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Family tells how potato crop failure led to loss of island

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Five Star Island

Five Star Island in Southampton was taken from a Bermudian family in the 1800s after its owner handed over his deeds as collateral on a loan for potato slips.

This is according to the family members of Joseph Wilson who claimed he was the former owner. They gave submissions to the The Commission of Inquiry into Historic Loss of Land yesterday.

It was claimed that Mr Wilson agreed to pay back the loan with ten barrels of potatoes harvested from the slips but was unable to do so after a potato blight destroyed the crop.

One version of the story claimed that the island was stolen from him by “the 40 Thieves”, a group of old families of merchants, bankers, lawyers and others who owned or controlled much of the island at the time.

Mr Wilson’s great, great granddaughter Maud Janette Chentouf and her son Najib Chentouf shared stories they had been told from older family members while Edward Durrant, a retiree who volunteered to assist the inquiry, gave submissions based on their testimonies and his own investigation.

Ms Chentouf told the inquiry that her grandfather Herman Wilson and father Rudolph Robinson had told her the history of what was then called Wilson’s Island.

“My father always told me that the Wilson’s Island belonged to our family and many years ago his great grandfather needed to plant his garden of potatoes. He didn’t have the funds to plant the garden so he went to the powers that be – I listed the company [The Bermuda Company] – and they told him they would give him a barrel of potato slips and he would need to give collateral.

“All he had were the deeds to Wilson’s Island and he gave them to them with the promise that when the crop harvested he would be able to sell ten barrels and be able to return the money – the cost of the slips – to the company so he could get his deeds back. I was told that the next year there was a blight and the potatoes never harvested so the deeds were kept.”

Ms Chentouf said she was not aware how much the loan was for, that she was not aware of anything in writing in relation to the transaction, or of any lawsuits filed over the matter.

Quinton Stovell, a commissioner for the inquiry, asked whether she or her son were aware how the family was removed from the land.

Mr Chentouf said: “As relayed to me orally, the land owned by the Wilson family was far greater than Five Star Island. Wilson’s Island was a small piece of a larger plot. If you want to talk about it in modern day boundaries – it is from Church Road in Southampton, by St Anne’s Church, up to the border of the Southampton Princess property by Sinky Bay, from South Shore all the way over to Middle Road.

“When we are talking about removing people we are not necessarily talking about someone leaving a dwelling in Wilson’s Island – being evicted so to speak – we are talking about a large tract of land with lots of planting ground.”

He said that in 2017 he had discovered an old map of the Island which showed Wilson’s Island and that there are stories within the family that some land owned by the family had been “aggressively acquired“.

Mr Durrant said: “One version of the story claimed that the island had to be stolen from him by the 40 Thieves and another alleging that ’Uncle Joe’ was forced to sell the land for ten barrels of potatoes.

“He had passed on the paperwork to ’unknown individuals’ on the understanding that when the crop was harvested he would repay the debt with 10 barrels.

Five Star Island, formerly known as Wilson’s Island (File photograph)

“He was unable to repay his debts. The paper work was not returned to him.”

Mr Durrant said that his research indicated that the island was originally owned by the Wilson family in the 17th Century and was purchased by a Jane Soltan of the US in the 19th Century,

He said: “Efforts to trace ownership between the time of the 17th century and the 19th century were unsuccessful.”

He outlined a chronology of acquisitions which included a Charles Cooper, Morris Gibbons, Alfred Leman and a Curt Engelhorn.

Mr Engelhorn was a well known philanthropist in Bermuda. He had a large shareholding in Corange Ltd, which in turn, owned Boehringer Mannheim and DePuy Inc.

Mr Engelhorn netted $5 billion when Corange was sold to Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche in 1997 for US$11 billion. During his time in Bermuda, he made large donations to the Bermuda College and the Bermuda Biological Station.

In 2012, Mr Durrant said Caroline Engelhorn applied to Bermuda Government for a sanction to acquire the 2.11 acre island.

He said that the outcome was “unknown at present”.

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Published December 03, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated December 02, 2020 at 6:42 pm)

Family tells how potato crop failure led to loss of island

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