The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson

Archive for the month “July, 2018”

Ralph Simmons

Ralph Simmons

By: Will Johnson


Some of Ralph Simmons’ nieces and nephews who live on Curacao and who were visiting me at my home earlier this year looking up information on their ancestors.

After the 1969 elections when on the URA list I pulled 232 votes on Statia or 48% of the votes cast, the WIPM party thought that I should visit Statia as much as possible. We formed the WIPM in 1970. After that good showing we wanted to win the 1971 Island Council elections and we did.

When I used to go to Statia I would board by Mrs. Wilma Gibbs and her husband across the street from the Seventh Day Adventist church. They tolerated me and served me a hearty breakfast together with a room  for five guilders a night. When I say they tolerated me they were deeply religious and I can see them now reading their bible at night. I would come in at all hours of the night and with party members from Saba or St. Maarten and having indulged a bit too much there was much talking before everyone dropped asleep.

Across the street lived Mr. Ralph Simmons. When I first met him, I thought he was from Statia. He was from long before my time and had decided to retire on Statia.

Dr. Julia Crane besides Saba Silhouettes had also done a similar book on Statia. I was there when she was doing research and when her book was published in 1999 my friend Senator Kenneth van Putten sent me a personalized copy and he is also featured in the book.

For this article I will quote extensively from her interview with my friend.

Ralph M. Simmons, sailor

My dear friend Ralph Simmons sitting at his home on St. Eustatius. He lived next to the Seventh Day  Adventist church in Oranjestad and was to me a wealth of information on how life was in former times.

“My name is Ralph Milburn Simmons. I was born twenty fifth of July, nineteen hundred and twelve. I was born in Saba.

My father used to be a cook on the four-master schooners. He was named Augustus; my mother was named Rachel [Heyliger]. [ Marriage 13 April 1910; Bridegroom William Augustus Simmons (48) mother Catherine Heyliger. Bride Rachel Heyliger (24) father Laurence Heyliger, mother Clothilde Cappell].  Rachel’s father Laurence Heyliger (21) was married on 30.12.1885. His parents were; Father Gideon Godet Heyliger and mother Mary Every. His bride was Clothilde Cappell (21). Her mother was Christina Blyden and Clothilde is listed as a natural child.], they had five of us, three boys and two girls. I’m the second. The one that died in the United States, he was the first. Adrian, myself, Thelma, and George. But then my brother went to St. Thomas. The oldest brother [ William Adrian Simmons, born The Bottom 26 May 1910], when he was only about seventeen, eighteen. Then, those days, anybody could go in, but not now.

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One of a number of four masted schooners connected with Saba. This is the Margareth Truph which was captained by  Capt. Lockland Heyliger and also by Capt. Arthur Wallace Simmons both from The Bottom, Saba.

Adrian had a laundry/dry cleaning in Jamaica New York. He came to Saba in his fifties or so and built a house in The Bottom which upon his death I believe he left to Ralph. When Adrian would come to the office to see my brother Eric he would ask for the Kings Attorney. In my mind’s eye I could see the poor King being hauled off to Court and my brother having to defend him. Recently someone from the Public Prosecutor’s office told me that in parts of Holland they still refer to the Public Prosecutor as the Kings Attorney.

Adrian was married to a woman from Virginia and I don’t think they had any children. I remember going to visit him with my cousin Lenny who lived in Richmond Hill. Adrian lived in a large two-story brick building and must have done well with his business. He had been a member of the Seaman’s Union and took up a case for pension for my uncle Leonard and succeeded.

In his interview Ralph continues:” Our father died in Saba, in 1922, and I was living in Barbados with my aunt at that time. Cause my aunt had like me, and I lived with her. I went Barbados twice. And the first World War I remember seeing some o’ the soldiers comin’ home disfigured and all that. But I was just a small boy then. I was about seven years then. Yeah, that was the first time. And then that was around 1919 so. I used to go to Bay Street Boys School. They were pretty strict in school there, yes, pretty strict. I remember the teacher was a man by the name o’ Taylor. He used to teach the third class. Good fields to play ball on. But we didn’t play with no big boys; we played with just small boys in those days. And those boys, if they saw you was a stranger, they all looked to make trouble with you and tease you and all that, you know. And then my mother went up there with some ‘o the children, and things wasn’t so nice up there in Barbados. And then after that, as I told you, I came back to Saba with my mother. I think about four of us. Maybe the whole five, the whole five of us was up to Barbados. I was twelve years when I came back from Barbados. We came down on the schooner, got off St. Maarten, and then we came home. Well, the house was there for us to live in. It was a British schooner. The schooner was named ‘Florence Stream’. And then at that time our father had died, and after that we were there with our mother.

In recent years a number of children from Saba have been going to Barbados to further their education and they speak very highly of the schools there and the treatment they received at the University of the West Indies.

Ralph continues: “We had to help our grandfather with the cow. Never had more than one cow. We had to go and cut grass. And sometime we plant some potato, just in the hill above us. That was after we came from school in the evenin’ or early in the mornin’. Those days we didn’t go to school until nine o’clock. Nine o’clock in the mornin’ till twelve and from one to three. But at that time our grandfather was livin’, my mother’s father. And then after that we came a little bigger, about thirteen years, then our mother got in some trouble. Somebody stole something and they give it to her, and then she had to try and get out o’ the country. She went and she lived in St. Barth’s, and from there then she went to St. Thomas. The oldest boy and the oldest girl was there with her. And she died down there in 1926.

Then we used to go down on the bay and make a –well, you know, something they called a shilling. Make a shilling or two shillings sometime. We were still minors, and we stood there a couple of years after that. But that time our grandfather, his first wife, Clothilde, she died; and we had – he married a younger woman. And we used to live with her, the balance of us. But she wasn’t very nice. She was young, and she more keep with the younger sets. At that time, he used to sail on those schooners goin’ to St. Kitts and Sint Maarten. And then Curacao open.

Schooner Ina Vanterpool

One of the many schooners owned by Captain Charles Thomas Vanterpool which was lost at Oranjestad St. Eustatius in the hurricane of September 1928.

Then I got a job on the schooner that used to transport passengers to Curacao, what we call ‘Moose Boy,” to attend to the passengers. Five dollars a month in those days. But five dollars was plenty money those days. There were no real tourists, just immigrants, immigrants. The schooner used to carry immigrants down to Curacao to find work, you see. So in between you may find a couple-because they was no steamers those days. In between you find you find a big shot then would be travellin’. Those schooners would belong to Tommy Vanterpool. I don’t know if you heard about him. He died in St. Thomas.

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Captain Charles Thomas Vanterpool here in St. Thomas with his niece Mrs. Estelle Simmons-Vanterpool who was married to the harbormaster Capt. Engle Heyliger Simmons. The boy in the background is the later famous Dr. Eric Simmons who was a chemical engineer and worked on the Manhattan Project and was later a Professor at the University of Illinois.

And then after that I learned how to steer s ship. And then there was another schooner named the ‘Three Sister’, three masts.

A ship came in one day while I was down there, in Curacao, and they said they wanted some men. And I asked the Captain – the captain was named Will Johnson, from St. John’s [should be Will Leverock. Ralph must have had me on his mind when doing the interview]- and I asked the Captain to let me stay off, and he told me all right. And there I started my way up. Curacao was good in those days, those early days. Things were pretty cheap, very cheap. Sometimes a bunch of use used to live together. [Sabans would bunch together also in Bermuda and the United States in order to save money for back home].

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Schooner The Three Sisters owned by Captain William Benjamin Hassell and his brothers. Captain “Ben” had many fine schooners and he is the grandfather of Richard Goddard of Barbados of Goddard Enterprises.

I remember when we used to be sailin’ on those ships. The wages was seventy-five guilders a month. Every three months they used to give you a tin o’ butter, a five-pound tin o’ butter. That was good money! Good money those days. We used to go on a ship with our suit, suit and necktie. Change it when we get on board the ship, put on our working clothes. We used to go to Maracaibo. Every two three days so we come back. Two trips a week.

I stood a couple of years, came back to Saba then keep goin’ and comin’ Then finally when everybody said they was going I went to Aruba too, and I got a job on those Lago boats.”  He later sailed on a British tanker. He went to places Like Morehead City, North Carolina; to Tampa, Flordia; Jacksonville, all those places I went on the tanker.

He explains that he met his wife on Curacao and got married in’48. She were born in St Kitts- or Santo Domingo somewhere. [Pretty important question my friend Ralph forgot to ask].  But she came here to Statia. She knew plenty about Statia. They claimed that she was three years when she came to Statia. She used to work with the Pandts.You know the Pandts down by the Cottage? Well she used to work with them. And then she went to Curacao where I met her and we had four children.

Ida, Herman, Tommy, Maud, Mac Pandt

Members of the Pandt family for whom Ralph Simmons’ wife used to work.

In 1957 his wife decided to come to live on Statia where her mother lived and Ralph joined her the following year. He had been a housepainter on Curacao and claims that he was a heavy drinker. “ As I told you, I used to drink plenty. But then after I said, well it was all nonsense, it was all nonsense. People laughin’ at you and you think you was doin’ good but you wasn’t doin’ good.

Thirty-three years I haven’t drink a beer now.

He goes on to describe his trips after he started living on Statia. One of them was when he went to New York for the funeral of his brother Adriaan and all the Saba people he met there.

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This is the street  “Kerkstraat” lower down is where Ralph Simmons used to live. In 1961 I worked at the Post Office on St. Eustatius for two months and I stayed in the Guesthouse there and this was my view at the time. Many lovely memories from those days,

I used to go fishing in Saba pretty often, mostly nighttime. Sometime we leave –those were days when we didn’t have any motor. We used to set sail around one o’clock the day, reach down on the bank around four or five the evenin’, and then leave around 3 o’clock the next mornin’ to come back home. We had to pull oars. Sometimes we get a good catch. Twenty, twenty-five, thirty fish a night – each man, each man got. But them days fish was cheap, half guilder a pound. He used to fish with James Linzey, Carlton Heyliger, Kenneth Peterson and ‘Bowba’ . He also sailed with Captain Randolph Dunkin on the ‘Santa Lou’. He also used to sail as a moose boy on the schooner the ‘Virginia’ , and the ‘Diamond Ruby’ with Captain Charles Barnes from St. John’s who moved to St. Barth’s and had a big business there.

I can still hear his voice as I type this and hope that you will enjoy it and also realize how Sabans in the past used to move from pillar to post to make a living.



Living off the land.

By Will Johnson


Farmland in Rendez-Vous

Big Rendez Vous which was the breadbasket for the people of the Windward Side, Little Rendez Vous for those of St. John’s and The Bottom, while Hell’s Gate had farmland from the mountain all the way down to where the airport is now.

The older I get the more my memory goes back to my youth when we had to plow the ground for our survival. Nowadays very little is planted on the islands.

In the Governor’s report of 1934 for the island of Saba he records that for the first four months of 1934 one hundred bags of Irish potatoes were exported. Each bag weighing approximately 70 kg and the cost of the potatoes was fls. 12,50 per bag.

For this article I have consulted a number of books and over the years I have read many reports on the attempts to do something about improving the agriculture on these islands.

In their book “Windward Children” by John Y. Keur and Dorothy L. Keur they go into detail on the climatic conditions and the available acreage for agriculture on the three Dutch Windward Islands. The book was published in 1960 a watershed moment in the transition from what little agriculture there was to a fully tourism-oriented economy.

They write that the environmental factors of temperature and humidity are important for their effect on rainfall, evaporation, plant growth, labor output, and living conditions.

Temperature data for the three Windward Islands are either often incomplete, conflicting, or lacking. The following figures are taken from Braak (1935). The average annual temperature over the period 1920-1933 measured in Philipsburg, Sint Maarten, and Oranjestad, St. Eustatius, was 26.5C. No scientific data was then available for Saba, but the assumption may be made that due to the higher elevation, the mean annual temperatures would be lower there. Temperatures as low as 16* C. (61*F.) actually have been reported at Windward Side and Hell’s Gate.



Nearly every household had a cow in the yard. Here is Roy Heyliger and his brothers carrying the family cow to pasture.

At Philipsburg, the mean maximum temperature is 29.2*C., with the hottest period from July to October. Mean minimum temperature is 24.4*C., and the coolest months are January and February, which the Sabans call ‘winter’. The highest recorded temperature on St. Maarten was 34″ C. in August; lowest, 18.5 * C. in February.

I remember reading in the newspaper ‘De Slag om Slag’ where the Editor ‘Broertje Brouwer’ stated that it was 68* degrees Fahrenheit on St. Martin in the nineteen thirties and that he “shuddered” when he thought how cold it must be on Saba.

The islands are exposed to the trade winds which blow almost constantly, day as well as night, from the East – mostly from the northeast, but also occasionally from the southeast. The effects are noticeable on the vegetation.   The prevailing wind affects the planting of certain crops such as bananas. Winds also cause excessive drying out of the light volcanic soils, especially on St. Eustatius.



This is a lady and her daughter on their way from Colombier to Marigot and beyond to sell agricultural produce to the population.

Geographically, the islands are located in the hurricane region. St. Martin was badly damaged by hurricanes in 1819 and 1950. Not only was harm done to houses, crops, trees and livestock, but physio graphic changes occurred as well. In 1819 the sea opened up a channel to the Simpson Bay lagoon through the Eastern end of the Simpson Bay sand bar, thus isolating the fishing village from the mainland. Connections were maintained by row boat until a bridge was built in 1932. In 1950, this channel was again closed by shifting sands, and as the outlet from the lagoon to Anse des Sables in the North since the 1848 hurricane, the lagoon is now (1960) completely separated from the ocean. Recent government plans (1960) have been made to reopen the Simpson Bay Lagoon to restore it to its former capacity as a breeding ground for lobsters and some fish.

The mean annual rainfall on the islands, observed over a period of 52 years, is 43.3 inches. While in 1947 only 33 inches of rain fell, in 1945 nearly 55 inches were recorded. This amount may seem large, but evaporation is high, runoff great, especially on Saba, and volcanic soils cause fast percolation, as on St. Eustatius. Rain usually falls in short showers and is followed by rapid clearing. Precipitation is very erratic from year to year and month to month. Farmers have learned by experience that once in three or four years crops are likely to fail partially or completely due to lack of sufficient moisture.



A young boy looking with anticipation at the goodies which this lady has in her tray for sale.

Monthly averages also show great variation, viz. 15.8 inches in September 1949 and 4.5 inches in September 1950 (recorded on St. Eustatius). In connection with the growing of crops, the raising of stock, the character of the vegetation, and the availability of drinking water, the monthly distribution of rain is more important than the total annual precipitation. The “dry” months are from December to July when average monthly rainfall may reach a low of one-half inch while during any of the “wet” months, it may reach a high of 10-12 inches. As stated by Ballou (1934), ‘any wet month may be dry (I.e., one half inch during November 1947) and any dry month may be wet (I.e., 6.5 inches during June 1944). November is usually the wettest month (2-3 inches). Of the three islands, Saba has the greatest amount of annual precipitation. (+_45 inches), and St. Maarten and St. Eustatius slightly less (+_ 42 inches). In 1952-53 the island of St. Eustatius had the worst drought in a century and even had to import drinking water from St. Kitts.


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My brother the late Thomas Eric Johnson here milking his cow in the nineteen fifties.

With very little being imported into the islands before 1960 in the form of fresh produce and meat products the population was very much dependent on the local butchers. When I first knew St. Maarten starting in 1955 the best butcher here was Alexander Richardson of Middle Region known to all as “Alec The Butcher”. He had a fairly regular schedule. He bought up animals to supplement his own and would slaughter a pig every Tuesday, sheep and goats on Thursday, and a cow on Saturday. Some families slaughtered for their own needs, but many people living in town had no regular meat supply and were dependent on Alec The Butcher to bring his meat to town.

On Saba, a good many families in both The Bottom and Windward Side kept a pig or a cow in a small pen, and there were many wild goats as well. On St. Maarten, even in town, most people kept a few chickens for eggs, and occasionally for the pot; and some turkeys and a very few guinea hens were raised in the country. On Saba, goat meat sold at twenty-six cents per pound and beef at one guilder, early in 1957.



Cattle grazing in the fields on St. Martin where formerly several thousand head of livestock roamed the plantations.

There was a considerable amount of small-scale inter-island and inter-community marketing, of vegetables and fruits in season.

Among my first memories of St. Maarten are when the Simpson Bay fishermen would sound the conch shell and people would go down to the beach to buy their fish. But even more than that I remember the following. On St. Maarten almost any weekday morning six or eight women could be found sitting in the recess of a building near the square with small piles of tubers for sale supplemented by a few papayas, avocadoes, mangoes, soursops, pigeon peas, and fresh eggs. Wild fruits and berries were sometimes collected by children and used in the households and peddled. If a few mangoes or breadfruit were wanted from the trees on someone else’s property, it was customary to ask permission and to pay a few cents. Green vegetables were not much used in the diet, and the supply was quite limited. Some people used to have small kitchen gardens, but the most usual sight was simply a small plot of pigeon peas growing beside the house, and occasional pumpkin vine as well as corn and sweet potatoes.



On St. Martin in the early morning hours you would hear the fishermen from the village of Simpsons Bay blowing their conch shells announcing that they had fish for sale. Scene at Philipsburg. Photo Father Bruno Boradori.

On St. Maarten Mr. Alexander Richardson, who was also a butcher, grew enough to load his truck and go to Phlipsburg to sell. He raised lettuce, onions, tomatoes, carrots, eggplant, cabbage and cauliflower, as well as other vegetables in small amounts. A very few others had small gardens and were able to serve five or six customers in addition to their own households. Since most townspeople grew no vegetables at all, this supply was inadequate. Hence the “tray” women who came from Colombier, a fertile valley on the French side, were a most welcome sight. There were twenty or twenty-five of them, including a few from other parts of French St. Martin. They almost all came twice a week, early morning (Wednesday and Saturday) but sometimes, if perishable produce was ripe, daily trips were made. Until the late nineteen fifties, they walked distances of three to five miles daily each way with large flat wooden trays or big baskets on their heads. After that they would all ride on the bus. They would each have five or six regular customers, for whom they saved special items, and whom they would first visit. Sometimes they would be accompanied by one or two children who would do part of the hawking. They would also sell the produce of a neighbour or relative. The demand for their supplies was indicated by the group of people on foot, on bikes, or even in cars, who would go out to meet the hawkers at the Prince Bernhard bridge as they approached the town, in order to get the pick of the trays. Their produce over the run of a year, would include limes, oranges, mangoes, papayas, bananas, guava berries, lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, cabbage, pumpkins, gourds, avocadoes, peppers, okras and bunches of mint and sweet marjoram. They earned approximately ten Antillean guilders per tray, and occasionally up to twenty guilders, depending on the type of food for sale. While in a sense one might think this money belonged to the sellers, it was spent towards the support of their households. They almost all made purchases in the shops of Philipsburg before returning home and would spend between one third and one half of their mornings earnings. Purchases included such items as a piece of corned beef or pork for the soup, fish, white potatoes, rice, corn meal, flour, sugar, soap, sweet oil, small amounts of butter, lard, Vaseline and matches.



In Marigot the capital of French St. Martin cattle are being prepared for export to most probably Guadeloupe.

Years after I experienced all of this while staying at the home of Miss Browlia Maillard on the Back Street I read the book published in 1890 and written by Lafcadio Hearn. The book is “Two Years in the French West Indies” and is about the period he lived in that loveliest of cities in the West Indies, Saint Pierre in Martinique.

He describes ‘Les Porteuses” starting on page 101. “The erect carriage and steady swift walk of the women who bear burdens is especially likely to impress the artistic observer; it is the sight of such passersby which gives above all, the antique tone and color to his first sensations; and the larger part of the female population of mixed race are practiced carriers. Nearly all the transportation of light merchandise as well as of meats, fruits, vegetables and food stuffs, to and from the interior, is affected upon human heads. At some of the ports the regular local packets are loaded and unloaded by women and girls, – able to carry any trunk or box to its destination.”


Bennett Johnson riding the donkeySeptember 1964

The well known Benny Johnson (Uncle Benny) as we call him, here on his way up to Rendez Vous to help his father John William ‘Willy’ Johnson with the planting and taking care of livestock.  He is still into planting and raising livestock.

I could go on and on but will conclude with the observation that the independence and self-contained life of our three Dutch Windward Islands, pleasantly disturbed only at long intervals by the coming of a ship, is like a tale that is told.”





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