The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson

Archive for the month “October, 2017”

Harbour Master With No Harbour


by: Will Johnson



This is how passengers and cargo were carried out to the waiting schooners. At the right the attempt to build a pier in 1934.

This reminds me of once on Statia I went to a Chinese restaurant after a funeral. I asked for a cup of coffee and it took some time before the owner came out of the kitchen and informed me: “Have coffee but no have cup.”

Formerly it was fashionable in magazines and newspapers in the United States to spread several myths about Saba. The island had a mysterious allure about it as to the origin of the original European inhabitants and how they survived. From the days of piracy to several years ago boat building was a tradition on Saba. The press in the USA had boats being built in the crater of the volcano and lowered over the sides of the cliffs surrounding the capital and launching them into the sea. This of course was not true. Smaller boats were built in the villages high up on the side of the mountain and then they were dragged along the old footpaths down to the sea. Larger boats including schooners were built on the Tent Bay, the Wells Bay, and up by Giles Quarter close to where white cedar groves provided some of the lumber with which to build. Records show that schooners up to more than sixty tons were built here. They were registered in places like Tortola and St. Kitts.


H.M.S. Martin part of a British fleet passing Saba in 1893. Painting by G.S. Good. Crown Copright: U.K. Government Art Collection

Even in recent times the author of a book on building of sailing craft in the Leeward Islands claimed he came to Saba and had spoken to an old man at a bar who claimed to have never heard of any boat ever being built on Saba. His research consisted of a half day visit to Saba and then he flew back convinced that he had solved the age old question of whether or not boats were ever built on Saba.


Leslie Johnson - Jul 1964

July 1964. Leslie Johnson here with one of the many fishing boats which he built.

The other myth was as to the origin of the European majority population up until recent times. My research indicates that when a Spanish fleet captured St. Kitts from the English and French settlers in 1628, they allowed the Irish indentured servants, who were also Roman Catholics, to leave and settle elsewhere. Oral tradition has it that a group settled above the Well’s Bay and named the two villages they established Palmetto Point and Middle Island after two villages where they had lived on St. Kitts. Of course being local does not count as being a historian despite my entire life doing research into the history of my ancestors. So some of these know-it-alls have me writing make believe history to make the Saba people feel good. These people , the first settlers, maintained links with French and English people ,also from St. Kitts, who settled on the island of Tortuga located North of Haiti. They turned to piracy to harass the Spanish and the Sabans joined in happily to claim some share of the loot.


Schooner ‘Ester Anita’ belonging to Captain William Benjamin Hassell of Saba here docked close to the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. A number of Saban owned schooners maintained a regular service between the Caribbean and New York carrying salt, sugar, molasses and passengers and bringing back lumber, dry goods etc. as well as passengers.

After being routed from Tortuga by the Spanish the pirates in 1655 joined Oliver Cromwell’s capture of Jamaica and settled in the new pirate Kingdom of Port Royal. From that pirate nest in 1665 a raid was made on St. Eustatius and Saba by Edward and Thomas Morgan uncles of the notorious pirate Sir Henry Morgan. Edward died of a heart attack in the capture of St. Eustatius. The pirates fought among themselves as where next to proceed to and ninety of these pirates remained on Saba and added to the English and Irish settlers already on the island laying the foundation of an English speaking people for centuries to come.

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Marion Hassel of St. John’s manning the signal station at St. John’s. From that location the boatment of The Bottom could see when a ship was approaching the island, from which direction and the type of ship.

With a settled population Saba had boat building and boat traffic and so there was some control needed. Gradually this evolved into appointing usually an old sea captain to do the duties of Harbour Master even though there was not much of a harbor to speak of.


029 - Saba-1956-58 - Bringing up the boat-03

Up front Guy Johnson and Hartley Jones assisted by others helping Kenneth Peterson carry his newly built fishing boat from the Windward Side to the Fort Bay.

However there was quite a bit of traffic to and from the island and this required some sort of supervision. In the old records there is to be found much data on the comings and goings to the island. A Saban local councilor Erroll Hassell in the nineteen thirties was able to get money put on the budget, despite the Island Governor’s objections, to build a real road from the Fort Bay to The Bottom and on March 17th,  1947 the first motor vehicle, a Jeep was landed at the Fort Bay and changed the history of Saba considerably. The small landing craft which brought passengers and cargo to shore were used by the local boatmen until 1972 when the new pier was put into use. For hundreds of years these boatmen did a wonderful job. Also Sabans acquired a respectable fleet of schooners from New England which carried mail and passengers to Curacao and also as far away as New York, which goes to show there was a need for a Harbour Master indeed.

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Sloop belonging to Red Head Joe Simmons and built at the Fort Bay by Mr. Lake being readied for launch. Schooners up to sixty tons were also built on Saba in former times.

Sabans travelled a lot and saw how things were done in other countries. There was even a direct bi-monthly schooner service with New York of which much has already been written. In the old archives when local people could elect two local councilors to work with the Island Governor these councilors often pleaded for a proper berthing facility to be built at the Well’s Bay. Nothing ever was done about it due to a lack of finances.

Finally in 1934 an attempt was made at the Fort Bay to build a ramp on the large boulders which extended out into the sea. The job was carried out by hand and the contractor was the now famous Lionel Bernard Scot a contractor from St. Maarten. The idea was to carry it out further and tie in the ranging rock into the construction but local expertise and lack of funds prohibited such a venture. It would still have not been of

Hartog Collection - Saba - dept. Arubiana/Caribiana - Biblioteca Nacional Aruba

The dotted lines show how the final plans were intened to be. A sea wall was built by the first dotted lines but did not last very long so the plans were abandoned. Perhaps it was a good thing as that would have been considered enough to last Saba for gerenations to come.

much use. Luckily it did not go through as that would have been all that Saba got.

In the nineteen fifties an attempt was made by the Island Government to build yet another pier with primitive planning and construction methods and that too led to nothing. Years before that materials from Curacao had been landed at the Ladder Bay to build some kind of pier there. It never went through and up to several years ago there were iron piles lying along the shore at the end of the Ladder road.


July 19th, 1938 Erroll (Hassell)  put his name in concrete on one of the walls coming up from the Fort Bay. He was the man who as local councillor was able to get funding to build the road from the Fort Bay to The Bottom.

Finally a Dutch harbor expert was sent to make plans for a real pier on Saba. The present site was not considered the best location for the pier. Locals suggested that it would be best to build it up by the Black Rocks near the ‘blue hole’ as that area was shallower and

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Minister Leo Chance being greeted by Sister Agatha on the opening of the pier named after him on November 8th, 1972. Will Johnson leader of the WIPM government (in dark glasses) looking on.

indeed it is.

The Dutch expert thought it would be too expensive to bulldoze the cliffs but years later a local Mr. Walton Hassell pushed through those cliffs with a bulldozer in less than a week.


Dominican Nuns here getting ready to go for their annual vacation with the government schooner The Blue Peter at the Fort Bay.

The present location has been damaged by several hurricanes, and the last time when a construction company from Trinidad rebuilt the pier it has withstood all the hurricanes threw at it.

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First motor vehicle, a Jeep, being landed on Saba on March 17th, 1947. Driver is Mr. Oliver Zagers of Hell’s Gate.

In 1970 approval was given by the Dutch Government to build the pier. The various local governments had been pushing hard for the Netherlands Antilles Government to do something about it. When native born Leo Chance became Minister at the end of 1969 he was able to get the monies released by the Dutch Government for the construction and the local WIPM government decided to name it in his honour and on November 8th, 1972 on the Minister’s fortieth birthday it was opened with much pomp and with the participation of the population.

Over the years with all of the increase in hurricanes the pier has sustained much damage. Consideration should still be given for a plan to be made for a good harbor at the Black Rocks for yachts and tourist ships.

Schooner Priscilla

One of a number of fine shooners owned by Captain Thomas Charles Vanterpool of The Bottom, the ‘Priscilla’. She traded with Curacao and also with New York on a regular basis. For more information on this article and other stories see my book:”Tales From My Grandmother’s Pipe.

So Saba has a real harbor now and the harbor master Mr. Travis Johnson does not have to fear that he will be ridiculed that he is a harbor Master but has no harbor.

Will Johnson





Sir Emile Gumbs


BY: Will Johnson


Visiting Sir Emile Gumbs at his lovely home in Sandy ground and presenting him with one of my books.

I was passing through Miami airport (May 22nd, 2010) on my way back from Guatemala when I got a call from my friend Sir Emile Gumbs, former Chief Minister of Anguilla.

I have known Emile since 1977 when I was Commissioner and Acting Administrator of Saba. Anguilla was to receive its new status with England and I was invited to attend the ceremony. He was Minister of Communications and Works in the Ronald Webster led Government at the time. Emile occupied leadership positions in politics in Anguilla for twenty seven years from 1967 to 1994 when he retired from active politics. My wife Lynne, my baby son Teddy and I stayed at the guesthouse of Jeremiah Gumbs. No close relation of Emile’s, Jeremiah was quite a flamboyant character and played a part in the Anguilla revolution. Emile took care of us and gave us a tour of what was then Anguilla. He and his Canadian wife also had us over for dinner in his ancestral home in Sandy Ground. The old generator which gave him some light a few times a week was from an old schooner. It was a noisy affair and he told me that he gave lights to his immediate neighbours who were elated to have a “naked” light bulb in the house. A couple of times during the dinner he had to run downstairs with his young son Laurie to turn back on the engine while we sat in the dark waiting for the lights to come back on. At the time Anguilla had no electricity, a series of bad dirt roads and no such thing as a restaurant. On St. Maarten people used to make fun of the Anguilla people about these things. One story told was that someone from Anguilla who worked in St. Thomas had brought back with him electrical wires and a light bulb. He wired his house and installed the light bulb in the ceiling. He then invited his neighbours to witness the miracle he had seen in St. Thomas. At the appropriate moment he turned on the switch and of course no light came on. Another one was that a man working on Aruba received a letter from his mother in Anguilla telling him that she had a wish to taste this thing they called ice. He wrote her back and told her not to worry that when he came home he would make her wish come true. When he arrived home and opened his trunk the ice he had packed had melted and soaked everything inside the trunk. His mother’s wish to taste ice had to wait for another day. (Blame Allan Busby for this one “tis he tell me so.”) Well no one can make such jokes about Anguilla now. If you listen to Bill O’Reilly then Anguilla is the place to be and the joke now is on St. Martin.



Sir Emile Gumbs showing me a photo of the famous schooner the ‘Warspite”.

Emile’s wife was not amused to hear that little Saba had four restaurants (if you included Bugaloo’s place) and 24 hour-a-day electricity. But of course that was the period when Anguilla had just got out from under St. Kitts. It is rumored that Great Britain gave money to build a pier on Anguilla and that St. Kitts had built the pier at Sandy Point and named it the “Anguilla pier” as there was where the schooners and sloops docked up from the neighbouring islands to pick up cargo and passengers.

Emile and I had an indirect family relationship in that one of his uncles was married to Genevra Simmons, a cousin of my mother’s. Emile’s uncle died in a fire in the LAGO oil refinery. I think it was when the German U-boats attacked the refinery during the Second World War He left Genevra a widow with two small children who are Emile’s first cousins. She later married a doctor from the Dominican Republic if I remember correctly. Genevra was one beautiful woman and kept her beauty well into old age when I first met her in Richmond Hill, New York many years ago.



Sandy Ground Anguilla where Sir Emile Gumbs lives.

I have the good fortune to have been personally acquainted with and friends of all the Chief Ministers of Anguilla, starting with the Honourable Ronald Webster who I knew from when he owned Mary’s Fancy plantation on St. Martin and long before the revolution. I was a sort of field marshal for Claude Wathey and Clem Labega when Anguilla had its revolution to break away from St. Kitts. I used to work in the Receivers Office downstairs in the Old Court House. One day Ronald came and said to me that Claude had sent him to me to explain about elections. That is the way Claude operated. If things failed my head would have been on the block as Claude would have said that I got myself in trouble by interfering in Anguilla’s business. But when it succeeded Claude got the glory. But that is the way things work in the world. Anyway I told Ronald to meet me at Capt. Hodge’s Guesthouse after work and I would explain him everything. As soon as Ronald left I rushed up by the Census Office and Mr. Constant Williams and Mr. Jocelyn Arndell gave me all the details on how elections are conducted and that a referendum (unknown to us at the time) could be organized in the same way. By the time Ronald came to meet me, I was the expert on how to conduct a referendum. That was as far as I was involved in the Anguilla revolution. All I know is that there were four people voted against secession from St. Kitts and some sixteen hundred voted to secede and Claude got the glory for the good advice and support he had given to Ronald. He did of course and since I was just a subordinate I carried out orders. And guess what. It was a learning lesson for me applied in later years to some of my subordinates.


Aerial view of the West Side of Anguilla.

I am also good friends of the present Chief Minister the Honourable Hubert Hughes and the recent Chief Minister Osborne Fleming.

I have been invited on a number of occasions to Anguilla Day and was able to renew my acquaintance with Emile. I remember once being invited to a St. Martin Day celebration and staying at the Grand Case Beach Hotel. Emile was there and expressed great admiration for my book “Tale’s From My Grandmother’s Pipe”. He as an old schooner captain himself and had known many of the former Saba captains and their lovely schooners. As a matter of fact when he called me in Miami it was to tell me a story of when his great grandmother died in 1936. As an eight year old boy he was privileged to go on board the Saba schooner the “Marion Belle Wolfe “( sister ship to the “Mona Marie”) so that his folks could negotiate to carry back some people to St. Kitts who had attended the funeral of his great grandmother. At that time large Saban owned schooners used to carry salt from Anguilla to Guyana and some of them were also involved in carrying workers from Anguilla to work in the cane field of the Dominican Republic. One of those Captains was Capt. John Leverock Johnson a great-uncle of mine who was the father of Romney on St. Barths. Emile comes from a long line of schooner captains and shipbuilders. His mother was a Carty (sister of the well-known West Indian Methodist Circuit preacher the Reverend Leonard Carty). As a matter of fact the house in Sandy Ground in which Emile lives belonged to his grandfather Capt. Arthur Carty.

When I went to Anguilla in 1960 after hurricane “Donna” with the M.V. “Antilia” together with Lt. Governor Japa Beaujon the schooner the “Warspite” was in the harbor. It was still there when I visited in 1977. When I told my uncle Captain Charles Reuben Simmons (then in his eighties) that the “Warspite” was still around he said that the older I got the stupider I became. He claimed that the “Warspite” was an old schooner already when he was a little boy and that there was no way the schooner could still be around.



Reverend Leonard Carty of the Methodist Church and uncle of Sir Emile Gumbs.

On another occasion for St. Barths Day Emile Gumbs, Leo Chance and I ended up that night in a restaurant in Gustavia swapping old time stories. Emile told me several stories which I don’t think he will mind that I pass on. When he was Captain of the family owned schooner the “Warspite” he used to transport salt from family operated salt pans on Anguilla to Trinidad for use in the oil fields there. On the way back he would transport general cargo between the islands. On one of those trips back up from Trinidad the pump on his schooner went bad and he had to put into St. Vincent on a Saturday night. The following day being a Sunday with all stores closed he went ashore and was informed that a Portuguese descended St. Vincentian might be able to help him with a new pump. So he went by the house above the business and told his story. He did not have enough funds with him to pay for the new pump. The storekeeper asked him if that schooner in the harbor was the “Warspite” by any chance. Long story short, when Emile told him that it had been in the family for more than fifty years already (built in 1905), the storekeeper told him to take the pump on credit. He said that any family that could keep a schooner that long and still looking like brand new could be trusted to pay for a small item like a pump. On his next trip down to Trinidad Emile stopped in at St. Vincent and paid for the pump of course.

Marion_Belle_Wolfe_headed to Guyana 1952

Marian Belle Wolfe on her way to Guyana from Barbados.

Emile told me the story of how the schooner the ‘Warspite’ was built. A John Thomas Hughes  who was a young carpenter in Anguilla bult the schooner. He as a young boy asked the Saba Captain Will Leverock of the schooner the ‘Marian Belle Wolfe’ to take him to Lunenberg Canada so he could learn ship building there. He spent seven years in Lunenberg. He had no money so the captain took him free of charge along with the load of salt he had bought in Anguilla for Canada. Upon return to Anguilla he built the Warspite for Van Buren Lake owner of Blowing Point. He used a bad piece of lumber which Hodge insisted he must put in the boat. After 5 years -it rot- then Emiles grandfater Carty bought the schooner and had it sawed in two and officially named it the ‘Warspite’ It was owned by Johnson Emile Gumbs who was manager of a sugar cane

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For many years the ‘Warspite’ used to carry and bring back the Anguilla lighthouse keepers to and from the island of Sombrero.

plantation on St. Kitts and Arthur Romney Carty was the Captain.

Another story he told me on that occasion which I may have mentioned before, but which belongs with his story is the following. He told me that once he was transporting a load of lumber from Sandy Point on St. Kitts to Mr. Cyrus Wathey on St. Martin. Late afternoon the French Canadian Roman Catholic Priest then stationed on Anguilla boarded the schooner. Emile offered him supper but he declined saying that he had just shared a meal with his colleague the Catholic Priest at Sandy Point.

On arrival in the Great Bay harbor the next morning Emile offered the good father some breakfast. He however decline as he said he would most probably have breakfast with the Roman Catholic priest in Philipsburg. Emile told him that he would send the small boat to pick him up exactly at 12 noon as he would be finished with unloading the schooner by that time. He told the priest that the Roman Catholic rectory was located opposite the church and sent him on his way.



On the left of the parked car is the home of Mr. William Benjamin ‘Wille Bee’ Peterson where the mix up occured with the priest from Anguilla.

Promptly at noon the priest was picked up on the beach and brought back to the “Warspite”. Emile told me that the priest was laughing when he came on board and told him how embarrassed he was as to something which had happened to him ashore. When he went ashore there was a Mass in progress. He did not want to disturb the Mass and besides he was feeling quite hungry by then. He reckoned the Dutch priest would not mind that he helped himself to some breakfast. This was in the early nineteen fifties and no one on St. Martin ever locked their house then. So the priest entered the house across the street and found the kitchen with a well stocked refrigerator and with a stove. In those days they would have been a kerosene fridge and stove. My mother, a six foot one inch woman and good looking besides, had cooked on wood in the yard most of her life. When my older brother’s bought her a, two burner kerosene stove and a second hand kerosene fridge from her first cousin Eugenius Johnson, she said that she could now die in peace as she never expected to have such luxury in her house. Try and ask a woman to cook on wood today or even on a kerosene stove.

Anyway I got sidetracked as usual but when the priest sat down to breakfast, he looked up and to his amazement a good looking young woman seemingly perplexed was standing there staring him down. His first reaction was: “What would the priest be doing with a good looking maid like that?” Upon enquiry as to whether she worked there she informed him that she lived there. Worse yet! He said “You mean you live here with the priest?” She answered him:”This is my house, the priest lives next door!” It was one of the Peterson girls (daughter of Mr. William B. Peterson) whose house was opposite the church where Boolchand’s is next to the Roman Catholic Rectory. Emile said he and the priest had a good laugh over the embarrassment which the good priest went through. But it all ended well as the young lady let him finish his breakfast of eggs and bacon and then took him next door to meet the local priest. For me it is always nice to meet up with people like Emile and swap old time stories. He is 82 now he informs me. I remember having lunch at Governor Huckles official residence in the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) in Port Stanley in 2007. The Governor was in London but his wife Helen graciously hosted us and together with the Military Commander gave us a tour outside the town to see the penguins, seals and other wild life. At the lunch we discussed Emile’s upcoming 8oth birthday and the pleasant times the Huckles had enjoyed with Emile and his family when Governor Huckle served on Anguilla.

Regrettably the “Warspite” was lost during hurricane “KLAUS” in 1985. For many years the old schooner had the contract to carry the men from Anguilla to work on the lighthouse on Sombrero. Emile can tell you any number of stories related to that period.

Sometime back his son Laurie was on Saba with a boat and called me to convey greetings from his father. There was insufficient time to pass at my house. I have not seen him since he was “knee high to a grasshopper” as they would say.

I have many good friends in Anguilla. People like Maurice Conner at whose guesthouse I stayed for a week with my family in the eighties when it was just built. I have many fond memories of visiting there. Even had the privilege of being a guest at the famous “Mallihouana Hotel” on no less than two occasions and carried there by Chief Minister Osborne Fleming himself. Once when I was a guest for Anguilla Day, Emile came to the airport to see me off and to present me with a nice book on Anguilla’s history. I informed him that the government had given me the same book the day before and that he should give the one he had brought me to another friend of his. When I got home I saw a familiar person with a Panama hat sitting behind the Honourable Ronald Webster. I realized that it was a photo of me taken on the occasion of a previous Anguilla Day. I called Emile to check it out. I told him that even Anguilla could not keep us Saba people out of their business. We had a good laugh about it.

Ever since I used to issue clearances for the Anguilla captains at the Receivers office on St. Martin in the early nineteen sixties, I developed a great deal of respect for the enterprising spirit of the Anguilla people. I later became friends with the various airplane pilots like aforementioned Maurice Conner and the late Captain Lloyd who died tragically and who was then much too young. That enterprising spirit of the Anguilla people is still there. I recall an interview on television lately in which the Honourable Osborne Fleming on going into retirement informed the Anguillan people that a bank he had started with five million dollars now had assets of 700 million dollars and that it had been legally done, and I believe him. Such are most Anguillans.

Although I have known Emile for so many years I have never enquired after his business. He lives contentedly with his second wife, a lady from St. Vincent who he had a

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Traditional sail boat racing on Anguilla.

crush on as a young man.

Like all true Anguillans Emile loves the traditional sail boat races and lives in Sandy Ground close to where the sailing action is. He can give an expert assessment on the chances of the various boats to win the race, the right wind conditions necessary, and the skill of the boat crew to bring in the gold. May he enjoy many more years in his beloved Sandy Ground on beautiful Anguilla.


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