The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson

Archive for the month “March, 2019”

FROM THE JOURNAL OF M.D.TEENSTRA

FROM THE JOURNAL OF M.D.TEENSTRA

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Philipsburg from the 1940’s.

Excursions IN ST. MAARTEN

The Journal by engineer M.D. Teenstra who visited St. Martin, St. Eustatius and Saba in 1829 is much appreciated by those who do research into, and appreciate the rich history of our islands. Teenstra came to survey primarily the salt ponds and do a report on them. Much of the Dutch history of these islands was done by historians living in the 20th century and some of them left much to be desired. They took over reports without question and speculated on aspects of history on their own. My biggest objection to some of their speculations is that they ignored oral history handed down to us by our ancestors who had lived here for centuries. Being illiterate in most cases they were dependent on the tales from their grandmother’s. Many of these tales I was able to verify in documentation which I found reference to in later years. Some of these like the first settlements on Saba I have been having trouble with as I know and can defend. In the case of Middle Island and Palmetto Point I know that they were settled first and by mostly Irishmen who were allowed by the Spanish Admiral Don Toledo to leave St. Kitts and move on in 1629. One of my ancestors James Horton Sr. Came from St. Eustatius shortly after 1780 and settled in Palmetto Point. When doing research on those two villages I was told by my people that the village was an important village at that time and was an old village.

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The channel created by the 1819 hurricane which separated Simpson’s  Bay from The Corner and the village could only be reached by boat from 1819 to 1934.

When M.D. Teenstra visited Saba he met my great- great – grandfather Richard Johnson who was Commander at the time. Teenstra was one of the few historians who actually visited the islands and wrote about what he saw and the people he met. Other historians would pass by Saba especially, because of the then treacherous landings, and would speculate and quote from other’s who had done likewise. And so, I like Teenstra and feel like I am travelling along with him through the islands. He was describing damage done by the great hurricane of 1819. In this article he describes one of his excursions. He returned in 1834 to do more research.

“In order to acquaint the reader more in detail with things worth knowing, as revealed by the island to be described, the following is my brief summary, by way of excerpt from my travel-journal, of some excursions made during 1829.

On Thursday 29th of January of said year I rode up the western mountain range in the company of Lieutenant Du Cloux, garrison commander, in order to inspect fortress ‘Willem’ and with the simultaneous view of surveying some heights and distances from that point, complying also with the wish of the Commander.

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The Great Bay Beach as it looked before “progress”.

The very fortress is looking singularly decrepit; in between the battery-walls, tumbled down, merely a wooden shack is rising which would replace the blockhouse built in stone, blown down in 1819.

“ The building with an adjacent stone cistern, catching the water from a large paved stretch of the mountain-slope, would serve the purpose of barracks, , messroom for non-commissioned-officers, and arsenal, whilst further to the northern section you could find a gun-powder vault entrenched in the terrain, though a dank one out of the common. The batteries having been ravaged terribly during the 1819 hurricane as well, iron guns corroded heavily, its touch holes one little finger wide, and seven only of the fourteen guns available here have been mounted, since the former guns upon its moldered carriages have collapsed beneath its load. The rest would be adequate, nonetheless, for a crew consisting of 1 sergeant, 1 corporal and 8 soldiers.

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A view of Philipsburg in the distance in the 1920’s. 

“Dilapidated though the fortress may be, it would command a striking fine view of the surrounding mountains and valleys. Eastward you may look into a badly built Philipsburg, and to the left thereof large and small saltpans. To the right Great Bay and its roadstead where some schooners, sloops and boats of neighboring islands would be anchored at the time. Northward you will see the charming location of sugar cane fields and estates of romantic ‘Cul de Sac valley, furthermore the churchyard and some plantations of Little Bay at the foot of the mountain. To the West you would overlook a so-called ‘Flat Point’ , a low point sticking out with a large salt pan, whilst to the south you would detect the aperture of Great Bay battery Fort Amsterdam , Pointe Blanche etc. With an enchanting vista in the distance of the surrounding cliffs and islands.

“We are descending the steep mountain-road again, riding to the battery ‘New Amsterdam’ (Belair which is not in existence anymore) with eight guns, only one of which had been mounted: there are no houses or dwellings, the area is uninhabited. We found a few foundations of barracks and other buildings fallen down, a casemate filled up with debris and dirty water tanks, all of it grown over with bramble bush and cactus spines and thus causing little merriment or interest, when thus we hastened on.”

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One of the former sugar cane plantations in the Valley of Cul-de-Sac

My six-year-old grandson[Jeremy] when asked where he lived, he said at Belair Fort. A little classmate thought he must have done something wrong to be living in a Fort and asked him why he was living there. Since there is the place where Governor Peter Stuyvesant lost his leg, I am still in the process of doing research on the event and that area of the island and my readers will be hearing from me on that one in a future article. For now, though we are travelling in the footsteps of Teenstra on his visit in 1829.

“I pass discreetly a visit to the kind gentleman Abraham Cannegieter, to the Mary’s Fancy estate in Cul de Sac and the estate “The Retreat” situated higher up, belonging to ex-Governor Mr. W.H. Rink, since such visits would not be of any interest to the reader. (* A pity he did not as I for one would be interested to read about such a visit).

“Still my only comment will be that “The Retreat” combined with “The Farm” estate are the most important plantations of the Dutch part at present, a tract of 333 acres with 152 slaves, to which must be added the cultivation of the opposite estate “The Retty’s” the buildings of which have been devastated during the 1819 hurricane.

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Salt harvesting in full swing.

In order not to miss anything of importance in St. Maarten I have originated a scheme of the sights I wanted going over. By travelling a considerable part of the world from East to West I decided now to follow the same direction, thus starting with the Eastern part of the island.”

And very interesting trips he made and described in his Journal. But for now, I want to share his take on the “Language, Manners and Customs”.

“In this Dutch colony there are only just four Dutchmen by birth, actually aged persons. The usage is English to such an extent that women, children, let alone domestic servants do not understand neither speak the Dutch language.

Consequently, all Creoles, in St. Eustatius and here, are anti-Dutch and English minded absolutely, following manners and customs of the latter nation.

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Undeveloped Pointe Blanche as it looked in the 1940’s.

Life is “English fashion” indeed, the patriotic manners, and customs of the fatherland being in ill repute with St. Maarten’s residents, just like Dutch products (though paying a tribute to butter, cheese and ham). It is not for me to decide whether such a feeling is founded or not though I wish to advance the English practice of sending their very best provisions and dry goods to the colonies. I fancy for good reason this is not always a custom in Holland, since occasionally goods, unsaleable in the fatherland, are considered fit enough for shipping to the colonies.

People used to eat twice a day, breakfast in the morning between 9 and 10 hours, feasting as a rule on shrimps, turtle and fried fish, and lunching between 4 and 5 o’clock when there is no mistaking the food to be served. It is fish, invariably and always, fish cooked, stewed, braised, fried etc., in a word prepared either way though all boiling down to one and the same, namely fish. Fish is the main course of every meal and any change of dish is just a variation of the theme. Toward dinner-time I often used to start humming a tune of my own after a popular Dutch song at the time.

Image (767)Grogg (rum with water) is a favorite evening drink and the natives often indulge in drinking to excess, when the Creole, getting tipsy, is a dangerous and quarrelsome person.

As for being civilized I had better quote a passage from the report made by Mr. Cantzlaar in 1825, still holding good up till now, and stating: “If I understand the word civilization correctly, as for me an ever growing education, I must find fault with the present generation of St. Maarten conceiving too great a fallacy of themselves for us to try and use means of correction successfully even though it were different.”

“For all his self-conceit and lack of common sense the Creole, though penniless, has been gifted on the whole with a fair amount of self-love. Woe be to the man omitting to write the word ‘Esquire’ after the name on the address of a private letter, he might be blamed for an unforgiveable offense! Still I admit readily that some persons make an exception of the rule, what with being generous and hospitable to accommodate the stranger in the island as comfortable as possible. A sound practice it is to go to rest early and rise early again in the morning.

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Before “PROGRESS” this is what Philipsburg and the Great Salt Pond looked like.

Manners, like in most colonies elsewhere, are not very commendable indeed though, so much for education, they would not utter an impudent word hurting feelings of the fair sex in their presence. Yet it would be desirable for the men to nurse and even temper if only for the sake of better manners.

Most of the women, like I said, are beauties whilst music and dancing are a passion with them. Not seldom indeed you would meet a slender waist, blue eyes and pretty brown hair, the women have a ready flow of words for all that, however marring their sharp accent at times. Our women are no doubt the prettiest of all our West Indian possessions, of all our colonies so to speak.

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Beautiful view of Philipsburg on arrival by schooner in the harbour in 1955.

Abbot Raynal says that pregnant women would retire to nearby Anguilla to give birth their children in an English territory. Some women born in the island confided to me, however, she would rather marry a poor fisherman, a true Dutchman, than a Prince from England, feeling confident Dutch men would be holding women in far higher esteem than English men.

On his visit to St. Eustatius Teeenstra had this to say: ‘Although St. Eustatius,belongs to The Netherlands, the spirit there is completely ant-Dutch. Very truthfully Mr. C. de Jong tells us* The lifestyle of the inhabitants, in morals, manners, clothing, and household furnishings, is so completely English, that on the Dutch island St. Eustatius, only the flag is absent, to make it completely English.

The old fatherlands morals here are held in contempt. Honesty is a highly exceptional commodity, and even the best among the inhabitants, lose her, by a too far reaching lust for gain. It is so bad that in 1829 no Court Session could be held against public piracy, because the Judges themselves were guilty of taking part in this practice.”

Wel. Well. Not such a nice picture. One must remember that in 1829 the majority of the population were enslaved Africans with no voice in these matters. So, what he writes about are the “big shots “giving their opinion on relations with the so-called fatherland. And so, I will end here with stating that almost two hundred years later one can safely state “the more things change the more they remain the same.”

 

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Lt. Governor J.J. Beaujon and Rosa Conner admiring a scene which M.D. Teenstra equally admired in 1829.

HOW THEY VIEWED US .

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Pulling in the net on the beach.

BY; WILL JOHNSON

I have had the privilege to have met a number of famous writers of the history of the West Indies. I remember sitting in the lobby of the Pegasus Hotel in 1976 in Kingston, Jamaica with the famous Trinidadian writer C.L.R. James. He was being honoured at the Carifesta event for his work as a writer. I took the opportunity to ask him a word of advice on a book I was planning to write. He was delighted to do so. I was honoured to be in his company and followed through on his advice.

Years later I was sitting in my living room doing some writing and I heard someone at the back door asking:” Is this the home of Will Johnson?” It turned out to be the historian Dr. Lennox Honeychurch of Dominica. He was on a cruise ship lecturing on the history of the West Indies. In later years I visited with him on Dominica and we stayed in touch.

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Buying fish from the Simpsons Bay fishermen

Brian Dyde has been at my home a couple of times and we discussed his extensive studies of the history of the Leeward Islands. He has written a number of nice books on this part of the world. Brian Dyde has personal experience of the majority of the islands. He lived in Antigua, his wife’s homeland, from 1979 to 1987 and then in Montserrat until forced to leave because of volcanic activity in 1995. When not visiting the Caribbean, he and his wife took up residence in Wales.

The reason for this article is because of one of his books “Where the Sea had an ending.” The book is an original and very entertaining view of the Caribbean, written by a man who has known and loved the West Indies for nearly fifty years. In it, Brian Dyde draws on the words of numerous previous visitors to the region to prompt and illustrate his own reflections on many aspects of Caribbean life and history. The beguiling nature of the West Indies is seen though his eyes as well as those of dozens of other writers – including travelers, historians, soldiers, explorers and naturalists – who lived or visited here in the past.

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Fish sold by the ‘strap’ on the beach in Philipsburg

Based on this book I thought to write some articles by famous people who had visited these islands in the past and what they thought about us.

“ The Island of St. Martin….was originally settled by Englishmen, and tho’ belonging, at the commencement of the French Revolution, to the French and Dutch jointly the inhabitants were, and still continue to be nearly all English …The Dutch and French are extremely few, and of these that have attained to any consideration, it has been by intermarriage and the facilities of the Revolution.

An Island thus inhabited by Englishmen could never have been expected to escape the horrors of the Revolution and it is scarcely necessary to add that it was almost ruined. The Dutch Government yielding the Island entirely to the Fraternity of French Republicans in 1795, more than one third of the sugar estates were immediately sequestered as belonging to Englishmen, everything British, or that wore the semblance of being such, was in direct contravention of the most sacred engagements swept away at this melancholy period…

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Life in the ‘country’ in the nineteen fifties.

A portion of the Report on the Population, Culture, Revenue, etc., of the late French part of the island, 1815.

“What an afternoon it was when we sighted the most northern group of the lovely Caribees! I shall never forget it. Reader, I shall not try (it would be utterly useless, so far beyond the power of words) to describe the glory of it. Even now, long afterward, to think of it awakens memories of sensuous delight; it seems as if, eons ago, I had lived with the lotus-eaters – had visited the land where it is always afternoon.

To the south, in striking contrast to the low, uninteresting, level plain of Anguilla, St. Martin towers above the sea in picturesque grandeur. We passed within five miles of the leeward coast, upon which the sunlight of afternoon shone, glorifying the western shore. The mountains and savannas presented an exquisite landscape of rare colour, flecked by shadows of drifting clouds, the sombre tints of forests and darkened valley all showing like an embroidered pattern of oriental carpeting.

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Cattle being readied for export to Guadeloupe in Marigot.

Fertile meadows and plantations spread over the hill-sides between the sea-shore and the dense forests on the mountain-steeps; here and there villages, isolated dwellings, and hamlets of white-walled farm buildings, roofed with red tiles, appeared among groves of palms and fruit-bearing trees. On the sea, between the steamer’s wake and rugged cliffs overhanging a long margin of breakers, the sails of fishing-boats glistened in the sunlight as the steady northeast trade-wind wafted them far out from shore. We were loath to hasten past so lovely a picture, but comforted ourselves with the thought that on our return homeward, we might perhaps feast our eyes with one more view of St. Martin, our first love.”

From the book ‘Down the Islands’ by William Agnew Paton. 1890.

 

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Donkey race with a Buick belonging to Joseph Alphonse O’Connor parked in front of his residence on the Front Street in Philipsburg

The following comments are from Sir Reginald St –Johnston, 1936.Private tutor to the last Emperor of China.

“….. the captain thought the weather so bad that it might be advisable to put into the Dutch island of St. Martin’s for the night….

The Dutch Lieutenant-Governor [Johan Diederick Meiners] very kindly invited us ashore to dine… and we were most hospitably entertained at one of the longest dinners I have ever faced. Course after course came on, and out of politeness I did not like to refuse, but I felt almost too heavy to rise from the table at the end of it.

 

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Donkey races on the Front Street seemed to be the entertainment of the day.

But all the same we spent a very pleasant evening afterwards with his family circle and some other friends whom he had asked in, singing choruses of all the latest English songs. The Dutch in these islands are nearly all old settled families, and from close association and intermarriage with neighboring English islands their customary language has now become English…

I should have mentioned that earlier in the afternoon when we first went ashore the Governor had as a preliminary produced glass of a rather sweet champagne which he insisted on our drinking with him, after which he had taken us around in his car to see the sights of Philippsville [sic], the capital. This did not take long, and then he said: ‘Shall we now call upon the Governor of French St. Martin’s? ‘….

I was delighted at the opportunity, and after he had spoken on the telephone to his fellow potentate, we started across the island for the short run of four or five miles to Marigot, the French capital. About halfway, on a lonely part of the road, was a Dutch sentry, complete with a coloured striped sentry box, and a little further on a French one, similarly housed. It looked rather like a scene in a toy theater, especially as there was a comical looking palm tree between them, with a donkey and a pig, each tethered to a rope, contentedly lying under it. The contrast in the two halves of this small island was at the time very marked, as the Dutch capital and roads were very clean and well kept, whereas the corresponding French part was not; but in fairness I must say that I have heard there had been a vast improvement in French St. Martin’s in the last year or two.

 

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A view of Colombier valley and Rambaud from Wallawa Hill.

Arrived at Marigot we duly paid our call on Msr Fleming, who despite his English name was a Frenchman and [who] produced glasses of a rather sweet champagne! This was somewhat embarrassing, as it was only half an hour since the previous round, but we nobly did our duty.

On being taken round Marigot the impression we gained was of a small sleepy French town, with grass growing among the stone pavements and very few people moving about. In one shady street we saw a whole row of game-cocks, fighting birds, each tied well away from each other by one leg. I was subsequently told that that the inhabitants made their living principally by breeding these for export to the Spanish Islands; and also, by a ‘rake-off” on liquor brought to this duty-free port and then re-exported to an ‘unknown destination.’ At that time prohibition reigned in the USA and also in the American colonies of St. Thomas and Porto Rico. “

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A view of Marigot from the late 1950’s.

…Another visitor had this to say. She had been on St. Martin in 1942 during the war and fell in love with the island. I will only go to her visit which took place around 1975.

“Money, not war, destroyed the old life of the islands. War only fed in the first big dose of money. I am thankful that I knew the sleepy lovely little islands all through the Caribbean before the dollars poured over them. At first the wintering wealthy arrived, then the reduced-rate summer tourists. Now they’re coining money everywhere the year round. It’s a success story; it’s Progress,

St. Martin, which I loved first and most is a thriving blighted area. A great runway on the Dutch side receives jets. Philipsburg and Marigot are boom towns. Handsome houses of foreigners dot the hills. There are grand hotels and crummy motels, casinos and boutiques, supermarkets and launderettes, snack bars and robber restaurants, throngs of visitors and plentiful muck on the beaches. And the island, once a green bouquet of trees, looks bald. Progress uses space and is more valuable than trees.

 

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Vegetable sellers on their way from Colombier to Marigot and beyond to sell their produce.

It is ridiculous to repine for a past simplicity and quiet and loveliness when I can live where I choose while the islanders are anchored where they are, and probably mad about Progress. Seeing them, I don’t believe that they profit from its advertised benefits. They used to be short of cash but never hungry, never crowded or hurried. They worked when they had to and not a minute more. Free of nuisance government, they lived in a close community, as content as mortals can possibly be. If they wanted adventure or consumer goods, they went off as sailors or emigrated for dollars but all of them returned to visit or drowse through old age, and knew they could return to what they had left: home didn’t change, home was safe. Now they work for the foreigners on their islands and though they have more money than ever before they feel poor by contrast and they are no longer the sure, idle, chatty, easy people I remember. In another ten years they may be as bitter as the blacks in Harlem.

Between planes, this winter, I hired a glittering Mercedes taxi at Phillipsburg airport because the owner-driver had grey hair and would have known St. Martin before it turned into a gold mine. He had driven visitors from the North so long that he sounded American. ‘Well, Madam, everybody’s got good work and lotsa’ money, see all these new little houses the people built for themselves? Got everything they want inside, fine things. Got money in the bank. Everybody’s doing very well on St. Martin. But the old harmony is gone, it’s gone for good.’

The Caribbean has become a resort and is a world lost. This cuts me deeply in my feelings, as Mr Ma would say, because I loved that world, its looks, its climate, its aimless harmless life, and it was the best anywhere for a solitary swimmer. I don’t like resorts and I can’t afford them.”

From the book “Travels with myself and Another” by Martha Gellhorn. The “Another” was her husband Ernest Hemingway.

The below stanzas are from a poem by a Saba born poetess .

“Ah me! Ah me! That I could go

Where palm fronds clash and trade winds blow,

For these are the things I used to know

So far away and so long ago.

 

The red-roofed house, by the tall palm tree,

In the long ago, was sweet home to me.

I think of it now as a haven of rest

Where I wish I could go as a bird to its nest.

But the years that are flown have made the wish vain,

I could only return to sorrow and pain.

Beatrice Pfaffhauser

 

And will end this with two stanzas from one of the poems by Charles Borromeo Hodge, a proud native son of the soil.

“And while machines your innards grind

I’ll glare with unconcealed disgust,

At those who dared be so unkind

To smite your crown into the dust.

 

“Perhaps we dreamers, all too true,

Are doting fools of sentiment,

But all my joys, however few

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Cole Bay late 1950’s.

Were from your sunny bosom lent.

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