CLOSE to St. Eustatius is the island of Saba, a place so curious that it must rank with the islands of romance and not with things of this world. It is small and round, has a diameter of two miles, and belongs to the Dutch. It is the pinnacle of a volcanic mountain of which only the peak and crater emerge from the sea. Possessing no beach, Saba is, in the words of the mariner, ” bold and steep-to ” all round. Its circuit indeed is that of the wall of some cyclopean fortress. As ” in general a heavy surf breaks all along the shore ” it is not a place to land at, landing being indeed “extremely difficult and often dangerous.”
Possessing no harbour nor anything approaching the same, Saba has yet a harbour master among its high officials. Possessing no springs, ” the inhabitants chiefly depend on rain water caught in tanks.”‘ There are no roads in Saba for it is ” a mass of rugged mountains, with deep and precipitous ravines, through and over which are only foot-paths from house to house.” Unlike any other West Indian island, the majority of the population are white, and ” not only white,” writes Ober, ” but Dutch, the good old-fashioned kind, with blue eyes, freckled, sandy complexion and flaxen hair.” The inhabitants being Dutch speak English as their native tongue. The only town in Saba is on the mountain top, and being so placed it is called Bottom. In this nomenclature the founders of the colony have evidently followed the weaver in ” A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” who, speaking of his vision, says ” it shall be called Bottom’s Dream because it hath no bottom.”
Now the city of Bottom can hardly be said, in the terms even of the speculative builder, to occupy an eligible site, for it is placed inside the crater. If the citizens wish to gaze upon the sea they must climb to the rim of the crater, as flies would crawl to the edge of a tea cup, and look over. They will see the ocean directly below them, at the foot of a precipice some 300 feet high. To go down to the sea it is necessary to take a path with a slope like the roof of a house, and then to descend the Ladder, an appalling stair on the side of the cliff marked at the steepest part by steps cut out of the face of the rock. There are many people who would die rather than face the Ladder. Some would probably die if they did face it, but then Saba does not lay itself out to attract visitors.
Mr. Ober has given an account of his arrival at Saba. He reached the island at night in a drogher. ” At last,” he writes, ” we got in near enough to launch a boat, into which I was tumbled, together with my belongings. Two stalwart black men pulled it within hail of the shore, and then, instead of landing, they split the darkness with shouts for help, yelling to some invisible person in the clouds to `Come down.’ The boat shot ahead with terrific speed straight for the rocks, and just as the shock of the impact with those rocks sent me tumbling head over heels, a strong arm seized me, yanked me out unceremoniously, and set me upright at the base of the cliff. So there I was, alone with several strange folk, number undetermined, until a lantern was lighted, when it was reduced from a multitude to two. They were black, both of them, and evidently friendly, for, after piling my luggage at the foot of the precipice, they took me by the arms and guided me to what they called the ` Ladder,’ which was a narrow trail up the side of the said precipice. It was fortunate for my shattered nerves that the darkness hid the dangers of that trail from sight, for when I afterwards saw it by daylight, no money would have tempted me to essay it.”
It is to be noted that provisions and goods destined for Bottom have to be brought up the Ladder, so that if one of the fair-haired maidens ordered a grand piano, it would be delivered to her by that particular route. Hill, in his work on Cuba and Puerto Rico, gives a photograph of the city of Bottom. It consists of a number of small and tidy houses dotted about among a perfect maze of stone walls. There are gardens around some of the dwellings, but the metropolis, regarded generally, has the reckless aspect to be expected of a town situated in a crater, and connected with the outer world by such an approach as the Ladder.
Living aloft in their volcano, in a summit city called Bottom, these simple Dutch people who speak English reach the extreme of the improbable in the nature of their staple industry. They do not make balloons nor kites. They are not astronomers, nor are they engaged in extracting nitrogen from the atmosphere. They are, of all things in the world, shipbuilders, and shipbuilders of such merit that their boats and small craft are famous all over the Windward Islands. Let it be noted that fishing smacks are not only built in a crater, but on an island which has neither beach, harbour, landing stage, nor safe anchoring ground, where no timber is produced, where no iron is to be found, and where cordage is not made. The island has indeed, except in the matter of size, no more facilities for the development of the ship-building trade than has a rock lighthouse. The production of ships from craters is hardly less wonderful than the gathering of grapes from thorns or figs from thistles.
When the Saba ship is finished it is lowered down the side of the cliff, and has then apparently to shift for itself. The women, no doubt, wave handkerchiefs from the rim of the crater as the craft takes the sea, while the boys are told not to play with stones lest they should fall upon their fathers’ heads. After all the excitement of the launch is over, one can imagine the master-builder climbing up the Ladder to his crater home, as full of pride as his shortness of breath will allow.