Has anyone ever heard of St. Eustatius, or Statia for short? It’s a small island, just five miles in length, between St. Kitts and Saba (another small island you probably haven’t heard of). To be honest, I had never heard of it before I started planning this trip. It’s slightly off the beaten path with few hotels, limited shopping, and without what most tourists would consider “beaches”.
But it’s probably one of the most interestingly beautiful and historically significant islands in the Caribbean.
Without it, the United States probably wouldn’t have had the same success in the American Revolution. Allow me to explain…
Back in the day when the French, Dutch, Spanish, and English were trying to gain a bigger presence in the West Indies, the Dutch took possession of a small island that Columbus named St. Anastasia. This was in 1636, after the French built a small fort but abandoned it.
Soon dozens of plantations would dot the landscape and a population of 20,000, mostly slaves, shared this 11-square-mile island. Between 1775 and 1800, this tiny island was the busiest port in the world and earned the nickname “The Golden Rock” for all of the commerce that was taking place here. The reason for all of the activity was that Statia was a free port, not charging any taxes on trade.
They were also a supplier of gunpowder and weapons to the British colonies in America.
In 1776, the USS Andrew Doria, one of the first naval vessels of the United States Navy, sailed into the port. They were flying the new flag of the Union, carried a copy of the Declaration of Independence, and fired a 13-gun salute. The governor of the island ordered an 11-gun salute in return, and this was the first time that the United States was officially recognized as a sovereign nation by a foreign power.
Through the next few years, they continued to supply the United States with gunpowder in barrels labeled as tea and spice. These acts would eventually lead the British to a war with Holland and a seizure of the island.
In fact, between the 17th century and 1816, the island would change hands 22 times. Eventually, the French and English imposed taxes on trade and fewer and fewer ships came through here for trade. The Dutch took possession again for the final time in 1816.
Today, remnants of the Golden Era can be seen all over the waterfront. Visiting yachts can pick up a mooring or anchor on the waterfront, just a few meters away from the stone ruins of the countless warehouses that lined the shore. Below, ancient cannons and anchors lie on the seabed, remnants from the ships that didn’t make it out of here. Fort Oranje has been recently restored and sits in “Upper Town”, looking over “Lower Town”, where new businesses mingle with the centuries-old ruins.
Next time I go back I’ll be spending more time underwater and seeing the rest of the island!
Gallery (click image to open in a new window)