The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson


Commuting in the Eastern Caribbean


By: Will Johnson



The tall grave on the right or the one in the corner are candidates for the grave  of Sarah Catherine Mardenborough who died on December 19th, 1903 at the age of 79 and was born on Saba on February 19th, 1824.

The surname Mardenborough does not exist on Saba anymore. There are a number of people though with names like Hassell, Peterson, Johnson, Simmons etc. Who have Mardenborough ancestors.

I am busy reading the book by Julianne Maher “The Survival of People and Languages”. Schooners, goats, and cassava in St. Barthelemy, French West Indies.

The same could be said of Saba in former times. On page 31 we read the following: “ Vaucresson, French Intendant, writes in 1713 that, once the French no longer have land on St. Christopher, St. Barthelemy and St. Martin are too poor and too distant from Martinique to justify French protection or support. St. Barth and St. Martin are thus left to their own devices. Surrounded by English islands and at 150 miles distance from the larger French islands, they were particularly vulnerable to attack.

More turbulent times lie ahead. In 1742, Sieur Bernier of St. Barth, descendant of the Bernier families we met in 1681 sailing the islands to pick up livestock for Martinique, reports to Champigny, the Governor of Martinique, that there is talk on St. Martin of impending war with the English. Champigny sends him back to gather more information (Champigny 1742). Bernier was right. Annoyed by attacks from French corsairs harboring in St. Barth, the English invade St. Barth and St. Martin in 1744. Champigny reports that St. Martin was quickly taken by the English due to the imprudence of the French commandant there but that St. Barth resisted longer and even repelled the invaders several times before ceding after their leader was killed. The Bristish report (Memorial of 1762) that Christopher Mardenborough, with a privateer from St. Kitts, dispersed all the French inhabitants on St. Martin and took their slaves, leaving the French half of St. Martin uninhabited. The total evacuation of St. Martin in 1744 will explain later its differences from St. Barth.”


Plaque in the back of the church in Windward Side Peter Hassell and his mother-in-law honoured for their role in getting the Roman Catholic Church a  building to worship in.

In the St. Peter’s church yard on St. Kitts there are several Mardenborough’s buried. Two children with the name of Giles Mardenborough. Another is that of Christopher “of this island was born June 1st 1734 and died September 17th, 1806. This stone is erected to His Memory by his grateful children. He was a son of the Christopher Mardenborough who in 1744 invaded St. Martin and St. Barth’s from the island of St. Kitts and who did much damage to those two islands and their people.

The name Giles who was probably the father of Christopher continues on in the person of Giles Mardenborough who was married to Esther Peterson and both of them were still alive and on Saba in the year 1882. He was at one time the owner of the large piece of land known as ‘Giles Quarter’,’

The name Mardenborough existed on Saba much longer than I was aware of when I started this article and looking up information of the name on Saba. In the population list of 1699 and 1705 there are a John Mardenborough and a Poinwells Mardenborough. In 1715 the same names are there with a Paul added to the list. In a petition after the severe hurricane of August 31st 1772 there is a Peter and a Thomas Mardenborough, and in 1823 there is a Peter Sr. And a Peter Jr, as well as a Thomas Mardenborough.

The most well-known of the Mardenborough’s was Sarah Catherine. She died on December 19th, 1903 at her home in the Windward Side at the age of 79. She was born on February 19th, 1824. Her parents were Christopher Mardenborough and Mary Hassell. In the Roman Catholic church records Sarah is considered as the founder of the church on Saba.


Captain Abraham Mardenborough’s schooner the Virginia. Lost in a hurricane in Nevis. 

“Father Johannes F. A. Kistemaker from St. Eustatius visited Saba in 1843 and appointed Miss Sarah Mardenborough  to give some religious instruction. Sarah thus became in fact founder of this church on Saba and the Ecclesiastical Chronicle also refers to her as “Apostala Sabae”.  She was baptized by Father Kistemaker on June 22nd, 1850. She was part of the large Hassell family in the Windward Side who converted from being Anglicans. Her mother Mary was a sister of Peter Hassell who donated the property in Windward Side where the church was built in 1860.

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Elliot Elmore Mardenborough and his wife Blanche Peterson. After his death in New York she came back to Saba and lived  in the Windward Side with her sister Edith. They had no children.

For twenty-nine years she gave religious instruction, and, after 1854 when a resident priest came, she served as assistant to each succeeding priest until 1873. She taught the youth, took care of the churches, and nursed he sick. As a result of the last-mentioned occupation she contracted leprosy. Even then she had the children gather around her bed to prepare them for first Holy Communion. Each year on Maundy Thursday she had herself taken to the church on a stretcher where she spent the night and remained until the ceremonies of Good Friday. When this remarkable woman died in 1903, she was buried in the cemetery in front of the church in the right corner to the street known as the “Founder’s Corner. One of the fancy graves is hers and the other one is that of Peter Hassell. He by the way was the husband of my great aunt Esther Lowell Hassell born Johnson. Someone recently suggested to widen that section of the cemetery and remove those graves so that larger trucks can pass. I think that people should buy smaller vehicles instead of wanting everything sacred to the people of Saba removed.


 The Dominican Nuns who came to Saba in 1904 and served Saba until 1984.

In 1873 her work was carried on by Gertrude Johnson-Hassell who was a trained teacher. She taught in a privately-owned house. She is also the one credited with introducing the “Spanish Work” or “Saba Lace” to the women of the island. A life saver for many families in former times.

There was a Captain Abram Thomas Mardenborough who died on St. Maarten on January 17th, 1951. He was a widower of Ina Maria Johnson and he later married Mary Ann Wathey “Miss Ohney” sister of Malcolm “Mally” Wathey. They lived in a lovely mansion opposite the Oranje School on the Front Street. This fell victim to progress as it is called and replaced with an ugly cement building. Captain Abe was the owner and captain of the mail schooner the “Virginia”. It was built on Curacao by the S.E.L. Maduro ship builders. The schooner served the Dutch Windward Islands and also St. Kitts and St. Thomas. It was later purchased by the government for the same purpose. My cousin Carl Lester Johnson who lived as a boy on St. Maarten in the nineteen thirties would tell me stories of many of the old timers he knew over there. He said that when Captain Abe retired, he would always be dressed in a suit in the full heat of Philipsburg. He had a pocket watch on a long gold chain. The boys would get a lot of pleasure from asking him the time of the day. This was followed by a long and careful procedure of Captain Abe taking his good time to bring out the watch from its hiding place and then in a firm voice gave the time of the day. With the same slow procedure, the watch would be carefully deposited to its hiding place in an inner pocket of the jacket Mr. Abe would be wearing while taking his stroll down the Front street. He had a couple of children by his first wife. One was named Ulric and another one was Elliot Elmore born in 1901 and was married to Blanche Peterson who lived on the “Fort” in later years with her sister Edith.

And with the advent of Face Book one of my friends on Facebook is a descendant of Captain Abe and lives in the United States.

The Saba Mardenborough’s had some connection with Christopher Mardenborough of St. Kitts fame as the name continued on in the Mardenborough family on Saba.

There are a number of other family names which have disappeared from Saba but still remembered by families who descended from the originals.

I will end this with the statement:” I have studied beyond my own needs, and for my own entertainment. Knowing the world beyond my own small domain. Transmitting what I have learned to others who have not yet ventured beyond their own environment.”





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 I am not absolutely certain. I found this one years ago in a collection of one of the former priests. It could also be his mother but I believe it is that of Sarah Catherine Mardenborough credited as Founder of the Roman Catholic Church on Saba.

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