The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson

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.


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