Category: Heritage Backup

Invisible Spaces

There are images of St. Martin that many people can probably picture in their mind right now: the Philipsburg courthouse, the bustle of Marigot market and the geometry of salt pans on the Great Salt Pond. We know the view of Marigot from Fort Louis and Great Bay from Fort Amsterdam.

We know these images because they have been captured and shared over and over again. They were made into postcards. They illustrate books. A google image search brings up many of these iconic views, along with countless views of planes landing in Maho.

There’s nothing wrong with having iconic views. We don’t tire of classic images of Philipsburg stretched between pond and bay or looking down the hill at La Savane and Grand Case. But the invisible places on St. Martin outnumber the familiar ones.

Churchgoers in Colombier in 1963. Photo by Gordon James.

When most people picture St. Martin, it isn’t Middle Region, French Quarter or Colombier. There aren’t postcards of Colombier. Coffee table photo books aren’t full of images of Middle Region. Most of the commonly seen photos of the island were created by outsiders, for outsiders or both. They may do a great job showing what the island is like to visit, but they capture just a thin slice of island life.

It is human nature to capture the things that seem important: big buildings, busy places and capital cities. Of course the images that spread are the ones that sell the island. But when it comes to history and culture, everything is important. Invisible spaces are a problem. They leave a community with an incomplete memory of itself.

French Cul-de-Sac and the view of Pinel. Photo by Gordon James.

Many places on St. Martin may be all but invisible to the outside world, but the people that live there know them. The people that live there surely have photos of their neighborhoods. Thanks to the internet, we are no longer limited to the photos that appear in books. It is possible to share images of every place, and we should. In the great scrapbook of St. Martin memories, there should be no invisible spaces.

People gather at Coconut Grove. Photo by Gordon James.

Do you have a photo of one of St. Martin’s invisible spaces? Share it by sending it to info@lesfruitsdemer.com or to The Daily Herald.

A Right to Culture

The right to access cultural heritage was recognized as a basic human right over 70 years ago. It makes perfect sense. People have a right to their history and their culture.

Heritage takes many forms: buildings, photos, documents, language, songs, dances, objects and more. Many of these things need to be physically preserved. They need to be protected from water, fire, rodents and other threats that are as old as time. Keeping these materials safe may mean limiting access to them.

Luckily, the digital age has created new ways to share heritage. Scans, photos, transcriptions and videos can give cultural access to almost everyone. There’s no limit to the number of objects that can be on display. It doesn’t matter if the original copy is in an archive thousands of miles away. Vast collections can be searchable in an instant.

Access to cultural heritage, like this storefront scene, is often happening through personal sharing. (Photo by Gordon James)

In an age when limitless cultural access is possible, how is St. Martin doing? Neither the territorial archives of Saint-Martin, nor the national archives of Sint Maarten are online in any form. Key collections of history, heritage and archaeology are not online either. Records and documents from St. Martin are available from digital collections in France, the Netherlands and the US, but these are often incomplete or difficult to find.

The lack of digital access is made worse by the lack of physical access. After the destruction of the médiathèque in Concordia, there is no public access to the archives. The Jubilee Library only offers a fraction of its collection at its temporary location.

Amazing work has been done to preserve heritage. Materials were safeguarded through Irma and collections were rebuilt after. Intangible heritage has been documented. Individuals have shared photos and stories online. The people doing this work, often for decades, are heroes.

But it is still not enough. As long as the island struggles to find the resources to preserve heritage, it won’t have the ability to share that heritage. In a vicious circle, that hidden heritage is valued less, and fewer resources are given to protect it.

It is time to give St. Martiners access to their culture. This will require new resources for the task. It can create good jobs digitizing, organizing and presenting these materials. It will rekindle interest and pride in St. Martin culture. It can be a resource for schools to teach kids about their home. It will make St. Martin a more interesting place to live and to visit. And it is a right. The people of St. Martin should demand it.

What cultural heritage do you want access to? Let us know by sending a message to info@lesfruitsdemer.com or to The Daily Herald.

1961 Opinions

The Digital Library of the Caribbean includes many resources about the region, including archives of old newspapers. Sadly, there aren’t many from St. Martin. Happily, there are some issues of the Windward Islands Opinion from the early 1960s.

The Opinion from July 8, 1961 is just ten pages long, but packed with insights and observations about the island. The front page is dedicated to “Man of the Week” Charles E. Gibbs from Cripple Gate. Gibbs is praised for his work at the Post Office and his active role in the Methodist Church. Though he is the focus, it is clearly important that his daughter is the “Post-Mistress in charge of the Post Office at Margiot.” The article is about honest work, family and the progress of a people.

The Windward Islands Opinion, July 8, 1961 from the collection of the Digital Library of the Caribbean.

The paper is like a conversation with its readers: “Our readers of Simpsonbay have again called out attention to the fact that nothing has yet been done about repairing the public cistern of this little town.” The cistern was damaged during Hurricane Donna in 1960. With the peak of hurricane season coming, the readers and the paper were worried about a resource that people still depended on.

Cricket was clearly popular at this time. Three cricket-related articles were published in this issue, including a notice that “a friendly game of cricket will be played between the girls of Philipsburg and those of French Quarter either on July 13, or on July 14.” Due to a lack of players from Philipsburg, it was planned as a “scratch-match between the two teams with each side consisting of players from both teams.”

A letter to the editor lamented the loss of agricultural education. “Some years ago, it was possible for the boys of our island to learn the science of agriculture here in the schools. During the course of that time it was also possible for these boys to visit the Experiment Station in order to experience that which was taught to them.”

A fashionable wedding was described in detail: “The radiant bride’s gown (imported from Puerto Rico) was truly an outstanding achievement in design. The snug bodice (of rich chantilly lace over crystal satin) featured a scooped neckline and wrist-length sleeves. Shimmering organza roses focussed the attention on the silk organza full-length skirt. Beautifying the bride’s head was a sparkling tiara, which held in place a finger-tip veil of illusion net.”

This one issue includes dozens of other short items. There are complaints about the unsanitary conditions of the Marigot market under the sandbox tree and the irregular mail service between the islands. There is an article about Emancipation Day celebrations on Statia: “It is almost 100 years since freedom was given in these islands.” A 200 room hotel was planned on the French side. Would ferry owners be able to hold up progress on the Saba airport?

This paper is not just a look at the news of the day. It captures daily life in surprising detail. It reveals hopes and fears. It is a rich window into what is now almost another world entirely. Treasures like this need to be saved as a record of both history and humanity.

Do you have memories from this time? Let us know by sending a message to info@lesfruitsdemer.com or to The Daily Herald.

A Local Movement

Last week’s article featured a recent petition to change the name of Philispburg to Great Bay. The petition creators want to stop honoring the slaveholder John Philips and start using a name traditionally used by St. Martiners. Many readers had thoughts about the petition and shared them in online comments.

Several readers wanted to avoid what is “happening in the USA” or “becoming like the USA.” They seemed to believe that the fight for social justice is new, and that it started in the United States. Nothing could be further from the truth. Since the Haitian revolution and countless other uprisings to the present day, the Caribbean has led the world in the fight for freedom, dignity and equality.

On St. Martin, the fight began during slavery. We have records of revolt in Marigot in 1830 and escapes to freedom in Anguilla and St. Kitts after slavery was abolished in English territories. The Diamond Escape 26 from Cole Bay claimed their own freedom after emancipation on the French side. In doing so, they changed the conditions of slavery on the Dutch side for the next 15 years. Their legacy has been celebrated since 2005 through reenactments of their run for freedom.

The 2019 reenactment of the run for freedom.

The Ponum Dance dates back to the era of slavery. Kept alive for generations, it was revived by Inez Eliza Baly-Lewis in 1982. It has been studied, cherished and performed since then by Clara Reyes and other St. Martiners. Today the dance is at the heart of local culture.

The mission statement of the Windward Islands Opinion newspaper.

In 1959, Joseph H. Lake, Sr. founded the Windward Islands Opinion newspaper “as a means of helping to improve the social, economical and political conditions of the Windward Islands by advocating against the causes of injustice and oppression.” He wrote about the need for fair wages and respect for workers. He promoted self-pride, unity, democracy and freedom.

A group of St. Martiners from both sides of the island started St. Martin Day in 1959. Felix Choisy, Clem Labega, Hubert Petit and Claude Wathey created the holiday to celebrate island unity, and the people and culture of St. Martin. They chose November 11th so they wouldn’t need to ask permission from the French or Dutch to celebrate their own island.

The national flag of St. Martin represents the island and its people as one nation.

The national flag of St. Martin, now also known as the unity flag, was created in 1990 to represent both sides of the island, and all St. Martiners as one nation. The design of the flag, and the symbols used, depict the island itself and its history. It stands for freedom, unity and local pride.

There are countless other examples of St. Martin leading a movement towards justice, equality and respect for all. This movement is made of local authors, activists, historians, teachers, artists and leaders. It is made of everyone who preserves and passes on memories and traditions. This movement didn’t come from the USA. It is probably older than the USA itself. And it will carry on as long as people live on this island.

Do you have a favorite moment in St. Martin’s movement towards justice and equality? Share it by sending a message to info@lesfruitsdemer.com or to The Daily Herald.

The Decolonial Well

Right now, there is an online petition to change the name of Philipsburg to Great Bay. Great Bay is a name many St. Martiners have used their whole life. That is, when they aren’t simply calling it Town. The petition was started by Joseph Lake, Jr. and quickly received several hundred signatures.

A view of Great Bay in 1947.

According to the petition, “Great Bay is the traditional and historic name given to our capital by “Our” People. Philipsburg is the name forced on our capital by the slave master John Philips. To officially name Great Bay is to claim it as our own.” There are similar movements all over the world to decolonize and reclaim public spaces.

John Philips was a slaveholder and the Commander of the Dutch part of St. Martin. He was an active part of a colonial system that enslaved people. He is often credited with increasing the population and prosperity of the island. Population gains came mostly through increases in number of enslaved persons. And they did not share in any prosperity. The town was named after him by the Council, another part of the colonial power structure. Slavery continued on St. Martin for over 100 years after his death.

A view of Great Bay in the 1940s. (Beaux Arts photo)

The movement to rename Great Bay makes us reconsider John Philips. It also suggests we rethink other names drawn from history. St. Martin is blessed with monuments to salt pickers, bus drivers and other non-colonial figures, but many places still bear the names of slaveholder estates.

Colonialism persists in these place names. It also persists in the written histories of the island that draw from colonial archives. It persists in narratives presenting the island as French and Dutch.

Decolonizing thought and culture on St. Martin is an ongoing task. Old stories must be examined. False stories must be corrected. And new stories must be added to what we present as the history and culture of the island.

Living memory, oral history and personal collections of photos and belongings are the decolonial well. That is where we will find the stories and images that better represent the island. We will need to draw from it to tell the peoples’ story. Without this well of human knowledge, we are left with the official archives that have showcased the few and ignored the many for far too long.

The name Great Bay was kept by the people. It didn’t have to be on a map or a sign. Personal, family and community heritage are the building blocks of a newer, truer history. Saving this heritage helps us build a better future. With it, the children of tomorrow will finally be able to look at their heritage and see themselves.

What local names, places and people do would you like to recognize? Send a message to info@lesfruitsdemer.com or to The Daily Herald.

The End of an Era?

A vintage postcard highlights tourists on St. Martin. (Barbara Cannegieter Postcard Collection)

During the late 1700s and early 1800s, the sugar industry briefly ruled the land of salt. Forests were cut and cane was planted far and wide. Mills were built and a handful of slaveholders prospered from the labor of enslaved people. 

On St. Martin, the industry did not last very long. St. Martin couldn’t compete with larger islands that had more rainfall. Sugar production literally and figuratively dried up here. During the middle of the 1800s, emancipation finally ended slavery.

There are echoes of the past in the crises we face today. During the late 1900s and early 2000s, the tourism industry ruled the land of salt. Hotels and restaurants were built on beaches and hills. The tourism industry provided great economic growth, but inequality endured. 

As with sugar, tourism brought investment from wealthy nations. In foreign boardrooms or on the island, those who own and profit from the tourism industry often come from the same background as the slaveholders of previous centuries. Those profiting the least, or perhaps struggling to find work at all, are often descended from enslaved people. (There are, of course, investors, tourists and locals of all races, but to ignore history and the racial inequality that continues today comes dangerously close to embracing a Caribbean version of “all lives matter” when much work remains to be done.)

Some promotional materials show a racial divide between staff and guests. (Barbara Cannegieter Postcard Collection)

The coronavirus epidemic brings the tourism industry to a point of crisis. Analysts predict international travel will be down at least 80% during 2020. With no cure in sight, perhaps the peak of tourism on St. Martin is already behind us. It is a troubling thought. After the decline of sugar, it took over 100 years for tourism to bring economic growth back to the island.

Perhaps it is also a hopeful time. Some local scholars find the post-sugar and pre-tourism era a cultural peak. The late Daniella Jeffry called it the Traditional Period and said it “was characterized by the development of an egalitarian culture that gave rise to a common set of social, political and economic values and activities.” 

The second global crisis of 2020 is the ongoing struggle against racial inequality. The flow of investment and tourists from wealthy, white-majority countries to poorer, black-majority islands builds bias into Caribbean tourism. Many old promotional images show white visitors enjoying the island, while black people are serving them. Today, with many service workers coming from Europe, many locals have been pushed out of tourism entirely.

The present is terrifying and the future is ominous. But if it is the end of an era, perhaps it can also be the beginning of something better. St. Martin could adopt a more sustainable version of tourism, and diversify into new industries. This could create more diverse jobs that bring more people into the economy. The people starting these new businesses may be more representative of the island as a whole. Perhaps there could be a “New Traditional Period” where greater equality and prosperity exist together.

What do you think the future holds for St. Martin? Send a message to info@lesfruitsdemer.com or to The Daily Herald.

Note: Everyone has a different life experience and perspective. We understand and appreciate that and we encourage you to post your views. However, comments that minimize or deny racial injustice are hurtful to those experiencing it. Whatever your intention, please consider how your comments may impact others.

Oral History Insights

Lionel Romney in 1945.

Mary L. Romney-Schaab is the author of An Afro-Caribbean in the Nazi Era: From Papiamentu to German. It is the true story of her father, Lionel Romney, of St. Martin. It includes an account of his time imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. In an interview, she shared advice about recording an oral history with a family member.

What advice do you have for those who want to do oral histories with the elders in their families? Do you have tips for those who may have tried, but can’t get the older people to talk?
Many memories held by the elders are pleasant ones that they want to share. They often love the opportunity to talk about these and will do it readily. Many valuable insights into family history can be gained by from these wonderful stories.

However, I believe that there are many other elderly people who are inhibited about telling their stories because our people have suffered so much in so many geographical, social, economic, educational, professional, and historical contexts. Their memories are often painful, so they don’t want to inflict that pain on their loved ones. Rather they choose to remain silent. Plus, many of them have been traumatized by their experiences, so they try to bury them with their silence. Of course, the reality is that silence only prolongs the trauma, and talking about the trauma is the key to healing from it.

The elders often don’t want to talk to their own adult children about their past lives, partly because they don’t want to hurt them with painful memories, but also because they don’t want to the children to judge them. These fears may be conscious or subconscious. So perhaps a good approach is to have grandchildren, nieces, nephews, great-nieces or -nephews, or even strangers (or others outside the family) record the oral history interviews. It’s amazing how quickly an older person will open up to a stranger. This is partly because they don’t have the same concerns about how that person will feel about them or their story. Again, some of these inhibitions may be subconscious. So sometimes it’s better to prepare some questions and let someone outside the family ask them. The key is to record the interviews, especially on video.

One advantage to having an outsider ask the questions is that if the elder feels that the interviewer already knows his/her story, he/she will intentionally omit some important background information or interesting details. This might be very valuable information that future generations will need in order to make more sense of the story when they hear it many years hence.

Lionel Romney in St. Martin in 2000. (Photo by Mary Romney-Schaab)

What are some pitfalls to avoid when recording an oral history?
It took me over 20 years to get my father to talk to me enough to do an oral history with him. So don’t be discouraged if your older parent rejects your requests to interview him/her. Just keep trying in different ways.

Don’t think of your oral history project as one single interview. Think of it as an ongoing process because both you and the elder might take a while to get used to the interviewing process and you can grow in it together. You learn about the process as you proceed through the interviews, and you improve your strategies and techniques as you gain experience.

Don’t be inflexible in your agenda. Be prepared to jettison your own agenda. If the elder doesn’t answer your questions, just follow their memories even if they lead the interview in a different direction than the one you’d planned. Just ask your questions again in the next interview. Most importantly, remember that your role is to be a listener rather than a speaker and a follower rather than a leader.

Mary Romney-Schaab recorded an oral history with her father Lionel.

Do you have a question about how to do an oral history? Send a message to info@lesfruitsdemer.com or to The Daily Herald. Find Mary Romney-Schaab’s book about her father’s life at Amazon.com.

Choosing to Write

Mary L. Romney-Schaab is the author of An Afro-Caribbean in the Nazi Era: From Papiamentu to German. It is the true story of her father, Lionel Romney, of St. Martin. It includes an account of his time imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. In an interview, she shared her motivation for writing her book. The following is an excerpt from her interview, including quotes from her book.

Mary Romney-Schaab with her father Lionel Romney.

How and why did you decide to write the book?
A lot of my reasons for writing the book are based on my strong feelings about the importance of history. The historical significance of my father’s story is that he witnessed the major event of the 20th century from a perspective rarely documented in history books.

For those of us in the African Diaspora (and Africa itself), so much of our history is irrecoverable, and so much has been lost because we’ve been excluded from history that has been written by others. This is partly because there is so much of our own history that has gone unwritten, and because we come from an oral tradition.

Another reason I wanted to write this book was because of the dearth of information about how Black people were affected by the Nazi era. I wanted to contribute to the history of World War II in general, and to the history of the Nazi era in particular. It can deepen our understanding of the war, and it can broaden interest in the Nazi era if the full array of its victims is known. The more complete our understanding of the history of World War II, the better we can strengthen the entire tapestry of history and understand one another in the present.

Although my father’s is only one story, I believe that it allows us to access an area of World War II history that has largely remained marginal, as it is practically absent from the literature. When I saw how my father had been (mis)represented in the literature, I decided that it was my responsibility to give him his rightful place in history. I also address this in my book: Without telling his story, amplifying his voice, and sharing his experience, he would remain at best a footnote, a trivial curiosity or a factoid. I wanted to elucidate my father’s story in order to complete and correct what has been written about him in other works which briefly mention him.

Philipsburg around the time of Lionel Romney’s birth.

What was the biggest challenge in writing the book?
By far the most difficult aspect of the process was putting my feelings into words. It was very difficult to express the shock, the fear, the sadness, the catharsis, and so many other feelings while journeying through my father’s experience and especially when visiting the concentration camp where he was interned.

What do you hope your book achieves?
I hope my book inspires others to carry out oral history projects with the elders in their families before it’s too late. I hope readers will think about why the past is always present. I hope readers will broaden their perspectives on World War II and the Nazi era. I hope that Caribbean people will see that St. Maarten and the Caribbean had a role in World War II through the lived experiences of some of our people. I hope my book will be an example of how and why we, as Afro-Caribbean people, must take the responsibility for our history. This means learning it and teaching it to youth and making sure that it is taught to future generations.

I find that the way individuals and communities perceive their history is the way they perceive themselves. Those with high self-esteem are also proud of their history. We must take proud ownership of our history without being ashamed of it. Instead of internalizing our oppression, and allowing it to negatively affect our collective and individual self-esteem, we should be proud of our survival, not ashamed of our oppression.

Is there a story in your family history that you would like to share? Let us know by writing in to info@lesfruitsdemer.com or The Daily Herald. We will also be sharing more of Mary Romney-Schaab’s interview next week. Mary’s book is for sale at Amazon.com.

Telling Lionel Romney’s Story

Mary L. Romney-Schaab is the author of An Afro-Caribbean in the Nazi Era: From Papiamentu to German. It is the true story of her father, Lionel Romney, of St. Martin, including his time imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. In an interview, she discussed her interest in history and the process of recording her father’s oral history. The following is an excerpt from her interview.

Author Mary Romney-Schaab.

What made you interested in recording your father’s history?
Since I was a child, I’ve known – emotionally, intuitively, or implicitly – the importance of history. But it was only as a mature adult that I began to think about the individual person’s relationship to, and role in, history. I think that what delivered me to that understanding was my visits to St. Martin with my father. During those visits, I was always fascinated by the reminiscences of my father and his contemporaries in the family and the community, such as Emilio Wilson. The memories they shared with each other about life in the first two or three decades of the 20th century in St. Martin were more entertaining than movies or TV!

So I began diving for books on the history of St. Martin to provide myself with some context, but came up practically empty. It was at that point that I realized that I’d been witnessing the history of St. Martin right there in the memories of the elderly – my father’s contemporaries.

As we began to lose people in my father’s generation, I realized the need to record their memories. That’s how I got the idea of doing oral histories with both of my parents. My original intention was access some personal history, family history, and St. Martin history.

The biggest challenge was getting my father to talk about his World War II experiences. After over 20 years of trying, I believed that he would probably not talk about it. He was in the typical silent period for people who have suffered from trauma. It’s actually a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder. He was suffering from that, although I didn’t realize it until years after he’d passed away.

Lionel Romney in the 1950s.

How did you realize you were researching such a unique story?
Perhaps the uniqueness of my father’s story first occurred to me because of my own deep shock at finding out that he’d been in a concentration camp. But beyond how I felt emotionally, I realized it was unique because it didn’t comply with anything I’d ever known or been taught about the Nazi era. Plus, in my first oral history interview with him, my father said that one of the reasons why he didn’t talk about it for so long was because he didn’t think anyone would believe him. He himself must have known how unusual his story was.

Did this process change your relationship with your father? In what way?
As a result of recording his oral history and writing the book, I understand him better now than I ever did before. The oral history interviews really allowed me to access the areas of his life that had previously been inaccessible to me. I knew they were there, but I couldn’t unearth them. So when he finally began to talk about them, it was like finding buried treasure. Through the oral history interviews, I was able to be closer to him in ways I never had before, because he was taking me on a journey through his memories.

Mary Romney-Schaab’s book, An Afro-Caribbean in the Nazi Era.

Do you have a family story you would like to research? Let us know by writing in to info@lesfruitsdemer.com or The Daily Herald. We will also be sharing more of Mary Romney-Schaab’s interview next week.

Heritage Bookshelf

There are all kinds of books about St. Martin. There are history books, tourist guides and glossy photo books. There are sociological studies, nature guides, and mystery novels set on the island.

In this great diversity of books, certain ones have more value as a record of local heritage and culture. In some ways, a slim shelf of these books could probably tell you more about local culture than the entire Internet. They tend to be books written by St. Martin authors, but they aren’t necessarily books written about local history or culture.

Just a few books from St. Martin’s heritage bookshelf.

Daniella Jeffry’s 1963: A Landmark Year in St. Martin is a book about history. It tells the story of an island transitioning from its Traditional Period (1848 to 1963) to the modern era of development and tourism. The book tells of airport and pier expansions, but spends as much time or more on the details of life as it was experienced by people. It is a book about a moment when lives were changing.

St. Martin Talk by Robert Romney is a reference book about local language. It begins with a dictionary of St. Martin terms and phrases. Each entry includes a sentence where the term is used in context. The book also includes a section of local proverbs with explanations. In detailing local language, he also captures and conveys a much broader sense of local culture.

Laurelle “Yaya” Richards was a folklorist and guardian of local culture. Her book, The Frock and Other Poems is a book of poetry, but it is also document of local tradition. The poems preserve the memory of salt picking, palm frond brooms and fishing in the pond. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but this short book contains a thousand snapshots of local life.

From Yvette’s Kitchen to Your Table by Yvette Hyman is a cookbook. It is full of recipes: ingredients, instructions and beautiful photos. They aren’t presented with cultural or historical commentary, but the book is still a cultural document. It is a guide to one of St. Martin’s greatest traditions. It reflects the history of French Quarter and the island.

Hurricane Protocol by Lasana Sekou is a book of poems about the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. It is not a historical work, but it may tell more about this time on the island than any history book ever could. It focuses on the wake of one event over the course of a few months, but also becomes a snapshot of culture more broadly. Though different in almost every way, Hurricane Protocol and Jeffry’s 1963 both dive deeply into culture by focusing on a narrow time period.

Local books are rich in cultural heritage, and you have a chance to dive into it right now at the 2020 St. Martin Book Fair, taking place online June 4-6. Get inspired to pick up a new book to read, or perhaps to put pen to paper and record some heritage yourself.

Hunting Hodge Heritage with Dale Hodge

Captain Thaddeus Hodge and his wife Josephine. (Photo courtesy of Joycelyn Curiel)

Dale Hodge first became interested in her family tree about 30 years ago. Some of her older family members had done research already and were sharing it with the younger generations. Since then, she’s spent over 20 years exploring her family history.

Over the years, she’s built a family tree that includes about 6,000 people. It is an incredible achievement that took a lot of hard work. St. Martin’s unique history means searching in five languages in a variety of databases in different countries. It includes names, dates, occupations, marriages, births, deaths, gravestone locations, photos, stories and more.

WWI exemption card for Thaddeus Hodge from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. (Courtesy of Dale Hodge)

When asked about challenges in building her family tree, Hodge said it was hard to find photos of people. Finding out occupations of ancestors was also hard. Sometimes, getting relatives to open up was hard, too: “Some of the older generations seem to have difficulty talking about difficult situations. It was a different culture and expectations were different back then. These stories are vital for filling in gaps in any large family tree. Over time more people see the historical value in honoring their great grandparents, but it takes time. And people will only open up if they know their info will be respected!”

One small branch of Hodge’s extensive family tree. (Courtesy of Dale Hodge)

For those getting started on their family tree, Hodge has some suggestions. First, know that government records like birth, marriage and death dates are public records and free to access. It is also important to verify your information: “don’t be lazy about research, type the full names.” And, although the data itself is public, family trees are personal and “each person has to choose to share their tree with you.” While Facebook isn’t a primary tool for developing a family tree, it “can be a good tool in contacting lost cousins.”

Over the years, her family tree work has rewarded Hodge with many great experiences. A few highlights she mentions are “Seeing the face of my great-great grandmother for the first time, being able to help lost cousins find family connections through our DNA matches, and having people contact me from all over the world— that just found out they were adopted—and helping them discover family members.”

Although some things were hard to learn, Hodge isn’t afraid of her family history. “Many people ask me if I am afraid of finding something in my past or my ancestors past. I think this is a huge mistake in how society sees the past. I want to know everything! Good, great, boring, stupid, sad, the horrors, as this is what made each of us. Hiding the past serves no one. And yes, not everyone has the maturity to deal with many of the findings. But hopefully in time, we all can learn from our past.”

In the meantime, Hodge has one bit of advice for all: “Stop throwing away old pictures! Give them to family members instead.”

Do you have a question about how to researchyour family tree? Let us know by writing to info@lesfruitsdemer.com or The Daily Herald.

Memory Lane Online

Even during a pandemic lockdown, there are places to go where people can go to share memories about St. Martin. It’s like being on a shady front porch or a cafe terrace with friends, looking at old photos and talking about days gone by. Of course, these places are online and instead of a few friends, there are thousands.

On St. Martin, the most popular spots for this kind of sharing are Facebook groups. They have become a unique medium for sharing heritage. It is easy to see elements of oral tradition, storytelling, scrapbooking and journaling. It has a lot in common with the ways St. Martiners have shared and saved their culture for generations.

Communities sharing heritage on social media are also different from what came before. They can be very large. Some have thousands of members, who make dozens of posts and hundreds of comments every day. Strangers can interact with each other, united in a common interest. The conversations are also recorded. Members can go back and view old posts and even add their own memories to past discussions.

Over time, these groups have created a new kind of heritage collection. The topics and views come from ordinary people. Anyone can share the memories that they find meaningful. In a twist on the old way of documenting culture, people often post materials from books or articles and give their thoughts and critiques. No one needs credentials to share their story. No one needs to be consulted by an “expert.”

These groups are an amazing place to connect, share and interact. They are also a tremendous resource for preserving heritage. They are a chance to transform and enrich history by including the stories of far more people. We are only beginning to explore their potential.

These are resources as valuable as any book or archive. It is worth considering how to protect and preserve them. Facebook doesn’t offer the ability to back up or export the contents of a group. Users can delete the posts they made, and all their material disappears if they delete their account. A world of history is a the mercy of the users, group managers and Facebook itself.

Facebook groups often have a member who can name any person, house or tree in a photo. (Barbara Cannegieter Postcard Collection)

Facebook’s group feature wasn’t created to build archives. It is wonderful to follow and contribute in real time, but groups aren’t easy to organize or search. This material deserves to be more accessible to the public, to students and teachers and to local scholars. It should be on an equal footing with more traditional research resources.

We will surely learn to harness the potential of this amazing tool. In the meantime, why not join in the fun? The group We Are St. Maarten/St. Martin is very active, and every day amazing old memories and photos are posted. Discussions are fascinating and touching.

Do you have a favorite Facebook group for sharing St. Martin memories? Let us know by writing to info@lesfruitsdemer.com or The Daily Herald.

History Hunters

There are history hunters on St. Martin. They are resourceful and dedicated. They’ve unlocked hidden facts and pieced them together. The webs they’ve woven connect much of the island.

Genealogy is the study of family lines, and these history hunters on St. Martin have been doing it. They have built family trees that connect them to their past. Some include a few dozen people, others contain thousands of family members stretching back centuries.

Anyone can become a history hunter. We all have ancestors. It is a way to connect with living family members, and also to explore more distant connections.

Marriage records are a key resource for building a family tree.

If you are starting your own family, the first information usually comes from your family members. Asking around, you may find that one of your relatives has already been working on a family tree. There are also Facebook groups for many St. Martin families. Members share details and help name people in old photographs.

On Facebook, family members work together to identify people and homes in old photos

There are a few online databases that contain quite a bit of information about St. Martiners. Geneanet has many records of births, marriages and deaths for both sides of the island. You can search for free and limit your results to Guadeloupe or Sint Maarten to focus on local records. WieWasWie is a similar website for searching Dutch records. It’s also free to search, and you can limit results to Netherlands Antilles to make it easier to find local records.

Basic government records for St. Martin, like births and marriages, are available. But some other valuable resources aren’t as easy to find here. Newspaper archives are a huge resource for family tree research. On St. Martin, archives of The Daily Herald are available going back to 2006. Most older newspaper archives are not online, and it’s unclear if they exist at all. An effort to locate and digitize newspaper archives would be a huge boon to history hunters.

If you are ready to become a history hunter, head to the Heritage Backup page on lesfruitsdemer.com for links to tools you can use.

Are you a history hunter who would like to connect with others on St. Martin? Do you have resources or a family tree online you would like to share? Let us know by writing to info@lesfruitsdemer.com or The Daily Herald.

Exploring Your Family Tree

Archival records from French Quarter, 1859.

Researching your family tree can be a very rewarding experience. Many of us want to learn more about where we came from and who our ancestors were. This project can also be a chance to connect with relatives and learn new stories.

Most people know their closest family members: parents, sisters and brothers, children. Most people can start to map out their family tree with the names and dates they already know. Even basic information like the date and location of births, marriages and deaths can start to give form to a family history.

Stretching back through time, grandparents, great aunts and uncles, and great grandparents can show the roots of your personal heritage. For St. Martiners, this might mean seeing connections between different families or roots on nearby islands.

It can be more challenging to develop a family tree that goes beyond the details you can get from family members. Most genealogy databases are light on information from the Caribbean, especially St. Martin. But there are some tools you can use.

FamilySearch.org is a free family tree research site. Although it doesn’t include records from St. Martin, it is possible to follow St. Martiners as they moved to other places. FamilySearch includes immigration data from the Dominican Republic. You can see dozens of St. Martiners moving there in the first half of the 20th century: Charles Blake Lake, Muriel Coralita Richardson, Edward Carty the list is long. Most were born between 1870 and 1925 and arrived in the Dominican Republic by the early 1950s.

There are also French colonial records available online at the national archives of the overseas territories. They include birth, death, marriage and other records from the 1770s until the beginning of the 20th century. They aren’t searchable by text, but you can view images of the records themselves.

An entry like the birth record of Anne Marie Hodge in 1859 contains quite a bit of information. She was born to Catherine Hodge, a 28 year-old clothing maker living at Union plantation. Her father was unknown, at least on the birth record. Later, a note was added to the page recording Anne Marie’s marriage to Jean Joseph Rohan when she was 21.

Anne Marie Hodge’s birth record from 1859.

From close family to the distant past, exploring family trees is a process of exploring personal heritage that connects each of us to a larger story. Yet that larger story is always grounded in the lives and loves of individuals. Connecting multiple family trees has the potential to reveal an even bigger picture and transform our knowledge about St. Martin history.

Have you researched your family tree? Would you be interested in sharing your family tree or helping others discover their past? Let us know by writing to info@lesfruitsdemer.com or The Daily Herald.

Heritage for a New Future

St. Martin’s heritage is priceless. It is an irreplaceable part of the human story. It should be preserved simply because it makes the world richer. It adds stories, language, art and culture to the grand tapestry of civilization.

But what is the practical value of St. Martin’s heritage in the modern age? How can it contribute to the future of life on the island? Is it even possible to predict during today’s uncertain times?

Boat building and racing traditions could be part of a heritage economy.

One area where heritage has clear value is in the tourism industry. Beautiful beaches and easy access by ship and plane turned St. Martin into a booming tourism destination in the 20th century. Tourism continued to grow during this century, but at great cost. The mass tourism of cruise ships and big resorts brings in less money, and profits fly off the island to international corporations. Meanwhile, natural beauty and the well-being of residents have suffered.

Whatever tourism looks like in the future, it will be different. For St. Martin, this could be the chance to pivot to more sustainable tourism. The island could use nature and heritage to develop an experience that is more unique and rooted in authentic island life. Jobs could depend on local knowledge and locally-owned companies could keep more of the profits on the island. From the Grand Canyon, to wine country to the pyramids, nature and culture are the foundations of tourism that are rooted in a place and its people.

Restoring heritage buildings with could be a fine career.

Investing in heritage could provide opportunities in other areas. Restoration of heritage buildings using traditional techniques is a great way to preserve heritage and provide careers. Farming traditions could contribute to local agriculture initiatives. Local arts and literature could become more economically valuable on an island that promoted them.

Heritage should also be a bigger part of education. Textbooks should be written about local heritage. St. Martin culture should become a required part of the curriculum. People should be paid to study heritage and teach it. Those people should be local people as much as possible. When imagining alternatives to a tourism economy, it is easy to overlook the advantages of a more local education system.

Surely there are many other ways to use heritage as one of the building blocks of a stronger, better St. Martin in the future. How can St. Martin’s past improve its future? Let us know by writing to info@lesfruitsdemer.com or The Daily Herald.

The History of Now

St. Martin’s history is unique. It is influenced by the island itself. The salt ponds attracted colonizers and the beaches attracted tourists. It is influenced by the climate. The lack of rain-catching mountains influenced agriculture and hurricanes have transformed the island. It is influenced by the politics and economics that split the island in two and controlled its fate from afar.

St. Martin culture comes from its people, and their interaction with that history. It pulls from deep roots in Africa that are still alive in kitchen gardens, folktales, music and more. St. Martin culture reflects the horrors of slavery and the fight for freedom. It retains the spirit of cooperation and self-sufficiency of the Traditional Period, the time between emancipation and the rise of tourism.

Rooftop COVID-19 garden beside Hurricane Irma repair scraps.

Today, we are in a unique and difficult moment. And it is a historic moment. The coronavirus pandemic is global, but on St. Martin, the experience is unique. Our pandemic is influenced by the island’s unique history and culture and this experience should be recorded.

At the island level, the current divide between the North and South is historic. The two sides have taken different approaches to slowing the pandemic. Some border crossings have been closed and the rest are tightly controlled. The frontier that is normally so easy to ignore is very real today.

St. Martiners are well-served by their experience living through disasters. They have survival skills. People know how to make meals from the foods they have. They have turned time at home into a chance to plant vegetables.

At the same time, this disaster is very different from a hurricane. Houses have water and current and stores have food. But the virus has forced people to stay apart instead of coming together to help each other. This crisis also exposes the huge gap between rich and poor on the island. A hurricane destroys houses both big and small. The reality of this confinement is totally different for those who have and those who do not.

The pandemic experience on St. Martin is also unique because it may mark the end of a historical era. After sixty years of a growing tourism economy, the future of the island is unclear. We don’t know how long this crisis will last or what tourism might look like after. Ten or twenty years from now, will we look back on the era of mass tourism the way we look back at the decades when sugar or cotton drove the economy?

This is a moment worth documenting, especially on St. Martin. It doesn’t have the visible destruction of a hurricane, so we must record our thoughts and feelings. It is the rare chance to describe a great change as it happens.

What is your experience during this crisis? How has it been influenced by your history, culture or family? How do you see St. Martin’s future? Let us know by writing to info@lesfruitsdemer.com or The Daily Herald.

Decoding the Past

Old shopping lists and bank statements are not usually considered fascinating reading. How many weeks of isolation would it take to make them interesting? If we’re lucky, we won’t ever find out. On the other hand, imagine being able to look at this year’s quarantine grocery orders in 2090. Think about how much will have changed and how odd some of them may seem.

Thanks to the preservation work of the late Pierre Beauperthuy, we can do almost the same thing right now. A ledger he preserved from the late 1940s and early 1950s is like a time capsule. It reveals everyday transactions from that time. Many things still seem quite ordinary. Paint, rope, nails and flour are bought. Other entries reveal how different St. Martin was a lifetime ago.

One of Dellie’s pages.

The ledger is nearly 500 pages thick and it begins with an index of names. Familiar family names appear in alphabetical order: Arnell, Barry, Bryan, Carty, David, Flanders, Fleming, Glasgow, Gumbs, Hyman, Illidge, Laurence, Maccow, Petit, Richardson, Vlaun, Wescott, York and many more. Each name is followed by a page number, where their account is recorded in the ledger.

There are plenty of simple transactions recorded. $6.60 for a sack of flour or 3 tins of “varnish for chair” at Fls 6.00. But sometimes more information is recorded. A purchase for 4 rolls of barbed wire and staples is followed by payments for “men cutting post” and “men running wire.”

The personal nature of relationships can also be seen. Pages may use the full name as a header, but the pages titled Arrindell Johanas are full of the nickname Dellie. “5 gallons paint for Dellie house” and payment for work done by “Dellie n other man.”

Other fascinating entries include livestock. One note reads “If the following mares served does not sell me the mule they will have to pay me $6 each.” It is followed by a list of ten owners who presumably had mares inseminated by a very valuable donkey.

The pricing of cattle is also quite interesting. In 1952, 28 cattle, weighting 6,404 kilos were sold for 24 carats of gold per kilogram of cow. In the ledger, the value was listed in “Dutch currency” instead of gold. It seems that the transaction was not a literal trade of gold for beef. Gold was just used to set the price.

Gold for beef.

These ledger entries are like a clouded view into the past. It is a St. Martin that most people today can’t really understand. But there are still some people living on St. Martin today who know exactly what was happening. They could decode the mysteries of this ledger and help the past come alive.

Do you want to help? You can take a look at the ledger, share what you know or ask an elder about certain entries. Find a link to the whole ledger by going to Les Fruits de Mer on Facebook or http://www.lesfruitsdemer.com/projects/heritage-backup/.

The Roots of the New Routine

The roots of local cuisine at Marigot market in 1982. (Photo by Hélène K. Sargeant)

Lockdown has changed the daily routine for people all over the world. For many, long days are spent at home. A daily trip to the bakery seems like a luxury from a long-lost past. Many are worried about the sustainability of modern life. It’s a valid concern. Modern life changed almost overnight.

We adapt. People are baking bread again, or learning to do it for the first time. Vegetable seeds and sprouting potatoes are being put into the soil instead of the trash. Traditional recipes are popular. They provide comfort and often only require pantry basics.

These new ways are often old ways. A hundred years ago, St. Martin was a remote place. Goods arrived after long trips by sea. People worked ground, raised animals and ate from their kitchen garden. Fresh produce was not coming in on planes from France and barges from Miami every day. The shopping list was flour, sugar and salt fish.

Purchases recorded in a ledger in 1953: flour, salt fish, corn meal, sugar, kerosene, a crate of potatoes and a box of prunes.

The St. Martin of a hundred years ago seemed impossible to imagine a month ago. Today, it is a little easier to contemplate. Everyone, from recent arrivals to members of old St. Martin families, is closer to the roots of St. Martin culture today.

Of course, the modern world has not disappeared completely. We might learn to cook a traditional dish by watching a live stream instead of side-by-side with a grandparent in the kitchen. People are asking for planting advice on the brand new Kitchen Garden Club Facebook group, which grew to over 250 members in just a few days.

As we learn, live and share in this new world, we have the perfect opportunity to document traditional knowledge and oral traditions. There is even a new urgency to do so. A month ago, documenting St. Martin heritage was largely a matter of preserving the past. Today it is a chance to relearn how to survive on this island.

Now that we are living and sharing these traditions, let us also preserve them. It is a way to honor those who lived on St. Martin during much harder times. We can’t let their legacy drift into oblivion in the endless scroll of the Facebook timeline.

Share your voice and your stories. We are building an archive where these stories can be saved and enjoyed for years to come. Send an email to info@lesfruitsdemer.com or record a voice message and send it to Les Fruits de Mer on Facebook. Get tools and learn more at: http://www.lesfruitsdemer.com/projects/heritage-backup/.

Pumpkin, sweet potato, corn, cassava and pigeon pea in a traditional garden in 2020.

Heritage Jollification

St. Martin has traditions that go back centuries. (Barbara Cannegieter Postcard Collection)

For thousands of years, history has been written by the few, for the few and about the few. St. Martin is a perfect example. During the colonial period, most records were written for and by the colonial powers that ruled the island. During the modern period, most published writing about the island and its people was done by academics from other places.

Thankfully, there are some exceptions. There are history books by the late Daniella Jeffry, a wealth of literature, poetry and nonfiction published locally by House of Nehesi Publishers and the early issues of Discover Magazine edited by Sir Roland Richardson. Books and articles by St. Martiners are surely the most important works about St. Martin. They are the work of talented authors and dedicated publishers. But this small group of people can’t record and publish hundreds of years of St. Martin’s undocumented history and culture.

On St. Martin, history and culture have been passed down through the spoken word. These oral traditions are every bit as important as any written history. But a written history can live on forever, especially if thousands of copies are printed. In the past, oral traditions were vulnerable.

What was the market like 30, 50 or 100 years ago? (Barbara Cannegieter Postcard Collection)

That doesn’t have to be the case today. Most people have a tool to record oral traditions right in our pocket: our phone. Just as importantly, we have the ability to share and preserve those recordings online. Today it is possible to build a lasting history of the people, by the people, for the people. And it we can do it in a way that embraces St. Martin’s oral tradition.

Right now, many of us have time to do this work. As we stay at home, we can tell the stories of our lives. We can reach out to our elders and preserve their experiences. It is a perfect time to connect with family and reflect on where we come from.

Preserving the stories of those who lived during St. Martin’s traditional period, before the rise of tourism, is the most urgent task. But everyone has stories worth saving. What was the island like during the huge changes of the 80s and 90s? What was it like to survive hurricanes Luis and Irma? What is your personal experience as a St. Martiner on a changing island? Or as an immigrant making a home here?

Even scenes from St. Martin’s modern era can seem distant today. (Barbara Cannegieter Postcard Collection)

Preserving heritage is important work, and it is time to come together to do it. It is time for a heritage jollification. Every voice matters. Every story matters. Start recording today and encourage your friends and family to do it, too.

The Les Fruits de Mer association is working to help people document their stories, and to create an archive where those stories can be saved. They hope to share many of these stories as well, but only when permission is given to do so. Get tools and learn more at: http://www.lesfruitsdemer.com/projects/heritage-backup/. Let’s make this the legacy of our time of confinement.


Looking for inspiration to get started recording your memories? Here are a few places to get inspired:

The St. Martin Image Collection features photos and postcards of St. Martin going back over 100 years. Find landscapes that inspire memories and much more.

The First National Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) Inventory of Sint Maarten is the first collection of much of the cultural heritage of the island, from foods and craftsmanship to arts and festivals.

This 1940s and 1950s Ledger contains the accounts of purchases by dozens of St. Martiners. Take a look to find family members and explore what they were buying 75 years ago.

Watch St. Martiners tell their own stories in oral history films recorded by Les Fruits de Mer.

Tools of the Trade

During this time of confinement, we have an opportunity to make history. In many cases, we are stuck at home with our personal heritage collection of photos, letters and other items. If not, we still have our memories. You also have the tools you need to turn those raw materials into a lasting part of history.

In last week’s column, we learned how to identify and catalog our personal heritage collection. This week we will learn to start documenting those materials using the tools we have at hand. If you want to review any previous steps in our Heritage Backup, you can find the articles and worksheets online here: http://www.lesfruitsdemer.com/projects/heritage-backup/.

The first thing you will need is a workspace. Pretty much any table and chair will do, but if you have the option, there are a few things to look for. Beware of hazards that could damage precious materials, like a gust of wind that could blow papers around or rain from a nearby window. You need light. The best is indirect sunlight without bright glare or harsh shadows, but any light will do.

Next, you will need tools to document the items and your own memories about them. A camera for documenting and a pad and pencil for recording memories will work. If you have a scanner and a computer, that’s great too.

If you don’t have those things, a regular smartphone can do all you need. You can use it as a camera, a notepad, and a voice or video recorder. You can even use it to share what you have documented.

Want to make St. Martin history? A phone is all you need.

Use the phone’s camera to take a photo of the item you are studying. For a printed photo, lay the photo flat on your table and use your phone to take a digital picture of it. Try to keep the phone steady: resting your elbows on the table can help. You can zoom in on your phone to make sure it came out well. If you are having trouble, try to find a location with more light. If there is information on the back of the photo, take a picture of that, too.

You can use your phone as a voice recorder to save your memories about your item. The iPhone comes with an app called Voice Memos, and Google makes a free program called Recorder for Android phones. Set the phone on your desk, start a new recording and record your memories about the item. It is a good idea to start with a description of the item so you can match your voice recording with the picture of the item. End the recording and start a new one for the next item.

To get started, find a couple items that have meaning to you and use the tools you have to save an image of the item and your memories about it. If you want to share your item and memories, find Les Fruits de Mer on Facebook and send us a message with the photo and your audio recording. If you’re having trouble with any of the steps, maybe someone in your home can help and you can work together.

Are you ready to change history? Send us your photos and stories! Get in touch by writing in to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Heritage Backup

On St. Martin, history and heritage have been lost over and over during disasters. Fires, floods and hurricanes have destroyed public archives, private collections and personal photo albums. It is normal for a crisis to happen quickly and perhaps to separate people from their homes. In the aftermath of a hurricane, preserving heritage is well down the list of urgent needs.

The current global coronavirus pandemic is a bit different. Most of us are at home. We may suddenly have more time than usual. Perhaps it is the perfect time to conduct an island-wide heritage backup.

The past is the past, and we can’t change it. But we can change history. History is a record of past events, and it is never complete. Every home on St. Martin holds a bit of the island’s history. That bit can either be saved and shared, or lost forever. The history of the island and its people will be determined by each person’s decision.

In your home, there may be a photo album. It may hold the best or only existing photo of a relative. It may hold photos of homes and or businesses that don’t exist anymore. It may hold images of landscapes that have been changed forever. It may hold moments in time like the finish of a race or a wedding.

Part of St. Martin’s history is sitting in your closet.

You may have journals or letters. You may have documents that trace your family tree. You may have film, video or tape recordings. All of these items should be treated as if they were unique and irreplaceable historical artifacts. Because they are.

Your history, and the history of your family and friends is important. It is valuable and it is something that should be passed on to future generations. Why not take the time we have now to start the process of recording, preserving and cataloging your part of the island’s history.

The first step is to see what you have. You may be at home with other members of your family who can help you identify these treasures. This can be a chance to discover your shared history together.

Items you have saved may be links to shared memories.

Make a list of your personal historical collection: photos, videos, letters, journals, newspaper clippings, event programs and documents. Find all these materials and make sure they are in a safe place. Write a description of each item. What is it? A photo album, or box of letters. Who did it come from? What years does it cover?

This inventory of your collection will help you in the coming weeks as you work to explore and preserve your history. You can do this project at home with whatever tools you have available: your phone, your computer, or just a pencil and a piece of paper.

Are you ready to change history? Do you have questions about how to get started? Get in touch by writing in to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.