THE PALM TREE
By; Will Johnson
My brother Thomas Eric gave me a palm slip after I built my house. He said that he had gotten it from former Administrator Gerard van der Wal. Eric said that he understood that it was a prickly palm. And so, it remained a mystery to me for some years. No one whom I asked seemed to be able to tell me what kind of tree it was.
One morning as I came out of my front door on my way to work, the street sweepers were standing there looking at and discussing the palm tree. I thought all three of them were strictly island men who had stuck close to home. To me it seemed that the era of island owned large schooners and famous captains of yore were long gone.
I challenged the men to tell me what kind of palm tree it was. Melford Gordon and Julius Hassell were well known Saba huggers. They had not done much travelling. Delmar Barrington Johnson “Ton”, said right away and very authoritatively, “Why, that’s a date palm.” Laughing I said to him, “Where did you ever see a date palm Ton?” Without hesitation he said “Oh man, I’ve seen millions of them up in Shatt-Al-Arab waterway.”
With that I started questioning him as to when and how he had ever managed to travel to Shatt-Al-Arab waterway.
When no politics were going on, I tried to interview as many interesting people as I could. So, I made an appointment with him to pass by his house in the center of Windward Side. I published the interview I had with him in the Saba Herald of Thursday, September 24th, 1987.
I had so many positive comments on the article which I recently wrote for the Daily Herald about Ralph Hassell, that I decided to update the interesting interview which I had with ‘Ton.’
Although our young Sabans still follow the calling of the sea they do this closer to home now. Saba has a sizeable fishing fleet which supplies neighboring islands with fish and lobsters. The men of Ton’s generation have nearly all died out. Ton was one of a vanishing breed of sailors when I interviewed him over thirty years ago. They had to leave their homes in order to make a living and in the process, they discovered other worlds.
He was born on Saba on January 2nd 1919 and would have made one hundred years in a couple of weeks from when I am writing this article.
His first introduction to the sea was on the schooner the “Maisie Hassell”, as a cabin boy with Captain Tommy Hassell to St. Kitts. He also remembers going with Captain William Benjamin Hassel (“Captain Ben”) on a schooner to Barbados once.
As a young man he was a member of the boy scouts under the leadership of a Dutch Police Officer Van der Marel. “Ton” was one of the six young men from Saba selected to attend the World Jamboree in 1937. Carl Anslijn was also one of the young men who went. Then like now the world was very tense. Hitler had come to power in Germany and was gearing up for war which cost the lives of nearly seventy million people. Russia alone lost at least twenty-seven million of its people.
Ton stayed several months in Holland and then stopped off at Aruba on the way back. The journey to Europe was by boat in those days and the ship stopped at several ports to and from Europe, it is from that trip that “Ton” got the bug to travel.
After working for several years on ships around the Caribbean and the United States on oil tankers out of Aruba, “Ton” decided to come to Saba to ride out World War II. Many other Sabans came back home during the years of depression before the war and they survived from agriculture and fishing. “Ton” loved to fish. I can remember him back in the nineteen sixties always going to the Spring Bay and Coeur Gut and fishing from the cliffs here. Once while visiting here from St. Maarten where I lived at the time, I remember passing him in English Quarter with a huge “Green Knight” fish on his head. He had to leave the head behind and the fish weighed ninety pounds still. Those fish seem to have disappeared from around Saba.
After the Great Patriotic War as the Russians call it, he returned to Aruba and started sailing on the oil tankers of the ESSO company with names like the “Sea Pearl” and the “Sea Clover”, and the SHELL tanker the “Paladina.”
Sometimes he sailed with other Sabans like Frank Riley of The Bottom, and Eddie Hassell of Hell’s Gate. But mostly he sailed with Norwegians and people of other nationalities who all treated him well.
In his years of roaming the high seas, Ton has visited the pyramids of Egypt, rode an elephant in West Africa and also in India. He has a tattoo on his right arm which was done in Calcutta (India). He has also visited Bombay and the island of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He has sailed up and down the Tigris river, slept in Jerusalem, Beirut, Damascus, Istanbul, Kuwait and many other exotic ports.
Sailors recall the girls they have met around the world. “Ton” remembers his share as well. From a winsome eyed “Boer” schoolteacher in Durban to a Guyanese woman of Portuguese descent at a bar in the “Hotel-de-Paris” in Port-of-Spain, to the girls of Alexandria.
Once he was kidnapped in Senegal, in the then French West Africa. Taxi number 4711, pretending to take him back to his ship, took him out into the jungle instead. The taxi-driver also had a friend with him. Realizing what was happening “Ton” said he took a bite out of the friend’s ear, and a German shepherd dog which was also in the car went berserk, causing a panic, and in the confusion, Ton escaped into the jungle. He could hear the two men trying to find him. But with his Saba experience of wandering around the Mountain he was able to climb up into a tree in the dark and his would-be captors gave up and returned to the car and took off.
Several hours later when morning broke, he ventured from his hiding place and some friendly natives dressed in tribal costumes secured him a lift back to the city some sixty miles away. Just in time to catch his ship. The police were able to quickly apprehend the Taxi driver and his friend, later on, due to “Ton’s” alertness in remembering the license plate number. Forty years later he remembers the incident and the taxi-number as if it had all occurred just yesterday.
Sabans have had many adventures on the high sea. Many of the hundreds of sailors from Saba over the years will have had similar stories about the ports which they visited and in which they frolicked with the locals.
Ton returned home, worked for the government as a street cleaner and did some farming. As mentioned earlier in this article he loved to fish around the rocks, and he can tell you many stories about that too. He never got married and cherished his life as a bachelor. He says that if he were younger, he would like to go sailing again. He said he was surprised to see how many young men were content to sit on the walls and waste their life away. According to “Ton” there is a whole world out there to see and to experience.
He had a problem or two in his later years. He had a pet iguana named Pablo, which would climb on his shoulder and go all around with him. Being an old sailor, he liked his booze of course. One night in September 1973 he must have overturned a kerosene lamp in the beautiful old home of his parents and it burned to the ground. His sister Joanna Martin-Johnson came to his rescue and built a concrete house in its place and allowed him to live there until he passed away. He still liked the ladies and had a slight altercation with a lady from the Republic for which the Judge gave him a sentence beyond what was necessary.
He was a good friend of the detective Victor Monsanto. When Victor came to Saba and saw the distress his friend was in Victor sent him home and told him to wait and see what would happen. “Ton” is perhaps still waiting in the great beyond to see if anyone is coming to pick him up to send him to Curacao.
I learned a great lesson from that day when Ton identified my palm tree as a date palm. A street sweeper had roamed the world and had experienced all of the exotic places I had only read about in books. While I fancied, I knew all about Jerusalem from books how could I argue with a man who had actually been there. Istanbul, Calcutta, Durban, Shanghai that I dreamed of, these and many more are places which were all familiar to ‘Ton.’ He was also known as “Buckey” and after a relatively short illness he passed away in 1994.
It will be Christmas soon. Ton spent one Christmas in Port Said, Egypt. He caught a shark from the back of the ship. When the Arab stevedores cut open the shark, seven young ones came out of the bowels. The Arabs all excited jumped about exclaiming “Praise be to Allah,” and saw this as some kind of omen. One of them afterwards said to ‘Ton’. It is Christmas. You are far away from your family, your country. Come with me into Port Said and be my guest. And a most delightful Christmas he spent in a land with people mostly of another religion, and he still remembers the Arab friends he met in Port Said. In retrospect the gentleman could have been a Coptic Christian. Allah is the Arabic name for God. The Christians in Egypt also call the Christian God Allah. Happy Christmas to all and praise be to Allah.