An interview with Edmond Johnson (known as Edwin).
Saba Herald of November 24th, 1984.
Edmond Johnson was born on September 16th, 1901, one of eleven children. His father was Henry Richard Johnson who died at the age of 88 in March of 1922 and he was the son of old Dora of Booby Hill. Old Dora was an uncle of Wilson Johnson.
Edwin’s mother was Helen (pronounced Helin) Johnson born Simmons. She was a daughter of Daniel Simmons and she also died at the age of 88 in 1945.
Edwin was married in February 1922 to Julia Every.
When he was 6 years old he got shot with pigeon shot from a muzzle-loader which was fired by Ralph Hassell and Udalrick Hassell. Also his brothers Jim and Lubin were shot but not as bad as Edwin. He was shot in the head. He was taken to the old hospital in The Bottom (where the Artisans Foundation is located) and was there three or four months. As a result of the accident he lost his sight in his left eye. Ralph was only 15 at the time and did not shoot intentionally. He was playing around with the gun and it was an accident.
Edwin left home when he was twelve years old to go into the world to make a living. He sailed from Saba to St. Kitts with the ‘Ethel’ on which Willie Witts [Hassell] was captain. From St. Kitts he took a tramp steamer named the “Caraquet” to Bermuda. There he worked on a dairy farm with his brother Percy. This farm was owned by a Bermuda Lady. At the age of 16 he returned to Saba and worked with his father on the land until the end of World War I.
After the war he returned to his same job in Bermuda and then in 1919 he went on to the United States. In Bermuda his job was to take care of and milk ten cows, take care of a horse and do all kinds of odd jobs around the place. He started working for 15 shillings a month. He says that the people there treated him good.
According to Edmond there were at the time, before World War I, several hundred Sabans, white and black, women and all working in Bermuda. The first people to go to Bermuda from Saba went on the ‘Annie Seymour’ a Saban owned schooner. Edwin’s father went along on that same trip. Edmond returned to Saba in 1922 in order to get married to Miss Julia Every and then went on again, this time to the United States. There he worked on dredges in Providence, Rhode Island. He remembers that Lowell Peterson’s brother stepped on the hatch of a ship, fell in the hold and got killed.
In 1932 he returned to Saba for a while. Then he was off to Bermuda again for five years and there he cut stones in quarries. This stone is used as the traditional building material in Bermuda. In 1938 he returned to Saba and started to farm. He used to keep up to six head of cattle at one time (three milk cows, one bull and two heifers). In those days you got $7.—or $8.—for a calf. Meat was sold at fls. 0.35 cents a pound of stew, fls.0.40 for a pound of steak and fls.0.30 for a pound of soup bones. When you butchered a cow it was sold in shares of 10 pounds and was $1.—a share (fls.2.50). Now if I am not mistaken it is $50.—a share for 8lbs of meat. Milk was 6 cents a pint. In my mind’s eye I can still see Edwin coming through Windward side with his animals trailing behind him bringing them home from wherever he had them tied out.
He mostly farmed, but in between he used to fish with his neighbor Cyrillis Leverock who owned a boat. Due to having to cut grass to feed the cattle he did not go fishing that often. When they farmed back in Edwin’s day they worked together in gangs, and would take turns working out each man’s land. In those days Tania’s were 35 good cents (fls.0.77’5) a tin. Sweet potatoes were the same. A “tin” was a five gallon can which was used to transport kerosene between the islands. Cous-Cous were fls. 1.50 a tin. Then, as now, they used to send up to Statia and buy their cattle. As far back as Edwin can remember they have been buying cattle from Statia, but during his father’s time they raised the calves here so there was no import or very little import of cattle into Saba.
Later on Edwin started a grocery store and also he went into the hardware business selling lumber, galvanize, cement and other building materials.
As for schooldays Edwin can remember that Daisy’s mother Gertrude Johnson [b.Hassell] gave lessons in Captain Tommy Hassell’s house. He also remembers Sister Bertranda and Sister Winfred when they used to give lessons.
Getrude’s husband was named Ben Johnson also known as “Ben Shunta”. He had a breed of goat called after him but the meat was ‘blue’ and unfit for consumption. He died before Edwin’s father, sometime after Edwin went to Bermuda.
Edwin went to Bermuda with “Mucka’s”[Edmund Hassell] father who was also going there to look for work, also Joe Ben (John Woods’ father), also Tina Johnson [Simmons’] brother John. Most of the Sabans then living in Bermuda farmed for a living. When Edwin was a boy the people still went back and forth to Barbados as well. According to him St. Kitts was the main island for trade and commerce. There was very little communication with St. Maarten in those days.
Edwin who is 83 hardly looks his age and he still works in the ground planting all sorts of things around his house and other properties. Mo matter who you ask will tell you that all his life he has been a hard worker. We wish him well.
When he passed away on January 3rd 1992, I was asked to do the eulogy for him which appeared in the Saba Herald.
In the eulogy I mentioned how far sighted Edmond’s parents were in giving him that Old Saxon name which means ‘Keeper of the Land’. You did not mess with ‘Grubs’ as his nickname was when it came to land and boundaries. Since land is so scarce on Saba boundaries are a source of contention which led to many differences of opinion and quarrels over the centuries. Edwin was the great defender of old pathways and boundary lines.
At his passing he left to mourn three children and their spouses, Ambrose and Esmey, Lucille and Ronny, and Angela and Samuel Guy. He also left to mourn 12 grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.
If one was to ask to name the hard working people of the island Edwin would certainly have been listed in the top five. He left behind a memory of life on Saba, being part of a large family and having to leave at an early age to work and return to Saba from time to time. May the memory of his life be held in esteem by the people of this island and his descendants!