St Eustatius (Statia)
Phil May and Andrea Twigg
Sat 31 Jan 2015 16:03
It is not often that we get a long enough downwind passage to be called “bean bag sailing” but the 60 mile trip from Barbuda to Statia came close. Andrea got some relaxation time on the trampoline, if not quite on the bean bag.
St Eustatius is one of those “head in the clouds” islands, dominated by Quill the volcano
Statia is one of the lesser-known of the Caribbean islands, but it is also one of the most historic and, although the anchorage can be swelly, it is still well worth a visit.
In the late 1700s, while The British, French and Americans were at each others throats, the Dutch operated the port as a free trading area and there were often hundreds of merchant ships anchored here to trade. Many countries occupying the West Indies were at war with each other, but their merchants still needed to trade and only way this could be done was through free ports like Statia which was (at the time) neutral Dutch territory.
To get an idea of the economics of the time, taxation by the British government meant that plantation owners would realize about £10 a ton for sugar shipped back to UK, but if sold (illegally) in Statia then the going rate was up to £500 a ton. The Americans could (also illegally) trade their tobacco and indigo here for arms and munitions. The Dutch built hundreds of warehouses (600 at its peak) on the waterfront in Statia to store the goods in transit. A huge operation.
St Eustatius’ downfall resulted from the Dutch support of the American Revolutionary army. Although the Dutch and British had been allies for nearly a century there was a lot of money to be made selling munitions to the Americans. It is estimated that half of the military supplies of the revolutionary army came through St Eustatius (sold by the French, Dutch, Spanish and Danish). This support for the rebels by the “nest of vipers” on St Eustatius triggered the declaration of war between Britain and Holland in 1780. Once war was declared Admiral Rodney wasted no time in moving his fleet north to St Eustatius, which he took in 1781. The inhabitants of Statia did not even know that they were at war with the British until Rodney arrived.
Rodney confiscated all the goods in the warehouses and the 130 merchant ships in the harbour. He then proceeded to fly the Dutch flag for another month, confiscating all additional wares that sailed in to port. He then held a free auction with an amnesty for any foreign vessels attending. It is estimated that Rodney raised £3,000,000 from the auction and seized £4,000,000 in bullion on the island which, to put it in context, was the largest amount ever taken in war in the 18th century, comparable to the domestic product for entire the UK at that time.
With failing health, an impending hurricane season and a kings ransom to protect, Rodney sailed with half the British fleet back to the UK. He sent the other half to the aid of Cornwallis in the Chesapeake. Meanwhile George Washington had arranged with the French that their entire fleet would sail to America to assist with the war. The French fleet, under Admiral de Grasse, took a slow route to Virginia to avoid detection. This allowed the British fleet to arrive first, but finding no French there they decided to sail up to New York. The result was that the British troops in the Chesapeake were besieged by the unchallenged French fleet. Cornwallis surrendered shortly afterwards and the war was lost.
When slavery was abolished the trading associated with the plantations dwindled away and Statia was no longer economically viable, dropping to 300 inhabitants at one point. Today it has tourism (excellent diving) and an oil storage depot and there are about 3000 people living on the island.
The old warehouses are being restored into prime waterfront properties
You can still find (and keep) original blue beads, the trading currency of the slaves (although these are modern reproductions)
We were lucky to see a Lesser Antillean iguana, one of only about 500 left on the island