The Fall of the Golden Rock

ALMOST within sight of the island of Porto Rico, there rises from the blue waters of the Caribbean Sea a small island, now but little known and rarely visited. Together with another smaller island, it forms the northern tip of the “ Bow of Ulysses ” — that beautiful curve of symmetrical volcanoes which guard the eastern entrance of the Caribbean Sea.

St. Eustatius, or “ Statia ” as it is called at home, now exports a few yams and potatoes to St. Kitts and Demerara, and to Curaçao, bricks — Dutch bricks — taken from the ruins of houses whose annual rental in 1781 was one million two hundred thousand pounds sterling.

When St. Eustatius was on the pinnacle of her greatness, she stood as the Venice of the New World. As the richest trading port in the West Indies, she received the title of the “ Golden Rock.” She had the honor of giving to the American flag its first foreign salute, and for that loyalty, and for her aid and support to the revolting American Colonies, she was plundered and destroyed, yielding to her conquerors such wealth that the amount recalls the triumphs of the Roman emperors; and where a sleepy Provincetown whaler or two now calls for a few vegetables, with the surety that none of her men will desert, a busy fleet of more than two hundred vessels rode at their anchors. Her warehouses, once so full that the street and even the beach itself were loaded with merchandise, are now tenanted by the agile lizard, while the climbing cactus covers their falling walls, and the insidious roots of the guava bush loosen their massive foundations.

St. Eustatius, in common with all the Caribbees save Barbados, was discovered by Columbus. As it was uninhabited, although at rare intervals visited by the cannibal Caribbees, perhaps for purposes detailed by Robinson Crusoe; as it was riverless and without springs; as it was, for these tropical islands, quite barren, it remained Spanish, in name only, for nearly a century and a half, when, in 1631, the Dutch West India Company quietly settled there, and its people were the first to trade regularly among the islands.

The Dutch, with their characteristic perseverance, soon clothed the slopes of the two volcanic peaks, as well as the “ saddle ” connecting them, with fields of tobacco and sugar; they built a town on the western or leeward side of the island, under the shadow of the ” Punch Bowl,” long since drained dry by the “ lusty Devil,” and made themselves so comfortable and flourishing that Admiral Sir Robert Holmes, who called one day in 1664, convinced the Batavian burghers, by means of his fleet, that the island was English. The French soon took it away from the English, but when the peace of Breda came, the suffering Dutch again returned to their fields of tobacco and cane.

Soon after this they were aided by the involuntary immigration from Africa, and slavery existed there until 1863. Again it passed through the hands of the English and French until, at the peace of Ryswick, the Dutch could again call the island their home. Now, we find in 1715 that the population of the island (whose area is better expressed in acres than in square miles) was eleven thousand two hundred souls, or rather nine thousand six hundred souls and sixteen hundred negroes, according to the ideas of those times.

Then another little expedition of the French appeared before the town and informed the governor that they would leave under certain conditions. The treasury of the island not having those conditions at hand, the governor advanced a large quantity of guilders to satisfy them, and the French fleet left the same day, “ much to the relief of the islanders,” it was said.

For fifty or more years the thrifty little island steadily progressed in wealth and importance, without disturbance from hungry admirals or grasping European powers. Shortly before the outbreak of the American Revolution, there sprang up under the cliffs of Orangetown, extending a mile or more along the gentle curve of the bay, a great and important row of warehouses and stores, known as the “ Lower Town.”

Then came the “ great hurricane,” so destructive to the West Indies, which almost swept the island of its habitations, and wrecked or sunk all the shipping in the bay; but “ phœnix-like ” as the historian, Arthur Valk, writes, “ the island rose from its ruins and assumed an importance that was not equaled in the whole of the West Indies.”

St. Eustatius, during our war of Independence, reached its greatest prosperity and was of vital importance to the struggling colonists of America. Being a free port, it was open to the mercantile fleets of all the European powers then at war. The supplies which England had before this received from her North American colonies now passed to her through St. Eustatius; the tobacco of Virginia came in such quantities that the warehouses were not able to contain it, and it was heaped upon the beach awaiting reshipment, among hogsheads of sugar and bags of coffee, three million pounds of which passed through the hands of the Statian merchants from the French island of San Domingo alone. To Statia the British planters brought the products of their estates, — sugar, rum, coffee, indigo, cotton, etc., — to be exchanged for the lumber and food-stuffs of North America, the products of Europe, and the luxuries of the Orient.

This commerce, however, was not the sole means of wealth of the island, for large quantities of munitions of war, shipped mainly from Holland, passed through the hands of these merchants. The incessant wars between England and France, carried on most actively in the West Indies, then one of the greatest sources of contention among the European powers, made Statia, a port open to all, the centre of supply, greatly to the disadvantage of Great Britain. This was increased by the unsettled, and to the English mind mutinous, state of her North American colonies, which were purchasing large quantities of naval and military stores. There is a letter from the Earl of Dartmouth to Lieutenant-Governor Coldon of New York, dated September 7, 1774, in confirmation of this. The letter reads: “ My information says that the Polly, Capt. Benjamin Broadhelp, bound from Amsterdam to Nantucket, has, among other articles received on board, no less a quantity than three Hundred thousand pounds weight of Gunpowder, & I have great reason to believe that considerable quantities of that commodity, as well as other Military Stores, are introduced into the Colonies from Holland, through the channel of St. Eustatius.”

If a traveler from St. Christopher’s had visited St. Eustatius at this time, he would have seen the island rising like a tall single volcanic cone across a deep blue channel, ten miles in breadth. The “ Devil’s Punch Bowl,” or “ Quill,” would have been veiled at its summit in a pure white mass of cloud, while a little to the southward of his course, another bank of cumulus, well down upon the horizon, would have indicated the position of Saba, twenty miles away. The sides of the cone sweep to the summit with such perfect regularity that one imagines the distant island to have a circular base; but as the vessel passes on and comes under the lee of the island, another more northerly peak shows that the island is formed of two cones joined together by a high plateau, which, the traveler would be told, is called the “ Saddle.” This plateau slopes downward from the main ridge on each side to the sea, where on the leeward side it falls abruptly some two hundred feet to the narrow strip of beach connecting the bases of the two extinct volcanoes, which form the northern and southern arms of the bay.

The slopes of the two mountains and the surface of the plateau would then have been clothed with bright green fields of tobacco and sugar-cane, while extending in a curve along the edge of the bluff, like a rampart guarding the lower town, was the busy and populous capital. His vessel would have found a berth among hundreds of craft of all nations assembled in the bay; and while waiting for some means of getting ashore, he would have seen the great warehouses extending for a mile and a quarter under the shadow of the bluff. Landing, and walking to the northward along the single street of the Lower Town, he would have found his way with difficulty through the throngs of busy stevedores and pig-tailed sailors moving about among the casks of Virginia tobacco and hogsheads of Muscovado sugar; he would have passed the doors of the large warehouses, have heard the hum of business, and here and there have seen the private residence of some wealthy Dutchman. One of these in particular would have arrested his attention, being the largest and most magnificent upon the beach. It was a square building with massive walls, one hundred and fifty feet in length, extending from the street almost to the foot of the high cliff, which kept it in shadow during the early hours of the day. The large doorway led to an open court, in the centre of which rose the coping of a deep well or reservoir, and on one side of the courtyard, a massive mahogany staircase led to the story above, where all that great wealth could give was lavishly displayed. From this floor, a gallery, supported by an archway spanning the street, led to a smaller house, built almost upon the water’s edge.

Here the visitor, surrounded with all the comforts of a tropical veranda, and bathed by the cool breezes of the sea, could enjoy a view of the bay and its busy life. The chubby whaling sloops of Nantucket, “ laden with Spermacaeti Oyl,” the topsail schooners from Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, rode side by side with snows, apple-bowed brigs, and high turreted ships of Europe, in the calm of the island’s lee. In their midst, hundreds of little boats — lighters and gigs — plied among the shipping like ants. A tall graceful frigate would glide round the curve of the Punch Bowl’s base, with her three towering snow-white spires glistening in the morning sun. She would sweep into the bay, and her white clouds would vanish from her spreading yards like the smoke from her signal-gun.

Near the northern end of the Lower Town, the street turned back upon itself and led by a gentle ascent to the top of the bluff. It was here that most of the residences had been built, some of which, for elegance, could not be surpassed in the western world. In some of these were rooms lined with tiles from Delft, representing biblical scenes, while marble stairs and mahogany casings were almost universal.

As climate plays such an important part in the habitations and actions of men, there was found here an ingenious adaptation, not known elsewhere in the West Indies. St. Eustatius being a small island, at most five miles long by two broad, and rising from the sea at its highest point not quite two thousand feet, there is but little rain during the greater part of the year. As far as is known, there were never any forests on the island, so that the moisture-laden trade-winds pass over the island without much precipitation. During the day large cloud-masses collect about the peaks, and disappear at sunset. In order to save all the water possible that fell upon the earth, the inhabitants cemented a large “ plane ” in their yards, at one end of which was sunk a cistern or well. Over the top of this well a cemented arch, six or eight feet long and three or four feet high, was erected. A small hole, a foot or two square, received the water which fell upon the slightly inclined plane, which was kept scrupulously clean. The opening was guarded by a gate of iron bars, and a stranger could not help thinking, on seeing them for the first time, that each family had a tomb in its yard.

The population of the island was at this time quite cosmopolitan, — Dutch, Jews, Americans, and French predominating. The voice of the people was decidedly in favor of the American Revolution, and no opportunity was lost to aid the “ liberty men ” of the North. England, then at peace with Holland, could do nothing, as the island had been declared a free port nearly half a century before, and of course everything possible was done to cripple Americans on the islands then in possession of Great Britain. In a letter from St. Eustatius, written in February, 1776, we are told that American merchants were obliged to leave Dominica, and that all moneys in the English islands belonging to Americans were taken hold of by proclamation.

An event, however, occurred which gave England an opportunity. On November 16, 1776, the Brig Andrea Doria,1 under the command of Captain Isaiah Robinson, swept round the base of the Punch Bowl, with the striped flag of the American colonies tugging at her signal halyards.2 As she came into the bay, she fired a salute of eleven guns to the Dutch flag at Orangetown, which, at the command of Governor Johannes de Graeff, was answered with 18-pounders. Within three days, a letter from St. Eustatius to the Maryland Council of Safety tells us that “ all American vessels here now wear the congress colors.” Captain Robinson was received by the Governor and all ranks of people with the hospitality so characteristic of the West Indian of that period.

De Graeff, as Admiral Rodney wrote, “ was the first man who insulted the British Flag by taking up the salute of the pirate and rebel; who during his whole administration has been remarkable inimical to Great Britain and a favourer of the American Rebellion.”

In the same letter we find how much De Graeff was appreciated by the Americans, as “ two of their capital Ships ” were named, the one, of twenty-six guns, for him, and the other, of eighteen, for his lady.

George III determined to procure reparation and satisfaction from the Dutch for this insult and for the important aid they had given to the colonies. Admiral Rodney, fresh from England’s greatest naval victory off Dominica, received at Barbados his orders, on January 27, 1781, first to attack St. Eustatius and St. Martin’s, as neither of them was capable of any considerable resistance. Profound secrecy was preserved, and to keep the French from suspecting his movements, Rodney appeared with his whole fleet at Martinique and left there six sail of the line and two frigates to keep them shut in, while Sir Thomas Hood was sent to surround the Statian Bay and prevent the escape of a single vessel. “ He most effectually performed that service.”

On the 3d of February, Rodney appeared before the astonished Statians, and sent to De Graeff the following summons ; —

ST. EUSTATIUS, 3 Feb., 1781.
We the General Officers, commanding in Chief His Britannic Majesty’s Fleet and Army in the West Indies, do, in his Royal name, demand an instant Surrender of the Island of Saint. Eustatius, and its dependencies, with every Thing in and belonging thereto, for the use of bis said Majesty. We give you one Hour from the delivery of this Message, to decide. — If any resistance is made, you must abide the Consequences.
To his Excellency the
Governor of St. Eustatius.

The blow had fallen. Nothing could be done. The truth of the summons could not be grasped. The island surrendered at discretion. No terms whatever were granted. Their persons were prisoners of war and all their property forfeited. A general proscription of all the inhabitants followed. Americans, Dutch, and French, and of course the Jews, were banished from the island and were ordered to leave behind them all their wealth and property and to take nothing but those effects for which they had special license.

“ It was a vast capture,” wrote Rodney to the Secretary of State. The keys of the warehouses were demanded and possession taken of all correspondence and books. Every one was compelled to make an accurate account of all his ready money, plate, and jewels. Three million pounds sterling in money alone fell into the hands of Rodney and Vaughn, together with more than a million pounds’ worth of plate and jewels. The munitions of war captured were “ so numerous as will astonish Great Britain.”

There are many local traditions at Statia of attempts to conceal money, many of which were successful, as recent finds of golden “ joes ” and “ half-joes ” plainly show. A casket, about to be buried in the cemetery, was opened by a suspecting English officer, and in it was found a large quantity of money and plate.

One hundred and fifty sail were captured in the bay, besides a Dutch frigate and five ships and vessels of war complete and ready for service. A fleet, under convoy, had left Statia thirty-six hours before the arrival of Rodney, but was pursued by Captain Reynolds and taken.

On the 4th of February Rodney wrote to the Secretary of the Admiralty: “ All magazines and store-houses are filled, and even the beach is covered with Tobacco and Sugar, all of which shall be shipped on board the vessels now in the Bay (if they are sufficient to contain the quantity) and sent under proper convoy to Great Britain to abide his Majesty’s pleasure. — The convoy will be extremely valuable; more so, I believe, than ever sailed to Great Britain, considering its number of ships.”

It must have been a grim satisfaction to the miserable Statians when they heard that this fleet had been captured and its guardians put to flight by a French squadron under M. Le Motte Piquet, near the mouth of the English Channel.

Rodney again writes: “ The American Merchants and seamen, amounting to more than two thousand, have been captured. They made an offer to the Governor to defend the Island, and still a considerable number remain lurking in the mountains. Hunger will soon compel them to surrender at Discretion.”

Money and merchandise was not all that Rodney obtained at St. Eustatius. So determined was he to destroy what he called this “ nest of Vipers, which had stung Great Britain to the quick,” that he even took the roofs from the warehouses and private residences and sent them to Barbados, St. Lucia, and Antigua, to repair the ravages of a recent hurricane, asking no more than that the inhabitants of those islands should erect suitable walls to support them.

So closely had Rodney blockaded the island that it was two months before even a whisper of it was heard, and during this time more than fifty American vessels laden with tobacco fell into his grasp. The importance of this island during the struggle of the American colonies is best told by Rodney himself, when he says in a letter to Philip Stephens, Secretary of the Admiralty, “ The numerous letters found onboard them [the captured vessels] plainly prove that, their hulls and masts excepted, all the rigging, sails, cannon, powder, ammunition, and stores of all kinds, in order to navigate them, were sent from this island, without whose assistance the American navigators could not possibly have been supported.”

From this blow St. Eustatius never recovered ; robbed of its people, of its wealth, even of its habitations, the Golden Rock sank into poverty and oblivion. Roofless houses now form the capital; the paved streets are grown with grass; Negro cabins and potato patches have risen from the basements and gardens of the grand residences; the walls of the stately Jewish Synagogue rise from the surrounding ruins, and from its paved floor has sprung a great tree, whose branches spread outward, vainly trying to shield the crumbling walls from the torrential floods of the rainy season. The handsome Dutch Reformed Church stands with the roof fallen in, the magnificent mahogany pulpit and wonderful fluted sounding-board, which once reflected the words of recognition and encouragement to the patriots of the northern colonies, now echo the moans of the trade-winds. True were the words which Burke said to the British Parliament: “ The island surrendered at discretion, but the conquerors interpreted discretion into destruction, for they did not leave the conquered a shilling.”

  1. Throughout the American archives this vessel is spoken of as the Andrew Doria.
  2. The stars were not added to the red and white stripes until June, 1777.