Short URL for this page:

[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

This webpage reproduces an article in
Geographical Review
Vol. 24 No. 1 (Jan. 1934), pp42‑60

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

 p42  White Settlement in Saba Island,
Dutch West Indies​a

A. Grenfell Price

Those nations that are still attempting white settlement in the tropics may well consider the case of Saba Island. The white inhabitants of this tiny member of the Leeward Islands form one of the very few groups of peoples of northwestern European descent that have conducted a long-standing tropical settlement with success.

Saba is a young volcanic island,​1 some five square miles in area, fertile and verdure-clad, a tangle of rugged hills that rise by steep slopes or sheer cliffs to a cloud-capped mountain peak 2887 feet above the sea.2

Early History

The early history of white settlement in Saba is obscure, owing to the fact that this island and its neighbor, St. Eustatius (Statia), were first settled by private individuals under concessions from the Dutch West India Company, which did not appoint a governor until 1671 nor repurchase the rights of the proprietors until 1682. It is known that the Dutch colonized Statia in 1636,​3 after an attempt by the French under Du Cusac had failed through lack of water — a lack that the district remedied by building cisterns such as those that form so prominent a feature in Saba and Statia today. César de Rochefort in his "Histoire Naturelle et Morale des Iles Antilles de l'Amerique"​4 observes that Saba was thought to be merely a rock until the colony of St. Eustatius sent people to it. These found "a pleasant valley and enough good land to occupy several families, who live contentedly in this kindly retreat."

Island legend tells that planters from Statia first settled the "Windwardside" as a sugar and coffee plantation. Old inhabitants still point out the remains of an alleged sugar refinery on the eastern shore. Hamelberg says that, according to tradition, the earliest colonists took possession of the south of Saba, where they built a fort and a village on the present "Fort Bay." However, they soon experienced the geographical difficulties of the island, for one of the frequent cliff slides demolished the fort and houses, and several of the people were killed. Later inhabitants turned this same geographical  p43 factor to their own advantage when they defeated a French attack by rolling rocks on the heads of the invaders in 1688‑1689.

The English captured Saba in 1665 and held it until 1667. They again took the island in 1672 and, although they nominally restored it in 1674, continued to administer it for eight more years. These English occupations and the sea interests of the islanders probably account for the fact that Saba remains English-speaking today. Hamelberg makes it clear that when the English captured Saba in 1665 the island was inhabited by a variety of races and that some of the people were probably planters employing negro slaves. The records state that there were 87 Hollanders and 54 English, Scots, and Irish, with 85 negroes and Indians, and that the English sent the defeated Dutch settlers to the island of St. Martin. During the second British occupation the governor of St. Kitts and Nevis, William Stapleton, said that he wished that Statia and Saba were sunk to their own height in the ocean, as their inhabitants gave so much trouble by smuggling. It is thus fairly certain that during the latter half of the seventeenth century the Saban community consisted of small planters and seafarers — the latter engaged in more or less legitimate vocations.

[image ALT: A map of the island of Saba in the Caribbean.]

Fig. 1 — Saba Island (from U. S. Hydrographic Office Chart No. 1011, 1914). A later figure, West Indies Pilot (4th edit., 1929), gives the altitude of the culminating peak as 2887 feet.

A larger, fully readable scan is also available.

Father Labat, who visited the island in April, 1701, paints a very  p46 favorable picture of a prosperous little planting community.​5 The island, he states, was practically inaccessible, except at the present Fort Bay landing, where a zigzag pathway ascending to what is now the Bottom was defended by piles of rock balanced on planks in such a way that the inhabitants could dislodge them easily. The village of Bottom, situated in the midst of level and fertile ground, was laid out in two quarters, containing 45 to 50 families. The dwellings were nicely painted white and were dry, comfortable, and neat. Almost all the inhabitants, including the commander, practiced shoemaking, and shoes and a little indigo and cotton were the only exports. Labat thought them rich in their possessions, which included slaves, silver, and fine furniture.


[image ALT: A rocky sea cove between two sharp hills, with a sliver of beach. It is Fort Bay, the landing on the south coast of the island of Saba in the Caribbean.]

Fig. 2 — Fort Bay, the landing on the south coast of Saba Island.

[image ALT: missingALT. zzz the island of Saba in the Caribbean.]
[image ALT: missingALT. zzz the island of Saba in the Caribbean.]

Fig. 3

Fig. 4

Fig. 3 — The cliffs of Marypoint.

Fig. 4 — Ladder Bay, the landing on the west coast of Saba; "ladder" on the left.

Abbé Raynal gave another happy description of Saba almost a century later.​6 He said that in the island plants grew to an extraordinary size. Fifty European families with some 150 slaves raised garden produce and cotton. The latter they wove into stockings, for which they obtained very high prices in the other colonies. Throughout America there was no blood so pure as the Saban: the women preserved a freshness of complexion that was not found in any other of the Caribbean islands.


[image ALT: missingALT. the island of Saba in the Caribbean.]

Fig. 5 — A white agriculturalist among the tree fern at 2000 feet.

[image ALT: missingALT. zzz the island of Saba in the Caribbean.]
[image ALT: missingALT. zzz the island of Saba in the Caribbean.]

Fig. 6

Fig. 7

Fig. 6 — Bananas and tree ferns in the crater at the top of the mountain. About 2700 feet.

Fig. 7 — Windwardside. The mountain with agricultural clearings in the background.

Meager as are the historical records, the important point is that they include the names of some of the present white families at a very early date. In 1672, for instance, the English appointed a John Hassell as one of a council of three persons to administer Statia, and it is probably the same family name that appears as Hazel and Hasselie, the former in a list of Saba and Statia residents in 1687‑1688, the latter in the papers of Saba and Statia, 1698‑1703. We found members of the Hassell family who still pronounce their name as Hazel. The list of 1687‑1688 contains also the names of Van de Poele, Simons, and Heyliger and notes that a Simons and a Van de Poele were living in Saba at the time. Hamelberg also shows that in 1687‑1689 a Zeegers and a Piertsz were officially connected with Saba, while a Jacob Leverock appears as governor of Saba at the end of the seventeenth century. Thus it seems fairly certain that by 1700 at the latest most of the leading Saban families were already residing in the island or in near-by Statia.

Access to the Island and its Villages

Little that is authentic has been written about Saba,​b for all communications were by small and uncomfortable schooners until two or three years ago, when the Dutch government subsidized a passenger  p47 and cargo service by a small steamer of the Royal Dutch Netherlands Company. The vessel runs fortnightly from Curaçao (the seat of the governor of the Dutch West Indies) to Bonaire, St. Thomas, St. Martin (seat of the subgovernor of the northern islands), Saba, Statia, and St. Kitts and back via Statia, Saba, St. Martin, and Bonaire to Curaçao. Sensational writers have done some harm to Saba by absurd exaggerations of the difficulties of access. In point of fact, the inhabitants keep small boats at no less than four landing places, and one or the other of the two regular landings at Fort Bay in the south and Ladder Bay in the west is so safe in every wind that only one fatal accident has been recorded in historical times. From the two main landings excellent stone and concrete paths and stairways lead to the village of Bottom. The Fort Bay track is the easier for porters and donkeys and is used except when seas are raging into the bay under southerly winds.

Inaccurate statements are frequently made that the islanders build large vessels on the top of the cliffs and "lower them 2000 feet by ropes" or "shoot them over into the sea below." We found all construction of schooners carried out on the sea shore. However, no suitable place exists at Well Bay, south of Torrens Point, as the West Indies Pilot says, and it is probable that the inhabitants are correct in their statement that the old shipbuilding center was Tent Bay on the south coast, a spot once connected by path with Fort Bay. In former times the white Sabans were expert carpenters and shipwrights, but few schooners have been constructed since emancipation, for it has proved cheaper to import suitable craft from such places as Gloucester, Mass. The early Sabans used their slaves to cut hardwood timber on the Saba mountain, the Quill of Statia, and on other Caribbean islands. The present inhabitants still construct small boats in their villages as high up as Windwardside (1400 feet), and porters, mainly colored, lug them down to the beach.

The ascent to Bottom may be made on foot, by horse, or in a chair borne by negroes. All the paths are too steep for wheeled vehicles. The donkeys, a recent importation, are still somewhat unpopular on the ground that they have caused unemployment. Porters still handle the heaviest "buns" or parcels. Every plank of building material and every piece of furniture has been lugged up the cliffs by human labor, even such articles as pianos.

The Villages

The village of Bottom, unofficially called Leverocktown after a former governor, lies in a circular basin about a mile in circumference. It numbers 436 inhabitants. Commanding the two chief landings, it still remains the seat of government, although it is overwhelmingly  p48 black and is smaller than Windwardside. The administration is conducted by a receiver with the aid of a few officials such as a doctor, customs officer, and postmaster. Five policemen and an annual deficit form an adequate defense. Crime is astonishingly rare. The customs duties are very low, and the happy island now has no income nor land taxes, as the latter proved too small and too expensive to collect. The Netherlands government loses money in helping the inhabitants, who, like those of many isolated communities, seem inclined to accept spoon feeding and grumble that the oversea taxpayers should provide even larger sums. Dutch, the official language, is taught in all the schools, but the people use a debased form of English of limited vocabulary and characteristically spoken in a high singsong voice. The island has Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Methodist churches, and there are three government and two Roman Catholic schools. There is a small public library, but the inhabitants, government, and churches have so far failed to establish any institute or adult educational society. The authorities have recently installed a wireless station, but those responsible should make some effort to mitigate isolation by increasing the miserably inadequate supply of world news. There are a few private wireless sets, but, as there are no garages and no mechanics in Saba, the maintenance of batteries is a problem.

[image ALT: missingALT. zzz the island of Saba in the Caribbean.]

Fig. 8 — The village of Bottom (The Bottom, The Bottoms) and the Ladder Bay gap which has such a marked effect on climate.

The Receiver offers the utmost kindness, help, and consideration. There are several boarding houses in Windwardside and Bottom, and, with special permission, very comfortable accommodations can be obtained at the Government Guest House.7

 p49  From Bottom an excellent stone and concrete path leads to the chief cliff settlement of Windwardside. Rough but passable tracks also connect Bottom with Marypoint and Windwardside with St. John and with Zion Hill, more popularly known as Hellsgate. The main passageway rises abruptly from Bottom to the crest of the southern slope of the island, where a small cluster of houses bears the name of Crespin, in tribute to the shoemaking of Father Labat's day. Leaving the village of St. John to the west, the path winds along steep slopes and cliffs, which rear up from a gloriously blue sea more than a thousand feet below. At every turn the traveler is rewarded by magnificent views of crag and verdure or of the islands of Statia, St. Kitts, and Nevis — three great peaks that overlap one another in the ocean to the east.

Windwardside, the largest village of the island, is situated partly on the eastern slope of the mountain and partly on a neck of land connecting the mountain with Booby Hill, whose flat top furnishes excellent agricultural land. The village contains 511 people, with whites still predominating. Its altitude is about 1400 feet. Hellsgate, a mile or so to the north and 200 feet higher, contains 231 inhabitants, almost all of whom are white. St. John (1200 feet) has 229 people, white and black.

[image ALT: A low rocky hill and a scattered settlemnet of about twenty houses, single-story for the most part. It is a view of Windwardside and Booby Hill on the island of Saba in the Caribbean.]

Fig. 9 — Windwardside and Booby Hill with its agricultural land.

The cliff villages are picturesque, clean, and well kept, like most of those in the Dutch possessions. The pretty little wooden houses are for the most part painted white, with green or brown shutters and red roofs. They average four or five small rooms but often contain as many as eight or nine. The Sabans use very substantial frames of hard wood set in firm foundations. They reënforce their buildings wherever possible and guard all windows with solid wooden shutters  p50 as protection against hurricanes. Most of the houses stand in small plots, which are kept spotlessly clean and are often cemented and which, like the narrow, winding, but well kept streets, are bounded by stone walls. These last, when of cut stone or fine masonry, usually date back to the slave days. From most roofs wooden gutters carry the water to one or more cisterns, though some cisterns are supplied from the concrete yards that surround the greater number of the houses. These reservoirs are of immense value. There are more than 250 of them in Saba, and shares in them pass by will. Nearly all the houses of the whites have pit privies, which seem fairly satisfactory. A very unusual and objectionable feature, however, is the number of "back-yard" graves. One old gentleman emerged from his front door and pointed with pride to a very large concrete cistern at one end of his veranda and to an almost equally large concrete cylinder at the other — his father's and mother's grave. The churches are doing their utmost to prevent this type of burial, but here and in the compulsory construction of privies it is for the government to take a stronger line. The people rarely keep their coffins in their parlors, as has been depicted, but, owing to the shortage of timber, some of them import the wood in happy anticipation. We found one case where two coffins were constructed and kept under the family bed for many years.


[image ALT: missingALT. zzz the island of Saba in the Caribbean.]

Fig. 10 — Street in Bottom. Government buildings on left.

[image ALT: missingALT. zzz the island of Saba in the Caribbean.]

Fig. 11 — Typical "white" house of slave days with ornamental gate posts, cistern (left front) and privy.

[image ALT: missingALT. zzz the island of Saba in the Caribbean.]

Fig. 12 — In Windwardside. Grave in foreground; water cistern between it and the house.

The Climate

Despite the rhapsodies of visitors, the climate of Bottom is distinctly tropical, as the elevation is only 800 feet. Conditions are, however, ameliorated by the winds, which blow almost constantly through the Fort Bay and Ladder Bay gaps on the south and west, although neither gap is more than a few hundred feet in width. Also, the towering mountain on the east and the hills on the west lessen the hours of tropical sunshine, it has been estimated, as many as four hours a day. The government keeps no record of wind or humidity but reads the temperatures in Bottom at 7.45 A.M. and 1.45 and 3 P.M., while the Royal Dutch Meteorological Institute publishes somewhat irregularly rainfall figures for Bottom, Windwardside, and St. John.

The figures indicate just such rainfall variations as one would anticipate. Bottom, 800 feet above the sea and in the southwestern rain shadow, had an annual average of 1047 millimeters in the thirteen recorded years between 1919 and 1932. St. John, 1200 feet and in the same rain shadow, had 1060 millimeters in seven recorded years, and Windwardside, 1400 feet, on the northeast, and in the trade winds, had 1126 millimeters in eight recorded years. No doubt the agricultural village of Hellsgate, at an elevation of 1600 feet and even more in the trades, would show a still higher rainfall, and the  p52 summit of the mountain, which is almost always clouded, considerably more. Throughout the island the heaviest rains occur in the period September to December, but there is usually some rain during every month of the year.

We were told by the Receiver that the temperatures in Bottom usually vary from an average of 22° to 27° C (71.6° to 80.6° F) — temperatures distinctly of the tropical coast lands, as may be seen by comparison with figures for Basseterre, St. Kitts, situated some 40 miles from Saba at an elevation of 157 feet (both sets of figures for 1930).

J. F. M. A. M. J. J. A. S. O. N. D. Year
7.45 A.M. 73.9 74.5 75.0 78.0 79.9 80.6 80.2 82.2 82.2 82.2 79.3 78.2 78.9
1.45 P.M. 82.4 84.2 85.8 87.5 88.0 88.7 89.0 91.4 91.8 92.9 89.8 86.6 88.2
Mean 74.1 75.3 76.7 79.2 80.9 81.9 81.2 80.7 81.2 81.1 79.0 78.5 79.1

Profuse perspiration follows any exercise and indicates that the humidity is great. The climate is undoubtedly better in the cliff villages, but even in these the air is hot and the humidity clearly high. We found that it was by no means cold at the summit of the mountain (2887 feet) on a rainy and cloudy day.

Slave-Owning and Sailing-Vessel Days

At first glance Saba seems to provide some splendid climatological data for those who emphasize the importance of climate on white settlement in the tropics. Bottom (800 feet) has become almost entirely black. Windwardside and St. John (1200 to 1400 feet) are partly white and partly colored. Hellsgate (1600 feet) is almost entirely white. Marypoint (about 1000 feet) is white but decadent. Unfortunately one dare not accept a simple climatic explanation. Even these small settlements illustrate the complex factors influencing white people in the tropics.

The village of Bottom remained the seat of many prosperous white families until some time after the slave-owning and sailing-vessel days. In the nineteenth century the Simmons, Leverocks, Vantepools, Winfields, and other families occupied the village and owned neat, well built houses, the adjacent agricultural holdings, slave, and schooners, which carried on a great deal of the trade of the Caribbean and provided each almost self-supporting household with the few outside commodities required. Schooling was given to family groups by educated Sabans or by schoolmasters engaged from St. Thomas or from other islands. One of the natives taught navigation for many  p53 years. At maturity many of the boys went to sea on the family vessels. Sabans did much of the gun running in the Central and South American revolutions, and old inhabitants still remember when numerous schooners were owned and were running from Leverocktown.

In those days the inhabitants of Bottom considered themselves the élite of the island. They married only in their village or with a few newcomers, such as the children of clergy or doctors. A resident of more than eighty years told us that he remembered only two weddings between people of Bottom and Windwardside. Throughout the island the whites in past years seem to have maintained a very fair standard of morality and close adherence to the color bar. In 1861 only three white births out of a total of 23 were illegitimate, and tradition holds that the first white woman to bear a colored child was burned alive.

Extraordinary statements have been made to the effect that all the inhabitants of Bottom are Simmonses and that only Hassells are found in Windwardside. We have already shown that the early records contain at least seven family names. Several more appear in the oldest government documents preserved in Saba (from 1852 on), and the list of slave owners compiled for the emancipation of 1863 gives some eighteen different names. The last census (1932) made no color distinctions, as is the Dutch policy, but it seems that there are now some twenty white-family names.

Although the paucity of names in Saba has been exaggerated, inbreeding has been considerable, due particularly to the isolation and local spirit of the villages — a usual feature in mountainous country where difficulties of communication are great. This intermarriage is clearly shown by the records preserved in old Bibles and by the official list of white marriages from 1852 to 1863, when records cease to make the distinction. It is small wonder that in a total population of 1449 there are today 292 Hassells, 149 Johnsons, 95 Simmonses, 58 Sagors, and 52 Everys. Yet, except in the tiny village of Marypoint, inbreeding does not seem to have destroyed fertility, stamina, or ability. Families of eight or more children were common in the nineteenth century. From 1852 to 1861 white births numbered 201 and deaths only 160, and many members of the oldest Saban families who left the island showed remarkable capability in the outside world.

Changes After 1860

Between 1860 and 1920 two blows ruined the white settlers of Bottom. The first, which also affected the whole island, was the action of the Dutch government, which in 1863 emancipated 700 slaves in Saba. Although the planters received generous compensation at the rate of 80 dollars per healthy negro, production became  p54 less organized and labor more difficult to manage, and the introduction of the cash nexus was followed by a rise in wages to the present figure of 60 cents a day.

The second trouble was the change from sailing vessels to steam. About thirty years ago most of the energetic young men of Bottom and many from the cliff villages were drawn away by permanent inducements offered in New York and other headquarters of steamship companies and emigrated, often taking with them Saban wives. Then it was that the remarkable inherent qualities of these tropical whites became evident. Large numbers of the islanders secured positions as commanders and officers of important steamers. Others proved capable as harbor masters or pilots, and some made good in university positions and in business. We were given the almost incredible figures that during the Great War no less than 95 officers and one quartermaster of the United States navy were Saban born. Today quite a number of island men and women can be found in good social positions throughout the Caribbean. Several whom we met were of a very fine type and looked healthier than the people who had remained in the supposedly better climate of Saba. Diet, no doubt, does much to account for the difference. It is also possible that seafaring occupations are particularly favorable to whites in the tropics. The Cayman Islands, for example, produce some fine types. The point remains, however, that Bottom lost her slaves, schooners, and vigorous young people. Today the remnants of white population consist largely of aged persons.

White Agriculture

The whites of Windwardside and Hellsgate may be classed as small yeomanry or peasant farmers of a good class. As the number of slaves — men, women, and children — averaged only seven per proprietor at the emancipation, most of the whites must have worked beside their slaves. Many of the men of the present generation are at sea or are engaged in carpentry, wood polishing, and similar industries in the United States; but the remainder are almost all occupied with agriculture, cultivating the mountain side and small areas of fertile ground on spurs and elevations such as Booby Hill. Here they terrace almost incredibly rugged and steep slopes for bananas, yams, sweet potatoes, cassava, and temperate-zone vegetables, including excellent Irish potatoes. These last they sell in Curaçao. They also raise cattle, pigs, fowls, goats, and sheep: the sheep they use for meat and not for wool.

Up to 2000 feet bananas and vegetables are grown on laboriously terraced ground. Elephant and guinea grasses have been introduced and are fed to stock with success. About this altitude a belt of lovely  p55 tree fern begins. It is typical of this strange island that the best bananas are grown far above even the temperate-zone vegetables, for some fifty years ago it was discovered that bananas throve astonishingly in the small crater hollows at the top of the mountain, where the soil is moist and exceedingly rich. Transport difficulties would appall anybody but these hardy Sabans. Donkeys are unable to ascend the terrible gradients, yet over unmade paths, where hand and knee climbing seems essential, the whites "head" heavy loads from the mountain top to Windwardside as often as three times a day.

Diet and Health

No doubt the rich soil would produce many exportable commodities, but we were informed that the people are intensely conservative and are unwilling to make experiments or to undertake the rotation of crops. The government has been instrumental in founding an agricultural and horticultural "union," which may make for betterment both as regards cultivation and by importing stock to improve the island breed. But even with the present variety of products diet should be better. Sabans who have been in the United States appreciate the value of milk, fruit, and green vegetables, but the colored people use them little, while many of the whites suffer greatly from dyspepsia owing to a diet mainly of biscuits, bread, and tea. In this respect the influx of outside money, resulting in imports of salt fish and tinned foods, has been unfortunate. One suspects a deleterious change of diet since the self-supporting slave days. Nevertheless, the majority of the men look strong and healthy, and they are capable of working long hours on the hot hillsides and of carrying unbelievably heavy burdens on their heads up and down the steep slopes. They thus give some support to the contention of the Australian tropical doctors that the whites can maintain their standard in the tropics if, as a people, they guard health carefully and engage in strenuous manual work.

[image ALT: missingALT. zzz the island of Saba in the Caribbean.]
[image ALT: missingALT. zzz the island of Saba in the Caribbean.]

Fig. 13

Fig. 14

Fig. 13 — White agriculturalist on the mountain: he could not lift this "bun" unaided.

Fig. 14 — Why the negroes are ousting the whites in Saba — a whole family works.

The white Saban women support the Australian theory from another angle. Debarred by the traditions of the slave days from healthy field labor or even from taking positions as housekeepers, nurses, or domestic servants, they spend their time, when they cannot migrate, largely indoors. As a result they appear to be pale, nervous, and high-strung and lack the rosy cheeks that previous observers have acclaimed. Some of the trouble may be due to the fact that the tropical climate is said to produce the usual female doors. There is no doubt, however, that important factors are isolation, sedentary life, poor diet, insufficient care of teeth, and the long hours spent under oil light at the sedentary occupation of drawn-thread work (the so‑called Spanish lace). In this last they show great skill  p56 and in the past have earned large sums through sales in the United States. Like many isolated people, however, these women seem intensely conservative and do not make sufficient efforts to keep pace with the rapid changes of demand in the fashion centers. Also, like those in other tropical communities, these islanders are the inadvertent victims of the changing economic and social policies of the great cold-temperate lands. The recent history of Saba, for example, has been largely colored by events in the United States. Even this little island has felt the effects of a changed emigration policy, the purchase of St. Thomas, the temporary demand for labor at Panama, and the tariffs, which have now reached a figure of 68 per cent against Saban Spanish lace.

Another factor gravely affecting the women of Saba is the extraordinary disproportion between the number of women and that of men. The census of 1932 showed that there were 342 men, 655 women, 233 boys, and 219 girls in the island. A young couple marry, but frequently before the first child is born the husband seeks to increase the family resources by working abroad and usually stays away four or five years. He then returns to Saba but goes off again in a few months. This "economic birth control" is clearly shown by the age spacing in many families and undoubtedly affects the psychology of the women, although they bear their lot with remarkable patience.

We were told that the health of the children is satisfactory, as indeed is that of people of all ages in most parts of the island. Many white Sabans live to a great age. There is no malaria and few filarial or other tropical afflictions, and the present doctor has discovered no trace of hookworm, although one suspects its presence at Marypoint, where no sanitation exists. Oral hygiene, however, is in a most unsatisfactory state. It is lamentable that the schools give little or no instruction in this or other phases of hygiene and sanitation. What the Dutch can achieve by legislative action is shown by recent events at Simson Bay, St. Martin, where a very old white settlement was riddled with hookworm and was reduced to almost animal habits by extreme isolation. The government conducted a hookworm campaign, built privies, and supplied free shoes and uncontaminated water. It took some time to enforce these hygienic blessings, but the extraordinary health improvements since the new régime has been rigidly enforced are now recognized.

Marypoint: A Degenerate Community​c

The worst effects of isolation and inbreeding are to be seen in Marypoint. Here a community of some thirty to forty persons is composed almost entirely of seven families of Sagors, all closely intermarried and interrelated. The land seems fair, the settlement was once quite  p57 flourishing and progressive, and a few of the people still possess good physique. Many, however, show evidence of mental and physical degeneration. The whole settlement receives governmental relief. The diet is miserable, consisting mainly of bananas and sweet potatoes, cassava, and fish. Little effort is made to provide the children with greens or milk on an island where vegetables grow in profusion and goats are numerous. The people have even lost their former knowledge of baking and carry bread, biscuit, and condensed milk from Leverocktown by "head." The state of this white settlement seems to offer two lessons. Situated as it is at a height of about 1000 feet and exposed to constant sea breezes, it indicates, when compared with the other cliff villages, that isolation and inbreeding can be as potent influences upon white settlement as climatic control is. The fate of this small community carries a warning to temperate countries against the efforts of company promoters to establish small white communities in isolated tropical regions. Several tragic examples of such attempts at settlement can be cited from the eastern Andes.

 p58  Education

During our stay in the island we visited all the schools, saw all children in attendance, and made careful inquiries as to methods of education, working standards, and care of health and teeth. Owing to isolation, the mixing of races, and the time spent in teaching the Dutch language, most of the children in both the government and parochial schools use books of a standard one year lower than that in the corresponding English or American grades. It is significant, however, that in the one almost wholly white school — the government school at Windwardside — the children are capable of working to the corresponding English grade. In regard to the relative ability of white and colored children, most of the teachers supported the evidence secured in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands by the Carnegie Institution and published in "Race Crossing in Jamaica."​8 The whites excel in mathematics and in other subjects requiring judgment, the blacks in music and rhythm, while the browns include a few children of very high ability but on the whole appear to be inferior to the children of either parent race. We were very favorably impressed by the white children and by the standards of the government school at Windwardside, which was conducted by a head mistress of English descent born on the tropical island of St. Martin and trained in the Netherlands. The children were alert, well dressed, and clean, although they lacked the rosy cheeks that impressed earlier visitors. It must be remembered, of course, that we visited the island at a time when diet had been poor for a considerable period owing to a long dry season preceded by a disastrous hurricane. It is most unfortunate that education in Saba finishes at the sixth grade and at fourteen years, although a few children pass on to teacher training. Even this elementary education has been established only some 25 years, and for this reason several of the most enterprising families had emigrated.

Increasing "Negrodation" of Saba

As regards the future, Saba, in spite of its large proportion of whites, is clearly turning colored, as are almost all the islands and borderlands of the Caribbean. In islands such as Jamaica, St. Kitts, and Barbados, which once contained thousands of white workers, the blacks are now in overwhelming preponderance, and only a handful of degenerate white peasants survive. On the mainland and in the former Spanish islands the "ethnological crimes" of the Portuguese, Spaniards, British, French, Dutch, and American slave owners are being continued by the great fruit and sugar companies, with the result that white plateau regions such as Costa Rica will  p59 inevitably suffer nigrescence unless their governments awake in time. No matter how greatly altitude or trade winds mitigate tropical disadvantages in favor of white settlers, they cannot compete with prolific negro families, where men, women, and children all are workers, possessing great immunity from tropical disease, and prepared to accept a far lower standard of life. Scientific medicine is hastening the process by improving the vital statistics of the colored peoples.

The drift in Saba is clearly shown by recent figures. In the three years 1930‑1932 there were 32 white births to 78 colored, while white deaths numbered 34 and negro only 42. Exact figures of the total white and colored populations are unobtainable, but one would estimate that the 1449 people can be roughly divided into equal numbers of colored and white. The schools give evidence of the same process. In the five schools of the island we counted 100 white to 110 colored children, but the proportion of colored was far higher in the younger than in the older grades. Furthermore, one understands that scientific birth control has made its appearance, and this, together with the long absences of the males, must react against the whites. As previously stated, the old settlement of Bottom has become largely colored, and here the negro is openly squatting on former white holdings, establishing an occupational owner­ship regardless of land titles or of rent. Curiously and perhaps unfortunately, the whites still retain much of the "race pride" of the days of slavery. Custom  p60 permits them to keep small shops and supply goods to colored folk, as no doubt they did when each household was a self-supporting and slave-owning community. Yet, in spite of this and the fact that they undertake the heaviest field labor, such cash work as porterage, road making, and domestic service remains in negro hands.

[image ALT: Two class photographs of about 30 children each, about eight to ten years old. The upper photograph shows an about even mix of Caucasian and black children; the lower photograph shows a predominantly black group. The schools are on the island of Saba in the Caribbean; the photos date to the 1930s.]

Fig. 15 — "Negrodation" in Saba. Above: the Roman Catholic school of Windwardside, still largely white. Below: the Roman Catholic school of Bottom, almost all colored.

It is a deplorable thing, this negrodation of Saba — the passing of the supremacy of a high-grade, kindly people to a less advanced race. Allowance must be made for the comparatively recent liberation of the negro, but at present his disregard of sanitation, his miserable cabins, his dirt and carelessness, and his neglect of the good "white" houses he so frequently occupies in Bottom contrast sadly with the standards of the people he will almost certainly supplant. The march of democracy and equality excludes any hope that the Dutch government will give any special consideration to the white population or will transport the negroes to the larger and sparsely inhabited island of Statia near by. One fears, however, that without some such measure this interesting experiment must cease, and with this conclusion all thinking Sabans agree. Judging from the history of the island, the passing of the whites will come from emigration and extinction rather than from absorption into the blacks — a conclusion supported by the courageous efforts to keep white made by generations of so‑called "Red legs" in Barbados and Granada, "Chachas" in St. Thomas, and Germans in Seaford, Jamaica. Although Saba now contains a number of browns, some of whom bear the names of the old white families, miscegenation does not seem to be occurring at any great rate.


Thus Saba offers several lessons to the student of settlement. In the first place, the history of the island indicates the complexity of factors governing white settlement in the tropics — a tangle that can be unraveled only by a close study of tropical history and by detailed work on the problems of climate, acclimatization, soils, diet, isolation, inbreeding, and other aspects of sociology and economics. Secondly, it appears that cold-temperate-zone whites can retain a fair standard for generations in the trade-wind tropics if the location is free from the worst forms of tropical disease and if the economic return is adequate and the community prepared to undertake hard physical work. The third and last conclusion has been grasped by leaders in the United States and Australia but is one which some of the rulers of the white settlements on the Central American and African plateaus fail to appreciate — that, even when a white working community maintains itself for a long period against a tropical climate, diseases, isolation, and inbreeding, it will inevitably fall before the economic competition of a colored people who are prepared to accept a lower standard of life.

The Author's Notes:

1 W. M. Davis; The Lesser Antilles, Amer. Geogr. Soc. Map of Hispanic America Publ. No. 2, 1926, pp35‑36.

[decorative delimiter]

2 West Indies Pilot, Vol. 2, U. S. Hydrogr. Office Publ. No. 129, 4th edit., Washington, 1929, p123. Earlier editions give the altitude as 2820 feet.

[decorative delimiter]

3 J. H. J. Hamelberg: De Nederlanders op de West-Indische Eilanden, Narrative and Documents, Amsterdam, 1903, Narr., p18.

[decorative delimiter]

4 Rotterdam, 1658, p43.

[decorative delimiter]

5 J. B. Labat: Nouveau voyage aux isles de l'Amerique . . . . The Hague, 1724, Vol. 5, pp341‑345.

[decorative delimiter]

6 G. T. Raynal: A Philosophical and Political History of the Settlements and Trade of the Europeans in the East and West Indies (translated by J. O. Justamond), Dublin, 1784, Vol. 4, pp250‑251.

[decorative delimiter]

7 The writer is deeply indebted to the Governor of Curaçao and the Subgovernor of St. Martin for their assistance, and he would acknowledge particularly the help given by Mr. Willem de Brauw, Receiver of Saba, in furnishing accommodations, means of transport, and statistics, and by Mrs. de Brauw in translating Dutch documents.

[decorative delimiter]

8 C. B. Davenport, Morris Steggerda, and others: Race Crossing in Jamaica, Carnegie Instn. Publ. No. 395, Washington, 1929.

Thayer's Notes:

a This article was put onsite on Nov. 5, 2011 in commemoration of the visit of Queen Beatrix to Saba on that day.

The world has changed a great deal in the eighty-some years since the paper was written. While Saba's history of course has not changed, nor has its geography to any appreciable degree, much of what is reported as current conditions in 1934 is no longer true: the island for example is nowhere near as isolated, now having a ferry dock, an airport, and several hotels and other tourism-related businesses, which provide a base for good employment; there is a road connecting the villages to each other and the coast; and Saba is not now a colony but an integral municipality of The Netherlands.

Mostly, however, Western social attitudes have changed: the racism and general condescension unselfconsciously splayed out over the pages of this paper, indeed that form the true subject of it, would be unthinkable today. The careful reader will notice that this racial attitude is not that of the Dutch, but of the Australian author.

[decorative delimiter]

b The remoteness and small population of the island, resulting in a paucity of reliable old written information, have resulted in an admixture of much legend and falsehood, which our writer can be praised for correcting thruout his article. The process continues today, since the human psyche no less than nature abhors a void and will often fill it up with nonsense. Toponymy everywhere is a favorite field for such stuff, and sure enough the derivation of the island's name, being unknown, has lent itself to conjecture: the silliest assertion, without a shred of evidence to back it up, is that Saba would derive from Sheba as in, you guessed it, the Queen of Sheba. If I had to choose a derivation from those I've seen online, a misreading of S.†bal (a map abbreviation for S. Cristobal, the name given the island by Columbus) is appealing; but I haven't looked into the question seriously and have no evidence either.

[decorative delimiter]

c Marypoint was abandoned in 1934, the inhabitants moving to Bottom. (Paul Romeijn, Saba (N. A.): Bos en Nationale Parken, 1987: Appendix I, p35).

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 3 Nov 21