St. Eustatius, also called “Statia” is
one of five Caribbean islands that belong to the Netherland Antilles, the others
being Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba and Sint Maarten. St. Eustatius was discovered by
Christopher Columbus in 1493. During the colonial era that followed, the island
changed hands at least twenty two times.
In 1636, near the close of the 80 year war between Holland and Spain, the Dutch took possession of St. Eustatius. During the 17th and 18th century, Statia was a major trading center with some 20,000 inhabitants and thousands of ships calling at her shores. It is hard for present day visitors to imagine that this tiny island once had one of the busiest ports in the region.
During the latter part of the 18th century, St. Eustatius was the major supplier of arms and ammunition to the rebellious British Colonies in North America and the subject of conflict among the most powerful seafaring nations of the time.
For a while, Statia was the only link between Europe and fledgling American colonies. Even Benjamin Franklin had his mail routed through Statia to ensure its safe arrival. Statia remembered as the emporium of the Caribbean, was nicknamed “The Golden Rock”, reflecting its former prosperous trading days and wealthy residents.
St. Eustatius has a history of strong American connections. Under Dutch neutrality during the American Rebellion, thousands of ships unloaded munitions, ordnance, and supplies at Oranjestad (Orangetown). The material was transhipped to the rebels in the American colonies.
Throughout the American Rebellion, St. Eustatius continued its illegal trade. In an attempt to avoid notice, gunpowder was often transported in barrels marked tea, rice, molasses and the like. While there may have been some sympathy for the cause, the trade was also quite profitable, for the Dutch made as much as a 120% profit on gunpowder.
On November 16, 1776, the island became the first nation in the world to recognise the infant republic of the United States of America when the Dutch Governor Johannes de Graaff welcomed and saluted the Andrew Doria, a merchant ship operated by American colonists flying the Stars and Stripes with an 11-gun salute roaring from the canons at Fort Oranje
Dutch recognition of the United States enraged the British, who retaliated by capturing Oranjestad in 1781. Once in control of the city, the Royal Navy fleet used the island’s Dutch flag to lure some 150 merchant ships into the harbor, confiscated their cargoes, sacked and burned the town, and destroyed the harbor’s breakwater.
In 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt presented a plaque to St. Eustatius. Mounted on the ruins of Fort Orange, it reads, “In commemoration of the salute of the flag of the United States fired in this fort November 16, 1776 by order of Johannes de Graff, Governor of St. Eustatius in reply to a national gun salute fired by the U.S. Brig-of-war Andria Doria.. Here the sovereignty of the United States was first formally acknowledged... to a national vessel by a foreign official.”
During this period, over a hundred Jewish families, mainly Sephardim, formed the core of the island’s commercial establishment. The successful outcome of the American Revolution can be attributed largely to the assistance rendered it by the Jews of St. Eustatius.
The history of the Jewish people in St. Eustatius is one its many intriguing stories. Jewish merchants began to come to Statia as early as 1680 and had become part of this community by the early 1720’s.
In the beginning the population was mostly of the Sephardim Sect but they were soon joined by Askenazi Jews of Eastern Europe. By 1730 these two groups were often in conflict and were a civil problem for the authorities.
Jewish emigration to St. Eustatius burgeoned in the period 1757-1813, when the Dutch authorities, in order to bolster its holdings abroad, issued grants in Dutch guilders to Portuguese Sephardim for leaving Amsterdam to Dutch possessions abroad against the guarantee that they were not to return in less than 20 years.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the island was one of the Caribbean’s three wealthiest centres for trade, slaving and smuggling. Its warehouses brimmed with textiles, gold, silver, spices, sugar, rum and guns brought and carried away by thousands of galleons from Europe and America.
In 1757 St Eustatius became the first of a series of free ports set up by the Dutch in the Caribbean. The island is placed strategically at the confluence of the Caribbean and the Atlantic. The island measured only four by eight kilometers (less than eight square miles), but during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries this speck in the sea became famous in every European and American household for the goods that were exported to and imported from the 200 warehouses clustered on the shore of Oranjestad.
Each year, thousands of ships were anchored in the harbour. More trade (both legal and illegal) transpired here after the end of the American Revolution than on any other Caribbean island until Statia reached its economic peak around 1795.
As the eighteenth century drew to a close, St. Eustatius gradually lost its
importance as a trading center and most merchants and planters left the Island,
leaving their homes and warehouses behind to decay in abandonment. Through the
nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries St. Eustatius became and remained a
quiet island waiting to be discovered by history minded visitors.
Fortunately, in the 1960’s and 70’s, the people of Statia became
increasingly aware of the cultural value of their unique heritage and
initiatives were taken to preserve and maintain it.
While Saint Eustatius lacks glorious beaches, it also lacks tourist hordes.
Visiting this tranquil little Dutch outpost is a bit like stepping back into the
Caribbean of the past - islanders strike up conversations, stray chickens and
goats mosey in the streets and the pace is delightfully slow.
The first inhabitants of Statia were the Saladoids who arrived in great sea-going canoes from South America before the end of the 15th century. In the 1600’s slaves of African descent were brought to the island to cultivate the land of the more than seventy plantations.
At the end of the 18th century slavery had been outlawed in the Netherlands Antilles. Statia’s population of approximately 2900 is made up of mainly of people of Black African descent with a pleasant nature and a zeal for work. Today people of more than 20 nationalities live in harmony on this peaceful Dutch Caribbean island.