Far From The World’s Turmoil. Part 1
Far From the World’s Turmoil. Part One.
By. F.S. Langemeyer Civil Engineer
After I went to the trouble to translate this article from Dutch, from the West Indische Gids, I discovered that the same article had been published in a booklet entitled Tropical Mirror. Anyway I felt that many of our readers of Under the Sea Grape Tree would be especially interested in reading this.
Frans Silverius Langemeijer was born in Zeist, The Netherlands, on May 13th, 1886. After finishing his education he was employed by the Rijkwaterstaat in Maastricht and Hoorn before leaving for the Dutch West Indies.
In Hoorn on April 24, 1917 he married Antonia Maria Winkel who was born there on November 15, 1894. They had two children: Eugenie Frances Antonia born March 10th, 1919 on St. Maarten, and Henri Cornelis Gerard born September 22, 1922, in Terneuzen.
In the Dutch West Indies he worked for the colonial government in Curacao and conducted a study on the building of a harbor on St. Maarten. For this article I will concentrate on the human interest aspects of his sojourn at the Vineyard and people he met. After his return to The Netherlands he worked again for RWS in Terneuzen from 1921 to 1925 and in Zwolle and Alemlo from 1930 to 1951. During the intervening five years, 1925 to 1930, he was employed by the Shell in Balikpan (Borneo), Indonesia. He died in Zwolle on October 23, 1954.
‘Putting down my reminiscences of a two year’s stay in the Caribbean cannot be done easily because my mind is captivated by events far more important in our precarious times. Nothing spectacular, or anything shocking, occurred in this tiny spot of Dutch territory at the very moment when Europe was ablaze. Topics of the hour lose topicality many years afterwards and in recalling what must be remembered one may err without the lively image of what has just happened.
Still, blurred images come to me and, recalling those years long past, I cannot disengage from the perusal of old letters and documents. Just now, with old feelings of hatred from 1940 flaring up again, a longing surges for this small island’s tranquility, segregated from hotbeds of war and corruption outside in the big world, yet certainly not beyond Gods own big world.
Admittedly its people lived far away from circles of development and culture, away from theater and movies. Europeans in St. Maarten might dispense with variety and liveliness, but not so with the proper meaning of life. They would have had cars rarely, if ever, and factories never, but they did know a magnificent soft rain and sunshine too, glowing over dark green slopes and endless expanse of ocean.
And since neither people nor animals come across perfect peace anywhere, the St. Maarten resident also was aware of human passion and desire, of joy and grief reflected in the minds of male and female inhabitants, of whites and blacks alike. Almost nowhere can you find a spot wholly devoid of such emotions.
In those years around 1918, many St. Maarteners went to work in the sugar plantations of Santo Domingo which apparently were prospering at that time. Some of the more enterprising men set out to sail; other people went to the American continent. On their homecoming they told, or put in writing, their stories of the outside world. One of the men who took a job as a bricklayer or stonemason in the USA during the construction of a harbor even gave me a piece of advice as to how Philipsburg could develop its own port. They did not lose their interest in their native island, ‘the best place in the world.’
We were very pleased, of course, to receive daily publications and magazines in those quiet days since, as young people, we could not possibly give up our contact with the world. We wanted to live and to experience adventure. Let me now try to arrange my experiences in neat order.
The very last day of May, 1918, the government packet ‘Estelle’, a schooner, dropped anchor on her last monthly trip to Great Bay, the final destination for me and my wife. The ship anchored near Fort Amsterdam which was situated at the outermost western point of the bay, which from there curved inwards in a straight line to the town.
Philipsburg appeared ahead in its tropical setting of high palm clusters and dark green manzanillo trees, its houses looking bright and prosperous whilst an early morning sun bestowed luster and loveliness upon the surrounding scenery. Up on deck we watched as all of the sails flapped downwards in succession. The ever-present noise of the propelling wind disappeared from the ship all of a sudden. Just a calm lapping sound we heard at the bow when the ship slackened momentum, followed by a curt command, the screeching anchor chains running down, and then complete silence and standstill. Far out in the bay, the lighter men were drawing near already, rowing with agile black hands which reminded us of a similar scene in the Haiti harbor, except for a lot more shouting. Indeed, one had to recognize that the cool hand of the Dutch had put its seal on the black population here, because everything took place with outward calm and good order.
The passengers – the last ones- because the ‘Estelle’ had already called at S aba and St. Eustatius – were taken over the side into one of the boats, along with necessary luggage, and rowed to the small jetty in the town Center where Customs did not make great demands on our time. The officer in charge Mister Huith by name and always on duty because he happened to be the only one, was a genial ex-colonial fellow who had kept puttering about on the island, marrying a mulatto. I got to know him better as a well-spring of information. He was always fully abreast of tidal movements in the bay as well as of the export figures for salt.
The customs office at the pier-end, serving as a Post office at the same time, contained a third room occupied by the island’s second authority who combined such varied functions as tax collector, counsel for the prosecution and postmaster – very much alert to all of them.
At the landing stage Mister A.J.C. Brouwer, the Administrator, gave us a cordial welcome. He was a kind, elderly gentleman whose tropical service made him look older. With retirement drawing near, he was very much aware that a higher office would not be given to him.
Mr. Brouwer guided us to an elderly lady of Anglo-colonial descent Mrs. Dinzey. She was expected to give us board and lodging for a couple of days until we could find our own home. Mrs. Dinzey was an unassuming lady of retiring disposition, who appeared to be afflicted by the difficulties of life itself, difficulties which, by the look of her, ennobled her character. We might have wished her a better fortune in a less vulnerable position than that which was imposed on her by life’s vicissitudes, yet attaining old age in peace was the very best which would happen to her. Although we later spent two years in this small community, we saw her rarely, if ever.
Obviously looking for a house was to be my first job. While aboard our ship we had seen, shining above the green manzanillo around the eastern bay corner, a little white house top adorned with a big yellow star, looking very inviting from a distance. The estate belonging to it bore the sonorous name of ‘The Vineyard”, and it proved to be untenanted – although regrettably we could not find any grapevines.
I had to put up with a fairly stiff rent by St. Maarten,s standard but was not sorry because it happened to be the most suitable home imaginable. Our house was situated on the face of a steep hill, richly grown and strewn with boulders. When walking home through Front Street we often fell under the spell of the spot, especially so in bright moonlight, enhanced by the mysteriousness of the sounds of the living creatures in the wild darkness of the hills.
Because of its location, slightly elevated, the house afforded a splendid and varied view from our front veranda. Both of the green-walled village streets ran between the bay, always vivid and fidgety with the wide sea looming in the background, and the darker, nearly purple, water of the large salt pond.
Fort Amsterdam, situated in a narrow neck of land, manifested itself as a boundary between the bay and the Caribbean. Casting a glance from there to the right you could follow the upward line of the hills, resting finally on the highest summits of Sentry Hills, Mont des Accords and Flagstaff Hill. Their contours were shaped like a reclining giant in the background of the salt pond and, further up north, we saw the plantation house of ‘Madams Estate’ and the hills of Prince’s Quarter.
Imagine the Vineyard being no less than a ten minute walk from this cozy corner. I now shake my head at such a youthful obstinacy but at the time we, the reckless newlyweds, had no objections.
After having fixed up our home I started hiring some laborers for my survey in the country. The surveyor in my company was a heavily built, tall, mulatto, middle-aged man from Curacao by the fine Dutch name of Van den Beld, sporting an impressive moustache and toupee. He was a blacksmith by trade, properly speaking, but he was a loyal assistant during my surveying work, handling levelling and drilling operations.
Van den Beld selected and took care of a small work gang setting out with me daily for several months and performing jobs like holding the beacons, fastening pickets, introducing drilling pipes, and similar work involving the engineering survey. If I remember rightly, at that time they made about f.1.00 to f. 1.40 a day, considered to be good wages in St. Maarten. To the best of my recollection two of these chaps stuck faithfully with me till the end of my work. They were totally dis-similar from each other and went by the names Nathy and Julio. Surnames were not that important with the St. Maarten blacks, who carry a fine variety in first names given from the books.
Nathy, or Nathaniel, was a splendid fellow. I think back to him with compliments, a good natured character from ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, dark as ebony, strong as an elephant, always walking around in tatters. When there was a hole in his trousers, hardly a small one, he put a second pair of trousers over the first, and though the garment might not be hold free either, it would cover up anyway. The trousers were made of a kind of raw cotton fabric of vague color, turning to brownish-grey when clean, in general the prevailing shade for working clothes at that time. Nathy never wore anything else, though I gathered that he had a good wash on Mondays.
Nathy was a priceless worker, calling me “Chief”, perhaps mocking me in a mild manner, but it never hurt and he would go through fire for me in adverse circumstances while doing his job. I did not take advantage most of the time, being aware of his unremitting good will. Nathy was a native of Anguilla, one of the British Antilles, and this had left its mark clearly upon him. The influence of colonizing nations on those colonized is most remarkable, as I observed later in the East Indies as well. Nathy could put on a solemn face and speak almost unctuously. In this he differed greatly from Julio (pronounced the Spanish way), a fervid, cheery and lighthearted chap from Curacao, an island ruled by the Dutch for more than three centuries, though liable to a substantial Spanish and Portuguese influence – a lasting influence being the proximity of Venezuela and Columbia.
Characteristically different traits between Britons and Spaniards were expressed in their religions as well. Nathy was a Methodist; Julio a Catholic. The latter just loved sauntering about the streets on Sunday after Mass, looking trim and neat, wearing shoes of an unlikely vivid brown.
I have digressed from giving an account in detail of my daily business in St. Maarten but I cannot let the opportunity slip by altogether. My first and foremost job was checking the prospects of building a port in one of the Windward Islands, one which might stand a fair chance of serving as a port of call on the navigational route from Europe to the Panama Canal. There existed some apprehension about Curacao, as being too far south, whereas Saba and St. Eustatius did not have a suitable bay at all. So, St. Martin’s Great Bay had to be considered for closer inspection. It seemed that this bay offered a proper bottom surface affording safe anchorage, even for heavy draught vessels, except in the event of a southern gale which, however, seldom occurred.
There existed a good recent topographical map of the island of St. Maarten but I disregarded the older maps which lacked accuracy. I also was able to avail myself of the nautical charts of the Great Bay. Making a detailed sketch came first and to this purpose we had to lay a secondary three way-way network across the bay and surrounding terrain, to be measured by the primary network of a polygonal survey. For a polygonal survey, though, we had to carry out altimetry using the theodolite, because, as a rule, the disparities in height were too large for water levelling. Therefore, for the survey we had to climb two hilltops, Battery Hill and Naked Boy, with heights of 200 and 300 meters respectively. Reaching these summits was far from easy because their precipices and smooth rocky faces, overgrown with opuntias (prickly pear) and other cacti, impeded our ascent.
I remember crawling over a moist and slippery rock projection near Battery-Hill, when I lost my footing. I felt the ground sinking from beneath me and, in panic, caught the first support available. Unfortunately, it happened to be a tree cactus. Its thorns stuck into my hand and the plant broke, but so did my fall and then we were able to proceed.
The lineal distance from The Vineyard to the summit of Battery Hill was not more than 700 or 800 meters but it took three to four hours of climbing. For all of that, it was the less difficult of the two.
Apart from surveying we also had to obtain soundings and earth drilling samples in and around Great Bay. Having settled errors of perception, we could then draw an accurate map and plan for a Port of Call.
An adequate terrain for sheds and further port facilities might present a special problem, but we could possibly solve this by constructing a breakwater pier sheltering the harbor completely from southerly winds, as well as offering a mooring site for heavy draught vessels. Pointe Blanche valley, situated East of the Bay between Battery Hill and Pointe Blanche hill, was considered for various buildings. Ships of rather shallow draught, having fairly normal trim, were to be accommodated by the construction of a quay-wall equipped with derricks, so that several ships, could be handled at one time, thus encouraging the establishment of a regular shipping line.
It stood to reason that engineering these works would require a vast sum of money, but any expense less would not be worth considering. All information and data gathered were sent up in a technical report to the Governor and submitted later to the States-General through the Minister who might evaluate its cost and find it prohibitive for either the whole or part of it.
This had been happening also to the companies involved in St. Maarten’s salt industry, as recommended in a report compiled at the same time, which advised a number of corrections in and around the big salt lake near Philipsburg. Private enterprises were supposed to initiate such corrections but could not afford its outlay.
A vicious circle was at stake here: since the output of salt could not be trusted because of too much rainwater, vessels calling at St. Maarten could not depend on its production and did not come to fetch it. Therefore earnings were low, thus eliminating the capital needed for expensive improvements.
What would be necessary, first of all, was to separate completely the rainwater pouring down from surrounding hills, from the proper area of the salt pond. During the time we passed in St. Maarten we found that the water courses in existence could not absorb the total water flow, thus flooding the saltpans. There was a spillway constructed in the western barrier for fear of its collapse and, besides, the northern rainwater reservoir had been separated from the saltpans by only a very low dam.
Furthermore, the subdivision of saltpans lacked adequate differentiation between pans of more or less concentrated brine, and the final salt forming pans were too deep.
The first concessionaire, a Frenchman, A.F. Perrinon (1858), had envisioned an operation based on the ‘Salines au Midi’ in France as a model, but, due to lack of capital, failed to make a satisfactory beginning. Nevertheless, reasonable and even important salt production sometimes occurred under the existing conditions, when circumstances were favorable.
We observed salt production once in those two years which, although not remarkably abundant, cheered up all of the island. Willing workers, men and women, came to Philipsburg to lay by a little money. Salt pond and environs bustled happily with life for several days, from the wee hours in the morning till the heat of the day hampered busy work.
In those days it was not easy to get sufficient manpower because many workers went looking for work in Santo Domingo. Therefore production took longer and could barely be completed.
Production was contracted for in shifts, each one having its ‘captain’, ‘mate’ and six to nine sailors, some of them females. The men stood knee deep in the pans, purple with infusoria, and brought up the salt cakes by hand, carrying them on so-called flats, or small boats, to the nearest dam, and from there re-loaded and transported to the village on somewhat bigger flats. The salt was piled up there in the open air, encrusting it with a hard layer so that little salt was lost, even under heavy rain showers.
As far back as to the time when the pans were public property, each collector selling his salt to merchants at a low price, the situation of the working class was practically unchanged owing to payment by piece rate. Granting concessions did not explain the scanty results. On the contrary, if concessionaries had been doing a proper building job, its advantage to the industry would have been obvious.
Concessions granted were subject to an export duty, payable to the community, for each and every cask of salt loaded aboard ship. On the ship, measuring-casks were installed with measurement under supervision.
F or that matter, loading a ship provided an exciting spectacle. The salt was cut up from the pile with a pickaxe by the males. Bags were filled by women and children, to be carried on their heads to the lighters. Schools were not attended properly in those days and, though the work was rather heavy, I suspect that the little black fellows with smooth lithe bodies and big eyes in pretty faces would have liked it by way of a nice change. An overseer was always present, a shouting bully brandishing a small bough, reminding me of slavery, although the little ones did not seem to be bothered, what with their cheerful cries and laughter.
Just once we saw a ship from America arriving to fetch salt, a three master, M.S. “Emily”, measuring 600 tons and loading a quantity of 5000 barrels, rather a lot for St. Maarten. In former days ships arrived more frequently from the U.S., having unloaded some cargo in a nearby harbor and then taking salt back home as a return cargo.
However the higher operating expenses of the more modern ships made more efficient operation mandatory, not wishing to spend any more on the risk of a futile voyage. The quantity of salt taken away by a few schooners from the French Antilles did not amount to very much at that time.
Apart from salt, St. Maarten was a supplier of cotton and mules. In years gone by there had existed sugar cultivation in the ‘Grand Plaine’ but it was no longer remunerative. The cotton of these islands, known by the tradename of ‘Sea Island Cotton’, nevertheless was of excellent quality.
Well, so much for the economy. I do not want to be reproached for being far from complete in this coverage, so from now on I shall give you an idea of our stay in a remote island.
I dare say that we observed little direct poverty, for all the population’s subsistence being none too luxurious. People made some money out of working in the saltpans or on the estates of the whites. They grew food in the garden and eventually when displeased, they went out into the wide world for some time. Actually people in the tropics just have a few needs: fire, shelter in a casual way, and eating fish along with their own corn, yams or sweet potatoes to their satisfaction.
As a rule, whites and a happy few of the colored lived by business and the proceeds of their plantations, although one could not be too proud of its volume, which was usually confined to some downhill pastures and farmland – that is all. You found some cows, horses, donkeys and mules grazing on the land, each cow draped with opuntia leaves. Goats and sheep would be fooling about everywhere. Larger herds of cattle pastured in former cotton fields.
In the estates (a row of them were situated in the “Cul-de-Sac’ Valley) you usually found a country house: a one-story, low brick structure accessible via a wide outside staircase. Its furnishing was very simple: a couple of round or oval tables, some chairs – so-called rockers, most of them cane-bottomed – and a cupboard in some places. Guests were always given a genial welcome and served cocktails and pastry both homemade.”
‘Cul de Sac’, strewn with fine trees, made a pleasant impression despite houses and gardens not having been looked after properly.
Country estates were occupied only occasionally. People did not live there because all European families owned a house with business in the township.
One of the Van Romondt ladies ran a small bakery, though bread really would be food for whites. In the old days everybody took care of their own b read, but then we obtained it from the bakery. When she sometimes left for St. Kitts on a holiday, we had to do the baking ourselves, which became the so-called ‘journey-cakes.’ Butter, marmalade, tea or coffee could be had in one of the stores, but things like refined pastry were home-made items.