A tiny island at the crossroads of the world

The island of St Eustatius as seen from the Brimstone Hill fort in St Kitts

Always looking for new sources of records for my husband’s ancestors from St Kitts, I recently found a treasure trove of old records digitized on the Family Search website, for a small island just off the coast of St Kitts.

St Eustatius (aka Statia) sits about 5 miles west of St Kitts. Only about 8 square miles in area, it has been governed almost exclusively by the Netherlands since the early 1600s. Even though the island was small, didn’t have a large natural harbor, and had little fresh water, it became a major sea port in the early colonial days of the 17th and 18th centuries. This was because of its free port status, which meant custom taxes weren’t collected from traders. It was also a place where business could still be conducted while nations and empires were at war throughout the centuries, as the Dutch were often neutral in conflicts between the English, French, and Spanish. Another factor that attracted world travelers was that the Netherlands was tolerant of different religions. A significant number of Jews who fled Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition years settled in Holland and its possessions in the West Indies.

The records of Statia reflect its place as a crossroads of the world. Many of the baptism, marriage, and death entries document that people from the surrounding West Indian islands passed through, or even settled there, from places like St Kitts, Curacao, St Martin, Antigua, Barbados, Bermuda, and Cuba. Some who appear in the records came from areas of the United States that participated in the Triangular Trade, like Connecticut, Long Island, and South Carolina. Others came from as far away as Holland, Ireland, England, Scotland, France, Germany, Russia, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Scandinavia.

The Family Search records include a separate collection of Jewish records from 1780 to 1817. Many of the surnames documented sound very Sephardic, such as Nunes, DeLeon, DaCosta, and Gomes.

Statia was a prosperous, important, and neutral trading center, and it played a large role in supporting the United States during the Revolutionary War. As part of the Triangular Trade, agricultural products, seafood, and lumber from America, sugar and molasses from the Caribbean, and enslaved labor from Africa had been passing through St Eustatius for decades. After the US War of Independence broke out in 1776, the British navy blocked ships from supplying the colonists with their war effort. The traders in Statia, including many Jewish merchants, defied the British for several years by selling arms and ammunition to the Americans (albeit at a good profit). The British governor of St Kitts complained that

“Supplies of all Sorts of Provisions and warlike Stores are almost daily & publickly furnished by the Inhabitants of St Eustatius to His Majesty‚Äôs said rebellious Subjects”.

By smuggling much-needed arms to the American colonies, St Eustatius became a major supplier and supporter of the revolutionary colonists, until the British invaded the island in 1781. Led by Sir George Brydges Rodney, a large fleet of warships and 3000 men landed on the island, with orders to crack down on the flow of goods to America. With his overwhelming force, Rodney seized all goods in the warehouses and on ships waiting in the harbor. He came down in a particularly cruel way on the Jews of the community, looting their homes and businesses, and exiling most of the Jewish men off the island. Later in that year, French forces allied with the Dutch were able to drive the British out. Many of the Jewish men were able to return to Statia to rebuild their lives and businesses.

Did the records of St Eustatius provide any information on my husband’s St Kitts family tree? Quite possibly, yes. I’ve been curious about the origins of his 3rd great grandmother, Louisa Maria Herman Pondt, who married John Thomas Allan Manchester in St Kitts in 1847. Pondt doesn’t seem to have been a common name at that time. The only other instance from the period that I’ve stumbled across was Charlotte Adelaide Pondt, who was married to a Kittitian planter named Frederick Edward Cardin. A possible clue to her background is a Dutch family name that appears on St Eustatius, Pandt. An anglicized version for Kittitian records could very well be Pondt. There was a Hendrik Pandt on St Eustacius who was a prominent merchant during the late 1700s, when Statia was heavily involved with trade with the American colonies. One of Hendrik’s grandsons carried the middle name of Herman, so it’s a fascinating research line, well worth following!

Sources

  1. Family Search Library, Netherlands Antilles (includes Sint Eustatius)
  2. Encyclopedia Brittanica, Sint Eustatius, 2020
  3. Dutch Atlantic Connections 1680-1800, Linking Empires, Bridging Borders, edited by Gert Oostindie and Jessica V. Roitman, 2014
  4. Africa and the Caribbean, Britain and Trade, The National Archives (UK)
  5. Family Search Library, Joodske Documenten, 1780-1817, 1948
  6. Journal of the American Revolution, Admiral Rodney ousts the Jews from St Eustatius by Louis Arthur Norton, 2017
  7. Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot, The Forgotten Jews of St Eustatius by Dana Cohen Sprott, 2016

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