Conch Shell Voices
Conch Shell Voices
by: Will Johnson
The use of a conch shell as an instrument to communicate with goes back to the early Amerindians who inhabited these lovely Caribbean Islands.
Many would be late sleepers around Windwardside would be happy to find out and to put a proper cursing on whoever it was who taught Percy Ten Holt to blow the conch shell.
This year will be thirty years that, promptly at 6AM the residents of Windwardside are reminded by Percy with his infamous conch shell that it is time to get out of bed and start a new day. That added to a night of tree frogs and crickets and the roosters who start off their own day with an alarm system set to go off at 5AM. Over the years Percy has had to fend off mostly complaints from late night revelers who were under the illusion that they could go to bed at 3Am and look forward to some hours of good sleep before having to contend with a hangover. Except, on Sunday that is, Percy’s conch shell blowing policy is “Never on Sunday.”
I am not aware of any in depth research having been done on the past and present use of the conch shell as a communications instrument. However I may be mistaken as there has been so much research done on such a variety of subjects that it just might be possible there is a book out there on the history of the use of the glorious conch shell. I remember once reading that a wealthy Norwegian ship owner had commissioned an antique book dealer to do research on books written about the art of tying knots in ropes on sailing ships. Well! The book dealer came up with no less than seven thousand titles written by learned people on this particular subject. Can you imagine? Seven thousand books on how to tie a piece of rope. So you never can tell. So for this article I will stick to what I know about conch shell blowing and about our friend Percy who reminds us every morning that it’s time to get up and go.
On Saba before the signal station was built on Crispeen at the home of Miss Marion Every to alert the boatmen of The Bottom to the approach of a vessel to Saba, there was a watchman at the Fort Bay to blow the conch shell for the same purpose. And if he was not there our West Indian schooners and sloops would be equipped with such a vital piece of communications equipment to do the same job.
Joshua Kenneth Bolles in his soon to be published book “Caribbean Interlude” edited by yours truly writes of his arrival on Saba on the sloop the “Lady Nisbeth” from St. Kitts in 1931. “I heard a cool resonant blast, and looking toward the bow of the boat, saw one of the black men in ragged shirt and trousers with a conch shell at his lips. The signal was one agreed upon. It informed the Harbormaster in The Bottom, a small village 800 feet above that a sail boat had arrived from the East with passengers and luggage.”
With all the artificial boom-box and other noises now no one would have heard the sound of a conch shell coming up from the Fort Bay to The Bottom. But back then there was a peaceful atmosphere all around and there was practically no noise other than when the occasional fight broke out and a flood of bad words drifted through the ionosphere and alarmed vale and dale with everyone screaming and shouting all at the same time.
On St. Martin in the early nineteen fifties I came to appreciate the sound of the conch shell announcing the arrival of the fishermen from the village of Simpson bay with fish for sale in the early morning hours. This was quite a happening and the early morning event broke the monotony of daily life in the town of Philipsburg nestled quietly on the beach of the beautiful Great Bay harbor. I can still remember the first time becoming aware of this tradition and walking down an alley to an area where on the beach negotiations were going on for the fish being brought to market. A “small” strap of fish went for twelve good cents (f.0.30) and a large strap was fifteen good cents. If you bought the large strap sometimes a lobster would be thrown in for free. They were so plentiful back then that people boiled them to feed their hogs with.
Now back to Percy, the main man of this story. His Dutch last name ten Holt came from his grandfather a colonial police officer. The officer’s full name was Harman Frederik ten Holt who was born in Hummelo en Keppel in The Netherlands on Saturday 26 March 1892, son of Derk ten Holt and Gerritje Wessink. On Wednesday June 2nd 1920 on Curacao he married Gertrude Elizabeth Bergland (age 25) who was born on Sunday September 9th, 1894 on St. Eustatius, daughter of Maria Bergland. Their son, also a police officer and stationed on Saba married Cynthia Hassell of Saba and they are the parents of Percy Ten Holt born on Saba on June 6th, 1944. On the ten Holt side of the family Percy is a cousin of the famous Dutch football player Patrick Kluyvert who is a grandson of Percy’s aunt. At the age of 13 he went to live on Curacao with his father Jan Wilhelmus Ten Holt. He also went to Holland for awhile. At the age of twenty he came to St.Maarten and started working for Spritzer & Fuhrmann N.V. He later worked on Curacao for Rockwell International and was sent for training to California and Mexico. He also worked in various casinos on Curacao as a dealer. Later on he sailed for three years on the “Yankee Clipper” a well known schooner which transported tourists around the Caribbean.
In 1980 he returned to Saba to live. At first he lived with his brother Frank Granger and then in 1983 he started living at the home of Peter Every up in the Mountain. Peter used to blow the conch shell from that location in a time when Saba had three horses and three telephones. Percy started working for Public Works, then worked as a taxi-driver and transported schoolchildren as well. He later worked for the Saba Marine Park for many years as Assistant Manager. When he stepped down as he had reached retirement age he continued to work as a security officer at the RBTT bank and now he works in the same position at the Saba school of Medicine. In his years of struggle good luck attended Percy twice in the year 1992. First his lottery ticker 33092 won the grand prize and secondly despite speculation that it would disappear like oil on a hot plate, Percy used the money to buy the home and much of the land of former Commissioner John Arthur Anslyn. He called on me to assist with preparing the documents and when they were signed he and I became emotional over his good fortune and consequent decision. His mother Ms. Cynthia Hassell and the rest of the family I had always been close to and so for me also it was nice to see that he had finally arrived at his earthly Walhalla.
. He is among others a brother of Marinus and as boys growing up in Windwardside we had many adventures together. One or two I will recall here for my readers.
When the contractor Jacques Deldevert was building the Roman Catholic school in Windwardside we boys were asked to break up large rocks into gravel for use in the construction. Each one had their own pile of gravel. On the morning when the contractor was coming to measure each pile of gravel I insisted that my mother wake me up at 4 AM. I know my people. I had calculated that by then Percy and Marinus would have reduced my pile to little more than a few pebbles and would have become tired and off to bed. By the time Percy and Marinus came around to witness the measuring of the piles some boys were aware of what was happening. I heard Percy in the distance tell Marinus: “something is up.” As they got closer he exclaimed:”Boy, Will got we.” Their two piles looked like Mars Cohone Hill and Old Booby Hill, while mines looked like Mount Scenery. I will abstain from adding the expletive deletives attached to this pronouncement and recognition of defeat. As a precautionary measure I had asked Mr. Deldevert to pay my father for me as I figured Percy and Marinus would hold me down and get the money back. After a few days we were back friends again and could make jokes about it. I even heard Percy telling someone the story ending it with:”Boy, Will humbug we.”
Another episode I remember is with Evered Jackson’s cow. On January 2nd, 1955 hurricane “Alice” passed by and left some twenty two inches of rain in a twenty four hour period. A sizeable lake formed in the Rendez Vous and the three of us decided to take Evered Jackson’s cow for a swim. The lake is known as “Jugglers Pool” after a boy who got stuck with something while swimming there and got blood poison. The lake has not formed again since then, but you can never tell for the future.
Percy tells me that on several occasions the police told him that he had to stop waking up people so early in the morning. Policeman Maria and Major Crips especially he remembers warned him on several occasions. The only compromise he was willing to make was to give people a break on Sundays. The curious thing is that his house which he bought from Commissioner Anslyn’s son is just a short distance across from the late Peter Every’s house in the mountain, so that he has the same amount of coverage of Windwardside as he did before.
Percy tells me that he is getting tired now and needs a successor. However he carries on and just as we have grown up with the roosters, the tree frogs and the crickets we have grown accustomed to Percy and his conch shell. In my large great grandmother’s mahogany four poster bed all the way up here in The Level I can hear the conch shell promptly at 6Am depending on weather conditions.
I resisted the temptation to Google anything about conch shell blowing. Now just before finishing this article I did so and you will be amazed as to how much attention has been paid by writers to this subject. I would not venture to take a bet if it comes close to the art of tying knots in ropes on sailing vessels but it is a lot. William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” features frequent references to “the conch”. In the book, the conch is used as a trumpet to call everyone together and held by whoever is speaking at meetings, symbolically representing democracy and order.
The famous old English riddle ‘Ic was be Sonde’ describes a conch; “I was by sound, near seawall at ocean-stream; I dwelt alone in my first resting place…Little did I know, that I, ere or since, ever should speak mouth less over mead-benches.” Another meaning given to this riddle ‘Ic was be Sonde’ is that the sound of the conch corresponds to spiritualized sound as heard in higher realms. (Like me up here in the Level in a higher realm than where Percy blows his conch shell from.)
In popular folklore, it is believed that if one holds an open conch shell to the ear, the ocean can be heard and the mermaids will whisper sweet-nothings to entice you to want to join them in their ocean realms.
Finally in Prakrit poetry, the conch has an erotic connotation:
a still, quiet crane
shines on a lotus leaf
like a conch shell lying
on a flawless emerald plate.
Percy, congratulations on thirty years of blowing the conch shell to the amusement of many and to the irritation of some residents of Windwardside village who have now grown to appreciate your dedication to this unusual form of alarm clock use for people wanting that sort of wakeup call or not.