St. Eustatius – Statia

Statia is a small island with a large history. From the anchorage, you can see a long cliff just behind a sandy beach. At the base of the cliff a few buildings are nestled between old stone ruins that tumble into the sea. On top of the cliff, the present-day small town peeks out through trees. To the east, a perfect volcanic cone rises to 1,800 feet. Ashore, goats graze peacefully; little movement breaks the tranquility.

Imagine now the Golden Era during the mid to late 1700s, when Statia was the trade capital of the Indies, and one of the world’s busiest harbors. Up to 300 ships lie at anchor. Shops and warehouses line the waterfront and goods are available here from all over the world: fine fabrics, silver, gold, household supplies, guns, sugar, tobacco, and cotton. Sadly, this also included many enslaved people as Statia was a major trading post of the Dutch West India Company.

Thousands of tons of commodities are traded daily in a colorful, noisy, bustling town, with hundreds of small boats going from ships to shore. During these years, the European powers were fighting each other; in addition, England was unsuccessfully trying to put down the upstart American rebels. The major powers wrapped their colonies in a mass of red tape and taxes, stifling trade. The Dutch, who owned Statia, remained neutral and opened Statia as a free port. It became possible to buy or sell anything here, along with the appropriate papers. Countries not allowed to deal with each other could deal with Statia, so Statian papers were attached to many things produced elsewhere. For example, in 1770 Statia produced about 600,000 pounds of sugar, but exported 20 million pounds. It was officially approved smuggling, and the inhabitants, some 8,000 mixed Dutch, English, and Jewish merchants, got very rich. Statia became known as the Golden Rock, but the prosperity was not to last.

In late 1776 the Andrew Doria, once a merchant ship but now under the command of an American rebel navy captain, came into harbor to purchase arms and munitions for the American Revolution. On approach, the Andrew Doria fired a salute and Governor de Graaff fired a return salute from Fort Oranje, but two guns less (the international protocol for acknowledging a sovereign flag). Since the Andrew Doria was flying the Continental Colors of the colonies, this marked the first international recognition of American Independence. British officials didn’t think highly of this, and even less of the fact that an American ship later captured a British ship near Statia and took it back to what became the United States. This, plus the fact that Statia sold weapons to the rebels, led to war between England and the Netherlands.

British Admiral Rodney arrived with an invading force in 1781, offering a bloodless surrender to Governor de Graaff, who quickly accepted due to a lack of munitions and manpower. Rodney confiscated all the ships and warehouses, but found less cash and valuables than he expected. Rodney noticed that for a small population the merchants were having a lot of funerals. He ordered one to be stopped and looked in the coffin. It was full of coins and jewelry and a little digging in the graveyard revealed much more. He rounded up a hundred Jewish men for deportation. When his men searched them and ripped open the lining of their clothes, they found another 8,000 pounds sterling. Rodney stole this, too, before sending them to St. Kitts. He then held a giant auction that netted him and his crew a fortune. This was not too popular with British subjects who lost property. He was sued and questions were asked in parliament. Luckily for Rodney, he won the crucial “Battle of the Saintes” just in time, and all was forgiven.

By the late 1700s Statia was again Dutch and trade was flourishing, but in the early 19th century the changing political and economic climate in the Caribbean ended Statia’s role as the Caribbean’s first shopping mall, and there followed a long decline and massive emigration. The foundations of coastal buildings eroded, and subsequent hurricanes destroyed most of the lower town. The last ruins can still be seen, and the old Gin House and two old warehouses have now been beautifully renovated.

You will, no doubt, come across blue beads for sale on the island, and a few businesses in their namesake. Blue glass beads made in Europe during the 17th century were traded, first in Africa where they attained value as currency, then later throughout the Caribbean as the slave trade and the Dutch West India Company expanded. In Statia they were commonly used as wages for enslaved peoples. Upon emancipation, legend has it that many were tossed onto the ocean from the southern cliffs of the island as a symbol of defiance and celebration. Searching for beads is a popular tourist activity, although it is said that the beads find you, not the other way around. Although encouraged by some, local historians stress that taking the beads as souvenirs is morally questionable at best.

Statia looks decorative and orderly. The historical society, with funding from the Netherlands, has done an excellent job of restoring many of the ruins and old buildings. Currently, they are undergoing a major hillside stabilization project, which entails reigning in the goat population and reinforcing the cliff side below the fort with wire mesh to slow erosion.

It is also getting busier; traffic is now noticeable. The economy depends mainly on the huge oil storage depot in the north of the island. Statia is currently part of the Netherlands but the process by which this was decided was not entirely legal, so Statians may get to choose again.

Many of the 3,000 inhabitants were born in Statia, but immigrants from all over the world have filtered in recently, so Statia is quite a wealth of people and languages. They welcome visitors with genuine warmth. Statia is so far off the beaten track that the few visitors you do meet are likely to be interesting. To put icing on the cake, the scuba diving is impressive and there is a selection of enjoyable restaurants.

Restaurants

Old Gin House

Dive Shops

Golden Rock Dive Center

Scubaqua

Other Sites of Interest

Tourist Office