MEN OF THE SEA; RALPH HASSELL
Men of the sea.
Ralph Hassell “Ouw Cutty”.
Ralph was born on the island of Saba on January 17th, 1894. His father was John Benjamin Hassell and his mother was Henrietta Hassell.
Ralph grew up here on Saba and went to school in Windward Side.
Most boys in those days went to sea as cabin boys on the large Saban owned schooners. In Ralph’s case he lingered on here until the age of 16. He went sailing throughout the West Indies on a two-master schooner which belonged to Captain William Benjamin Hassell. The schooner had been a former New York pilot boat and was named the “John Hazel”. Ralph told me that he recalled visiting nearly all of the West Indian Islands with the exception of Guadeloupe where he had never been.
At the age of 18 he went to the United States which people even from here called “America”. There he obtained his chief mates license in New York which is in the Harry L. Johnson museum in the Windward Side.
He then shipped out on the four master 1400 tons schooner the “Perry Setzer”. This schooner was 216 feet long. Ralph’s brother John Benjamin Hassell was Chief Mate on the same schooner. Ralph learned to drive the engine, then shipped out as engineer on the four-master schooner the “Henry J. Smith”, which was 199 feet long.
A big help to me with statistic on these large schooners is the book: “Four master schooners of the East Coast” by Paul C. Morris. This book was given to me By Richard Winfield Jr. His father Richard Winfield was born and raised on Saba and learned to play tennis here on the island. He went to New York and became the tennis champion of the state of New York. He married Stanley Johnson’s sister and became a banker. Thanks to this wonderful book I can look up the schooners on which many of our Sabans sailed in the past.
Ralph also served as a donkey man on the large six master schooner the “Wyoming” one of the largest wooden ships ever built.
He also shipped out on the “Governor Powers” with a length of 237 feet. She carried 3200 feet of sail and Ralph sailed with her around Brazil. The ship was from Portland, Maine and she ran from Norfolk Virginia out to Brazil and on. “Cattoo” Whitfield who was Hilton Whitfield’s oldest brother, and in his nineties when I did this interview in 1994. was also a sailor on board of the “Governor Powers” at the same time with Ralph. He told me that “Cattoo” could lift any amount of weight. He was a nice and easy going fellow. Although he was a giant of a man, he did not look for trouble. I remember “Cattoo” visiting his brother Hilton once and indeed he was a rally big man. After that he obtained his second mate’s license, and then he went to work on the “New York and Cable Mail” on the so-called Lake boats. They were steam boats built on the lakes and they could only be built a certain length and width in order to pass through the locks.
In 1932 he returned to Saba and started working for the government as a foreman and handy man.
While he had been working abroad, he returned to Saba to get married. On September 21st, 1915 at the age of 21 he married Joanna Viva Dowling aged 20. Her parents were Peter John Hassell Dowling and Joanna Lovelace Hassell. He and his wife Viva had eight children. Being a true West Indian, he had some children outside of the marriage as well. Ralph’s mother was named Henrietta Hassell born Johnson from Booby Hill, a daughter of Henry Johnson. She died at the age of 62. His father was John Benjamin Hassell who died at the age of 84.
According to Ralph his grandfather Henry Johnson had a two-master schooner called the “Spring bird”. He went on a drunk in Curacao, took in with pneumonia and died there. Ralph’s father “Old Claw” was a mate on board and brought up the schooner from Curacao after which she was sold. A whole year later his grandfather’s remains were brought to Saba on the schooner the “Gouverneur van den Brandhof” which schooner ran the mail at the turn of the century and he was buried here in the family cemetery.
Ralph said that he heard from the family that his great grandfather was a Swede and that he came to Saba during the pirate days. He lived on Booby Hill when he was young. He, the grandfather, is also buried in the family burial ground in Windward Side.
The idea that ancestors came from the Nordic lands is because the surnames originated there. However, one must not forget that the Vikings conquered large parts of Scotland, England and Ireland and held them for several hundred years in some cases. So many of the Nordic surnames became part of the regular English and Anglo/Saxon names. The pirate legacy came from the fact that in 1665 the uncles of Henry Morgan of Jamaica, namely Thomas and Edward led a pirate expedition from Port Royal and captured St. Eustatius and Saba and removed the Dutch settlers while leaving behind 226 people of English, Scottish, and Irish descent and some Indians and two Dutch families who swore allegiance to the pirates. Also, ninety of the pirates after a brawl remained back and formed the bulk of the future European component of the population.
Ralph’s mates license is now on display in the museum. He claims to have the distinction of putting in his home the first flush toilet on Saba.
During his career at sea he says he never lost a boat and not even a rope yearn. He mostly sailed by himself. He remembers that the “Henry J. Smith” leaked like a basket. His brother-in-law John Peter Hassell was 2nd mate with him, James Leverock was cook, and John Blyden from “Under-The-Ladder”, was a sailor.
Ralph also hanged out by Kaliski’s place. This gentleman’s store and guesthouse was located at 27 South Street and was the headquarters of all Sabans for nearly forty years.
When not at sea Ralph was a house painter in the large Saban community in Richmond Hill, Queens. Many Sabans sailors would find employment with other Saban painting contractors like Merrill Hassell. My uncle Leonard who sailed the oceans of the world for more than forty years, when taking a break from the sea, would work with Merrill. The stories Merrill would tell about incidents while painting people’s homes all over Long Island would kill you with the laugh.
Ralph remembered “Willy Wits” Hassell who was captain of a barkentine, a 3 master called the “St. Peter”. A barkentine has square sails on two masts and the aft mast has sails like a schooner. He used to come to Saba often with the ship when Ralph was a boy. He used to trade with lumber and codfish selling to the West Indies from Nova Scotia and so on. It belonged to the Endicott people who were ship chandlers in New York. They had their offices in Broadway. They also owned a four master called the “Charles G. Endicott.” Augustine Johnson of Saba was her captain for many years. She also visited Saba often. He had a son. Ralph could remember both Captains Agustine and Willie Witts. Augustine mostly had a crew from Saba. Wilson Johnson used to be the cook on board the Endicott. Ralph’s brother Henry who was married to “Effie” sailed with Captain Agustine as well.
In life Ralph had his share of set – backs as well. His son Walter was the first traffic fatality on Saba in 1954
I believe. Motor vehicles had only been introduced to the island in 1947 and the novelty of picking up a speed on the stretch of even road between St. John’s and Windward Side was where the accident with the Jeep happened. Ralph and several of his sons was in the Jeep but Walter the one who was driving was the only fatality. Carlyle Granger used to tell me that the Anglican Priest Father A. L. Cromie (1954-1960) in his sermon reminded those present at the funeral that you cannot blame God for everything. He gives you choices. When you choose to live on Saba you have to take into account that it is a volcano in the heart of the hurricane belt. And so, it is with a motor vehicle. If you increase the speed you are also increasing your chances of having an accident.
When I did this interview, Ralph had recently made ninety. He had moved to the Home for the Aged, but he did not like it there and returned to his home in the Windward Side. He told me that he did not realize that it was a place for old people.
He remained young at heart until he passed away at the age of 93. May he rest in peace.