The island of Statia is steeped in a rich history that few people are aware of. St Eustatius, as it is formally known, was once the richest trading post in the Caribbean. The island also played a pivotal role in helping the American colonies secure their independence. But islanders’ loyalty was not rewarded and Statia’s reversal of fortune is a classic ‘riches to rags’ story.
That is why the island is worth visiting today. Statia has been ‘off-the-radar’ for decades and the historic heart of colonial Oranjestad, locally described as ‘the smallest capital in the world’, has remained original and undeveloped. To reach this lesser known island in the chain once known as the Netherlands Antilles, I boarded a 20-seater Twin Otter aeroplane for the 20-minute flights from St Martin.
From the air, Statia’s brown cliffs rise from the sea to a plateau of scrub and green fields dotted with red roofed homes. The island rises to a high green volcanic mountain peak at one end. Most of the buildings are clustered between the airport strip and the coast in the capital. 4,000 people live on the island now. 250 years ago over five times as many people were crammed onto tiny rock.
It was the Dutch West India Company that put Statia on the map. It was a freeport, where countries that would not normally do business with each other could trade. Upwards of 3,000 ships anchored here annually in the late 18th century. The significant transatlantic trade in sugar, tobacco, cotton and slaves encouraged Dutch, English and Jewish merchants to settle.
But the island’s amassed wealth made it a target for pirates and forts were built to protect the rock from plunderers. Fort Oranje is the most impressive defence still standing. It’s set on a hilltop in the capital, overlooking the sea. Historian Walter Hellebrand told me that this fort is the best preserved on the island. You can hear our conversation if you listen to the radio report at the bottom of this page.
I walked through the fort’s tunnel-like gateway entrance into a walled, cobbled courtyard with a flagpole in the middle. The jail and gunpowder magazine lead off from this square. The fortress walls are on different levels and you can walk up and down the perimeter and take in the coastal views below. Cannons point down towards the harbour a few hundred feet below the fort’s three bastions.
Statia is really not commercially focussed and I was surprised that I could just wander around without paying an entrance fee. Tourism isn’t well-developed here. There are just sixty accommodation bed-spaces on the island.
On the south east side of the island, 4km from the capital, is Fort de Wind. When the road runs out you’ll see a simple clifftop battery on a headland, its two cannons overlooking the island of St Kitts in the distance.
Statia’s fortunes changed quickly. During the American War of Independence, the British were upset that the governor of this Dutch colony was allowing gunpowder, disguised as barrels of coffee and sugar, to be shipped to American independence fighters.
A visiting American vessel, Andrew Doria, which had come to pick up munitions for American revolutionaries, was given an official 11-gun salute when it arrived in Statia. The island had been the first place to acknowledge the States, which had rebelled against Britain. The government in London was furious so Admiral George Rodney sailed from the British base on St Lucia to seize Statia from the Dutch and snatch valuables and cash.
Savvy locals tried to hide away their wealth and the occupying Brits soon realised that there was an unusual spike in the number of funerals. Apparently suspicious looking coffins were opened at gunpoint.
Although the US had recognised Statia’s contribution to their founding, the island had been quickly dropped by the fledgling nation. Statia’s trade declined rapidly when the USA found its own trading routes. The island’s population went into rapid decline and that’s why there are so many abandoned buildings today, including many former places of worship, which are now in ruins. One site is the former synagogue, the second oldest in the New World.
The Dutch United Reform Church lost its roof in a storm back in 1796 and it was never restored.
Statia has more historic monuments per square mile than any other island in the Caribbean.
The lower town features a wharf and handful of Georgian warehouses.
The lower town is linked to the capital by a very steep, cobbled road, which zigzags up to the main fortress.
People don’t visit Statia for beaches, although there are three. The Caribbean-facing side of the island is calm and Oranje Beach offers a mix of beige or volcanic black sands. The Atlantic coast is much choppier.
Tyres prevent cars being driven onto the beach because vehicles would interfere with turtles.
Wherever you are in Statia, you’ll see the steep, green, conical peak that’s known as the Quill. It is popular for hiking and because the island has remained undeveloped it is also home to some special wildlife, including the rare and protected Lesser Antillean Iguana.
If you want to learn more about the island’s history, The Historical Museum, housed in an 18th-century building hosts an exhibition about the slave trade.
You can also get an insight into twentieth century life on Statia if you drive to Berkel’s Family Museum. 84-year-old Ishmael Berkel’s family once farmed this remote, former plantation land. He’s built an authentic reproduction of the shop that his father opened in the town in 1939.
You’ll find good food served in the informal settings of Statia’s cafes. There have been so many international influences in Statia that there’s not a distinctive island food, although the doughy and croissant-like ‘Johnnie cakes’ found widely in this part of the Caribbean are staples. Statians love swordfish and that is often on the menus at the island’s low-key bars and rum shacks.
Hear more about the history of the blue beads, which were connected to the slave trade, in the audio report at the bottom of this page.
The most stylish drinking and dining spot is the Old Gin House Hotel in Lower Town, a wine and cocktail bar. The dark wood floors and exposed old brick walls are authentic. It’s the sort of look that many trendy city clubs spend a fortune trying to recreate!
Statia is a great destination for active visitors who dive, snorkel or ramble, but I found the island’s historic centre its most fascinating feature. In a city, I would normally steer clear of areas of abandoned buildings because they’re often in unsavoury or ‘sketchy’ areas. Statia feels safe and there are few people around. There’s a sense that these colonial cottages and warehouses are slowly being reclaimed by nature. There’s a calming, peaceful quality to the capital. It’s a great place for curious minds who wish to explore an incredible history and culture.
You can find out more at the Statia Tourismwebsite. http://www.statia-tourism.com/.
It’ll take 14 hours to reach Statia from London, including stops and transfer time. But it’s easiest to fly from Amsterdam, taking the 9-hour flight bound for St Maarten and then connecting to the 20 minute flight to Statia.
You can listen to our radio report from Statia here.