The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson





Commander John Philips

Often, I go back in dreams to that beautiful town locked between the shores of Great Bay and the once Great salt pond. Looking back, it is now like a tale that has been told.

I have written many times on my first experience of coming into that beautiful blue sunlight bay with its white sandy beach after leaving the turbulent dark waters of the island on which I grew up on. No flight of imagination could have prepared me for the sight in front of me when I crawled out of the hold of that old sloop. Many hours of sailing in turbulent waters and not knowing what to expect left me totally unprepared for the scene in front of me. Something which I still carry with me in my dreams after all these years. I have this recurring dream of wandering through the streets of old, lost among the wooden buildings trying in vain to find another soul. Then I wake up all aglow with memories of beautiful days spent with friends enjoying life as it was thrown at us.


What the town looked like in 1955 when I first saw it.

In my book “For the Love of St. Maarten” I did a good deal of research on that lovely town in which I considered myself privileged to live and to share with friends.

The town was named for Commander John Philips part of whose life story I recently wrote, and to which I will return in this article.

It is claimed that when Columbus arrived at St. Martin, the sandbank on which the town is built did not exist. At least it was still partially under water and would have been filled in later. The great explorer, it is said, sailed with his ships all the way in against the hills on the Western side of the bay. Later on, perhaps in a hurricane the sandbank was fully formed, closing off a part of the bay thereby creating the Great Salt Pond. This does not hold true completely as the native Amerindians called the island Soualigua the place for gathering salt.

Although Commander John Philips, for whom the town is named, is generally credited with founding the town, this is actually not the case. (M.D. Teenstra).  He is responsible for having built the first house, however. His house was located North of the East end of the Front Street and was destroyed in the great hurricane of 1819.


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The “Oranje School” when it was first built.

The name appears for the first time in a letter of Philips himself directed to the board of the Dutch West India Company dated June 3rd 1738. It is now generally accepted that Philip’s predecessor, Martin Meyers, together with the council, decided to build a new town on the sandbank in the Great Bay on May 15th 1733. The new village was cut up in parcels of 125 x 125 feet (38 by 38 meters). The town has a length of several kilometers. The original sandbank on which it was built had a width of only 60 or 70 meters. The town was divided into Front Street and Back Street.

A town in those days consisted of private homes and one or more churches, When Philipsburg was founded the great majority of the population were Protestants and adhered to the Dutch Reformed Church. The church building was located in what is now known as the Little Bay cemetery.  The tomb of Commander John Philips is situated on the floor of the ruins of that old church.

Since the church location involved quite a walk from the new town, it was decided in 1738 to tear down the church and rebuild it in Philipsburg. It was built on the grounds of what is now part of the “Oranje” school. In 1851, after the Dutch Reformed Church had disappeared from St. Maarten, it was turned into a government school. In 1919 the cemetery was removed to Little Bay (J.C.Waymouth) and the building was temporarily converted to a Pasangrahan (Indonesian word for ‘guest house’.)


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Front Street as it looked in the nineteen twenties.

Commander Martin Meyers and the council decided to name the new town after Philips even though they had a very turbulent relationship. Philips is credited with having got St. Maarten from under the authority of St. Eustatius and coming into its own. He restored the salt industry and built new windmills. He also convinced the plantation owners to move away from subsistence farming and to go over to sugar cane, cotton and tobacco and coffee for exports. He brought in 200 new settlers to manage the land and the island prospered. He also lobbied hard with the West India Company to buy up the French part of the island as he saw that a united St. Martin would make much more sense economically. He was a tough man described by some as vain and stingy. He owned the “Industry plantation” now known as ‘Emilio’s’. Although he was a Scotsman he enjoyed the confidence of the Dutch West India Company. He was overturned in a rebellion led by Peter Hassell of Saba who shipped him out on a schooner to St. Thomas and destroyed his plantation, slaves and cattle which caused his wife Rachel Hartman to die of grief. Philips was able to return and put the chaos behind him. The full story of that is the subject of another article, I am already working on.

In 1755 with the great earthquake which destroyed the city of Lisbon this also cause a tidal wave in the Great Bay harbour and people had to flee to the hills.

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Parade in 1951 celebrating 100 years of Methodism. St. Maarten used to have a lot of parades formerly.

In the year 1816 St. Maarten had a total of 3559 inhabitants and there were 178 houses in Philipsburg proper.

The great hurricane of 1819 devastated the island and the village of Simpsons bay was isolated until1933 when a channel was carved out between The Corner and the village.

The hurricane started at 3pm on September 21st 1819 and was accompanied by large amounts of rain, thunder and lightning and even an earthquake. Philipsburg was severely damaged. The Government building constructed of stone was demolished right down to the cellars as well as the Reformed Church.

The Courthouse and structures at Fort Willem lost their roofs. Most of the flourishing plantations were destroyed and the sugar cane crops all lost. A report signed by the general accountant A.Th. Kruythoff informs us that more than 200 people had died, 384 dwellings of wood and stone with inventories were lost and 76 houses damaged. Livestock losses were great, 17 horses, 145 head of cattle, 23 mules, 30 donkeys and 353 sheep, goats and pigs succumbed to the elements.  The total damage was estimated at f. 1.122.190 which was an enormous sum for those days. M.D. Teenstra visiting the town in 1829 was told by people that only 26 houses were somewhat livable. The streets were sandy and loose as roads in the dunes and only small low wooden houses had been rebuilt.



The Methodist  Chapel built in 1851

A petition from the Methodist Community on St. Maarten to His Majesty King William III of Holland asking for a vacant piece of land known as “The Old English Church Lot” was approved and forwarded by Lt. Governor J.D. Crol on March 20th 1850 to His Majesty. This had been the site of an old English church which was blown down in the hurricane of 1819. Slow as the means of communication were in those days the news that His Majesty had reacted favourably to the petition was received and the foundation stones laid on the same date in the following year, March 20th, 1851. The work also proceeded at great speed, and the church was completed and opened on October 19th of the same year (R. Colley Hutchinson ‘A Hundred Years of Methodism in Dutch Sint Maarten). In 1978 it was torn down and replaced with a new one built more or less in the same style. The old Methodist Manse, which was situated in back of the church facing the Back Street was torn down in 1931 and replaced by the much larger one facing a central court yard. The contractor was the then young Lionel Bernard Scot.



The Brick building.To my great pleasure recently restored to former glory. Built before 1800 and home of Susanna Illidge-Warner great grandmother of J.C. Waymouth

In 1835 Prince William Henry was the guest of Governor Diederick. The building where he lodged was torn down some years ago.

Governor Diedrick van Romondt was born in Amsterdam in 1791 and when he came to St. Marten he married Ann Hassell. They had eight children and many grandchildren who went on to own a large part of the entire island of St. Martin and many properties and fine houses in Philipsburg.



The Roman Catholic church as it looked until 1952 when it was replaced by the present church.

The old Roman Catholic church was built in 1844, and in 1921 it was referred to as one of the few churches in the colony of Curacao built before 1870 which had remained basically unchanged (Gouden Jubileum Der Dominikaner Missie op Curacao 1870-1920).

The government school which was started in 1851 was accommodated in the former Dutch Reformed Church next to the present ‘Oranje’ school. A wooden school, forerunner to the present concrete structure, was started on July 2ist 1919 and inaugurated by Lt. Governor J.van der Zee on October 31st, 1921.

On May 3rd 1890 four Roman Catholic Nuns of the Dominican Order arrived in St. Maarten. On June 2nd that same years they started a school and soon had 133 pupils. A school building was erected in 1893.

Ever since the Nuns arrived they had a great wish to establish a hospital. Medical conditions on the island were deplorable with no central place where sick people could be taken care of adequately. In 1908 a Catholic inhabitant willed to the church a plot of land on the Back Street with two dwelling houses which were later connected. A Roman Catholic nun named Sister Agatha, assisted by some lady volunteers started taking care of the sick in this building that same year. The hospital continued to grow with a new St. Rose Hospital being opened on the Front Street in 1935.

In 1781 Dr. Willem Hendrik Rink, a Dutch lawyer born in Tiel in the year 1756 settled in Sint Maarten. Appointed Commander he was responsible for the building of the first Courthouse for the daily operation of the government. It was not until 1886 that a new government administration building was built on the Front Street. The upstairs served as the home of the Lt. Governor and his family. This building was torched by arsonists in1974.

1876 saw the construction of a pier to the South of the “De Ruyter Square”. Before that time cargo had been landed on the beach in that same area.

By 1919 one hundred years after the Great Hurricane Philipsburg was fully functioning as a town with public buildings, schools, churches, a hospital and pier and many fine private dwellings. Situated as it was on a sandbar, with the Great Bay on one side and the salt pans on the other, it was by far one of the most beautiful capital towns of the West Indies.

And the people? In His book of 1938 S.J. Kruythoff writes: The St. Maarteners are a serious and ‘mind your own business set’, the majority at least- and as there is very little connection with the outside world, they, generally speaking, busy themselves with some occupation for their existence.


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The Philipsburg I first knew as a boy

The people are also of an independent nature, and consequently carry along with them, a cheerful and independent spirit. The island is more replete with natural resources than the other islands of the colony, which along with their simple mode of living, accounts for the independence of the people.

Each rustic, whether farmer, laborer or mechanic (with few exceptions) owns a home on a small plot of land which enables him to keep a horse, a cow or a few sheep; or on which he plants his favorite crop. Government mountain lands provide free grazing to his flocks of goats; these run wild but are marked for identification. In short, these conditions avert the chance of starvation in St. Maarten. “

Indeed, that is the way I experienced it as a boy.

Will Johnson


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