The stones of Statia

St Eustatius has more historic ruins per square mile than any other Caribbean island. Walter Hellebrand remembers how it went from boom town to bust

A gravestone in Statia’s Jewish cemetary. Photograph by Wyatt GalleryA sleepy street in Oranjestad. Photograph by Wyatt GalleryLooking over Oranjestad’s Lower Town. Photograph by Wyatt GalleryThe cannons of Fort Oranje once saluted the ships arriving in Statia’s port. Photograph by Wyatt GalleryThe carefully tended ruins of the old synagogue. Photograph by Wyatt GalleryThe gate of Fort Oranje. Photograph by Wyatt GalleryThe Quill, a dormant volcano, towers above Statia. Photograph by Wyatt Gallery

Growing up with the ruins of a three-hundred-year-old fortress on the beach in your back yard can send your life in a certain direction. It did so with me. St Eustatius is a small island. Almost as if its official name is too long for its mere eight square miles, we simply call it “Statia.” And so does anyone who has been to the island and fallen in love with it — which is also quite easy.

Statia has more historical monuments per square mile than any other island in the Caribbean. And some of those monuments come with the added bonus of being surrounded by multi-coloured, flashy fish and a carnival of coral. Others are doused in dashy greens on the slopes of an extinct volcano. That is Statia, in a nutshell — or should I say in a national crest, because the coat-of-arms of Statia sums it all up: hiking into a crater, diving to discover underwater beauty, and admiring historical heritage. Every time I walk across the parade grounds inside Fort Oranje and I pass by the crest displayed on the flagpole, I realise what I am most proud of, out of everything I have done in my lifetime: designing the coat-of-arms of my island.

The walls of the Oranjestad’s Waterfort are almost seven feet thick. They stand on the beach below the house where I grew up. Their main purpose was to safeguard the island against attacks from pirates, buccaneers, and freebooters. However, its front parapet has lost its ultimate battle, the fight against the pounding waves, and now lies face down in the relentless surf. As a child, when I played pirate I did not need boxes and crates to make me a fort. I had a real one.

Behind it are the remains of the Slave House, built in the 1720s, when Statia developed into the north-eastern Caribbean hub for the slave trade. Each stone and brick bears a trace of human trauma. Here starts the stretch of buildings where the fortunes were made that earned the island its old nickname, the Golden Rock.

Playing among these ruins, and fantasising about all that happened between those walls, I grew up to become a historian: writing, making exhibitions and documentaries. And now the old buildings themselves are my work, since I came back to Statia to become the island’s monuments director.

These stones of Statia tell stories of distant days. And like the remains of the Old World’s most famous ruined town, the New World’s own Pompeii attracts visitors keen to discover tales of a colourful past. It is the story of a seaport that went from boom town to ghost town in one generation. Legends linger amid the ruins on the beach — in the remains of houses, warehouses, inns and pubs, shops, houses of ill repute, ship chandlers, and wharves. They line the road to Lower Town that stretches out for over a mile between the steep cliff of Upper Town and the waves of the Caribbean Sea. There, between these now broken walls, once beat the commercial heart of the north-eastern Caribbean.

It was a time when the North American colonies were in the midst of the struggle against their British masters. No fragrance of sunscreen and lotion on the beach then, only wafts of tar, gunpowder, and molasses blending into an intoxicating mix. No carefree laughter of kids frolicking in the surf between the remains of walls that once protected precious cargo, but the echoes of officers and masters shouting orders at servants and slaves to unload arms, cannonballs, and canvas, and load sugar, tobacco, and rum.

Every now and then, the air above the hustle and bustle on the beach would resound with the firing of cannons from Fort Oranje, perched high upon the cliff edge, saluting the arriving ships. And since St Eustatius was a neutral Dutch island, Oranje Bay sported the flags of every transatlantic trading nation in Europe. Then, on 16 November, 1776, a flag appeared that had never been seen before on the island.

It was the newly created emblem of the self-proclaimed United States of America. Shots rang from the ship with the unknown flag. Abraham Ravené, the commander of Fort Oranje, asked for instructions. The island’s governor, Johannes de Graaff, ordered a counter-salute to be given. The PR machine of the new nation was unleashed, and proclaimed this the first official acknowledgment of its independence. A plaque in the fort, commissioned by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, commemorates this historic moment.

The fort still stands, and has been extensively restored. From its ramparts you can let the history of St Eustatius unfold before your eyes. Ahead of you, in the foothills, lie the former plantations of Godet and Benners. Remains of their sugar refineries and rum distilleries recall a long-gone era of plantation life. Governor Johannes de Graaff was the owner of Benners. Here, the name of Abraham Ravené is inscribed on one of the tombs in the unique plantation cemetery. It is the grave for the grandfather of the man who fired the shots that fired the imagination of the young North American nation.

Narrow slips still run towards the sea between walls that once stored coffee beans or wine shipped from Europe. Of the six hundred buildings in what was dubbed Little Amsterdam in 1792, only four remain. But the coffee and wine have returned: three of these monuments have been restored to house a dive–shop-cum-café, a hotel, and a souvenir shop with drinks terrace. And plans are underway to turn more of Lower Town’s historic attractions into unique tourist facilities.

Behind the cliff that lines Lower Town tower the formidable slopes of the Quill. Unlike Vesuvius, this dormant volcano, with picture-perfect crater, has nothing to do with the ruins below. World politics caused Oranjestad to crumble. When the French occupied Statia in 1795, they demanded a high compensation for the “blessings” of the French Revolution. Their message of liberty, equality, and fraternity was communicated through crippling taxes.

As enemies of Napoleon, the British then occupied French Statia and diverted all trade to their own island colonies. Meanwhile, the young United States of America had learned to stand on their own feet. Little Statia was quickly forgotten.

Merchants deserted the island. The walls and foundations of the churches in Upper Town are now testimony to the cosmopolitan days of the Golden Rock, when Lutherans, Anglicans, Dutch Protestants, and Jews all had their own houses of worship. Today, if you walk through the narrow Synagogue Path towards the impressive remains of the two-storey yellow brick synagogue, it is like exploring a Caribbean Pompeii. But the massive volcano overlooking this historical gem is totally innocent.