COMMANDER JOHN PHILIPS
1691 – 1746
HERE LYES THE BODY
OF THE HON’BLE
LORD OF ALMERY- CLOSE
GOVERNOR OF THE ISLAND
OF ST. MARTINS
WHO DIED ON THE 17TH DAY OF DECEMBER 1746
58 YEARS OF AGE
With so many of St. Martin’s historic monuments and memories of the past having been lost I feel that old information needs to be recycled for the generations of our time. You cannot erase the historic fact that European people came to St. Martin built settlements, forts and the salt works were started, as well as sugar plantations, trade with the surrounding island and much more. The inhabitants of today need to know that the island has an interesting history.
One such person who comes foremost to mind is John Philips. You will wonder, who is this man and what was his role in a new town being built and named in his honour. And the curious thing is that he was a Scotsman and became the Commander of the Island belonging at the time to the Dutch West India Company.
Around 1560 one can find recorded a Henry Philipe registered in Arbroath (Aberbrothock) in Scotland a preacher in the Scottish Church. Parson Philipe had a son (James I) and two daughters. James came into the possession of a rural estate named Almryclose or Almerieclose with a house in Arbroath.
James (I) Philipe, had a son. James (II) and a daughter; he died in 1634. James (II) married in 1653 to Margaret Grahame a granddaughter of Sir William Grahame, a cousin of the Marques of Montrose.
James (II) had three sons of which the oldest was also named James, thus the third such name, furthermore Walter and Peter. James (III) was born in 1654 and studied law at Edinburgh. He married Jean Corbit in 1684 and was the builder of a large manor house, with gardens, orchards on the mentioned estate. The name was after that known as Philip without the s.
James (III) had two sons; James 1V and John the latter born in 1691. When James (III) died around 1725, James (1V) succeeded him as owner or Lord of Almryclose and John went into business. He visited the Caribbean perhaps already in 1718, because in that year he married Rachel Hartman born in Amsterdam, but living in the then Danish Island of St. Thomas. John remained however stationed at Arbroath.
When he decided in 1721 to definitely move to the West Indies, he transferred a factory (of what is not known) to his brother James (1V) and purchased a vessel called the “Providence”. James (1V) died however childless in 1734, and John thus inherited the estate Almeryclose. He became what is a Scottish word, Laird which means Lord or owner of Almryclose.
The definition “Lord of” does not indicate nobility. John hardly bothered with his possessions in Scotland. After his death in 1746 the estate came into possession of John’s only child, Susanna. This girl who was born in 1720 in Scotland, wanted to marry on St. Martin to the Scottish merchant Alexander Wilson, against which her father John, then already Commander, made such objections, that he imprisoned his expected son-in-law, because Wilson had made a promise of marriage and was accused of kidnapping Susanna after that. However, the two lovers managed to escape St. Martin and got married elsewhere, presumably on the island of St. Kitts by parson Devens. The married couple Wilson-Philips after that went to Scotland; Alexander Wilson established himself as a merchant in Glasgow. After the death of Commander John Philips, it was some time before Susanna could claim the inheritance of her father, but in 1752 she became the owner of Almryclose. The following year she sold the estate to Robert Barclay.
In the documents consulted in Arbroath (Hartog) the name appears without an s at the end. In the documents in The Hague it appears with an S. So, it is easier to maintain the version of the spelling in the archives in The Hague because of the role he played on St. Martin.
On St. Martin John Philips was the owner of the plantation ‘Industry’. It was sold to Mrs. Kolff and later to Mr. L.C.L. Huntington.
According to Commander Abraham Heyliger who as is known belonged to the anti-Philips group, some people accused Philips of evil conduct (quade conduites) , as written to the Gentleman Ten in 1733, who were the Directors of the West India Company in Amsterdam. And M.D. Teenstra writing on this subject one hundred years later brought forward a document in which Philips was mentioned as very proud and stingy. (He was from Scotland, wasn’t he?)
There was a very confused situation in the islands after the death of Commander Jacob Stevens in 1727. The provisional Secretary John Lindesay became provisional Commander and had already been accused of embezzlement on Curacao. Lindesay together with Doncker Jr., and the deceased Commander Stevens (by their marriages were brothers-in-law to each other). They governed the head island St. Eustatius as a sort of triumvirate. The tax Inspector John Meyer in a remonstrance to the Gentlemen Ten stated that they, just like Caesar, Antonius and Lepedius characteristic of their reign in the Rome of Old, also would right away talk of hanging and burning.
In July 1728 a new Commander Everard Raex, stationed in Curacao was appointed Commander to put Statia’s house in order (sound familiar?).
Lindesay and Donker as well as parson Anthony Kowan made a complot against Raex. They called themselves the ‘black ties. Lindesay was arrested and put in a cistern but managed to escape to St. Kitts.
His assets on St. Eustatius were sold and here is where our John Philips enters the picture. The triumvirate on St. Eustatius had depleted the assets of the company and Raex in order to collect moneys due to the West India Company from the French islands delegated John Philips, Commander of the Regiment on St. Martin, a Scot, who had been residing on St. Martin for some time already as a merchant, to collect the debt.
John Philips left on March 4th, 1729, to Martinique and after that visited Guadeloupe where Isnard, one of the culprits who had depleted the Company’s funds on St. Eustatius, had fled on arrival of Raex as Commander. On May 21st 1729 Philips returned. He had not been able to get the money released which was due. His travel expenses, daily allowance guesthouse allowance and transportation were comparable to your average civil servant of today and were cause for complaint by the company.
Even though they complained about the expenses the directors thought to show their appreciation by promising to appoint Philips as Commander of St. Maarten. Raex gave him a guarantee in writing to this effect. In 1722 the question of Commander was solved. De Windt, who was being searched for by the Company for theft and all kinds of irregularities, just walked away from the job in April. Old Meyer had the West India’s Company possession of St. Maarten all to himself. But not for too long. Philips back from his trip to the French islands encountered opposition from St. Maarten when he proposed building several fortifications with a head tax. Hereby he lost the confidence with the citizens who shortly before that had elected him to civilian military commander. Those who were not satisfied chose Jacob Barry (or Berry) as Captain Lieutenant. Philips who felt humiliated blamed his dismissal on the work of Vice Commander Meyers. The relationship between Meyers and Philips, already not too good, did not improve. Because Philips knew that upon Meyers’ death, that he Philips would be Meyers successor Philips made it difficult for Meyers in every respect, often by doing petty things, such as making loud noise during the night.
With the death of Meyers in June 1733 the difficulties took a turn for the worse. Raecx of St. Eustatius in the month of February had also passed away as well and was succeeded by Johannes Heyliger. Whether he knew of the promise made to Philips from the Company or that he did not consider Philips capable enough is not known. But he appointed as Vice Commander of Sint Maarten Jacob Barry, the man thus who had replaced Philip as civic captain. Philips and his supporters tested the possibility to unleash a popular movement on the motive that Sint Maarten was ripe for self-government and should break away from St. Eustatius. (Saba had already tried this in 1699).
When the plan did not work Philips took it upon himself to go to Holland to try and find justice there. The Directors could do little else but give Philips the position they had promised him; but by way of compromise, they maintained Barry as Vice Commander. It was therefore clear, that, when Philips, who by this decision suddenly had been placed over his rival, once he returned, that this would lead to greater problems.
During Philips’ absence Barry proved to be a good administrator. He did his best to put the government affairs in order, and paid attention to the defense works, and did not do that which had cost Philips his job, namely to have the citizens pay for it, but turned to the directors, who indeed sent him some means to carry out the task.
On February 16th, 1735 John Philips returned to St. Maarten via Scotland where for some time he had been indisposed due to illness. Immediately the expected and sometimes deep personal related problems started up. Indeed, the directors eventually dismissed Barry, but they allowed him to remain on the island which became a new source of conflict.
Philips was now Commander of Sint Maarten. Before that time the administrator of Sint Maarten was Vice Commander. In the new situation the independence from St. Eustatius became a fact, and Philips and his supporters through this decision of the Company had gotten their wish after all.
According to Dr. J. Hartog during Philips’ term as Commander (1735-1746) Dutch Sint Maarten experienced a period of prosperity. The population rose sharply between 1715 and 1750. The population quadrupled (to some 400 whites and over 1500 slaves). There were 35 plantations. The French side was going through a depression. There were no more than 40 whites living there.
There being nearly 2000 inhabitants on the Dutch side, the question of overpopulation became an issue even back then. Because Philips’ started out from the premise that St. Martin as a whole would prosper by it, if the island was under one flag, he suggested to the Company to buy the French part of the island. He believed, he wrote, that the Company would be able to obtain it for 150.000 guilders. His letter was never answered. In the 18th century the Company did not think anymore of expansion. Philips however persisted. In 1743 and again in 1745 he sent reminders drawing attention to the fine plantations which might be obtained for a bargain. Just before his death in 1746 he succeeded in convincing his colleague at St. Eustatius to go along with his idea.
Philips did a lot for the economy of Sint Maarten. He revived the neglected salt making industry and saw to it that more mills were installed. The island was sparsely populated back then and the plantations were only cultivating sweet potatoes, yams and cassava (subsistence farming), whereas sugar, cotton, and coffee were a promise of products which could be exported. Philips succeeded in persuading the estate owners to plant these crops and encouraged foreigners to settle in St. Maarten. Some 200 colonists from elsewhere responded to his call. He also had an examination of soil conditions carried out. It was not his fault that the results were disappointing.
Philips name lives on in the name of the capital of Sint Maarten. A separate article from my book ‘For the Love of St. Martin’ will deal with the history of the town. Another article will deal with the rebellion by Peter Hassell against Philips.
“……Philipsburg, all aglow with the ruddy hues from the setting sun, lies placidly between two waters. On her Southern flank the deep blue waters of the Great Bay, streaked with the lighter hues from hidden sand bank shallows – ripple gently to the shore; on her opposite side a fringe of hills are mirrored hundreds of fathoms down beneath down beneath the unbroken surface of a lake.” From Sunny Isle on a Sunny Sea.” by Helen C. Crossley, later on Mrs. S.J. Kruythoff.
September 12th, 2018 Will Johnson