The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson

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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