Will Johnson’s contribution to History and Culture in the Eastern Caribbean.
Sir Winston Churchill said: “History will be kind to me. I intend to write my own.” Another great figure of the 20th century Fidel Castro also advised:’ you have to write your own History.”
I have witnessed already that there are some who want to deny my history and others who would not want to give me any credit for what I have done in either the political field or in the field of letters and in the preservation of our past history in these our beloved islands of the Eastern Caribbean.
I was asked to submit a document to an organization which wants to honour me. In complying with this request I thought it was time and important to give a summary of what I have done and what I think important for my children and grandchildren to know and if need be to defend my legacy.
Not that I have been ignored. My name is so well known in the Eastern Caribbean and beyond first and foremost because of my political career.
I will give just a few examples. I remember once Mrs. Dinda Hassell-Dunlock telling me that she had been listening to the Saturday morning radio program of Mrs. Josianne Fleming-Artsen for children. When she asked the class who was the President of the United States one little boy said he knew the answer and before anyone else he shouted out: “The President is Will Johnson. I hear him every day on the radio.”
On Saturdays we usually have a West Indian meat or fish soup for lunch. Just as we sat down to eat the phone rang. I advised my wife not to answer the phone. But having children abroad going to school you always answer every phone call which my wife did. The call was from Mr. Erasmus William on St. Kitts. He was the former Editor of The Chronicle newspaper on St. Martin, and after that assistant to the then Prime Minister of St. Kitts/Nevis the Hon Denzill Douglas.
After exchanging greetings he said to me. “I am calling on behalf of our Prime Minister. We have some people here at his office and they have a question. I told the Prime Minister that the one person in the Eastern Caribbean who would know the answer to their question is our friend Will Johnson.’
I told him ‘Man you have a lot of confidence in me. I hope I do not disappoint.’
The folks in the Prime Minister’s Office were looking for the Somers Islands where their ancestors once lived. Erasmus said we cannot find them anywhere on the map.
I told him;” The Somers islands are the old English name for Governor Somers who was shipwrecked there and went on to colonize Bermuda.’
I heard the Prime Minister in the background asking; ‘What did he say? ‘And then:’ But I was there just last week and nobody told me that.’ When ending the phone conversation I said to Erasmus:’ Man you nearly put me on the spot! Suppose I did not know?’ Erasmus said: ‘Will I had every confidence that you would know the answer.”
Daniella Jeffrey, teacher/writer of French St. Martin also had high praise for my approach to history in a lecture which she gave when my book ‘Tales from My Grandmother’s Pipe’ first came out. She thought it great that I had approached history from the perspective of the contributions made by the native population, rather than highlighting the role played by colonial officials.
Because of my knowledge of history I have been asked a number of times to contribute to speeches to be made by officials.
I remember getting a call to prepare a speech for then Prime Minister Maria Liberia Peters when she was invited to speak at a convention of the People’s Action Movement (P.A.M.) on St. Kitts. She called afterwards from Curacao to thank me and to tell me how enthusiastically it had been received. Many young people had come forward to tell her that they had no idea how important a role St. Kitts had played in the Eastern Caribbean in former times.
I was asked to contribute articles to the ‘Libre Amicorum’ for three former Prime Ministers:’Juancho Evertsz, Don Martina, and Maria Liberia-Peters, and contributed in the research of the book on the life of Prime Minister Minguel Pourier. Many people young and old have been to my home for help in their research on any number of topics relating to these islands and I have always willing gave my time freely for their projects, from simple home work to a University thesis.
One of the many services to the community has been doing eulogies for prominent as well as ordinary citizens of the three Dutch Windward Islands. I may have done at least seventy five eulogies. Well appreciated. I remember once after having given a eulogy at the St. Martin of Tours Church in Philipsburg upon leaving the church a friend twenty years younger than me shouted out saying;” Will Johnson, when I dead I want you to do the talk for me.”
I thought this would be a good opportunity to publish a small history of my work and contributions to the Literature and culture of Saba, and the islands of the Eastern Caribbean. Since I am at it I will illustrate it with some appropriate photos as well because photos tell their own story.
While working in the Old Courthouse on St. Maarten I had a column in the ‘Windward Island’s Opinion’ at the insistence of its founder Mr. Joseph H. Lake Sr. This was in the early nineteen sixties already. From 1966 through 1968 I used to prepare and broadcast the Local News on the Voice of St. Maarten Radio station. I used to walk down to Fort Amsterdam under all kinds of weather conditions. Later Alcile Lake used to pick me up and bring me back to town after the newscast was over. I became well-known through that local news program and these many years later I still have the files from that period with the news items.
In 1968 at the request of Mr. Alrett Peters I started the newspaper ‘The Labour Spokesman’ for the General Workers Union. At the same time James Maduro and I started the ‘Emporium Review of St. Eustatius’ and I was its first Editor.
I also started the ‘Saba Herald’ which lasted for the next twenty five years. In the beginning I had Mr. Eddy Peterson and Mr. Alan Busby as Editors as I was already under pressure and stood to lose my job. However when pressure was applied to them I said everyone knows it is my newspaper anyhow so I took on the responsibility of being the Editor. These newspapers were all stenciled at the Union Headquarters in Cole Bay. I remember Alrett’s old father coming sometimes and sitting with me and I would read him articles which I had written. He would look at me in disbelief and say;” Johnson boy you put that in the paper in truth? “It was that kind of newspaper. Not one to please the
establishment but to oppose it.
In 1971 I started a column: ‘The Exile Speaks’ in the St. Maarten newspaper ‘The New Age’ of Mervin F. Scot. The column was hard hitting and became such a hit that the circulation of the paper increased by tenfold.
In one of the first editions of the Saba Herald in 1968 I advocated for Saba to have a National Day of its own. One of the first decisions I made as Commissioner in 1975 was to make a Government resolution to have the National Day organized for December 6th, 1975. As Commissioner of Culture I had a Committee put in place headed by Mr. Ray Hassell (later Senator Etc.), Mr. Frank Hassell and others. The first Saba Day was carried out as scheduled and very much appreciated by the people of Saba. The Government of Saba assisted by Committees were responsible for carrying on Saba Day and they still are. It is still enthusiastically received and appreciated by the people of Saba.
Saba Herald, December 2nd, 1968: “Did you know that December 6th is San Saba Day? We hope that if not this year that December next year, December 6th will be celebrated as a National Holiday.
In an article in 1970 I emphasized on how important it was for Saba to have its own National Day as was the case with the surrounding islands. A day in which to remember our hard working ancestors of the past. A day in which to showcase our culture and our handicrafts and so on. A day in which to encourage sports and in general to let the world know that we did exist as a people though small yet proud of what we had achieved and were still capable of achieving.
In 1971 in a thirteen page memo to my W.I.P.M. party colleagues, among the many suggestions one was: ‘December 6th, is San Saba Day. Provisions should be made for this to be a day of festivities and could be developed into something nice with folkloric plays
In the month of May 1985 I was asked to be Chairman of a Committee for Saba to have its own flag, coat of arms and national song. This had to be done on short notice and I personally prepared all the legislation for the flag, coat-of-arms and national song. This was not an easy task and as Chairman I had to do a lot of arm twisting to get the final design of the flag and coat-of arms approved by the Island Council of which I was a Member. The Lt. Governor Mr. Wycliffe Smith, the Commissioners Vernon Hassell and Peter Granger helped to push the initiative and even though politically we were not on good terms and in the middle of an election they were full of praise for the end results. It was a glorious moment on December 5th, 1985 when the people of Saba witnessed for the first time the unfurling of the Saba Flag. I appreciate very much to see how young people especially going abroad to school appreciate their flag.
In 1977 I was able to purchase the house and property in Windward Side and to start the Harry L. Johnson Memorial Foundation and Museum as a tribute to the work which he had done before he died to preserve the Maritime History of Saba.
In those years I would also prepare and give out the Local News on the Voice of Saba when Miss Pauline Paul was off island.
As a result of my research I decided to publish a book of my own. Not only of oral history. But backed up by research in the archives of Willemstad, Curacao and The Hague Holland.
My first book was.
- Tales From My Grandmothers Pipe, followed by
- For the Love of St. Maarten
- The Diary of a St. Maarten Salt Checker
- Dreaming Big
- Co-author of Caribbean Interlude.
- I was also one of the contributing editors of ‘De Encyclopedie van de Nederlandse Antillen.’
Even before 2007 I used to contribute articles of historical interest to The Daily Herald newspaper. At the suggestion of Wim Hart in 2007 I started a regular column for which he suggested the title: ‘Under The Sea Grape Tree’. I have now enough material to publish five books based on that column alone. I would even say that more than my political career this column has made me well-known in the Eastern Caribbean islands.
2013 I started a blog ‘The Saba Islander’ which in the first two years had more than one hundred thousand visitors from countries from all over the world. I include in my blog articles from all the islands, and not only of Saba. A little bit of politics but I try to resist that as much as possible as I have an International audience who would not be interested in local politics.
Over the years I have encouraged and assisted others with their books. I encouraged Dr. Johan Hartog to translate his book ‘De Bovenwindse Eilanden’ into English and Mr. Frank Hassell did the translation. We also pointed out to him that several claims he had made in his Dutch version were not based on fact. Saba has always been an English speaking island.
Also I have letters from Dr. Julia Crane thanking me for my help with her books ‘Saba Silhouettes” and ‘Statia Silhouettes’.
As I write this I am about to review a book for a University in the United States at their request. It is about Saba and I am flattered that I a poor island self-educated boy get regular requests like this one.
With my interest in history and genealogy for many years I did research on the history of the Sulphur mines and located a possible claimant to the lands. After getting an agreement from her that she would transfer the lands to the people of Saba I passed over my dossier to the Saba Conservation Foundation for completion.
In 1999 as Acting Lt. Governor and Chairman of the Island Council I included in the ordinance a clause that no buildings were allowed in the Mountain above the five hundred meter line. It is my hope that government will not be tempted under any circumstances to change that and deface our mountain.
aba Lace. I have written a number of articles on Saba Lace which were carried in newspapers and Magazines in the USA and for a period of time I was a correspondent for the New York Times when they would produce articles on the Caribbean.
Raymond Simmons asked me to be a board member of the Facebook site ‘Of Saban Descent’ which has become very popular and a source of preservation of histories and old photos of Saban families of yore.
My own Facebook page is very popular because of the old photo’s I post of the Islands.
Most of my activities are self-financed. The Prins Bernhard Fonds has helped me with donations to help with the publishing of my various books and the Saba Government has purchased some copies for distribution to dignitaries coming to the island.
At my age I still spend several hours each day on the computer doing research, and also reading books of interest to Saba’s history and I always seem to find things which I believe would be of interest to the people of these islands. I continue to be involved with researchers and students in answering questions pertaining to their field of interest. Over the years I have also been helping people with their family research and with property title research. This takes up lots of my time.
In 1999 a speech which I made to the Island Council of Saba as Chairman at the time to celebrate fifty years of Universal suffrage, was later used on a tapestry in the Hall of Knights in The Hague.
In 2014 I received an award from the St. Martin book week group organized by Mr. Lasana Sekou and Mr. Suga Reiph in recognition of my contribution to the literature of the Windward Islands.
In ending this first draft I would like to give a small story from my brother Walter Frederick Martinus Johnson, a lifelong teacher and in his spare time agent for Windward Island’s Airways. He said something in a public setting which I thought he should not have said and I told him so. His answer was ‘At my age if I cannot say what’s on my mind and what I want to say, when will I ever say it?’ A few months later he was no longer in the land of the living. The very least I can do for my descendants is to defend my legacy.
And finally my great-great-great- grandfather Governor Richard Johnson stepped down at the age of seventy in 1831 with the reason: At my advanced age and disability I want to respectfully tender my resignation.’ I later discovered that at the age of ninety one he was still signing old documents for later Governors as to what he knew about property
transactions all the way back to the West India Company lands.
Whatever time is left to me I only wish for good health so that I can continue doing those things I love most and I wish to thank the many thousands of people who still give me
encouragement to continue writing and speaking out!