The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson


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Young Jan Philipszoon in front of the home of his grandfather Albert Buncamper to the head of Front Street in Philipsburg


By: Will Johnson

Some years past Ms. Bernadette (“Bunchie”) Buncamper shared with me a batch of old documents belonging to her grandfather Mr. Albert Buncamper. All yellowed and brittle and mostly written with pencil. It took me some time to discover that the old documents were actually a diary recording all that was taking place in the year 1927. These documents were the foundation for my book “The Diary of a St. Martin Salt Checker’.

Last year Mrs. Carolyn McIllroy-Buncamper after hurricane Irma gave me access to some equally old documents which turned out to be account books of her great grandfather. I refer to them as that as they contained hand written copies of all correspondence between Mr. Albert and his children mostly, as well as his friend C.B. Romondt whose home he took care of.


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Mr. Albert Buncamper here with his grandson Jan whom he raised. Mr. Buncamper intrigues me with his letters to his son Carl on St.Eustatius a teacher and later Administrator there. His son Walter worked with the Courts and later was Administrator of Saba. His daughter Coralie was a teacher on Saba and Elize stayed on St. Maarten. A very responsible family man who led his children to great heights.

Long before Xerox came into being Mr. Buncamper, who loved to write, came up with the idea to copy by hand each letter which he sent out via the post. Just imagine writing each and every letter twice! For me they are a treasure trove of information of the nineteen thirties. He would send his children and his friend an update on all that which was taking place ‘Up Street’ and on St. Martin in general. I am thinking of making another book called “The Letters’. This will require time and I will need help.

In the mean time I will quote from some of the letters so as to give an idea of life on St. Martin as documented from his home in ‘Up-Street” so as to give some idea of life in the nineteen thirties. Mr. Albert Buncamper died in 1941 the same year in which I was born’.

The setting from which he wrote his letters became a familiar and much loved one for me. Between 1955 and 1960 when I started living right across the street from his residence, I visited St. Martin twice yearly on my way to and from Curacao where I went to school. Little if anything had changed from the days of the nineteen thirties. The Great Patriotic War as the Russians call World War 11, had taken place and in 1944 St. Martin had gotten a moderate airport.


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Mr. Albert Buncamper refers to the start of this Government Building in 1937. It is built on land formerly belonging to the Buncamper family. This building became the Pasangrahan Hotel and when Eric Lawetz took it over in the nineteen fifties the alley was taken out in order to extend the hotel to the neighbouring property.

After the A.C.Wathey  pier was built in 1962 and a runway able to accommodate jet traffic in the mid nineteen sixties, the once unspoiled island went into a period of rapid development. Few people today remember how precious it was to have lived through the unspoiled existence of St. Martin and its people before 1965. The Second World War was fading into history and the island was mostly dependent on its own resources. The salt harvesting and export had ceased. People had left for Curacao, Aruba and the United States or had died out. The economy had changed hands from the powerful van Romondt family to Mr. Cyrus Wathey on the Dutch side and Constant Fleming on the French side and they controlled the political life of the island as well, for several decades.



Me [Will Johnson] here in 1960 coming from work. The house was then rented to Mr. Stetson Risdon. I would at times be called on to serve drinks at a poker game between Chester Wathey, Emile ‘Lil Dan” Beauperthuy, Alphonse O’Connor and Stetson Risdon.

  In general, though the island was at peace with the world and itself, allowing Mr. Buncamper to enjoy the quiet life he led in his home in ‘Up-Street’ while copying all his letters by hand. Letters which are scattered before me today (May 2019), as I write this. In this article I am presenting just a sample of the many letters for you to enjoy and to cherish the memories today, which he shared with us as he dutifully copied these letters in his diaries for all of us to enjoy.

St. Martin Feby.8th -1936

Mr. C.R. Romondt,

Dear friend,

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Captain Hodge’s Guesthouse where I lived was directly across the Street from the Buncamper home.

I am now writing you these few lines hoping they will find you and the family all well. We are having some deaths here lately. Our ‘landraad’ [local councilor] Jacob A. Richardson who was ‘landraad’ for many years has retired in the middle of last year and between the month of October, November or December received a gold medal of honor from the Government (Queen) he is now dead. He died Friday January foreday half past twelve o’clock. He is well known by all classes. He is 84 years old. He will be a great missing in the Methodist church. He was circuit steward, in the absence of Mr. Darrell and when he is on the Island, he bury any one, when Mr. Darrel was so much persecuted he was a great friend at his side now as a great friend to him in his troubles and stood to his side.


A sample of one of the letters. He wrote a separate copy of the letters he sent out and they now form an interesting chapter of life on St. Martin in the nineteen thirties.

There was a funeral. They came from all over the island, people from Marigot etc. Between sixteen to twenty cars were there.

We have it very hot up here now heavy drought. The earth is terrible dry. Water getting scarce. Cistern getting short of water. Hoping to get heavy showers. We all send howdy to you and all the others hoping you all are well and hope that your eyes are not troubling you. Jantje is O.K.  and he send howdy to you. Norma, Margaret and Helena ask to be remembered to you hopes you is well.

I must now close hoping you is well and all the families.

I remain your true friend.


St. Martin, April 28th, 1937


We had a lot of fun with Mr. Joe from Simpsons Bay and would help him pull in his nets right in front of the Pasangrahan Hotel. He lived with his wife down the alley and she was a member of the Buncamper family.

Dear Walter,

I am now writing you these few lines hoping they will find both of you well. At present I am no worse. Wren [Ah.Ah] husband Calvin arrived this morning in the ‘Baralt’. I hope you got through well, all your work good.

Netherwood pick salt two days last week also Monday and Tuesday this week.

We had last night a couple of good showers and this morning a heavy shower. We was having it very dry. This rain is a good help to the island. I hope we will get some more.

Invitation out for Ludwig Reginald [Carrty]

To Gladys Marie Hyacinth Houtman on May 12th 1937 at 8 o’clock pm. I must now close hoping both of you are well. I remain. Yours father,

Albert Buncamper

St. Martin, June 22, 1937


Michel Deher also from “Up-Street” here looking down on Philipsburg around 1955. Few changes had taken place from the time when Mr. Albert Buncamper was writing his letters next to us. Photo Guy Hodge.

Dear Carl,

I am now writing you these few lines hoping they will find you well. We had the submarine here for a few days. Plenty people went on board to see how she was situated. Walter, Baby [Elize], Jan and Olga. Walter give us a good history of her. Three of them slept on shore up the ‘Vineyard.’ I suppose they must have had in Statia a good time. I could not see her as the tree in Marther yard hid her from me. The new building for the Governor of Curacao [Pasangrahan] is going ahead. It will be a fine site in the Up Street. We hope to send a box or a pan with some mangoes for you today. Just after nine o’clock while writing you we receive the letter from George Fox with the money, also a letter for Walter. I must now close.

I remain yours father A. Buncamper

St. Martin, July 21st, 1937


Big change to St. Martin when the Juliana Airport was built in 1943. Also the Philipsburg Electric Company started by Governor H. Beaujon in the nineteen twenties were the two big changes in the first half of the twentieth century.

Dear Coralie,

I am now writing you these few lines hoping they will find you well. At present I am feeling no worse. I has to go in the hospital Friday for a change and then after go in every two weeks. As usual idea I believe that the new Sister from Aruba coming head of the Hospital and our Sister going Head of the hospital in Aruba. So that this Wednesday the 21st our new Sister will be here in the ‘Baralt’ so that Friday our Sister and the Doctor will show her how to act with me. The doctor going in the middle of next month and the new Doctor will be here so that our Doctor will be present to show him he will act with me. Some days I feel good and some days I don’t feel well.

You will receive a box of fruit by the ‘Baralt’ this trip. I hope you will receive it safe.

The firm of L.A. van Romondt and sons finish. Consta Fleming take over the shop, store etc.  Seye [Cyrus] Wathey bought the store and shop for $4.000.–

Marius, Beryl and others out of it, paid them off and close the place for a week. It is expected that Marias will attend the steamer this time as the month is not up. And it has to be fixed in Curacao who will be agent for the steamer.

‘Baby’ [Elize] will write you all the news. Remember me to Dr. Chateau and wife, nothing more to say. I remain, Yours Father A. Buncamper.

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The ‘Baralt’ at the Fort Bay on Saba, the monthly steamer serving the islands from Curacao.

St. Martin, January 22nd, 1938

Mr. C.B. Romondt

Dear friend,

I am glad to write you these few lines hoping they will find you and all the families well. Also hope that your eyes are no worst but improving.

Some days I am able to go out in the yard a little and some days I feel very bad. But what must I do trust in God. I feel these couple of days pretty good.

About the house. After I turn the man out of it I had to put boards in the floor and re nail the whole floor and shingle the Northern side of the main house just East of the Ell. Also put a little paint on the windows, doors and stillings as this work cost $11.63. The woman hire the house from August 29th, 1936 at $2.25 per month and paid the first two months’ rent $2.25 a month and afterwards $2.00 a month saying she could not pay for it. I intended to turn her out. But I reflect that it would be shut up after, for there is no one to rent houses.

Houses on the Back Street today is with common people and after they hire a house you have trouble with them to get your rent from them.

May 24th, 1937, we have plenty of rain and he House leak very much on the woman and children. So, she come around and ask me to do it. The whole of the Norther side of the roof was very old. I had to patch it several times. So, I send the carpenter down and get sheets of zinc and put the zinc over the wallaba shingles. Also put to the Eastern end with zinc over the shingles. The house is in good condition now. This last fixing of the house is done May 24th, 1937. Cost $ 11.91.

House rent from August 29th, 1936 to December 29th, 1937, 2 months at $2.25. 14 months at $2.– or $32.50

House rent in full up to December 29th, 1937 $32.50.

Fixing repairs twice                                                $23.54

Balance due for Rent up to date $8.96

January 21st ship to C.B. Romondt by a Post Office Order $9.00

Remember me to all the families. Hoping you all are well.

Yours true friend.

Albert Buncamper


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The large two story home on the right was the home of Walter Buncamper and it ran to the Backstreet. Located where now the “Old Street” is situated.

Interesting for those nowadays is that some of the things needed for his kitchen would be ordered from Curacao.

St. Martin, July 24th, 1937.

De Heeren C. Winkel & Zonen

Willemstad Curacao

I am now sending you an order for groceries as follows.

1 tin Wijsman butter 5lbs.

2 tins “               “  2lbs each.

1 tin Plum butter   4lbs each

3 tins Parrot butter 4lbs each

3 tins Lard butter 5 lbs. each

6 tins ‘Boterham Worst’

4 tins Pears

4 tins Peaches (Peas) 2-Coralie

8 tins Potted meat (24 poltchen/)

2 tins Sardines in oil (4)

6 tins Salmon in oil (4).

6 tins sliced beef.

12 tins Vienna Sausages

2.tins Edam Cheese. 3 packs with Rose Tea ½ lbs each.

Yours very truly

J.C. Buncamper

This is just a small sampler of the many letters he sent out from his peaceful existence in “Up-Street” on the Front Street in Philipsburg, St. Martin where he stated in 1937 that


“No one rents houses on St. Martin anymore.”


Photo from around 1924 by Mr. Baak a former Administrator of St.Eustatius. Imagine walking up that contraption with a load of salt on your head. The Salt Checker a man of importance back then keeping an account of each load of salt delivered.



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