St. Eustatius History and Archaeology

 

 

 

 

 

 

For such a tiny Caribbean island, St. Eustatius has a rich and diverse history, which is represented in the archaeological record and in historical documents. There are two unique aspects to Statia's geography that had and continues to have a significant impact upon human habitation on the island. First, the island is very small (4 by 8 km) and the mountains that are the result of volcanic activity are not high enough to encourage sufficient cloud condensation to produce a great deal of rainfall, so there is no fresh groundwater. All fresh water comes from deep wells and is collected in cisterns. Second, Statia is located in the northern corner of the arc of the Lesser Antilles, and is surrounded by islands, these were owned by different European powers during the Colonial period. The distance between the islands is short, even in a small rowing boat or canoe.

What do we know about the Prehistoric period on Statia? Prehistoric groups migrated north from South America (around the Orinoco River basin in Venezuela), through the Antilles. There were three phases of prehistoric human settlement on Statia. The first group were part of the archaic culture and date to around 500BC. They lived in small settlements (about 10-15 people) on the Windward side of the island, near a place called Corre Corre Bay. This population subsisted on marine resources, fruit and seeds. The archaeological evidence of this period of inhabitation includes shell, flaked and ground stone tools and some undecorated ceramics. The second group, the Saladoid people inhabited Statia between 300-700AD. Their ceramics were incised and had crosshatched designs. In 1923 Josselin de Jong, from Leiden, discovered the Golden Rock Site, which dates to the 5th century AD. The archaeological remains at the Golden Rock Site (see Versteeg and Schinkel 1992), showed that their round houses were made of post-in-ground construction, with thatched roofs (see reconstruction left). This site would have been inhabited by about 25-40 people. This group also cultivated manioc. The last phase of prehistoric people on Statia date to 1000-1400AD. They developed red-on-white painted ceramics. Statia was deserted when Europeans visited the island in the early 17th century, the reasons for this are unknown but may have been related to an extended drought.

 

Wasn't Statia just like the other plantation islands during the Colonial period? No, Statia was a rich trade island with a thriving economy and a cosmopolitan population. From the moment St. Eustatius was finally settled by the Dutch in 1636 the trajectory it took through the Colonial period would be very different from surrounding islands. During the 17th century the French and English were colonising Caribbean islands to grow cotton, indigo and tobacco. From 1636-1700 Dutch merchants on Statia attempted to grow tobacco, however this turned out to be an unsuccessful enterprise. It was during this period that the Dutch realised the potential of establishing strategically placed ports inbetween islands owned by different colonial powers. Curacao, St. Eustatius and St. Maarten became neutral trading hubs for enslaved Africans, finished products from Europe and raw materials from the Americas. At the end of the 17th century the price of tobacco dropped, so the land on most Caribbean islands was converted to sugar production. In the mid-18th century St. Eustatius took over from Curacao as the main trading port for slaves. There are a number of reasons for Statia's success as a trade centre. To begin with, the Dutch established free trade in their overseas colonies, free from taxation and regulations (such as those enforced by the other Colonial powers). Statia was also often neutral territory for settlers of all countries and religions. Second, the location of Statia's port on the leeward side of the island meant that it was protected and large merchant vessels could anchor in the deep roadstead. In fact, as many as 200 vessels could lay anchor in Oranje Bay at one time. Also, the lack of rainfall prohibited a sucessful plantation economy, therefore the Dutch could focus all their attention on trade. Finally, Statia's location in relation to the surrounding islands and sea-lanes meant that it was ideally placed to trade with all Nations. The surrounding islands were dependant upon the 'mother country' for supplies, supplies often did not arrive, therefore Statia took a role of illegally supplying their needs.

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