Survival of a people
By Will Johnson
I have written about the island of St. Barth’s in a different context some years ago. This was about personal experiences going there as a boy and witnessing the hardship and the struggle for survival on this now prosperous island.
I have been busy reading two interesting histories of St. Barth’s and the struggle for survival of its people. One book by Julianne Maher is: “The survival of People and languages. “Schooners, Goats and Cassava in St. Barthelemy, French West Indies.
In the preface is mentioned: “This is a human story, a story of people and languages and their unlikely survival. In 1648 on St. Barthelemy a small French contingent settled on arid, rocky terrain at the behest of the Governor of French St. Christopher (now St. Kitts). Six years later they were slaughtered by a group of passing Carib (Kalinago) .
In 1659, a new collection of French settlers, also from St. Kitts, had the courage to return to St. Barth’s and they stayed. These were the people who cleared the land, dug the wells, and farmed the resistant soil.
They withstood pirates and attacks by the English, recovered from devasting hurricanes and yellow fever, were sold to Sweden, and later redeemed. Virtually abandoned by the mother country, they were forced several times to leave the island, but they kept coming back. They were surrounded by tropical island paradises of sugar, coffee, bananas and rum; they lived on goats, yams and fish. As poor whites, they were looked down upon by blacks and wealthy whites alike. The economic situation of the island became so bleak that the majority of men sought work on other islands for months at a time. Periods of starvation haunted the population. But they survived. And now their home is a is a celebrity sanctuary, the most glamorous and luxurious vacation spot in the Caribbean. Each year, the island attracts thousands of tourists to its French ambiance, international glamour and spectacular beaches, but few tourists are aware of its complex linguistic environment and conflicted history. The residing mystery lies in the multiplicity of languages spoken there. Why would these survivors maintain their linguistic boundaries for 250 years?
The book also has some very interesting interviews with the old timers and we will quote from one in the introduction of the book. “A dry little tropical island of ten square miles with rocky and dramatic contours that jolt all your senses. Since the peaks are never more than 1000 feet and the rainfall intermittent (20-40) inches annually), there are neither springs nor rivers. Every house has its cistern. A vast shallow continental shelf surrounds St. Barth’s and the neighboring islands; the fish are abundant (Vernoux et al. 1988).
“We got bait in the roadstead at Gustavia, herring or sardines, or at certain beaches, Anse Colombier for example, sometimes you had to go as far as Fourchu to get bait. We didn’t use motors, we had sails. Once we got bait, we split up – we went off to where we thought the best fishing was. We followed the moon, especially the third day after the full moon, those are the best days. At the new moon, the fish don’t bite. Sometimes we had traps, especially if we had herring. But it’s not every day that the herring come in, sardines either. Sometimes we left the traps for three to five days. Other times we deep-sea fished for grouper. If we had some herring, they’re the best, we would get some snappers. No, we didn’t use a drag line – well we would troll, if you like, after we finished fishing while we were returning to the port. Sometimes we got other fish that way – mackerel, dolphin (dorade), tuna, flying fish. The best month for trolling is in May for dorade. Once, we were me, P. and E., we three; it was night. We took twenty-eight sharks while fishing for snapper, some big ones too. But we had to clean them, gut them, remove the heads, before selling them. It wasn’t often we got sharks. (Male in his 90’s, Colombier, Translated from Patios.)
“Another interviewee had the following to tell: ‘When I was young, there was no trade. The only thing was to go sailing or stay here and do-little carpentry jobs. There were no future really here. Most people leave to work. They exported pineapples but they didn’t have enough land to live by that stuff. Bananas need too much water. All had vegetables; we always eat from the ground here. Hats were exported, brooms, floor mats, schooners full. We catch a lot of fish. All night the women and the men would be corning (salting) the fish. In two days, they had it pack up in cases and shipped to Guadeloupe. Everybody had a share even if you didn’t pull (the seine). Sometimes they were embarrassed to have so many fish, they buried it. Oh, the fish we had – so much!”
Everything you read about St. Barth;s from those days was about the poverty.
Here is an article from Harry A. Franck, from 1920.
‘The little Pebble’
St. Barthelemy [is]colloquially called ‘St. Bart’s’. The inhabitants are chiefly white, and among them one finds the physiognomy, traditions, and customs of their Norman ancestors. Yet though they speak French, it is only badly, the prevailing language being English, or at least the caricature of that tongue which many decades of isolation have developed…
…. of volcanic formation, the island suffers for the lack of trees and water, being forced to hoard its rainfall in large cisterns….. Gustavia, the capital, was once rich and prosperous, being a depot of French and British corsairs, who carried on trade with the Spanish colonies. There are still immense cellars built to hold the booty and merchandise, and zinc and lead mines that lie unexploited for lack of capital. To-day the inhabitants live for the most part in abject poverty, getting most of their sustenance from the neighboring islands and emigration to Guadeloupe, where they are noted for their excellency as servants, despite their unfamiliarity with the native ‘creole’.
I believe Harry must have only visited Gustavia and the book by Julian Maher gives a correct version of the language of the entire island.
As for the pirates, one of our Saba boys Hiram Beaks who coined the phrase “dead men tell no tales’ is listed in the old harbour records of St. Barth’s in one of the documents I have from Gosta Simmons who did extensive research on the old families which he was related to. Also, Pierre Tingbrand wrote a history of St. Barth’s in 1995, a copy of which I have in my book collection but cannot find it at the moment.
A French reporter Georges Bourdin who lived on St. Barth’s and died in 1977 a year before his book was published in French and English and very convenient to read did a lot of research on the history of the island. Several pages are dedicated to the ceremonies of the handing over of the island by Sweden after more than 75 years of ownership. A blow by blow description of the speeches and the raising of the French flag.
Jean Deveau (1972) did extensive research on the origin of the people of the island and concluded that they were from other parts of France and not only from Normandy. Some of the original names like Bernier, Greaux, Aubin are still present and prominent on the island today. For this article I will just give information on Commander Greaux ancestor of many prominent St. Bart’s people among them my friend of more than fifty years the well-known founder of Windward Islands Airways, George Greaux.
“Jacques Greaux appears in St. Christopher’s in 1671 and 1672 with his wife Marguerite Bardin, owning a piece of land 200 feet wide and 500 feet long. It was probably his son Jacques who was part of the contingent of thirty men sent by de Poincy to take possession of St. Barth’s in 1659. Ancestor of all the St. Barth’s Greaux, this Jacques appears on the 1681 Rolle des Habitants with his wife, four sons and a daughter, a cow, a calf but no slaves. With the multiplicity of spellings (Gruau, Gruault, Greau, Rualt, Reau, Gerault etc.) and no further archival references, tracing Jacques’ origins is difficult. However, Deveau finds the name to be rare in Normandy but very frequent still on the coast of the Vendee in western France between La Rochelle and Nantes; therefore, he locates the Greaux origins there. In 1724, Jacques Greaux is listed as the island’s Commander and by 1730 there are four married Greaux sons and four married Greaux daughters with a total of nineteen children. Thus, both the Berniers and the Greaux settled, thrived and became prominent citizens in St. Barth from 1681 onward.”
St. Barth’s also had slaves. Not on any large scale as the land was unsuitable for large plantations. In 1688 there were 348 whites and 68 enslaved Africans. In 1775 there were 419 whites and 335 slaves. The latter group for the most part lived in Gustavia. During the Swedish period many former merchants from St. Eustatius and also from Saba settled in Gustavia. The large trade brought with it the use of more slaves who worked unloading and loading cargo and stocking up warehouses. After slavery was abolished in 1848 by the French St. Barth’s was once again on the poor list. Many of the enslaved Africans had been sold off to slave dealers from the United States. Also, since the slaves had no land or former big estates where they could settle, they moved on to larger French islands as well as to the United States. By the time I went to St. Barth’s on a sloop in 1960 there were only a handful of the descendants of slaves. Among whom was a Mr. Romney who had been fathered by a great uncle of mine who was a Captain. I never met him and only heard about this story when he had already passed on.
During the first half of the last century Dutch Dominican priests took care of the Roman Catholic community on St. Barth’s. The most famous of them was Father de Bruyn who had been appointed priest of Gustavia in October 1918. He was 29 years old. He had a solid education, was active and talented, and he had what we would call today “class’. He had good connections which seemed to point to a higher position but he didn’t complain – there were foot soldiers in the church as well as in the army.
Father de Bruyn was born September 12th, 1889 in Nijmegen, into a family that was rather highly placed on the social ladder, by birth. He was ordained on April 14, 1916. Dutch by birth, he adopted St. Barth’s as his second homeland and was very devoted to it. He built churches, schools and even a hospital and introduced and expanded the hat
weaving industry. He deserves a separate history of his own.
By the nineteen nineties St. Barth’s had acquired such a name for itself with the international jet set including Kings and Queens, that a small cottage in the country will set you back between six and eight million dollars. A friend from the island once told me that it seemed like every billionaire on earth wanted to tell his friends “I have a property on St. Barth’s you know.”
In it all the St. Barth’s people have remained in charge and are still working hard. They have resisted the temptation to allow the billionaire class to erect large buildings or resorts. You can only build as high as a coconut tree.
And now on February 15, 2019 an article was published in de Volkskrant, by a certain Kees Broere who visited the island without knowing or caring how the people there survived. His only conclusions and for sensationalism were that the blacks had been deported to France and practically accused the French of having set up an apartheid system there and referred to St. Barth’s as a white blight in the Caribbean. He ignored the fact that Cuba, Puerto Rico and even Santo Domingo have millions of white people. We too on Saba have had bitter experiences with this sort of ‘journalism’ accusing us of inbreeding, whereas our survival has been by the old Captains and seamen bringing in their wives from Barbados and so on in former times and in recent years from all over the world. Carry on St. Barth’s and don’t get hot headed by these sorts of people who envy the rest of the world. God bless you.