The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson

Archive for the month “September, 2017”


Our own Commodore Thomas Simmons

By: Will Johnson

Image (25) He was born on Saba on April 4th, 1895 son of Margareth Jane Simmons and Joseph Benjamin Simmons. The sea was very much into his blood. His mother ‘Maggie Jane’ was born in New York to a Saban father who was lost in the North Atlantic and her mother was a Manning from Barbados. Many Sabans married into Barbados families back then as there was so much trade and contact with Barbados.

He also lost two brothers at sea. On a plaque in the Christ Church Anglican church in The Bottom one can read:” In loving memory of John Simmons, age 52, David Simmons, age 40 years, Richard R. Simmons, age 22 years. Isaac Simons age 16 years. Lost at sea September 1918. ‘We cannot Lord thy purpose see but all is well that’s done by thee.”

Capt. Tom Simmons 11  They were on the Danish registered schooner the ‘Blanford’ from St. Thomas. The vessel and its crew were lost coming out of Miami and bound for these islands.”

Like most young men of Saba, Commodore Tom Simmons, started his career at the age of sixteen on sailing ships through the West Indies and along the coast of the United States. Many of these schooners although registered in English territories (like Barbados), Swedish (St. Barth’s) and Danish (St. Thomas) were owned by Sabans many of them family of his.

He worked his way up to second mate on schooners and then joined the American Hawaiian Line as Quarter Master. In 1917, he went over to the Munson Steamship Line as third officer on the passenger Liner “Murio”. He later became captain and was in Command on the maiden voyage of the old 32.000 ton Argentina, as well as the new 22,000 ton luxury liner by the same name.

The old ‘Argentina’, under his command, was the first troop ship to enter the ports of Australia during World War II, and also to stand by for D-Day in England. He was captain of various ocean liners such as the “Western World”, the “American Legion”, the “Southern Cross”, and the “Pan American”. He later became Commodore of the Moore-McCormack Line. He spent fifty two years at sea and was awarded the highest decoration by the government of Brazil given to a foreigner.

Capt. Tom Simmons 10  On January 25th, 1963 the Director of Public Relations of Moore-McCormack Lines issued a release on his career with the company.

Commodore Thomas N. Simmons, friend and counsellor to a myriad of international travelers, culminates 50 years on the sea when he commands the S.S. ARGENTINA on her “Sea-Safari” cruise sailing from New York, February 13th. This 63 day trip will be Commodore Simmons’ last, as he has announced his retirement affective upon his return, April 17th.

And, coincidentally, another 50 years are celebrated in 1963 – the 50th anniversary of Moore-McCormack Lines, founded in 1913, one of Americas foremost steamship owners and operators, whose fleet includes the two new passenger lines, ARGENTINA and BRAZIL, and 42 modern cargo liners.

Capt. Tom Simmons The innate modesty of the Commodore camouflages a colorful career. To him all the flavor and excitement of the sea is not commonplace—far from it—but so much a part of his life that he accepts the unusual as the everyday, the crisis as the norm! The highlights of his career are people he knew and knows, and loves: The Duke of Windsor, Clark Gable, Bing Crosby, corporate presidents, Cardinals, artists, singers. Summing up, all are Tom Simmons’ “exciting moments.”

The Commodore was born on Saba Island, in the West Indies, of forefathers who were Dutch nationals of seafaring bent. He started his sea career in sail as a deck-boy on ships trading out of New York, Boston, the Gulf of Mexico and the West Indies.

After working up to second mate in sail, he turned to ships of steam as a quarter-master on the American-Hawaiian Line. He went into the South American run in 1917 as Third Officer on the Munson Liner ‘Munrio’ and has been almost continuously in that trade. Before joining Mooremack he had been in command of the passenger ships PAN AMERICA, WESTERN WORLD, SOUTHERN CROSS AND AMERICAN LEGION.

uniex-brasil-nyc  Commodore Simmons joined Mooremack in 1938 to take command of the old ARGENTINA on her first voyage to South America. During World War II, he continued in command of this ship while it was in military garb as a troop carrier. After the war, he and the ARGENTINA went back into the South American cruise trade until the ARGENTINA was retired in August of 1958. When the new luxury liner BRAZIL made her maiden voyage in 1958, Commodore Simmons was on the bridge. He also captained the first trip of the sister-ship- the new ARGENTINA, where he has remained.

Commodore Simmons wartime recollections are, he says, completely full of lack of excitement. He never mentions that his S.S. ARGENTINA was the first troop ship to carry U.S. troops to Australia, the first at Oran and among the first into England for stand-by for the D-Day invasion of Europe.

ARGENTINA (US)(1958)(Moore-McCormack) image 2 8x10 copy But one instance stands out in his memory; he was Captain of the old ARGENTINA returning with troops from Australia through the Caribbean during a period when enemy submarine action was particularly intense. At full speed, all precautions, red alert, a lookout spotted a raft. It was lonely, pitiful, occupied by one feeble scarecrow of a man. At the alarm, Tom Simmons turned his ship, slowed and —despite a natural reluctance to expose the ship, plus adverse comments from military experts aboard — quickly rescued the sole survivor of a torpedoing. Then turned the ARGENTINA back on her course and sped safely away. This act of mercy was typical of the Commodore. But more typical is his shrug of the shoulders in denying that it was anything “special” that anyone else wouldn’t have done.

Commodore Simmons last trip takes him amidst friends in the Caribbean port of Barbados, in Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. Thence he and the ARGENTINA sail to South and East Africa, thru the Suez, to the Mediterranean and homeward via Italy, Spain and Portugal. These are familiar friendly places to Tom Simmons, faces of friends whom he relishes visiting. At many of the ports, officials, old cronies, travelling companions and the ‘Simmons people’ are planning commemorative ceremonies marking the 50th and retirement year of service of Commodore Thomas N. Simmons.

A grandfather over a dozen times, Commodore Simmons enjoys his holidays at his home on Long Island. But the sea is part of him and anyone can see from his ARGENTINA that he is a man of the sea.”

Commodore Tom Simmons was married to Enid May Simmons by whom he had six children. Her father was Solomon (Butchy Coonks’) Simmons who was a captain of square riggers. Her mother was the daughter of a Scotsman who lived in Montego Bay Jamaica and she had two sisters and one son. The son remained in Jamaica while the daughters went to New York. One married Captain Cameron Dudley Simmons and the other one married Tom Simmons.

As mentioned earlier he retired in 1963 and later moved to Florida where he died on March 27th, 1970 at Palm Beach Gardens.



The Brick Building

By; Will Johnson


Last week I walked along the streets in Philipsburg to see if anything was left of the buildings I knew as a young teenager. What a pleasant surprise it was to see that the ‘Brick Building’ had been relieved of its coat of cement.

On a recent visit to St. Martin I decided to walk around the town of Philipsburg to see if anything from my youth there remained in place.

On the Back Street I was most pleasantly surprised to see that the cement plaster which had encased the ‘Brick Building’ of the Methodist Church had been removed. I was writing for the Windward Island’s Opinion in the nineteen sixties when the building was paved over with cement. I think it was the Reverend Muffett who did it. There was no public outcry at the time. Perhaps people preferred cement to brick. And perhaps like in so many other instances people had no interest in the history of the island or the wish to preserve that history. Like what happened to Fort Amsterdam. Or to Fort Belair where Peter Stuyvesant lost his leg and where I sleep when visiting my family. I will write an article on the loss of his leg and the story of the battle to regain the island from the Spanish. I believe that now more than formerly people, young and old, are more curious to know how things were back in the day. At least that is the impression enforced on me by my many supporters of “Under the Sea Grape Tree”. Everywhere I go on the islands people are running me down to tell me how much they enjoy my column and how they keep them.


The Methodist Church as it looked when completed in 1851 and started a new chapter in the history of St. Martin.

I have a large collection of books and photos of the West Indies in general and the Dutch Islands in particular.

With regard to the ‘Brick Building” I am consulting ‘A Hundred Years of Methodism in Dutch St. Maarten by R. Colley Hutchinson and ‘Memories of St. Martin 1852- 1926. By Josiah Charles Weymouth whose ancestor on mother’s side owned the ‘Brick Building’.

There was a time that I represented the Windward Islands on a National Committee to honour well known island personalities by issuing Postal stamps in their memory. When the time came to honour writers I chose to present Mr. Weymouth. However no ‘likeness’ could be found of him though I checked everywhere I could. I also wrote Rene Johnson who was residing in Florida at the time. He had been a student of Weymouth’s daughter Sue when she was a teacher on Saba. Like President Macron of France he took a liking to his teacher and they got married and moved to Aruba. Rene said to me that he did not have a photo but had a book which he mailed to me and said I was welcome to keep.

Years later when I wrote an article about the life of Josiah Charles Weymouth I received a letter from someone in England who claimed to be a grandson of Mr. Weymouth and could I return the book to his mother. Yeah I thought wait on it! This is the most prized possession in my book collection along with Steve Kruythoff’s original book from 1928 which was given to me by  Daisy Hoven-Carter Rey, a granddaughter of Johannes van Romondt who lived in Canada and with whom I was friends back in the sixties.


Mission House built by young contractor Lionel Bernard Scot in 1931. I have a photo of the old one as well which was a wooden building.

In his book ‘Memories of St. Martin N.P.” Mr. Weymouth writes the following:

“In the period mentioned (1785-1816) numbers were born and still in their teens. Many were full of maturity and had done duty in the Schutterij (National Guard). One of these, who in the year ’85 was in his 53rd year and whose name in that year, 1785, stands as Gezaghebber of this Netherlands part of St. Martin, was the writer’s great-great-great, grandfather, mother’s side – the Hon. Johannes Salomons Gibbes, who was father of Thomas Gibbes, who begat J.S. Gibbes Tz. Who begat Louisan Augusta Gibbes who was the mother of Suzanna Gibbes who from the matrimonial contracted with the Reverend William T. Weymouth in 1851 when Superintendent of the Wesleyan Mission here, was destined to be the parent of the individual who indicts these lines.

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Contractor Lionel Bernard Scot at a young age when he started out in business. He went on to become one of the most prominent and influential people on St. Martin and respected by all.

“It will be quite sufficient for us to say just here that the number of the Gibbes was legion; that they were men of prowess in arms and learning: did not shun encounters with the English when under Col. Nicholson and Tucker they had possession of the island. In the Courts sometimes, where there was always a strong Gibbes representation, their association with the English element was not always confined to peaceful argumentation. The legal prowess of the grand-son of the first J.S. Gibbes, who was the son of Thomas Gibbes was so great on the liquidation of his grandfather’s succession his wife, who was a marvel of frugality was able to produce and hand over to her husband such a sum as enabled him to purchase at the auction the large sugar estate then known as “Gibbes Sight”, and has remained in the direct line of Gezaghebber Gibbes’ succession ever since – being today the property of Mr. T.G. Weymouth a great grandson of the purchaser Mrs. Ann Burnett Gibbes,  and brother of the writer.

Tombstone of Commander Gibbes on St. Eustatius.

Thanks to Walter Hellebrand, Statia Island historian for providing this photo to enhance the article. The tomb of Commander Gibbes is on property now owned by Nu Star oil terminal.

After a life of 69 years, Gezaghebber J.S. Gibbes died and was buried by a party of the English garrisoned at “Statia” in 1802. He was Lt. Governor or ‘Commander’ of the island from February 5th 1785 until February 11th, 1792.

His devoted wife, Vrouwe Margaretha Stokvis, of Rotterdam, by whom he had 13 children, survived him at St. Martin 15 years and her earthly remains were in 1817 deposited beneath the sod in the cemetery of the Dutch Reformed Church of which a few years before Pastor Brill had been in charge and had baptized the infant Louisan Augusta her own great-granddaughter. Sorry we are to state that after a repose of one hundred and three years the remains of this good lady and six other celebrities were exhumed in 1920 and reburied at Little Bay.

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The ‘Oranje School’ when it was first built and which Mr. Weymouth wrote about. He was upset that the remains of his grandmother and other eminent people had been removed from the old Dutch Reformed cemetery located there and their remains were moved to the cemetery in Little Bay.

The event which furnished the occasions for these exhumations was the excavation which had then begun under architect Sass for the two massive concrete structures which have since been opened under the name of Orange Public School.”

The writer Wemouth goes on to list the various families into which the Gibbes were married and then continues: “It was during this Governor’s administration (Diederic Johannes van Romondt) that Methodism made such rapid progress. After the conversion of the Hon. George Illidge’s spouse Susan born Warner, it was an open secret that during the years in which the ministries of the Rev. Janion, Jeffreys, Rogers and Tregaskis were conducted in the island from 1822 to 1849, the Brick Mansion situated at the corner of the Back Street and St. John’s Alley which continued until 1857 to be, and was, in the 1820’s the residence of the Hon. George Illidge, was the favourite resort of the Methodist and no less of official circles. This it was that gave impetus and success to the efforts of

St.Masrtin Day by Day

St. Martin’s first newspaper published by Josiah Charles Weymouth. Lest we forget!

Christian workers.”

In ‘One Hundred Years of Methodism’ is recorded that: “The first Methodist preacher known to visit St. Martin was Parson Hodge, a free coloured man who had established a Methodist Society in Anguilla and who came to St. Martin in 1819. He preached to large congregations on the French side but not being looked upon with favour by the authorities, came over to the Dutch side. Some prominent ladies of Philipsburg are said to have disguised themselves by putting kerchiefs about their heads and to have attended his services. Among them was the wealthy Louisan Augusta Illidge, whose husband was a brother of the Lord Mayor of London, and one of whose sisters was the wife of the Viscount D’Arnauld, a French aristocrat. The daring lady is said to have driven through Paris wearing the white cockade when the city was in the hands of the mob.

The conversion of Mrs. Illidge was an event of importance and consequences. She became the ‘Mother’ of Methodism in St. Martin. Her residence, the brick mansion at the corner of St. John’s alley and the Back Street, was the favourite resort of the Methodist as well as of official circles. The Governors of those days, and particularly Governor P.R. Cantzlaar and the Hon. Diederic van Romondt (the first van Romondt to come to St. Martin), gave their hearty support. Mrs. Illidge rallied the English families among the settlers, some of them Methodists, and in all probability was the one who got protection for Parson Hodge from those who resented his preaching. During one of his services he was threatened by a band of people led by a lady with a cowhide whip, and he narrowly escaped being ‘tarred and feathered.’ Appeal by his supporters to the Governor resulted in a guard of soldiers being sent to keep order at his services.’


The Old Brick Building under French occupation in World War 11.

Thanks to Mr. Alfonso Blyden, St. Martin island historian and collector of old photo’s (like me) for this photo. I have a copy somewhere lying around but he made it possible to avoid a long search. With the occupation of Holland by the Germans in World War 11, the French authorities occupied the Dutch side and station their military here in the Brick Building. In a few weeks France itself was defeated by Germany and the defense of the Dutch West Indies was taken over the the British followed by the United States.

In a description of the effects of the 1819 hurricane goes on to mention:” In the Illidge mansion 4 feet of water effected its entrance into the basement and the remains of the old English Church were no longer to be seen.”

From this we can see that the brick building was already there in 1819. Lt. Governor Johannes Salomons Gibbes was born in 1732. The Brick Building was his private residence. In my book “For the Love of St. Maarten’ I wrote the following of the ‘Brick Building’.

“The ‘Brick Building’ situated on the St. John’s alley and the Back Street (which in the 1960’s was covered with a coat of cement plaster) is probably the oldest existing building in Philipsburg. It was the home of Mrs. Louisan Augusta Illidge, an early convert to Methodism and an active worker in the church. Her residence was a favourite meeting place of Methodists as well as of government officials before the Methodist Church was built by the Hon. Johannes Salomon Gibbes in 1785. In the hurricane of 1819 the water stood four feet deep in this old mansion. Between 1822 and 1849 the Methodists gathered there for services.’

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Mr. Weymouth’s home is the two story one sticking out over the sidewalk. It is there when he was already past seventy years that he wrote his book ‘Memories of St. Martin.’

Methodism has been a pioneer in education, and many schools in the West Indies bear witness to its energy and enterprise in the field. In St. Martin from the very beginning, schools were founded for the benefit of the children. In Philipsburg the Illidge mansion (Brick Building) toward the end of the eighteen hundreds was opened as a day-school by the Rev. Frederick Coward. Many still living in the island (1951) received their education there. The school was recognized and subsidized by the Government, the first teacher to be appointed being Mr. J.C. Weymouth. The school was unfortunately closed by the Rev. A.R. Kirby in 1914 for the lack of funds. Later attempts to re-open it were discouraged by the authorities because of the serious effect it would have on the Government School (Oranje School). The Brick Building now (1951) accommodates a Kindergarten school, which is being supported by the Department of Education, from which a number of children go year by year to the Government school.


The Brick Building when covered in cement. Postcard collection Barbara Cannegieter.

The Brick Building when it was cemented over. From the postcard collection of Barbara Cannegieter.

In the booklet “One Hundred Years of Methodism in Dutch St. Maarten” by R. Colley Hutchinson there are several references to the Illidge Mansion popularly known as the Brick Building.

“ A hundred years ago the Methodists of Dutch St. Maarten, a vigorous and growing community known in those days as Wesleyans, needed a larger place of worship in Philipsburg, the capital town, and a petition was sent to H.M. King William III of Holland, asking for a vacant piece of land known as ‘The Old English Church Lot.’ The site had been lying vacant since 1819, when a great gale wrecked many elegant buildings in the town and irrevocably ruined many of the sugar estates on the island.

I recall using the Brick Building on one occasion. Working in the Receivers Office, Sydney Lejuez, Joe Richardson and me, decided to start a debating club, so Sydney being a Methodist arranged for us to use the building. Some of Claude Wathey’s supporters stood outside looking in. I overheard one of them say:” This ain’t no debating club. This is trouble brewing.” As soon as Sydney finished explaining the purpose of the meeting Mr. Vincent Doncher stood up and asked: “what is the name of the new political party you boys are forming?’ Well that was the end of the debating club but all three of us served on the Island Council of the Windward Islands later on and Joe and I in many other political and appointed functions.”


Another view of the ‘restored’ brick building which was the home of Commander Johannes Salomon Gibbes and was built by him in 1785. A national treasure of St. Martin.

God Bless those who saw the need to bring back the Governor Illidge mansion built in 1785 back to life by removing the cement plaster covering the beauty of the ‘Brick Building.’


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