The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson


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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