The general consensus is that Sint Eustatius is boring, a remote corner, where no one needs to go. Without much expectation I set foot on land, but within a few days, I am completely under its spell.
Beside the runway grazes a cow. “Isn’t that dangerous?” I ask the pilot, as we walk together into the arrivals hall. He shrugs. The tone is set.
The short ride to Statia Lodge, my accommodation, is on a road filled with potholes. Goats jump out of the way, chickens squawk and flap, people walk in the middle of the road and only move aside if you honk your car horn. The island has one town, Oranjestad (“Orange City”), which is also the capital, of course. Music is omnipresent, boys and girls flirt in the shade. The relaxed atmosphere is contagious: I imagine this is how every Caribbean island must have been before the tourists arrived.
Is Statia boring? On the contrary, though I do feel that its enchantment is harder to define. The languor that prevails is attractive, sure. The feel of having discovered an authentic corner of the Caribbean is appealing. It is nice, but certainly not as picture perfect as Saba. The climb up the Quill, the huge crater that dominates the island, is spectacular. In the crater mouth I find giant trees as if I am in the Amazon. But half of the island is off limits because of a major oil storage terminal, which keeps the local economy running. Total paradise it is not.
One special feature of Sint Eustatius is the pivotal and exceptional role it has played in the history of the world and of the Netherlands. Out for my daily run, I become more aware of the activity of the 20,000 inhabitants who lived here centuries ago and traded with the rest of the world. The shimmering sails of the hundreds of ships that once anchored here on a daily basis are almost palpable. The island still seems to resonate from all that energy, as if the island has a collective consciousness that I slowly become part of.
When it was discovered by Columbus in 1493, Sint Eustatius, like many other islands at the time, was no more than a modest prize. During those first centuries, its ownership changed hands constantly, as if no one could be bothered to argue about it. It only became important after the Dutch West India Company built Fort Orange and a port. Its central location between South and North America and Europe, the sheltered harbor and the free trade spirit of 17th-century Dutch merchants made it one of the most important ports in the world.
One of the prize goods that lay in the warehouses here were the Dutch blue beads imported in vast quantities as ships’ ballast. Made cheaply, but assigned great value, the Dutch exchanged them with the indigenous peoples to buy their land for next to nothing. It is claimed locally that 30 blue beads from Statia were used to buy Manhattan from the Indians (see mini feature). You can still find these beads on the coast and, after each storm, the island population comb the beaches to see if any have washed up from the many offshore wrecks. Historic pottery found in Oranjestad shows the trading links the island enjoyed with the rest of the world. The Archaeological Museum of Oranjestad exhibits Arawak artefacts found on the island, while the Numismatic Museum has a fine collection of coins salvaged from local shipwrecks.
This tiny island played a crucial role in the establishment of the United States in the 18th century, supplying weapons and supplies to the rebellious Americans in their war of liberation against the British Empire. On November 16, 1776, it was the first country in the world to recognize the rebel United States when Dutch governor Johannes de Graaff authorized a return salute to the USS Andrew Doria, sailing under Captain Isaiah Robinson and flying the flag of 13 stripes. This particular event is still celebrated every year during Statia Day.