Category: Heritage Backup

Stories Between the Pages

In a clothbound ledger of salt production accounting from Pierre Beauperthuy’s collection, there are hints of many stories about the salt business and life on St. Martin from 1935 to 1950. The stories are hidden in expenses and timesheets and sales of salt to different ships.

Royalty shares for salt production rights.

Tucked between the pages of this ledger a few scraps of paper have even more to tell us. A small rectangle of paper shows the “Royalty for Salt Ponds for year 1941.” It shows the royalty shares for investors, 1/8 to L.C. Fleming, 1/6 to D.C. v Romondt & Co, 1/3 to D. Beauperthuy and 3/8 to L.R. v Romondt’s sons. The total amount is 205.25 francs.

Payment receipt for the salt royalty fee.

Also tucked in to the ledger is an official form from Guadeloupe. It is a receipt for the payment of the 200 francs royalty fee for the right to produce salt on the salt pond in St. Martin. It doesn’t specify the pond, but perhaps it covers all the ponds on the French side, and the 205.25 francs collected from the various families was for paying this fee.

These papers help us see how salt production was managed collectively. They also show the relationships between the families with wealth at the time. Perhaps it tell us something about the unity on the island that these ponds were shared resources, managed cooperatively.

A tally of salt picking work.

Another sheet of paper shows personal relationships in a different way. It is a list of names, each one followed by a set of numbers added together. The page has no title, but it is almost certain that the people were salt pickers at the Orient Bay pond. The numbers were the barrels of salt picked per day. The names themselves certainly sound familiar: Alice Barry, Jane Hyman, Joseph Fleming, Susan Richardson, James Gumbs, Martha Brooks, Carmen Illidge and many more. They are people with family still living in French Quarter today.

In one way, this sheet of paper captures something almost timeless. The names have been St. Martin names for generations. The salt picking was done in a way that goes back hundreds of years. The ponds themselves and the spring sun that dries them out until the salt blows are far older still.

But this salt picking tally was actually written on the back of a notice sent by a trading company called Merritt and Critchley. Dated February 14, 1941, it announced that the company could no longer ship oils in metal containers, including kerosene and cooking oils. It had also finally got a license to sell rope again. These restrictions were put in place by the U.S. government as it began to control materials needed for the Allied war effort in WWII.

Trade restrictions due to WWII.

In 1941, local people picked salt in the traditional manner. In many ways they were distant from the outside world. But as a faraway war gathered steam, they would face hardships, being cut off from some of the goods they used in daily life.

If you want to take a closer look at these papers, visit and go to the Archives page to download them.

Stories Between the Lines

A salt production ledger.

A clothbound ledger from Pierre Beauperthuy’s collection has “Beauperthuy Heirs Salt Sales and Expenditures” written on the cover in faded ink. Inside there are tall columns of income and expenses. Though it doesn’t have the thrill of a great novel, perhaps there are some stories hidden between the lines.

The first section is a tally of purchases and salt sales. It starts in August, 1935. Some of the first items include a pair of oars that cost 78 francs, and another pair that cost 25. The first income noted was salt sold to the schooner Inèse on September 30th. These entries continue for fifteen dense pages, ending in April of 1950.

This ledger tells a lot about the economics of salt production. Royalties are paid for the salt ponds and profits are paid out to shareholders. Costs for purchases like paint, rope, hoe picks and even a journal are recorded.

Some typical entries.

The ledger also gives us a sense of the ebb and flow of work on the salt pond. Salt is sold to various boats throughout the year. For each ship there is the value of the salt and of “shipping expenses” which probably covered the labor of bagging the salt and loading it onto the ship.

Salt reaping is usually done during the spring dry season. In 1936, the costs of salt reaping are recorded in a series of entries from May 2nd to June 5th. In 1937, no reaping is recorded, and only four sales of salt are recorded from June to the end of the year. There are only three sales in all of 1938. The expense of salt reaping in 1938 is recorded in January 1939. It seems to be a somewhat unpredictable business.

The cost of salt reaping may show the difference from one harvest to the next. In 1939, 11,557 francs were paid for reaping. In 1940, it was only 4,484 and in 1941 it was only 2,373. A low yield can be picked more quickly and cheaply, but the workers earn less and there is less salt to sell.

A year of sales and expenses.

The names of the ships are recorded for each sale. Inèse I and Inèse II, Nina and Nina II, and Louisa B come to pick up salt many times over the years. Ships like Javeline and Restless only appear once in this ledger. Each ship leads to a unique story of maritime trade and the connections between islands.

A few entries in the ledger leave us with little mysteries. On September 30, 1936, there is a 25 franc expense for “Truck (salt shipping)” and a 60 franc expense for “Donkey.” Was this a moment when machines were taking over the work done by animals? On December 30th, 1937, 54 francs are spent on a trap door. Where was that, and is it still there?

If you want to take a closer look at this journal, visit and go to the Archives page to download it.

We Used to Eat Fresh Things

Delphine David shares some of her memories in 2018 at the White and Yellow Cross Care Foundation.

Many people who grew up on St. Martin before the tourism era remember hard times. The search for work abroad separated many families. At home, it often took hard work and resourcefulness to make ends meet. In an interview in 2018, Delphine David shared some of her memories:

My name is Delphine David, born the 11th of October, 1940 on St. Martin. My mother taught us to cook from young, and secondly, my father was in Aruba. So, my mother had to be the father and mother. So, when she go out to make a dollar, I had to stay home and mind the other brothers and sister. Many days I couldn’t go to school, ‘cause I had to stay home with them.

I used to make johnny cake, fry up johnny cake, with them, with the bush tea. My favorite thing was fish and dumpling. And fried chicken, I had to kill the chicken and then cook it. So, we used to eat fresh things in those days. It’s not like now, you go in the shop and buy a box of chicken. No, I had to go out there and catch a fowl, clean it, season it and cook it for them.

Chicken in its original packaging.

When I was growing up, things were so bad with my mother that she will buy a bag of flour, a big bag of flour. And where she throw the flour, I don’t know. But she used to take the bag, the flour bag, wash it good, put it in the sun, let the sun draw out the marks. She used to crochet, so she will take that bag, measure us, and crochet right around, fix our waist, tie our waist with a string, and that was our outfit.

At the tender age of fifteen years, I went on to Aruba. I lived there for sixteen years. Got married and I divorced. I came home with my two kids.

Sometimes we’d go on a beach, celebrate parties on the beach. The music box in the tree. And a barbecue grill, we was barbecuing chicken, spare ribs. And we had a coal pot cooking rice, rice and peas. We left home with everything raw and when we reach there, we cook it.

Living as a single mother alone with two kids, all I can remember is that I worked very hard. But after I raised my two kids, send them on to scholarship, they’re my happy life. Never had no one to worry about.

Local Climate

Sargassum on the beach is a local impact from a global problem.

There are huge challenges in this world. It is easy to get overwhelmed by them. St. Martin is a small place. We can make choices, but we can’t solve the big problems. St. Martin can’t stop the burning of the Amazon rainforest, lower global greenhouse gas emissions or create a vaccine for coronavirus. Some problems, like the great Pacific garbage patch or huge forest fires, are distant. Some are almost invisible, like the mass extinction of plants and animals.

Climate change is both a global problem and a local one on St. Martin. The islands of the Caribbean create less than 1% of greenhouse gas emissions. They can go green and lead by example, but they can’t change the world. St. Martin can’t fix global warming.

At the same time, the St. Martin is more impacted by climate change than most places. These changes are already happening and they are easy to notice. Models predict tropical storms will be more frequent and more severe. They also predict our area will become drier, and we have had unusually dry weather every year since 2014. We think climate change is one of the factors bringing huge amounts of sargassum algae to the Caribbean in the last decade.

Knowing how to farm well on St. Martin was important in the past. (Photo: Nationaal Archief)

Many things cascade from these big changes. Hurricanes threaten human life, tourism and nature. Droughts hurt farmers, livestock and wildlife. Sargassum is a nightmare for beach tourism. It can also hurt marine life and fishing.

St. Martin can’t stop climate change. But local action can change the future on the island. Building for stronger hurricanes can make people safer. Mangroves and coral reefs also protect people from storm surge. Diverse native forests can help wildlife survive droughts. These actions all benefit people, nature and the economy over the long term.

Learning from the past is a key part of local action. People on St. Martin learned how to build homes that could survive storms. Farmers timed their crops with the wet and dry seasons. People fished the ponds when the seas were too rough.

Local building wisdom is a survival skill.

In the past, people spend more time outside. They interacted with nature. They depended on their knowledge of the island. A hundred years ago, no one would have been surprised by rain in November or dry hills in April.

St. Martin can’t change the atmosphere, but it can change its own destiny. Learning from elders is a first step. They can help us see what has already changed. We can save their hard-earned wisdom before it disappears. They survived many similar challenges. What they learned can help us improve the future.

Do you have some wisdom to share? Write in to The Daily Herald or [email protected] and share it with us.

In Theory and in Life

During the 1980s and 1990s, a pair of professors from the United States wrote many articles about tourism, development and sustainability in the Caribbean. Klaus de Albuquerque taught sociology and anthropology. Jerome L. McElroy was an economics professor. Their work presented a view of the future that looks a lot like our present.

One of their breakthroughs was to look at Caribbean destinations through the lens of the product life cycle model. In this model, the life of a product is broken into the stages of introduction, growth, maturity and decline. For example, compact discs were new and the players were expensive in the early 1980s. They became more popular in the 1990s, but have declined in this century as other products replaced them.

For Caribbean islands, they described the first phase as “initial discovery.” More adventurous tourists looking for unspoiled nature or new experiences start to find an island. The tourism is small-scale, and local people start businesses to serve these tourists.

Local culture was important to St. Martin’s first tourists. (Photo by Boy Lawson)

The professors describe the growth phase as one of rapid change. Foreign money comes in, and an island becomes known internationally. Large hotels and cruise ship piers are built. Governments offer tax incentives to investors.

Mature destinations have an economy that depends on tourism, though growth is slowing. Man-made attractions, like casinos and shopping, replace natural attractions that may be degraded and overcrowded. Both nature and the local population can be stressed by the number of tourists.

When speaking to St. Martiners and long-time visitors, it is easy to see these phases in what people experienced. Development was not on the same timeline all over the island, but the 1950s to the 1970s was largely a period of early visitors enjoying local nature and culture.

Many locals remember a St. Martin full of local businesses that transformed in the 1980s. The development of Mullet Bay is often seen as a landmark in tourism and foreign development. Meanwhile, French tax incentives brought money from France. During this boom, businesses flourished, the population grew and the island changed. Local people took part in that growth to a degree, but the role of local culture and locally-owned business declined.

Locals like Jeanne Louise “Ma Chance” Duzant Chance were the pioneers of St. Martin’s food culture.

St. Martin’s tourist industry had hit maturity by the time Hurricane Luis hit in 1995, if not before. McElroy and de Albuquerque considered St. Martin the “most penetrated” destination in the Caribbean as far back as 1988. They based this on tourists and spending compared to the local population, and the density of hotel rooms. Disruptions like Luis may have made it harder to notice the slow down. But it is easy to see the environmental decline and overcrowding. Many businesses complain about the lower quality of tourists as the island struggles to recapture growth.

Often, outside analysis by academics is not very useful. In this case, the life cycle concept seems to offer a lot. The memories of local people can make it even more valuable. We can learn how local businesses helped build strong communities in the early phase of tourism. We can recapture some of the local culture that made the island so unique. Because the next phase is either a transformation, or a decline.

Twenty-nine Days

Thirty-five years ago the Reverend Marcel Eugene Hodge opened the Les Alizés guest house in Grand Case. This is the story of how he envisioned, built and opened the guest house, in his own words.

While I was working construction with Le Galion, chez Bernard—great man. He was so great. His money was not big in those days, but it was constant. He would never owe you one franc. So, I see he would come up on the job every day. Nine o’clock he come up. By eleven o’clock, he’s going back home because he got to go back to Marigot to be there to eat with his wife and children.

So, I said to the workers, “Look at this. This man only spends two hours up here. We are running the work. I’m doing the maintenance, we got other men there with us, the ladies are running it, this young man is the manager. Why can’t we get together and get a piece of land by the beach and make a small hotel?”

Pastor Hodge, the man who made Les Alizés.

Well, they thought it was the craziest thing. They say, “Man, Hodge, we know you’re intelligent, we know you’re smart, but this is the foolishest thing I hear you say. How you gonna do that?”

It keep dawning on me, yes it could be done. So, when I came to the idea, I started the guest house here in ’82, ’83. I started to build here. Money was so flourishing in my pocket that to build three rooms, it take me three years.

But by 1985, the 25th of October, we opened up with three rooms. Nobody in the village gave me credit for doing it. They said, “Why don’t you take that and just rent them out by the month?” You could get $25 for a room, you know, so it would have been a month, I probably have $75. But I said “No, this is a guest house.” And they laugh at me. Some feel sorry for me.

One of the big men in Grand Case I really looked up to as the lawyer, the advisor, was the late Mr. Emile Tackling. He was our all-in-all, the one we looked to advice, for instruction. He said, “Son, I know you’re ambitious, but don’t work with that. That gonna be too difficult for you. Leave that to the big boys that can handle that, like your boss Bernard. Just you rent them by the month.” And I said, “No, Mr. Tackling.” We used to call him Pops. “No, Pops. I want to do this guest house.”

When I opened it, one day, nobody come. Just got a sign by the road: Les Alizés guest house. Ten days, nobody come. Twenty days, nobody come. Twenty-five days, nobody come. And every afternoon friends would come up. Some would sympathize with me, some to laugh at me, “Hey preacher, what about the guest house, man? She full? She ain’t full yet?” I said, “No, not yet, they ain’t come yet.”

And when we get 29 days, a couple passed through here on a Volkswagen. They were overnighting in Philipsburg and they were going on a three-mast sailing boat somewhere in the Caribbean. They came because, they said, “This is a fishing town and we wanted to stay here for the night, and we saw the sign and we came.”

And they said, “How much a night?” And I said, “25 US dollars per night for the one room.” Don’t ask me how big I was. I felt so big, so important. After three years of building, now I’m getting my first $25.

After they left, we started to get one, two people come in. Sometimes all three rooms went, sometimes one, sometimes two. But, up to when Irma came three years ago, twelve months a year, we were never empty for six nights. The most we stayed without guests would be five nights. But the sixth night, for sure we got guests.

The French Years

In a small notebook from St. Martin, recipes for medicines and other valuable notes were stored. It has been protected and saved for about 200 years. Like many books of this kind, it was passed on from one person to another, perhaps from generation to generation in the same family.

After 27 pages written in English, there is a change in handwriting. An additional sixteen pages of remedies are written in a different style, primarily in French. This section begins with a remedy “Pour mal de gorge” or “for sore throat” and ends with a recipe for “Collyre” or “eye drops.” The eye drops seem to contain sulfur, which would burn the eyes. But they also included cocaine, so the patient wouldn’t feel the burning.

A switch to French.

The new handwriting is harder to read, and less consistent. The writing in this section may be from several people, as the ink, style and even language changes. A remedy “For putrid sore throat” appears after many pages in French and is followed by more French remedies. Pages are skipped, and in some cases remedies are included with no mention of what they are meant to treat.

The cures in this section seem to come from at least six doctors. It would be pretty surprising if there were six doctors practicing on St. Martin in the late 1800s. This was after the sugar industry had collapsed and most planters had left the island. It is possible that a number of doctors had visited the island over a period of years, and these remedies were collected that way. The changes between English and French might also reflect the language spoken by the doctor giving the cure.

Cocaine eye drops.

One remedy for flu is attributed to a doctor “à Paris.” This may mean that the the remedy came from a book by a Parisian doctor. Perhaps some of the other doctors in this section were not practicing on the island, but had published their remedies. If so, this may show a shift from learning cures directly from a doctor in the early 1800s to having access to printed materials at the end of the century.

Though more challenging to decipher, this section of the notebook surely offers more insights into life on the island and healthcare at the time. By comparing it to the earlier part of the book we may be able to learn more about how life was different between the end of the slavery era and the beginning of the traditional period. This tiny book, which has given us so many insights into history and culture, has more treasures to offer.

The Mysterious I.D. Gumbes

In a small notebook from St. Martin, recipes for medicines and other valuable notes were stored. Though many of the cures were surely useless, this small book was clearly valued. It has been protected and saved for perhaps 200 years.

A handwritten index on the book’s final page gives the user a quick guide to the contents. The letter F leads to three different cures for fever and one for flux. S is for swelling, P is for pills and poultice. B is for belly ache and W for worms.

Amidst the single letters is IDG for “I.D. Gumbes pills (receipt given by Dr. Allaway).” A review of page 12 reveals that these were pills “to act on the Liver.” Even in this unconventional index, it would make more sense to file them under L for liver.

An unconventional index.

Who was I.D. Gumbes? It is a good question. This person was probably wealthy. The other people named in this notebook were mostly land owners. The people who received most European medical care at that time were wealthy.

Like many with the name Gumbes or Gumbs, I.D. may have had a connection to Anguilla. But they surely lived on St. Martin for a while. They received a prescription from Dr. Allaway of St. Martin. The author of the notebook mentions a prescription “for my daughter Anna Gumbes.” I.D. may have been her parent.

The I.D. Gumbes map of the Great Salt Pond.

I.D. Gumbes also drew a detailed map of the Great Salt Pond and town of Philipsburg in 1847. Their name is in the bottom right corner of the map. The map is beautiful. It shows plans for a crescent-shaped dam in the pond to divert rainwater from the hills away from the salt pans. The writing on the map is a mixture of pencil and ink, printing and cursive. Could it be the cleanest and most careful handwriting by the same person who wrote the little notebook?

Oddly, there doesn’t seem to be any other information about I.D. Gumbes. There seems to be no record of them being born, getting married, or dying on the French side. Searchable Dutch records start later, probably after I.D. was dead. If their major life events happened elsewhere, records could exist. But it would be much harder to connect them to the person in the notebook.

Based on the map and the notebook, I.D. Gumbes was probably wealthy and educated, at the top level of local society. Yet, we have almost no information about this person. It is like looking at a person’s life through a keyhole.

If we know so little about I.D., what about the poor planters and fishermen? What of the enslaved people who were the majority of St. Martiners? As more documents are digitized and shared, we will surely learn more about life on St. Martin 200 years ago. But countless stories will never be told.

A Warm Bath

Jaundice is a yellowing of the skin and eyes. It is caused by a build up of a compound called bilirubin. It has a variety of possible causes. The liver normally breaks down bilirubin, so often jaundice is a sign of liver problems. Causes can include liver damage from alcohol abuse or viral hepatitis.

In the 19th century, doctors didn’t known the causes of jaundice. There was an epidemic of jaundice—probably hepatitis E—in Martinique in 1858. On St. Martin, people probably developed jaundice for a variety of reasons. Our 19th century notebook contains a treatment for it:

For Jaundice

Rhubarb 2 drams
Castile soap 1 dram
Oil of annis 12 drops rubbed together & made into 18 pills two taken night & morning & a warm bath every other night going to bed, it is necessary to take exercise.

Rhubarb, castile soap and anise seed oil are all common in prescriptions from European doctors at the time. Unlike some treatments, none of the ingredients are actual poisons. But the rest of the treatment is more interesting than the medicine.

Treatments for jaundice, liver problems and measles recovery.

Bathing became more common over the course of the 19th century, but for most people it was still rare. The resources required to take a warm bath would have been exceptional at the time on St. Martin. One would need a cistern with plenty of water, a tub, and people to draw and heat the water.

This is one of the clearest signs of status and wealth recorded in the notebook. The person receiving this treatment would have to be a wealthy planter, or family member. Depending on the time this was written, they were either a slaveholder or controlled a workforce of formerly enslaved people. They were part of a tiny group of people living in some comfort. The vast majority of the people on the island worked to provide that luxury, but lived in poverty.

No one cutting cane or picking salt would have needed a reminder that it is “necessary to take exercise.” Even less-wealthy white St. Martiners were doing plenty of hard physical labor at the time.

The very next treatment is for pills “to act on the Liver.” Perhaps they were for the same condition that caused the jaundice. The recipe for these pills also includes rhubarb and anise oil. But these pills also include mercury, which is highly toxic.

In 19th century St. Martin, wealth could buy many things. It could buy a warm bath every other night. It could buy a life free from manual labor. It could buy the advice of fellow plantation owner Dr. Allaway. But it couldn’t buy health.

Medical Discovery

In a small notebook from St. Martin, a medical discovery from the 1800s is recorded. The title of the entry is “A New Discovered Cure for Dysentery.” This remarkable cure is: “a tumbler of good white flour and water, as thick as cream, three or four times a day, or often as the patient may be thirsty, and perhaps there will be no occasion to use it the second day.”

It is a surprisingly simple cure. Seven pages earlier in the very same notebook, another cure for dysentery took up a page and a half. It required many ingredients prepared into powders and pills and given at intervals throughout the day and night.

The new cure was probably more effective. Dysentery is an intestinal infection that causes diarrhea. The new cure kept the patient hydrated while their body fought the infection. Starchy, low-fiber flour water could also help stop the diarrhea. By contrast, the old cure included ingredients that would make the patient vomit and have more diarrhea.

This flour water cure seems better than the many cures full of poisonous chemicals. It also seems a lot like drinking arrowroot pap, a thick, starchy drink made from arrowroot. Arrowroot was used as food and medicine by Amerindian people in prehistoric times. Drinking arrowroot pap for intestinal problems was already widespread long before this “new” recipe was written down.

This suggests the transfer of knowledge. On the same page, there is a “Tysan to break a fever.” The French word tisane means herbal tea, so it seems knowledge was shared between French and English speakers. More importantly, the tea included local herbs: “stinging weed roots” and “black dog roots.” Caribbean plant medicine came from African and Amerindian traditions. This notebook seems to show these traditions being absorbed by Europeans.

Were these “new” cures drawn from different traditions?

Many of the cures in this notebook are credited to someone. Often it is Dr. Allaway, who owned a plantation in Colombier. The dysentery cure and fever tea do not credit anyone. Perhaps this is because they were learned from an enslaved healer.

Though we won’t ever know the exact history of these cures, it is interesting to see the adoption of cures that may reflect non-European healing traditions. The mixing of cultures and traditions makes the Caribbean a rich and vibrant place. The colonial system was largely dismissive of the knowledge and heritage of the people it ruled, but in this case perhaps they were able to learn a few things.

The Flux

Historical documents are often formal papers written by officials and preserved by the state. Much of what we know about St. Martin’s history comes from records like these. Private documents, like letters and journals, are often lost over the generations. When they are available, they can open a whole new window into the past.

A small book from the 1800s preserved by Pierre Beauperthuy is one of these treasures. It contains many recipes for medicinal cures, and other knowledge that the author found important. It told us not only how illnesses were treated, but also the materials and techniques available.

Pages from a notebook detailing a treatment for the flux.

The flux was a term for dysentery commonly used in the 1800s. The disease itself is an intestinal infection, often caused by Shigella bacteria. People were usually infected by drinking contaminated water or unrefrigerated milk. The disease usually causes severe diarrhea.

The treatment for flux is one of the most complex treatments recorded in the book. It starts by giving the patient “Emetic of Ipacacuana” which is essentially syrup of ipecac. This would induce vomiting, presumably to get the sickness out of the body. This was a common step in treating any disease of the digestive system.

Starting the next day, the patient would receive two medicines. During the daytime, they were given a powder three times a day. This powder was made from cream of tartar, rhubarb and ipecacuana. At night, the patient was to receive a pill made from opium and ipecacuana. Tartar and rhubarb were typically used as laxatives, and opium is a pain reliever.

An illustration of intestines with dysentery. (C. Batelli, 1843)

Could such a cure be beneficial? Probably not. Since dysentery is an infection of the intestines, particularly the colon, vomiting probably only increased the level of dehydration. The instructions even include a special note to avoid giving the patient the powder right after eating, “as they may sicken, which is not the intention.”

Laxatives are a strange choice to treat a patient that already has diarrhea. They could make dehydration even worse Opium would help for pain, but also slows down the digestive system, which is not recommended.

Though the medicines might not be great, but there were other instructions: “the patient should avoid eating any vegetable whatever, their diet should be dry and nutritive, the waters previously boiled and cooled.” Boiling water would make it safe to drink, and avoid reinfecting the patient. Rice or barley water were also recommended, which also seems helpful. It also warns “the use of milk to be avoided” and “the patient kept from damp or cold.”

The flux was common at the time, so it makes sense to find a detailed treatment in this book. Patients that stayed hydrated and didn’t get reinfected also had a good chance at recovery. This may be another reason why the treatment is so detailed. Perhaps it reflects a process of trial and error in developing and refining this method. By comparing this treatment to others from the same era, it might be possible to find out which parts were from medical training and which were developed on St. Martin.

Island Youth

Three boys enjoy their youth as the tourism industry rises up behind them. (Photo by Herbert Miller)

One of the most evocative images of St. Martin from the early tourism era is a photo of Great Bay by Herbert Miller that was published as a postcard. Unlike most postcards, the composition is vertical. Nearly half the photo is just cloudless blue sky. In the distance, a cruise ship is headed towards the pier. On the beach, a trio of tiny sailboats have their colorful sails up, ready to rent.

Further inland, in the foreground of the photo, the beach slopes down towards another water line. Perhaps this is the outflow from Fresh Pond, not quite reaching the sea at this moment. Three boys are standing at the water’s edge. One dips a stick or net into it. Their backs are to the sea, the cruise ship and rental boats. Behind them, the tourism industry is rising up to take over the island, but for the moment they are in their own world.

Of all the published photos of St. Martin’s past, not many feature kids. Of these, some are carefully posed school photos. Others are images of big events where kids happened to be present. Very few show the life of kids outside the bounds of school, church and family.

Kids in a boat. (Photo from the Tropenmuseum)

We do know some things about the life of kids in the past. Some of the popular songs and games have been added to the Intangible Cultural Heritage Inventory of Sint Maarten. Often these games and songs have small differences from island to island. This gives us hints about the movement of people and culture through the region.

Schoolchildren on the pier. (Photo by Boy Lawson)

Elders are still a great source of knowledge about life as a kid on St. Martin. They often have detailed memories about his time in their life. It is important to document because the island has changed so much. The experience of growing up has also changed all over the world. Technology, fears about safety and changes in parenting styles have transformed childhood.

Many kids had a lot of freedom in the past. They traveled all over the island on foot or by donkey. They also spent a lot of time in nature, catching lizards with nooses made from grass. It could also be a lot of work, helping out around the home or even working in the salt pond. We will never go back to those days, but it would be a great loss if our memory of them disappears.

What were some of your favorite childhood memories? Share it by sending it to [email protected] or to The Daily Herald.

School Pictures

The year 2020 has been a difficult time for students and schools on St. Martin. Schools were quickly closed for safety. Classes moved online when students, teachers and parents were not prepared for it. There was confrontation when police were sent to shut down a private school that reopened in the fall. The border closure has prevented students and teachers from crossing the border from their home to their school.

Though this is an exceptional year, many of these educational anomalies are not entirely new to St. Martin. Back in the day, many students would walk to the most accessible school, regardless of the border. Students in French Quarter headed south to Philipsburg rather than circle the northern part of the island to get to Marigot.

Correspondence courses were the virtual learning of the analog era. On St. Martin, both youth and adults took classes by mail to learn subjects or trades that weren’t taught on island. This remote learning often empowered local people who didn’t have the resources to study abroad.

This year, many students will miss out on some or all of their education. There are students without devices, without internet connections and without a quiet place to study. This also echoes the past. During much of the last century, St. Martiners went abroad to find work. This often put stress on families, prompting older children to leave school to take care of their younger brothers and sisters.

Looking back at some of the photographs of school life on St. Martin, we can get a feel for the changes in education. Zooming in on an image of a one room school in the early 1940s, we see students lined up in front with a range of emotions on their faces. The teacher is mostly hidden in the doorway.

Students at a one room school in the 1940s.

A particularly cinematic photo from around 1950 shows a teacher leaning over to help a young student. Behind them, a shingle roof and palm tree are framed by an arched window. In the foreground, a student lies face down on a chair. The walls of the room are bare.

Classroom circa 1950. (Photo by Hugo Wilmar)

A classroom photo from around 1990 is suddenly much closer to what one might see today, if school was in session. There are fluorescent lights and posters on the walls. There are desks in rows instead of shared benches. The blackboard is perhaps the biggest giveaway. Today it is likely replaced by a whiteboard, digital whiteboard or projector screen.

Classroom circa 1990.

There are relatively few images of school life on St. Martin over the years, but the ones that we have can bring back memories. Recording memories of school can help preserve this important part of life on the island.

What are your memories of school in St. Martin? Share it by sending it to [email protected] or to The Daily Herald.

Working Life

People bag salt at the Great Salt Pond. (Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen)

Work is a big part of life for almost everyone. On St. Martin, working life has changed dramatically over the last century. Official records report the rise and fall of industries over the years. Photos and stories can tell us more about what working life was really like.

Until recently, much of the economy depended on natural resources. Fish and lobster were harvested from the sea, cattle were raised, salt was harvested and a variety of crops were grown. Today, few people make their living this way on St. Martin.

Tourism also brought a huge change in the amount of work available on the island. Before the 1960s, many people left the island to work in the oil industry in Aruba or farms in the Dominican Republic. Over the last 50 years, the reverse has happened. People from all over the Caribbean and the world have come to St. Martin to find jobs.

What did these bigger trends mean for the average person? In an image of salt production from about 100 years ago, we see men, women and children at work. A breaker, high on the mound of salt, wields a pickaxe to break up the crystal crust. The salt slides down to the foot of the mound, where others shovel it into bags. All the workers are Black. In the photo, their faces, hands and feet are silhouetted against the white of the salt.

Men bale hay. (Nationaal Archief)

One thing most jobs had in common was the heat. In a photo from the early 1940s, several men are using a machine to bale hay. There isn’t a single leaf on the bare branches of the tree above them. Though the photo is in black and white, the hills look parched in the background.

By contrast, the job of setting lobster traps in the Simpson Bay Lagoon looks much more enjoyable. In a photo from the late 1940s, two men are surrounded by mangroves. One is rowing a small boat, the other wading out with it, one hand on the lobster pot to make sure it is well balanced.

Setting lobster traps. (Nationaal Archief)

These images start to give us a feeling for the working life in St. Martin’s past. But they don’t tell the whole story. In each case, these photos were probably taken to document one of the island’s major industries. Many other kinds of work, including building, farming, cooking and child care are very poorly documented. This is a space where personal photos and stories about life can fill in important gaps, if we can save them in time.

Do you have a story about work in St. Martin? Share it by sending it to [email protected] or to The Daily Herald.

Archives Alive

Youth watch a film on the beach in 1947. (Photo by Willem van de Poll, Nationaal Archief)

When we think of archives, we might imagine a cold and sterile room. Harsh lights shine down on row after row of shelves, each stacked high with boxes and binders. Inside, there is page after page of the most boring documents possible, legal and administrative paperwork. It is dry and lifeless to the last word.

This image of an archive isn’t necessarily wrong. Many documents are boring, but still need to be saved. Storage space for these millions of documents won’t be designed as a fun space to hang out. Most of us probably won’t visit an archive anyway. More of the world’s archives are becoming accessible online every day.

Donkey riding in 1964. (Photo by Boy Lawson, Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen)

When archives are online, we don’t have to think about the vast rows of shelves, or even the hum of the data center where the online archive is hosted. We access the archive via a web page, and search or browse to find what we want. As archives have gone online, they have also started with materials that people are likely to be interested in.

The National Archives of the Netherlands and the National Museum of World Cultures both have small, but wonderful collections of photos from St. Martin that you can view online. There are some familiar photos that have appeared in books and on postcards. They capture familiar views and buildings like the courthouse.

Look closely, and you can also find some vibrant slices of life from days past. You can see youth entranced while watching a movie on the beach. Kids ride donkeys in the midday sun. Vegetables are on sale in the street in Marigot. A woman prepares lobsters at an outdoor table.

Preparing lobsters in Simpson Bay, 1947. (Photo by Willem van de Poll, Nationaal Archief)

These photos capture everyday life and human emotion. They bring us closer to feeling what life was like back then. Most of the photos were taken by outsiders. They were consciously documenting life on the island, so we are experiencing the island through a kind of filter. But some of the images are still very much alive.

There is a missing piece that we can still provide. Stories from elders and memories passed down through families can help give meaning and context to these images. While these elders are still here with us, we should take the time to listen to their part of the story.

Marigot market in 1964. (Photo by Boy Lawson, Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen)

Do you have a memory about one of the images in these online archives? Share it by sending it to [email protected] or to The Daily Herald.

Invisible Moments

Playing dominos. Photo by Francisco Hidalgo.

A key part of St. Martin culture is hidden. Every description of the island begins by saying the island is half French and half Dutch. What this really means is almost never explained. A quick look at the tourist centers of the island reveals strong American influences. A population doubled over and over in the last fifty years is full of people from all over the Caribbean and beyond.

All of this is today’s St. Martin culture. The mix of people and traditions defines life on the island. It is a welcoming culture, The Friendly Island. It is a fast-moving culture that grew a quiet island into a tourist hub in a few decades. It keeps the island fun, fresh and exciting.

There is also a deeper, older culture. It doesn’t have much to do with the stories used to tell tourists what they should think about St. Martin. It is a Caribbean culture. It is a culture of people who worked together to survive when it wasn’t that easy. It is a culture connected to the land and the sea. It is a culture of making, building and growing.

Builders working in a churchyard. Photo by Gordon James.

Much of this culture is invisible. We see images of the bustling market, but rarely the fisherman at sea or the farmer in the field. We see images of churches and homes, but rarely the people building them. We see meals at fancy restaurants, but not home cooks at work. We may see weddings and big events, but rarely the quieter pastimes that people enjoyed.

Cleaning fish in Grand Case. Pierre Beauperthuy Collection.

Important work has been done to document this culture. The National Intangible Cultural Heritage Inventory for Sint Maarten includes many traditions common throughout the island. It is a key step in preserving cultural memory. Images, interviews, videos and stories can help bring the list to life.

Building kites. Pierre Beauperthuy Collection.

When we see photos of everyday life in the past, there is an instant fascination. Instead of seeing what the island is supposed to be, we see what it really was. Being able to connect with past keeps it from fading away entirely. It also helps us understand what St. Martin is today.

Do you have a photo of one of St. Martin’s invisible moments? Share it by sending it to [email protected] or to The Daily Herald.

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 [email protected] 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 [email protected] 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 [email protected] 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 [email protected] 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 [email protected] 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 [email protected] 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 [email protected] or to The Daily Herald. Find Mary Romney-Schaab’s book about her father’s life at

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 [email protected] 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

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 [email protected] 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 [email protected] 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 [email protected] 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 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 [email protected] 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. 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 [email protected] 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 [email protected] 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 [email protected] 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

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 [email protected] or record a voice message and send it to Les Fruits de Mer on Facebook. Get tools and learn more at:

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: 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:

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 [email protected].

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 [email protected].