The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson

A Visit to St. Maarten in 1916

A visit to St. Martin in 1916

Translated from the Dutch by Will Johnson

    This is a continuation of a previous article on the visit of Father R.C.Wahlen the Editor of the Amigo newspaper to the Dutch Windward Islands with the Saban schooner the ‘Estelle’.

 Leaving St. Eustatius: ‘The Estelle already had up her sails and raised the anchor as soon as we were on board. With courage we started our last night on board.

    Sunday morning, January 9th, we were up early on deck in order to get to know St. Martin as best as possible. We saw the island in its entire length. What a strange formation. Not a high rock like Saba, no mountain slope like St. Eustatius, but an entire group of hills and mountains, with nearly equally formed tops, without one dominating the other, French and Dutch parts sisterly next to each other.

   We again had adverse winds and made short tacks along the coast. Simpsonbay, Cole Bay, Little Bay, Great bay. Great Bay is the popular name for Philipsburg.

    The town lies like Charlotte Amalia on St. Thomas in the curve of the bay on a small piece of land. On St. Thomas the mountains immediately rise up behind the town; St. Martin to the contrary has firstly a large salt pond between the town and the mountains. From the sea however one does not see that and the streets of the town seem to go on to the foot of the mountains. One great difference though is; Charlotte Amalia rises like an amphitheater, while Philipsburg is low and flat, and is shaded for a large part under the trees. Tropical, real tropical however is the aspect of those houses between the coconut palms on the sandy beach of the sea.

   Sand, plenty sand collects in the Great Bay. Philipsburg can thank its existence to that as is claimed. When Columbus discovered the island, the sandbank on which the Dutch built their town did not exist as yet. History tells us that the great discoverer could sail with his ships right up to the mountains. The sandbank was formed later on and closed off part of the bay, which part was used as a naturally formed salt pond by the inhabitants. Houses were built on the sandbank and the new town came into existence. The town is a few kilometers in length however is only between 60 and 70 meters wide divided in two streets: the Front Street and the Back Street.

    A new sandbank is forming on a third of the depth of the bay. After a few centuries Holland will have gained another town ‘wrested from the womb.’ Just like the Motherland.

    The ‘Estelle’ has a draft of 13 feet and therefore remains at the buoy in front of the sandbar. The harbormaster William F. O’Connor came on board there and presented us his pilot boat with which to go on shore. In a separate row boat Mr. T. Armanie came on behalf of Father Hartendorff to welcome Monseigneur.

     The pier on St. Martin gives a much better impression than the small pier on St. Eustatius, and seems to be always in use. And yet the pier of St. Martin is built on ordinary wooden piles. The piles rot of course and have to be regularly renewed, but everything looks sturdier and stronger than the thin iron under carriage of the Statian pier with its loose and sea saw planks. Strange that on Statia no reinforced concrete was used, where the tarras is abundant there.Is that tarras no good even as an addition? Let people think about this. In the future the pier will surely be lenghtned and one should think about whether or not it would be cheaper without iron poles and can be completed much cheaper.

   But we are on St. Martin.

 The entire police force, were standing on the pier and behind them a cortege. Gentlemen and young people, who carried banners and shields. The Dutch tri colour was carried in front. Thus we went in a solemn procession to the church, where Monseigneur was received in accordance with liturgical ceremony. It was exactly a half hour before the High Mass. From that short moment the opportunity was taken to greet Monseigneur solemnly in the presbytery. The very Reverend Prioress Regina with her reverend sisters, the most important Catholic ladies and gentlemen filled the living room of the presbytery, where his Eminence was addressed by Mr. Armanie after which Monseigneur  cordially answered.

   Then the hIgh Mass began wehere the bishop was p;resent seated on his throne. St. Martin has a very lovely church which is completely finished. It has the form of a church cross, whereby the midship after the first part is widened to three naves each with its own altar. The communion bench is situated between the two side altars and closes off the priest choir nwhich is situated higher. The neat painting of apsis, dome and walls was carried out years ago by Mgr. Vuylsteke when His eminence was the priest there, and is still in excellent condition.

   Just like all the other houses on St. Martin this church is also from wood with a stone foundation. The shingles of the walls and roof are painted white. The entire building give a really good impression. The Presbytery is situated on the other side of the street, just across from the church. A wide staircase bordered on both sides with a garden with splendid cabbage palms leads to a front porch, behind which is the living room an bedrooms. Everything was so different from Curacao! Much more Indian and tropical! But we were quickly at home.

   St. Martin is not so isolated, as one would be inclined to think. One has not to imagine that one is isolated from the rest of the civilized world; one lives right in the middle of it.

    In the first place one has daily traffic with the French part, which in turn is connected with St. Barth’s and Guadeloupe. Then there is regular traffic with St. Kitts and the other Dutch islands. The European and American mail is often received quicker on St. Martin than on Curacao.

    Thanks to the friendly benevolence of the His Honour the Lt. Governor A.J.C. Brouwer we were quickly informed on the news of the war. Almost daily we had insight into ‘The St. Kitts-Nevis Daily Bulletin’ we found the English cable to be much more informative that it’s French colleague on Curacao, and also more businesslike. More facts and less speculation.

But back to business.

 The Dutch part of St. Martin hardly has 3300 people, the streets there are not as busy as in London. But there is some activity. Regularly carriages can be heard rolling by of important citizens who live on the plantations and who come to town to pay a visit to family and friends in town. Each morning we saw a pretty large dairy carriage full of boxes in which the milk bottles are sent around. Also one can get fresh butter regularly.

    However one cannot say that the population an agricultural population is. Agriculture as well as the dairy industry and animal husbandry remains too often in the hands of a single person. And that is a great pity.

The economic life on St. Martin is already too small. The island produces too little to provide its own people an existence. For many years already the field workers leave for Santo Domingo while the better situated young men go to New York.

   Is it possible to make any improvement in this? Would there be enough prosperity that the people will be able to survive and pay the costs of their own Colonial administration?

The sources of employment are in the first place the salt pans. But again in the hands of too few people. Thus there is a lack of business capital so that they are now completely out of production.  Can the Government make any improvement in that? Maybe it can. On the French side the concessioners have to pay a yearly fee, whether he exports salt or not. On the Dutch side only a pittance has to be paid for actual salt exported. If there is little sale of salt then the concessionaire naturally will prefer to work on the French side than on the Dutch side. When there is no exploitation on the Dutch side it does not cost him anything, but in Marigot he must always pay. He will do his best first to get his money back. That yearly fee is an incentive for him to work.

    In a few years’ time the concessions must be renewed; a great opportunity for once to consider if nothing can be done to make the Great Salt pond more productive. The extensive salt pans can give many hands work which then does not need to be sought in foreign lands.

    When child labour with the exploitation is avoided, there will be more blessings on the company. With much good will and a bit of consultation this evil can be avoided without the costs being too high. The pans on St. Martin are closer to the sea than most pans on Curacao. A large ox car can transport in one trip that which one hundred children cannot carry. The children should be in school and not carrying out tasks.

What can be taught to the children then? Plaiting hats. The plaiting of hats is light handicraft which they can learn while playing, and with which in later life they can make a nice income.                

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