To the Island of Bequia
To the island of Bequia
By: Will Johnson
On April 20th, 2009, I visited the island of Bequia with my son Chris. The ferry from Kingstown, St.Vincent was a large one. As a matter of fact I was a bit surprised at the number of large ferries which service the Grenadines out of St.Vincent. The one we were on though large was rather slow and tossed about quite a bit. It took over an hour to do the nine miles between the islands.
I had never been to Bequia before. I had read somewhere though that some Saba people had migrated to that island in the eighteen hundreds. I also found in the archives here on Saba a document in which the colonial British government was encouraging people from here to emigrate to that island. I did not think much about it as I had never heard of anyone from Saba there.
However after visiting Bequia the following day in the meeting with the OECS Ministers of Tourism the young Minister of Tourism for St.Vincent and the Grenadines, The Hon. Glen Beache teased me that after the meeting was over we would have to talk passport. This after hearing me talking about all the family I had met there.
Here is what happened. When we arrived in Admiralty Bay I looked around the shore for the Frangipani Hotel. It belongs to the Mitchell family. The former Prime Minister “Son Son” Mitchell (Sir James) is from Bequia. He served as Prime Minister of the island chain for twenty years. I corresponded with him once and sent him a copy of my book about Saba. I also read his memoirs. I never did get to meet him in person. I was hoping that even though we were only spending five hours on Bequia that I would at least get to say hello to him. However he was off-island that day.
After having breakfast we saw a white man siitting there and everyone seemed to know him, so we asked him some directions. He said ;”Me not from heah, me ben here eighteen years. Me from Jammeny.” He was from Germany and had learned his English in Bequia .In the town we engaged a Taxi which was a pickup truck and decided to do a tour of the island. The driver would shout out from the inside of the cabin in order to give his tour. I had told him that I wanted to see the turtle sanctuary. He did his best to show us as much of the island as possible. When we arrived at the turtle sanctuary I saw Mr. Orton “Brother” King of whom I had read in “Destinations” magazine. I asked him if he was related to the King family on St.Kitts. I had not yet told him who I was. He said “I don’t know anything about them Kings on St. Kitts. I am a “Saybee”. And then he went on to tell me about his grandfather Robert Simmons who was the famous whale harpooner on Bequia and his other Simmons ancestors. He told me that he had been on Saba in 1984 for a few hours on a ferry. He had made it as far as Hell’s Gate. However he was disappointed that no one seemed to know anything about the Simmons’ family which he descended from.He said that he did see the plaque on Hell’s Gate dedicated to my uncle Captain Charles Reuben Simmons. I then told him that I was from Saba and that my mother was a Simmons. It was like a family reunion. His turtle sanctuary is at Spring Bay.
Brother King insisted that I must see Nolly Simmons before I left the island. So the taxi driver took us up to an area called “The Level”. Nolly is an architect, a builder and part owner of the stone quarry and other businesses. Nolly was in the process of building a new home with a fantastic view looking down to the town. I joked with one of the workers in the yard to go and tell Nolly that I had come to take him back home. Nolly is in his late sixties, early seventies. A tall ,brown skinned, man. When he came around the corner of the verandah he looked intently at me. He said:”I understand you have come to take me home? Well the only other home that I have is Saba.” After talking with him for awhile he asked me, “You wouldn’t be Will Johnson by any chance?’ When I told him yes, he said;”Man I have read your book about twelve times.” Brother King had complained to me that Nolly was hanging out with the girls down at the Frangipani Hotel. I did not ask Nolly but after I got home I speculated that he had gotten my book from “Son Son” James Mitchell. I guess Sir James had heard him talking so much about Saba that he had given him the book.
After the tour was over the taxi dropped us off at the Frangipani. Nolly was there waiting on us and took us back to the ferry. We had a callalou soup at the frangipani. When paying the bill I joked with the girls that I had come to take Nolly back home. One of the girls said;” Lord I hope you joking. Where you planning to take Nolly?” When I told her Saba she said:” Don’t tell him that. He is my boyfriend. All he talks about is this Saba where his people came from.” The ladies promised me that when the Frangipani closes down for a month in September that they will be coming to see Nolly’s ancestral home. Some years ago when I was Acting Governor a lady named Mrs. Drewy from Virginia came to see me. Her family was Simmons’ and had been in Virginia since the early sixteen hundreds. They own vast tracts of land there. She told me that she had never heard of Saba. She had been visiting Bequia as she understood there were Simmons’ there. At the bar in the Frangipani she had been told by the bartender that a man from the Dutch island of Saba had written a book about the Simmons’ of Saba. I always wondered who that man could have been. That is until I met Nolly of course. He confirmed that it was he who had told the lady about me. Also he knew Linda Garfunkel quite well .She used to have a home on Saba. Nolly told me at the hotel about his father the famous sail maker. He also told me about his ancestors from Saba who at one time had owned large portions of Bequia along with the Hassell family (now spelled Hazell there). On one of my trips to the United Nations with Mr. Xavier Blackman, the lady who is chairman of the Decolonization Committee Margareth Hughes Ferrera told me: “You don’t have to tell me about Saba, Mr. Johnson. My ancestor was Captain Hercules Hassell of Saba.”
Nolly also asked me if “Brother King” had told me why he had started the turtle sanctuary. I told him that we had been too busy talking family. Turns out that after the Second World War Brother King had been shipwrecked on a schooner. He was the only survivor. He was more than two days in the water holding on to a piece of the wreckage. He could see that he was drifting in to the island of Martinique. He was about to give up from exhaustion when he drifted into a bay on the Windward Coast of the island. However he dreamt that his brother was telling him not to give up. When he awoke he could feel the sand under his feet. However it was rough and he was so tired he felt he would not make it. All the while he was in the water some porpoises and turtles had surrounded him as if to protect him from sharks. A man from Martinique on his way home from work saw what he thought was a large turtle coming in to lay her eggs. He told his wife about it. He got a friend to go with him to turn the turtle. When they got there,”Brother King “was being tossed about in the waves just about dead. The two would be turtlers recognized his plight and saved him. Brother King then made a vow that he would do everything he could to save the turtles and that he is doing today.
When I got back home to Saba I sent both of them my books and I looked up family information for them. I also found a book “Under the Perfume Tree” edited by Judy Stone with several short stories about the islands.
One of the stories is by Peter Stone entitled “Marooned by Pirates” taken from a family history entitled “Ten Little Islands”, and I quote from the book:
“After the European explorers came the European settlers. They did not have an easy time of it. Based on actual events, this extract from the family history ‘Ten Little Islands” recreates the struggles of several pioneering Dutch and English families in the late 18th century. Bound for a new life in St.Kitts, the emigrants’ first experience of the Caribbean was to be chased by pirates and marooned on the sheer rock now known as Saba. Peter Stone, late of Trinidad & Tobago and a direct descendant of the heroic master craftsman Hercules Hassell, tells how the settlers eventually escaped the island; how they encountered free blacks, the slaver Zong and an abolitionist: and how Hassell came to establish the famous boat-building industry in Bequia.
“The Dutch merchantman Van Dyck, out of Rotterdam, was bound for Wilhelmstadt. There were Dutch passengers aboard and two English families picked up at Plymouth to be dropped off at St. Kitts. These latter were Devon folk, the one family consisting of a schoolteacher named Simmons, his wife and two teenage children, a boy and a girl, and the other family a blacksmith, Henry Newton, his wife and infant son. The vessel had made the crossing in less than five weeks, and was still going well when, rounding St.Maarten, she acquired a tail.” You will have to read the book for the rest of the story.
Also in “Emancipation School” by John Hazell we read the following;” Following its settlement by Europeans, the island of Bequia flourished, and so did the Dutch-English descendants of Hercules Hassell, the hero of the preceding account. In his brief autobiography “The Life of John H.Hazell, Hassell’s grandson, who was to serve as Speaker and later President of the Legislative Assembly, Assistant Justice of the Supreme Court and Member of Queen Victoria’s Privy Council, sketches a contemporary view of the developing society in this tiny island during the early 19th century. I will quote briefly from his book:” I made one or two voyages with my father in his sloop ‘Messenger’, having been still fourteen years old when, in 1831, I had assisted at the repairs of this vessel, working as an apprentice at the ships carpenter’s trade. My father taking charge of his sloop and returning to his occupation at sea, I accompanied him. But I proved a very bad sailor, and suffered so much from seasickness that, after a voyage to St.Thomas and one to Barbados, I sought and obtained employment in the grocery and liquor store of Alexander Glass Esq., a Jewish Scotchman, whom I served until the early part of 1834. I then sought and obtained employment in the lumber and provision business of Adam Skelly Esq., a Scotch merchant and dealer in estates’ supplies, whom I served to the day of his death in 1840. I finally closed his business in 1841. Having accomplished this I commenced my own career in business, of which I will write hereafter.”
The following memorial is placed at the Anglican Church in Bequia – “In Memoriam Hercules Hazell who died in September 1833 at the age of 84 years, and Elizabeth his wife, were among the early settlers in this island. Their son, Hercules Hazell died in September 1848, aged 63 years and with his parents is buried in this churchyard. His wife Elizabeth died in August 1869, aged 83 years and is buried in St. George Churchyard, Kingstown. This tablet is erected in their memory by John H. Hazell in 1876.
Another tablet reads: In loving memory of John H. Hazell who died at the island of Mustique 22 November 1886 and was buried at St.George’s Cathedral, Kingstown, aged 70.
If you ever visit Elizabethtown you will find Nolly Simmons at the bar of the Frangipani. If you want to hear history tell him that his cousin Will sends greetings from Saba. And now you know something about the “Saybees” of Bequia. The “Country Cousins” band, the Leslies will also tell you that via the Simmons’ they too have roots on Saba.
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