‘Bamboo Billy’ goes to Statia
“It is said that Madam de Graaff was a horsewoman, and that in order to keep her habit hanging correctly it was weighted with Golden Coins.”— Hereward T Watlington, 1979.
Two centuries after they participated, to great profit, in an early form of ‘offshore’ trading, Bermudians in the 1970s embarked on another such enterprise, but at home, not far to the south in the West Indies. In the latter instance, the shipping involved was not by traditional vessels, bound to the ways of the sea, but in the transportation of cash via bills of credit and whatnot by air, and in the last decade or so, by the fluid movement of cash wirelessly, almost effortlessly (compared to life before the mast), via the internet.
In the former instance of the glory days of the 1770s down in Sint Eustatius, the demand came largely from the United States (as it was to be after the 1783 Treaty of Paris) and many of the suppliers were Bermudian companies, banked up in their warehouses on the beachfront of the ‘Lower Town’ of Oranjestad. So successful was ‘Statia’ that it took the nickname of ‘Golden Rock’, an epithet that might have been applied to Bermuda of a couple of decades ago, when tourism, a US military presence, and ‘International Business’ combined to make the island a platinum mine for many, much perhaps to the annoyance of the US Government (or at least the tax nabobs), contrary to the Statia situation of heady revolutionary days.
Similar to the block-running activities out of Bermuda and the Bahamas into the southern Confederacy during the American Civil War, St. Eustatius became the place where the rebels of the second half of the 1770s could obtain goods, especially war materiel, that were denied them in British colonies and in Britain itself. The Dutch at Statia, with their many Bermudian business-compatriots, were only too happy to oblige and many a fortune was made at the expense of the British and soon-to-be Americans. During some of those years, over two thousand vessels visited Statia each year, many being Bermudian.
Unfortunately for the merchants of war, Admiral Rodney destroyed the trading centre at St. Eustatius in 1781, as he advanced through the West Indies putting paid to the French, the Dutch and any allies of the American rebels, including Bermudian merchants. Subsequently, the great naval man returned to England due to illness: it is said that had he remained on the West Indies and America station that he might have prevented the losses at the Chesapeake and Yorktown, perhaps delaying or negating the Independence of the United States. Perhaps all today, as we now know it, would be called ‘Canada’, eh?
Be that as it may, Rodney was no friend of Bermuda and our monuments at Statia in modern times lie largely in ruin, including the great warehouses on the sea front facing the open roadstead below Oranjestad.
Two generations after the destruction of that one of our historical golden reefs, a famous Bermudian seaman, nicknamed ‘Bamboo Billy’ (you decide whether it reflects strength of character, ability to sway in the political or business breezes, or whatever), aka Captain William Hubbard Peniston (1828—1917), paid a visit to Statia and left an interesting account, later published in the Bermuda Historical Quarterly. One hundred and twenty years later, the venerable Bermudian antiquarian and artist, Hereward Watlington also alighted on the island, but that time from a small, eight-seater aeroplane, rather than a twelve-gun Bermuda sloop.
Captain Peniston was one of the most respected sea masters of his day and often plied the ocean from Bermuda into the West Indies, bringing back sweet potatoes, among other southern goodies. In 1853 at Statia, he ‘found many descendants of old Bermuda families who vied with each other in extending hospitality to me’. When Hereward Watlington visited over a century later, there were but a few such families left, noting that his ‘ancestress, Christina Love’ was born on Statia in 1739. In place of the living, Watlington brought home a list of the dead from the graveyard, including local names like Jennings, Hill, Godet, Packwood and Peniston. When I visited St. Eustatius in 1994, there was but one family of a Bermudian name, the Godets, possibly descendants of slaves of an owner of that surname.
During his visit, Bamboo Billy was greeted at Government House and remarked on its fine marble floors and the inability of its inhabitant, unlike the rest of Statia, to speak the Queen’s English. Upon the refusal to surrender the island in 1781, it was through the front door of the house that Rodney sent his first shot, which had the desired effect of capitulation. The Admiral and his marines ransacked the island, including digging up recently graves, in which bullion had been buried to keep it out of British hands. However, some Bermudian ladies sewed such precious items into the cushions of their Bermuda cedar chairs, which items of furniture they were allowed to take with them when ejected from Statia by the Admiral.
Statia never recovered from the sacking by Rodney and today has little in its economy that is unrelated to a small trade in visitors. When Hereward Watlington saw Government House in 1979, it had become a ruin in yellow brick. It had originally belonged to the Heyliger family (perhaps related to such names in Bermuda) and was owned in the early nineteenth century by a relative by marriage, one Colonel De Veere. He refused to deviate from principles, so when ‘his daughter suggested to him that he should marriage again, he would reply, “I cannot replace her” … However his bed was not unoccupied’, according to one source!
Dr Edward Cecil Harris, MBE, JP, PHD, FSA is Director of the National Museum at Dockyard. Comments may be made to email@example.com or 704-5480.
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