Travelling with the Mitchell’s.
By Will Johnson
In March 1947 Carleton Mitchell and his wife “Zib” [Elizabeth] visited St. Eustatius and Saba. Their boat the “Carib” started out of Trinidad. The boat had been shipped by a freighter from the United States, and would be sailed back along the islands all the way back. From this trip the book “Islands to Windward” resulted as well as an article in the 1947 National Geographic Magazine.
It is always interesting when reading old books about the Caribbean to learn the views expressed about our islands and life as it was back then.
For this article bear in mind that in 1947 Saba and St. Eustatius had no airports, no piers, no electricity, no roads to speak of. Compared to modern times life was difficult and one had to work hard to survive.
For whatever reason the ‘Carib’ stayed on course and bypassed St. Martin, St. Barth’s and Anguilla. A great pity as his book and the subsequent article in the National Geographic Magazine has some really nice photos from that year. With so many changes since then to the islands mentioned ,people always love to see how their islands looked like in their parents and grandparent’s lifetime.
From St, Kitts the ‘Carib’ sailed directly to Statia and then on to Saba. Interesting to readers today are he and his wife’s impressions of both of these Dutch islands.
Between St. Kitts and Statia the channel is only six miles wide. As we approached Sandy Point, I was curious to find what the sea would be doing. It couldn’t be more uncomfortable. I thought optimistically, soon to do battle with the southerly swell that we were riding up the coast. All our rolling up to that point was only an introduction to the main event.”
Just a few weeks ago I was up on deck of a large cruise ship going in that same direction and experiencing in a most comfortable way that rolling of the waves in the relatively shallow waters of the channel.
“What is that yellow flag?” asked the man in the stern of the rowboat that came alongside a few minutes after our anchor had splashed down. He was wearing a khaki uniform of a police officer with brown leather puttees and a sun helmet.
“That flag?” I repeated in surprise. “That’s the Quarantine flag. It means that we are coming from a foreign country and want to enter.”
“Oh!” he said, swinging himself aboard. “You don’t need anything like that. You’re welcome here.”
And that was the extent of the formality surrounding our entrance to Statia. Later the Governor, Ernest Voges, was to elaborate: “We’re too small for red tape and all that nonsense.”
Not so anymore. Statia now has more security checks at the airport and harbour and so on than St. Barth’s which gets probably three hundred thousand tourists a year.
“Reading had prepared me for the two towns of Statia. “The town stands on the South side, and is divided into two parts, denominated the Upper and Lower Towns, “said the 1818 SAILING DIRECTIONS. “ The latter is on the shore; it consists of shops and warehouses, and is inhabited in the day only, as the inhabitants pass their nights and holidays in the Upper Town, 50 0r 60 feet above the level of the sea, to which they climb by means of steps cut in the rock. The Lower Town consists of a single street, and is very indifferently built. The governor’s house and fort are in the Upper Town….The island produces coffee, rum, sugar and vegetables. The air is wholesome in the Upper Town, but the steep cliffs prevent the Lower Town from being refreshed by the breezes, the ground is cultivated as much as possible, and covered with sugar-canes to the very summit of the mountains. Water is so scarce, that the inhabitants drink rain-water, which is preserved in cisterns…. The road [harbour] is much frequented, and ships are frequently there, even in the hurricane months…
“Orangetown has a Dutch “feel” immediately noticeable to anyone who has been to the Netherlands. It is something that cannot quite be define; it has to do with the neatness of the houses, the cleanliness of the streets – a prim look, a scrubbed look. There was none of the surliness in the people that was to be found in St. Kitts – and indeed almost throughout the British Islands.
Governor Voges was expecting me, having watched Carib come into the anchorage. His hospitality was swift and complete. He wanted us to come ashore and spend the night as his guests; when I decline, he insisted that we spend the next night with him. Within a few minutes I was driving around Orangetown in his truck, and he had arranged to show us all over the island the following morning.
After a comfortable night ‘Zib’ and I went ashore to meet Governor Voges. He drove us to the highest point on the island that could be reached by road. Everything was sere and brown. Against a normal yearly rainfall of 48 inches there had been less than 26, Statia no longer is “covered with sugar canes.” The ground is exhausted and very little is grown.
In the afternoon we packed ditty bags to spend the night ashore. Governor Voges wanted us to meet some of the island people, and we were anxious to do so. After an early dinner, chairs were brought out on a veranda and the guests arrived. It was a pleasant evening. Although all were of old island families, they were cosmopolitan in their outlook. Many had lived in the United States – a Mr. Hill [Josiah?] had spent some time in Boston, and one of the Pandts worked in the post office in Minneapolis – and the talk shifted from Statia to “The States” and back again. Several remembered Fritz Fenger when he had cruised through the islands in ‘Yakaboo’ and ‘Diablesse’; Zib was later to be given some of the “slave beads” from the wreck of an old slaver similar to those that Fenger had collected on his visit twenty years earlier.
The Pandts were direct descendants of Hendrick Pandt, one of the four men who had been forced to sign the capitulation to Rodney. Curiously enough, a few days after our visit a Rodney was scheduled to stop at the island; this one a junior officer aboard a British ship of war making a good-will call. I have often wondered if some of the more elderly ladies present that night were entirely cordial in their manner to a Rodney, even after a century and a half!”
He continues to Saba and has this to say: “Saba, poor little island, suffers the fate of being the glamour girl of the West Indies. Standing off by herself on her own bank of soundings and minding her own business, she is beset by all sorts of weird creatures like yachtsmen and authors – and sometimes a combination of the two- and her ‘Onder Gezaghebber’ has the slightly harried air of a man in a lady’ store on bargain day. Although nature tried to make her hard to meet and even more difficult to know, her name is better known than those of many of her bigger sisters. It is said that her admirer gaggle both vowels of her name, producing sounds like the “ahhs” that make a doctor happy, but she has learned to put up with the curses of celebrity. She has even suffered through being the heroine of a magazine piece entitled “Island of Women,” and through an invasion by a motion picture company.”
He goes on to describe the then difficulties of mooring a boat at Saba and said that as ‘we neared a boat put out from the shore, and Governor Huith was soon alongside. Governor Voges had called him on the radiotelephone to say that we were on the way.”
After deciding to anchor the “Carib” at Ladder Bay he writes: “It was a long row back, and I saw why the boatmen prefer to have visitors anchor off Forty Bay, where the boats are kept.’ Neddy’ [Nederville Heyliger], the Chief Boatman, whose father before him was Chief Boatman, is as fine a surf man as there is anywhere and his exploits are part of the Saba legend, but he doesn’t like to row a heavy boat a mile any more than you or I.
I had gotten over the first hurdle. The next was close ahead: sitting on a pile of camera gear and other duffle. I realized that we were about to land, only there wasn’t any landing! Ahead there was nothing but rock- rock in ledges, rock in pinnacles, and just ordinary boulders. The swells dashed into this assemblage of disaster to boil and hiss and foam, exactly as the sea boils and hisses and foams on rocks in the sailor’s most hideous nightmare. As I started to say something in warning, Neddy, who had been watching the oncoming breakers over his shoulder, gave a grunt and dug his steering paddle into the water; all the oarsmen dug and we spurted ahead. I clutched both gunwales and hoped for the best. There was a lurch, a bump, and a scrape, and the boat was up on the beach above the surf line, so that I could step ashore dry shod. Neddy seemed about as concerned as a taxi driver who had made it to the Penn station – to him it was just another fare and, I gathered, on an easy day.
So I prepared for the next hurdle, that terrible climb up the side of the mountain, and found Governor Huith was waiting in a jeep.
That jeep was the greatest event in Saba history. It had been on the island just a couple of weeks at the time of our arrival, and Neddy and his fellows were still repairing the boats stove on bringing it ashore – a feat that I still cannot conceive. When it had finally been landed and started up the mountain over the road that had been building for 5 years, some of the inhabitants departed for the higher hills. Others walked over from Hell Gate and Windward Side just to have a look. The governor took school children for rides and they screamed when the “houses went back so fast.” The porters dubbed it “the donkey on wheels.” In the town, paths had to be widened to let it make the corners., But lie all forms of progress it had its opponents. Some felt that it would take the income from the porters, those who carry the goods up the mountain on the backs of donkeys or on their own heads. The children had no doubts about it, though. Whenever it stopped in the town it would be surrounded by a gaping circle. Now another road is under construction to the more distant village of Windward Side, and it was rumored that KLM, would inaugurate helicopter service by 1950!
We were installed at the Government Guest house, a pleasant two-story house maintained for visitors, which may be used at the discretion of the governor. There is no hotel on the island. Here we found ourselves with all the comforts of home: a mechanical refrigerator, china, glassware, linens, and even someone to preside over the kitchen, a worthy by the name of Albertha Leverock. Albertha had been caring for guests since the Tertiary Age. She looked on us as her personal property and was always ready to “froi” something on the kerosene stove.
Saba is a Dutch island and the inhabitants speak English. The whole atmosphere of the island is of the outside world. Conversations especially turns toward the sea: for generations the man have sailed away while the women watched the dancing blue waters for their return. We were told that thirty Sabans commanded ships of the United States merchant marine, and that the skipper of one of the first supply ships to make the landing of the invasion of Africa was from the island.
Many of the stories of ships brought by to whistle a salute to the people in the hills. “Cap’n So-and-So of the S.S. Blanck; he’s from Windward Side, and last year he was going to Aruba and he came up close to the rocks and blew the whistle three time. Long blasts….”
The chapter on Saba is a long one and I am quoting only the most important sections. He describes their departure. “Neddy [whom he refers to as Netty] waited for us at the foot of the Ladder. It was so smooth that getting out and away was easy. We swung back aboard ‘Carib’ and Johnson, the Saban who had been with Al, dropped into the boat. We waved farewell to Neddy as he rounded the Point, and to Rebecca [Levenstone] before she disappeared around the turn.”
Great memories of their 1947 visit from the book “Islands to Windward.”
And if Albertha has caught up with the Mitchell’s in that Great Beyond I am sure she is ‘froiing’ something for them on her kerosene stove right now.