The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson



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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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.”



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

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