When one mentions St. Eustatius to people who have been here before, you immediately hear the story of the ‘First Salute’. That was a momentous occasion, however, the history of this island goes back much further.
In the second half of the eighteenth century St. Eustatius was making so much money that it became known as the ‘Golden Rock’. In order to maximize profit, European nations had forbidden New World colonies from trading directly with one another. Everything had to come from and go to the ‘Mother Country’. The Dutch, who were historically neutral, saw an opportunity to take advantage of this and set up a massive trading center on St. Eustatius and made it a ‘free port’ where duties and taxes were not levied. As many as 3,500 ships per year brought furniture, spices, clothing, pottery, corn, tobacco, sugar cane, manufactured goods, gun powder and weapons to the island. These commodities were sold, exchanged and even smuggled.
The history of St. Eustatius was quite dynamic during the 1600 and 1700’s. The island changed hands a total of 22 times between the Dutch, English and French who were constantly at war with each other. The island often found itself invaded without any fighting at all. Instead it was frequently used as a bargaining chip in European conflicts.
Commerce was brisk during the American War of Independence, from1776 to 1781. Most of the guns and gunpowder which the Americans used were purchased in St. Eustatius. Interestingly, all correspondence and mail to Europe, from the Colonies, went through St. Eustatius. The British knew this was tolerated and even encouraged. This did not please them.
They were even less pleased about the trade of weapons and gunpowder with their enemy and were still angry about the ‘First Salute’ effectuated by the Dutch to the Andrew Doria in 1776. Relations continued to sour and in December of 1780 the British declared war on the Netherlands.
Subsequently, on February 3rd 1781, Admiral George Bridges Rodney invaded St. Eustatius capturing the island withhout a fight. The island, having been greatly weakened from a hurricane only 3 months previously, gave little resistance. Rodney and his troops seized cargo, ships and properties and all trade was stopped. Prisoners were taken and the Jewish merchants of the island bore the brunt of his anger. Eighty Jewish men and boys were imprisoned and later about half of them were deported to St. Kitts.
This British occupation only lasted 3 months as they were driven off by the French in November of the same year. The island remained under French rule until it was returned to the Dutch in 1784. The economy recovered and flourished once more with great prosperity in the early 1790’s. This, however, came to an abrupt end in 1795, when St. Eustatius became French again and free trade ended. Most merchants moved to nearby free ports such as St. Barth’s and St. Thomas soon after. The population dropped from a high of 8,124 in 1790 to only 2,668 residents in 1816. Lower Town warehouses, taverns and shops began to fall into disrepair as the population steadily decreased. This resulted in the ruins which you can still be seen today.
It is clear that for such a small island, St. Eustatius has had an illustrious and big history. The stories are of wealth, wars, smuggling and privateers. If the roads and paths of St. Eustatius could speak, the stories would be stranger than fiction and larger than life!
Although the Northern extinct volcanoes are considered ‘youthful’ because they are less than 1 million years old, the very young ‘The Quill’ volcano dominates the landscape of the island. The Quill is a dormant volcano and its last eruption happened in approximately 400 A.D. St. Eustatius was formed when volcanic activity was frequent in this area of the Caribbean.
The island has been inhabited by man since about 1,350 B.C. This has been established by evidence found near Corre Corre Bay on the windward side of the island. This is the location of the oldest known inhabited site on Statia which was an Amerindian settlement. Other Amerindian sites from later dates, have also been found around the island. A substantial settlement, now known as “The Golden Rock Site,” is in the area around Franklin D. Roosevelt Airport. It is believed to be from the 5th century A.D.
More modern history started to be recorded when, according to the log of Christopher Columbus, he sailed close by St. Eustatius on his second voyage to this area in 1493. The first actual recorded sighting, however, was when Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins noted that they were off ‘Eztazia’ on November 5th, 1595. There are some records of people coming to the island during the next century, including the French who built a small fort in 1629. The Dutch initially used the abandoned palisaded French fort after fortifying it with several cannons. It subsequently became known as Fort Oranje. Later on the Dutch expanded and upgraded the fort.
In 1636, the chamber of Zeeland of the Dutch West India Company took possession of the island. The principal intention of the Dutch was to make St. Eustatius a trading center for merchandise from Europe and the far East and to ship back raw materials from the New World to the Netherlands.
In 1678 the administration of St. Eustatius was changed to a Dutch Colony governed by the West India Trading Company. By 1650 there were approximately 1000 people on St Eustatius, but this was not enough people to do the hard work of moving cargo from incoming and outgoing ships. Not to mention the labor needed to work the sugarcane fields, tobacco and cotton plantations.
The sad fact is that it was at this time that slaves were imported to St. Eustatius. This was done to fulfill the demand for labor. Not only did St. Eustatius import slaves for labor on the island, they started to trade slaves. St. Eustatius was, at one point, the center of the Dutch slave trade in the Northern Caribbean.
Having said that, the Dutch shipped relatively low numbers of slaves to the Americas compared to the British colonies. But it is a dark shadow which lurks in the past of the Netherlands. It is historically factual and must be assumed as part of Holland’s history.
Many islanders of today are descendants of the original laborers who worked on the waterfront and plantations of the island allowing St. Eustatius to prosper.