The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson


the_calm_sideLETTER    FROM   SWEDEN

By: Will Johnson

On February 2nd last I received an e-mail from Dr. Karin Simmons in Sweden which reads as follows:

Dear Will,

I am writing to give you some sad piece of news from Sweden. Gosta died peacefully on the 11th of January. He spent his last six weeks in a hospice in northern Stockholm where he was very comfortable and happy to be close to Petra and Richard and also his lady friend. The letter continues with information on his problems with cancer and then states: “I supported him in his work with the West Indies family history. Right now I am in touch with the Swedish National archives discussing where to house his material. I am the one with the best knowledge. Found this e-mail address among Gosta’s papers. We still have not got full access to his computer. But I hope this message reaches you. I am remembering with gratitude my visit to Saba and also your visit to Sweden. Love and best wishes from Sweden. Karin.”

Gosta Simmons and I go back through the generations to Governor Thomas Dinzey and through the Simmons family. Our correspondence started more than forty years ago. In his book “Labyrinths” the famous Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges mentions in a passage “for the innumerable ancestors who merge within me.” Gosta was on a sort of Don Quixote mission, but in his case that of genealogy to identify the innumerable ancestors which merged within him. Just a few months ago I had my last contact with him. I was aware of his problems with cancer. In that last letter he confirmed that things did not bode well for him. Around the time of his death he was strong on my mind. I even told Raymond Simmons, the sage of the Venezuelan branch of the Simmons family, that I should find out something about Gosta. My e-mail to Gosta went unanswered. I felt that something was wrong, and then I received the letter from Doctor Karin.

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Gosta Simmons here with a friend from Sweden at Juliana’s Hotel on Saba.

Gosta never published anything about his research. I have print-outs of much of his material which he would download and send to me. He also had his own website and face book , on which he placed many of his research documents. For him the joy was in the chase rather than in the capture.

His ancestor Abraham Simmons, like many other Sabans at the time, settled in the Danish island of St. Thomas in the early eighteen hundreds. There he became the Fire Chief and landed himself a good lay away plan by marrying the daughter of one Hardjemaal, a wealthy Danish planter with plantations on all three Danish islands. His son went to Kiel Germany, became a medical doctor, married a Swedish lady, returned to the Virgin Islands for some years and then immigrated to Sweden. In the early nineteen seventies while still living on St. Maarten I received my first letter from Gosta. He had been referred to me by Brigitha Abrahamsen, another distant relative in Stockholm who visited St. Barth’s frequently and was a member of the Swedish/St.Barth’s friendship society. Many letters followed. There was no internet then and so I had to delve into the government archives for Gosta which at the same time proved a learning process for me as well. Of course after the advent of the internet research became much easier and expanded. Gosta visited Saba at least four times to consult with me. I remember one night I got a call from him around 8pm. I said to him:”Man you did not go to bed yet?” thinking he was in Sweden. He answered: “No, but my time is your time. I am here at Scout’s Place and hoping to see you in the morning.”

Gosta was especially interested in the Dinzey/Simmons’ and related families, so he frequently visited St. Barth’s, St. Kitts and St. Thomas as well and had many friends on each of those islands. Families like the Pereira family on St. Kitts are also descended from Governor Thomas Dinzey, something which I learned from Gosta.  Through his research he is a national hero of sorts in the mulatto Walhalla of Santo Domingo. One of the white grandsons of Governor Thomas Dinzey, via the Dinzeys on St. Barth’s and St. Kitts had two sons by a black woman on St. Kitts. These boys emigrated to La Romana around nineteen hundred. Now you should know that if you like the female of the species, no better place to go to. One brother had fifty six children and the other thirty four. No one of the present Dinzey clan there disputes that, except as to which brother had 56. The Dinzey family became prominent there. Just an example as to how bloodlines flow. In October 2002, I along with my wife, my son Peter, my dear friend Elmer Linzey accompanied the Pony League little league baseball team from the Windward Islands to Santo Domingo. Despite they throwing big men with mustache like my grandfather’s, to play against our little ones, our team out of eleven games won something like ten. Of course we had taken a number of kids with us of Santo Domingo descent so we did have some advantage there as baseball is in their genes. Our team played in several cities like San Pedro de Macoris, La Romana, Higuey and so on. In El Valle a small city up in the hills while being received by the Mayor in his office, his attractive Vice Mayor looked in my direction and she said something to the Mayor. The moment the speeches were over they came over to me and asked:”Are you related to Doctor Dinzey of San Pedro”? The day before while looking up Windward Islands names in the San Pedro telephone book, I had come across the name of Dr. Dinzey and my thoughts had gone to Gosta and his research. I told them: “We share an ancestor from three hundred years ago.”


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Here at Gosta’s house in Nortalje Sweden in 1980.

In his ancestor quest Gosta traveled and visited with many of the prominent Simmons family members in the United States including Professor Eric Simmons who is in his nineties. Gosta also visited the archives in London, Denmark and The Netherlands. He linked up with a number of men and women who were similarly interested in West Indies genealogy.

I based the title of my article on a short story in Dutch by Mr. L.J. van der Steen from which I will translate parts:

“Have you ever heard of a name for the Fort on Saba?” Frans Brugman asked me in the fall of 1993 when he was in the Netherlands. Ir. F.H. Brugman, associated with the University of the Netherlands Antilles, hopes in September 1994 to take his doctoral degree in Delft on the buildings of Saba. “No”, I said, “no now that you say that, no. No mahn, we just call it the fohd”, in a certainly failed imitation of the Saban accent. But I promised him to keep a look out. That his question kept me busy day and night, I cannot really admit to.

And then the letter came from Sweden. A gentleman in a hamlet which is not to be found one, two, three on the map, ordered a publication of the “Natuur wetenschappelijke Studiekring voor het Caraibisch Gebied”, about the archaeology of St. Eustatius (Versteeg & Schinkel, 1992). That was no reason for a great surprise because the University Library of Stockholm is on the regular mailing list of the Society. But what did give reason for contemplation was the fact that the envelope, besides the formal order form, also contained a small yellow handwritten letter. In that letter the sender asked for more information on the Society. Furthermore he wanted to know if we had published anything else about the Windward Islands and namely in the field of history.

I looked once again at the name, and then the bells started to ring loud and clear. A name which on the hardly one thousand head population of Saba is only used together with a first name, as otherwise people would not know who you are referring to. I looked at the telephone book once again and indeed there were fifteen connections with the name Simmons. And how was that again, the Swedes had also had a colony in those parts? St. Barth’s, eventually French, but with the revealing name of the capital, Gustavia?


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Here on an island not far from Gotenberg with Gosta and his sister Karin

My curiosity was good for a long letter, which was promptly answered with an even longer letter. Mr. Simmons turned out to be an amateur genealogist, “a devoted tree climber,” as he described himself. It is true that he,” after almost fifteen years of devoted work had not found anything that actually proves my progenitor’s connection with Saba,’ but in the meantime he had collected a great deal of information concerning West Indian families. Moreover he was not discouraged, and was happy to have made contact with me. Perhaps I could help him to translate some Dutch documents of which he sent copies.”

This story by Mr. van der Steen though interesting, is far too lengthy to carry in its entirety here. The gist of the story is that from documentation in the Bancroft collection in which the name of the fort on Saba was “Fort Roadstead”.  This was clearly underlined in the documents of Engle S. Richardson when Saba surrendered to the Dutch on February 21st, 1816. Few people at the time knew of the Bancroft collection at the University of California until Gosta brought this to the attention of Mr. van der Steen.

Since that correspondence in 1993 Gosta continued his research, and did identify Abraham Simmons as his Saba ancestor, but research purist that he was he just continued on his ancestor quest until shortly before he passed away. A typical letter to me from Gosta last year (and there were many over the years), begins like this:

Hi Will,

I just got this message from Karin Tolan. There I see that she intends to get in touch with you and I just wanted to speed up the process. Besides, I attach a few Vanterpool files that I don’t think you have got before.

In the long letter he goes on to say: “Have I told you how much I enjoy your “Daily Herald” articles? I’m feeling the sweet smell of a new book – A Caribbean bestseller? If only I had been on the Nobel Prize Committee of Literature!”

Raymond, please remind me to dedicate the book “Under the Sea Grape Tree”, to Gosta when we get that far.

And Gosta, though I don’t think my style of writing qualifies for anything close to Nobel Prize material, thanks for the thought.  And to you my friend and distant sharer of the innumerable ancestors, who merge within me, farewell my friend, fare thee well, and may you rest softly.


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