Harbour Master without a Harbour
By Mr. Will Johnson
This reminds me of once on Statia I went to a Chinese restaurant after a funeral. I asked for a cup of coffee and it took some time before the owner came out of the kitchen and informed me: “Have coffee but no have cup.”
Formerly it was fashionable in magazines and newspapers in the United States to spread several myths about Saba. The island had a mysterious allure about it as to the origin of the original European inhabitants and how they survived. From the days of piracy to several years ago boat building was a tradition on Saba. The press in the USA had boats being built in the crater of the volcano and lowered over the sides of the cliffs surrounding the capital and launching them into the sea. This of course was not true. Smaller boats were built in the villages high up on the side of the mountain and then they were dragged along the old footpaths down to the sea. Larger boats including schooners were built on the Tent Bay, the Wells Bay, and up by Giles Quarter close to where white cedar groves provided some of the lumber with which to build. Records show that schooners up to more than sixty tons were built here. They were registered in places like Tortola and St. Kitts.
This is how passengers and cargo were carried out to the waiting schooners. At the right the attempt to build a pier in 1934.
H.M.S. Martin part of a British fleet passing Saba in 1893. Painting by G.S. Good. Crown Copright: U.K. Government Art Collection
July 1964. Leslie Johnson here with one of the many fishing boats which he built.
Even in recent times the author of a book on building of sailing craft in the Leeward Islands claimed he came to Saba and had spoken to an old man at a bar who claimed to have never heard of any boat ever being built on Saba. His research consisted of a half day visit to Saba and then he flew back convinced that he had solved the age old question of whether or not boats were ever built on Saba.
The other myth was as to the origin of the European majority population up until recent times. My research indicates that when a Spanish fleet captured St. Kitts from the English and French settlers in 1628, they allowed the Irish indentured servants, who were also Roman Catholics, to leave and settle elsewhere. Oral tradition has it that a group settled above the Well’s Bay and named the two villages they established Palmetto Point and Middle Island after two villages where they had lived on St. Kitts. Of course being local does not count as being a historian despite my entire life doing research into the history of my ancestors. So some of these know-it-alls have me writing make believe history to make the Saba people feel good. These people , the first settlers, maintained links with French and English people ,also from St. Kitts, who settled on the island of Tortuga located North of Haiti. They turned to piracy to harass the Spanish and the Sabans joined in happily to claim some share of the loot.
Schooner ‘Ester Anita’ belonging to Captain William Benjamin Hassell of Saba here docked close to the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. A number of Saban owned schooners maintained a regular service between the Caribbean and New York carrying salt, sugar, molasses and passengers and bringing back lumber, dry goods etc. as well as passengers.
Marion Hassel of St. John’s manning the signal station at St. John’s. From that location the boatment of The Bottom could see when a ship was approaching the island, from which direction and the type of ship.
With a settled population Saba had boat building and boat traffic and so there was some control needed. Gradually this evolved into appointing usually an old sea captain to do the duties of Harbour Master even though there was not much of a harbor to speak of.
However there was quite a bit of traffic to and from the island and this required some sort of supervision. In the old records there is to be found much data on the comings and goings to the island. A Saban local councilor Erroll Hassell in the nineteen thirties was able to get money put on the budget, despite the Island Governor’s objections, to build a real road from the Fort Bay to The Bottom and on March 17th, 1947 the first motor vehicle, a Jeep was landed at the Fort Bay and changed the history of Saba considerably. The small landing craft which brought passengers and cargo to shore were used by the local boatmen until 1972 when the new pier was put into use. For hundreds of years these boatmen did a wonderful job. Also Sabans acquired a respectable fleet of schooners from New England which carried mail and passengers to Curacao and also as far away as New York, which goes to show there was a need for a Harbour Master indeed.
Sabans travelled a lot and saw how things were done in other countries. There was even a direct bi-monthly schooner service with New York of which much has already been written. In the old archives when local people could elect two local councilors to work with the Island Governor these councilors often pleaded for a proper berthing facility to be built at the Well’s Bay. Nothing ever was done about it due to a lack of finances.
Finally in 1934 an attempt was made at the Fort Bay to build a ramp on the large boulders which extended out into the sea. The job was carried out by hand and the contractor was the now famous Lionel Bernard Scot a contractor from St. Maarten. The idea was to carry it out further and tie in the ranging rock into the construction but local expertise and lack of funds prohibited such a venture. It would still have not been of much use. Luckily it did not go through as that would have been all that Saba got.
Up front Guy Johnson and Hartley Jones assisted by others helping Kenneth Peterson carry his newly built fishing boat from the Windward Side to the Fort Bay.
Sloop belonging to Red Head Joe Simmons and built at the Fort Bay by Mr. Lake being readied for launch. Schooners up to sixty tons were also built on Saba in former times.
July 19th, 1938 Erroll (Hassell) put his name in concrete on one of the walls coming up from the Fort Bay. He was the man who as local councillor was able to get funding to build the road from the Fort Bay to The Bottom.
In the nineteen fifties an attempt was made by the Island Government to build yet another pier with primitive planning and construction methods and that too led to nothing. Years before that materials from Curacao had been landed at the Ladder Bay to build some kind of pier there. It never went through and up to several years ago there were iron piles lying along the shore at the end of the Ladder road.
Finally a Dutch harbor expert was sent to make plans for a real pier on Saba. The present site was not considered the best location for the pier. Locals suggested that it would be best to build it up by the Black Rocks near the ‘blue hole’ as that area was shallower and indeed it is.
The Dutch expert thought it would be too expensive to bulldoze the cliffs but years later a local Mr. Walton Hassell pushed through those cliffs with a bulldozer in less than a week.
First motor vehicle, a Jeep, being landed on Saba on March 17th, 1947. Driver is Mr. Oliver Zagers of Hell’s Gate.
Minister Leo Chance being greeted by Sister Agatha on the opening of the pier named after him on November 8th, 1972. Will Johnson leader of the WIPM government (in dark glasses) looking on.
In 1970 approval was given by the Dutch Government to build the pier. The various local governments had been pushing hard for the Netherlands Antilles Government to do something about it. When native born Leo Chance became Minister at the end of 1969 he was able to get the monies released by the Dutch Government for the construction and the local WIPM government decided to name it in his honour and on November 8th, 1972 on the Minister’s fortieth birthday it was opened with much pomp and with the participation of the population.
So Saba has a real harbor now and the harbor master Mr. Travis Johnson does not have to fear that he will be ridiculed that he is a harbor Master but has no harbor.
For more information on Saba's history and lore visit the author's website to read more: thesabaislander.com
You can also purchase a copy of Will Johnson's book on line:
Tales From My Grandmother's Pipe: Saban Lore
Dominican Nuns here getting ready to go for their annual vacation with the government schooner The Blue Peter at the Fort Bay.