The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson


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Village of Palmetto Point, pictured here, together with Middle Island which according to my research were established by refugees from St. Kitts around 1629.

Your Honour,

Saba, March 16th, 1857

  • This letter is from the Roman Catholic priest on Saba Father J.C. Gast on Saba to the Governor on St. Eustatius W.H.J. van Idsinga former Governor of Surinam and who also served as Governor of St. Maarten.

The Governor had asked Father J.C. Gast to write a report on conditions on Saba as he found them. Father Gast did not remain too long on Saba. Already on May 31st, 1858 he left Saba and returned to Holland. His report was so interesting that in 1885 The Netherlands Geographical Society printed his article even though he had died at the age of 56 on October 1st, 1878 in Helden Limburg.

I have translated this interesting report from the Dutch so that our native English speaking people can enjoy reading how things were on Saba in 1857.

‘Due to some engagements connected with my function, as well as research in connection with the requested information, I have been prevented to present this information to Your Honor before now. I trust that my slow reaction to your request will be excused.

With respect to the amount of acres of land, which are to be found on this mountain, it is impossible to give a correct report on this, and very difficult to determine from close up, in the first place this is very oddly divided, and, and while on the other side more than half of  these acres are covered with stones, that in the lower grounds, which is destined for corn, one has to work with scrapers between the rocks to get the seed in the ground (which becomes often the prey of rats).

1890-1910 Man on Horse - Tropenmuseum

A Roman Catholic Priest on horseback.

I believe, that an estimate of three hundred to three hundred and fifty cultivatable acres more or less will be the extent of the cultivated land here.

The most important product here consists of the sweet potato which immediately after maturity is subject to spoilage, and much inferior of those on St. Eustatius. However as far as the cassava and corn is concerned, an ordinary harvest supplies sufficient food for the inhabitants, who generally are not accustomed to anything else. The American potatoes and the cabbage are generally exported. A small amount of corned fish which often arrives here from St. Thomas half or completely spoiled in general provides for breakfast evening and midday meals. Few are accustomed to bread and still fewer who are accustomed to meat; their goats, pigs, chickens and eggs are transported to St. Thomas. For these articles and often by the same captain, flour, items of clothing, salt fish and such matters are brought back. Other imports, at least in general, I am not aware of; other than with a bad harvest this necessitates them to order their flour from elsewhere. In former times their trade was with the inhabitants of St. Bartholomew, nowadays, principally with those of St. Thomas. From St. Eustatius the much looked for rum is ordered.

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The Church of England took over from the Presbyterian Church around 1770 and was the largest congregation for a long time. The Roman Catholic Church built its first Church in the Windward Side in 1860.

Although some private persons have terrain in abundance suitable for agriculture and even desire to hire this out, is however in general, that which can be planted, worked out, or used for pasturage for their cattle. The mountain tops are amply provided with fire-wood; timber to the contrary is not found there, or very little and only suitable for the building of boats. The same is imported from elsewhere whether for the ships or for the houses. The limestones must be brought from below to above and burned there. It is in the hamlet of Hell’s Gate that people there busy themselves with the burning of limestone.

In general the women are engaged in making straw hats, which bring in a considerable amount of money. This, as far as I know, is the only general branch of industry which is practiced here. Making of baskets and knitting is not done on a large scale.

Concerning the peace on the island this is generally lacking. It often happens during the day that I must put aside my books in connection with the noise, caused by fights, quarrels or otherwise; besides at night every item must be carefully hidden away to save them from being stolen. Those who have potatoes or other necessities of life in their fields, must guard these armed with loaded weapons.

In general it cannot be said that prosperity is declining. It was so that during my stay there several new houses and ships were built. However the opportunities to get rich do not exist here. The most homes are built from the income of wages, which they receive from working on vessels.

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The schooner The Three Sisters in Curacao harbour. The Sabans built many schooner on the island and purchased others from the East Coast of the United States.

The craving for luxury in furniture, but especially in clothing, is great. It is therefore only for this that their money seems to be disposable. With an ordinary harvest one cannot complain about poverty. Most people are properly clothed and look healthy and cheerful. Nevertheless one only heard complaints and when these have valid reasons the loving care and support of private persons is the only recourse for help. With the failure of the crops I do believe that poverty reaches its peak. I only experienced this halfway.

The dominant illness under the people is leprosy and the elephantiasis which they label as the Rose, and from which few families are spared of the latter. In special cases they call on the help of one of their friends who have knowledge of herbs and some medicines which they order from St. Thomas which is more known to them than others. There is also a man who can clean veins, and this is the only medical practice which can be found here.

Among each other and in the street and at home they live as one and the same household; besides they are nearly all related to one another and a large number of marriages are between first cousins.


The only form of transportation to the Fort Bay up until the 1940’s was by head or by donkey.

Although the whites are very much appreciative of their color, one sees however white and black, master and slave cultivating the soil side by side, entering into negotiations  and so forth.

Without a doubt in general people are fond of rum. Public drunkenness however to which many secretly surrender is not so general that it is easily visible. But once drunk, because of this a fight is the normal consequence. A fight is usually the result of an insult received. This takes place on the public road. From both sides the closest relatives come running, in order to be either witness or to choose parties; something which brings running out fifty to sixty persons, without which, as far as I know, there are any regulations to avoid this uproar. The heads of the families, if they do not want to be involved in the fight, must stand aside as it is only in the circle of the household, that they can exercise some influence                .

Fighting and drunkenness are the most obvious misdeeds.

Added to this is, that even if the government of this island wished to avoid this, the lack of respect for the established order is such that in the present situation of the island this would be very difficult.

The amount of mixed race people is very small in comparison with the so-called whites. It is extremely seldom that a white man will take a black woman as a concubine. The civil marriage is almost universal among the white population.

General popular amusements are not known here. One only sees now and then a gathering of blood relatives and friends where the violin is played and people dance.

When there is a case to be handled in which everyone is concerned, such as keeping the watch, quarantine etc. a meeting takes place in one of the private homes. Normally the meetings end up in quarrels and disagreement.


Photo from around 1950 with Administrator Max Huith inspecting the road being beuilt for motor vehicle traffic. My father (Daniel Thomas Johnson) in the white shirt was one of the foremen who worked on the building of the road.

Due to lack of good cisterns there is with a not too long of a drought immediately a shortage of good drinking water. Those whose cisterns are in good condition, sell theirs and sometimes for enormous prices. Those who do not have any means for this must bring same from the sea-shore, which only takes place with great effort. Added to this that in the three wells which are on the seashore everybody washes their clothes, something which is even more unsanitary, as one is aware of, which is why most families suffer from elephantiasis .

As for education there are no public schools here. Some individuals keep themselves occupied teaching their own children or those of their relatives. Although very few people can write, knowledge of reading under the whites of Windward Side and The Bottom is generally universal.

Mister Toland, Episcopal Minister, garners his meager existence from voluntary and agreed contributions garnered from the proceeds of the collections.

Monseigneur Nieuwindt takes care of the maintenance of the Roman Catholic faith. The Protestant church in which on Sundays ten or twelve and sometimes five or six people attend, has been built up with contributions collected  from neighboring islands, and with voluntary contributions, is repaired now and then.

Concerning the police, much is left to be desired. Everyone is concerned about their own and many times cannot prevent that his potatoes, goats etc. are stolen. Only with a murder or complaints made the police functions, and while there is neither militia nor any other armed body, guns are only owned by private individuals. When there is common danger in order to avert this a meeting is held, in which discussions are held over the means, and in order to cover costs there is a voluntary inscription.

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Policeman Jeremiah Leerdam on patrol in the Windward Side around 1950.

Certain market places or days do not exist here. The normal price of sweet potatoes is f.0.15 for six pounds, and that of fish is not regulated. The normal price of transportation to St. Thomas if f. 2.50 per person and f.0.25 a barrel.

Concerning the roads these are cleaned once or twice a year. A general summons is the sign for this. To improve these however no effort is made.

Vagabondage is less known but begging is general. I do not know if there are laws concerning this, because as long as I find myself here I have not heard any mention hereof. Everything is based on a so-called ancestral rule.

The Court does not convene unless there are disputes to be dealt with; as I understand things take place in the same manner as in the meetings.

Several Sabaens have moved away to St. Bartholomew and St. Thomas. Some to reside there, others to hire themselves out, or to provide for their existence by some means or the other. Foreign families do not emigrate here, and foreigners who visit the island general desire, after being here for one or two days, to head home again.

1890-1910 Schoolphoto - Tropenmuseum - Pater Laurentius Mulder

Roman Catholic School. Father Mulder with horse and the photo is from around 1900.

I am not aware that anything is being done to prevent the spread of leprosy. To the contrary everything is done to promote same. They live and reside, eat and drink, among each other as if they were not afraid of any contamination.

That families exist which one can classify as wealthy, according to me, this is without a doubt. The normal daily wages of a good laborer is f.0.50 to f. 0.60; but there are few landowners who work with paid labor to practice agriculture. In general the land is rented for half or a third of the crop.

As for the lot of the slaves this is not as intolerable as on the other islands. Corporeal punishment is rare, and the relationship between master and slave here can be compared with Piet and Jan, once day laborers and landowners in Holland. That the slave is not very pleased with his lot, is the fact – that every night there is the opportunity for them to flee. I myself found by my last return here from St. Eustatius, three slaves in a boat, who around seven o’clock in the evening came up with me. Concerning the education, religious as well as morally, this did not exist for them before now. Only those who practiced the Roman Catholic religious belief, enjoyed education at the same time as the whites.

Because since the last visit of Your Honor one hundred and fifty slaves have embraced the Roman Catholic religion, this week I have begun three times per week to personally give lessons for the adult slaves which consist of sixty persons, while also a similar number of slave children find themselves daily in school, which I trust through help of Monseigneur Nieuwindt , will develop to the desired level.. The slave population of Windward Side is now nearly exclusively Roman Catholic; under those circumstances the slave in future will receive education from which he has been thus far excluded. And should the Dutch government offer me a hand I trust then that to present them with a cultured black population rather than uncivilized ones, and to reap the same fruits which has been the result achieved among the blacks by the labor of the Roman Catholic clergy on Curacao and elsewhere. Concerning their lot after the emancipation, this was thus far questionable. They would be denied land, take away their land etc. Now however that most of the slave owners have offered me their slaves, and because they come faithfully to church, it is my hope, that the whites, to the satisfaction of the slaves, will maintain them in their midst.

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Pounding small or Guinea corn in a handmade wooden mortar was vital for survival back then.

Concerning the history of the island, very little or nothing is known about that. This alone appears to me to be the most likely, that most of them are descended from three or four families from St. Kitts and elsewhere who abandoned there in order to avoid leprosy and elephantiasis, and in this supposition I am strengthened, in the first place while nearly all of them carry the last surname, and on the other hand while the mentioned illnesses is so generally spread among them, they say to have inherited these from their ancestors.

All sorts of money is in circulation here, even the Dutch cent is cut in half. Only on summons from the local Government they contribute a little to promote local interests.

Concerning taxation, that is a thorn in their eyes. They desire, at least a lot of them, a change in government, as long as there are no taxes. Any sudden introduction of a tax would not be   implemented without causing a commotion.

1890-1910 School later church Bottom - Tropenmuseum

Although I am not absolutely certain of this I am of the opinion that this photo was taken in 1913 in commemoration of fifty years of emancipation.

In my opinion for the present the importation and sale of rum would be the only thing on which a tax could be levied. A good fine for all state violations will do much good.

Burdened with many extraordinary activities, it is presently impossible to make a small map of this mountain; hoping in the coming week to be able to do so, I remain with all respect.

Your humble servant

J.C. Gast, priest.

Notes: In 1857 Saba had a total of 1771 people. In 1862 the populations was 1867 of which 1159 were whites and 708 were enslaved people of African descent.

The Government of Saba in 1857 was composed of the following persons.

Edward Beaks, Lt. Governor and former active pirate.

Advisory Committee:

J.B. Hassell and J.E. Hassell, members.

Court of Justice.

Edward Beaks, Lt. Governor President.

Members James Horton and Josiah Peterson.

Assessors; Moses Leverock, William Simmons and A. Simmons.

Moses Leverock - Lieutenant Governor of Saba

Moses Leverock was Lt. Governor of Saba on July 1st, 1863 when the slaves whose forebears were from Africa were liberated. The term enslaved Africans in my book is not correct as most if not all of the slaves liberated had been on Saba and in the Caribbean for generations before being emancipated.

Court Recorder; Hercules Hassell, Jr.

Priests of the Roman Catholica Church J.C. Gast and J.Ph. G. Kock.

This letter written in 1857 for the most part if written today would contain most of the observations made Father J.C. Gast about meetings, and abhorrence to pay taxes of any kind, with the exception of the mixing of the races. Many who were white once are black now and many who were black once have blond hair and blue eyes, so you cannot question color alone anymore.


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