the entire land would be given to the people of Saba. I had asked my friend Elmer Linzey to co-sign with me. After assurance from the Notary that the land would be passed over to the Conservation Foundation within one year we both signed.

After I learned that a sizable portion of the land would be given back to Mrs. Thissell I regret that I went ahead and signed.

Anyway it is what it is and now research is being done about all the rest of the land from the Sulphur mine property to the Well’s Bay. My grandfather Daniel Johnson owns besides All-too-far Ridge a considerable piece of land there. Informally I represent the other heirs of my grandfather and it will not go the same way as the story of the Sulphur Mine Company. Whatever the land is appraised at for tax purposes will be asked for in the event the heirs do decide to sell the land.

The Mine was in the news some years ago as a tourist got lost in there and his body was only found by accident by other tourists over a year later. My father grew up above the mine as a boy and he used to know them in and out and we as young people went there with him, but it is no longer permitted and with good reason. I have enough material to write a book on all of this but what is here will suffice to give my readers some idea of the history of the Sulphur Mine on Saba.


Single Post Navigation

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: