Cultural heritage on Saba
Not only unspoiled nature, richer and with more variation than on any other Dutch Caribbean island, and a wonderful climate are important elements of the charm of Saba, a small island of only 13km2 but in practice much larger by all steep slopes. Cultural heritage is what makes landscape and village views so lovely. This is mainly thanks to the traditional wooden cottages of which the exterior walls are often covered with white painted wood “shingles” and the roofs often too, but then in red. The shutters are all according to ” a local regulation ” painted in white and green. The eaves and porches are decorated with so called gingerbread-trims. A fairy tale. The street patterns are also basically untouched.
Unique – but for some perhaps less attractive – are the small burial grounds in the private gardens of the traditional cottages: sometimes with only one or two, sometimes as many as ten gravestones.
The island is called “The Unspoiled Queen” by the local government, which stands also on a welcome monument at the small airport.
Born Sabans, for a small part of Zeeland descent and in majority of Irish, Scottish and English, and partly of African descent, often state that they are proud of their culture and history that began in 1640.
Unfortunately, however, in practice there is little notable of it when it comes to the protection of cultural heritage. Neither existing buildings nor scenery or historical village views are protected in any way. The only prescription in an old building regulation – and then only as a recommendation – is that walls, roofs and shutters and must be respectively white red and green. And those colours are actually even historically only partially correct. And a building may in principle be no higher than two stories. It is thanks to this provision, that for the casual observer the island still looks lovely and unspoiled, but with a closer look at the cultural-historical perspective this is different. But still, the island can be “saved”.
Around 1990 there were two major initiatives. With regard to archaeology, Prof. Dr. Corinne Hofman and Dr. Menno Hoogland from university Leiden started the study in 1987 into the pre-Columbian history, where excavations were uncovering many traces of Amerindians from the period before 1600. As many as four pallets of material were taken to Leiden for further research and in the year 2013 there are display cases placed on Saba with artefacts and other traces of Arawak speaking tribes and of Caribs.
No research but also attractive for awareness of their own values on Saba was the publication of a book of romantic watercolours of cottages made by Heleen Cornet in 1990.
There is a very extensive doctoral research done by Dr. Ir. Frans H. Brugman especially about those typical Saban cottages. Also in the early 90s it was published under the title “THE MONUMENTS OF SABA ” published by Walburg Institute in 1994. Even already then was called for measures to be taken to protect with the message that this was urgent. Unfortunately, hardly anything happened. The so-called Monumentenverordening from August 27, 2010, which was promoted by the Dutch government, is only a vague framework and nothing has been done with it. (Annex 1)
National Restoration Fund
Contacts with various stakeholders led to a request to Stadsherstel Amsterdam for carrying out a small project in late 2010 on Saba and Statia (St. Eustatius). This was on instigation by the Cultural Department of the Ministry of Education Culture and Science (OCW), which had earmarked funds for monument restoration in the Netherlands Antilles that were made available by former Minister Plasterk. Initially Bonaire was also on the route, but the island fell off because of political turmoil. Jan de Jong from OCW had charged Stadsherstel Amsterdam NV as restoration organisation with some experience in the field of tropical heritage. Besides Onno Meerstadt (director Stadsherstel ) also Pieter Siebinga ( Director National Restoration Fund) was involved in the project. The NRF funded restoration plans with the money of Plasterk. Stadsherstel asked Rob Boot to make a start with this. In fact, an impossible task, because it was not realistic to expect that after a visit of only 2x two weeks on each island three viable restoration projects would be launched. Michel Bakker and Olga van der Klooster have made propositions for ten monument objects for a value description on Statia and on Saba. These are offered to the Lt. Governors there. Olga van der Klooster, Michel Bakker and Rob Boot started in late 2010 in order to give a boost to the monument care on the BES islands Saba and St. Eustatius.
Meanwhile, the value propositions for the agreed number of objects were completed. These are presented to the Lt. Governor. So for that reason designation decisions could be sent. The islands would then have a first official monuments register. Michel Bakker and Olga van der Klooster have also taken care of writing an instruction paper for the descriptions of value propositions and a Restoration Pointer with sensible advice to private initiators. The task was to distil out of those ten, the three most promising restoration initiatives. Thanks to the value propositions registration into monuments, a registry was possible after completion of the notification procedure owner. Then the respective owners would be enabled to get a convenient restoration loan from the NRF. It surprised people a bit and additionally there was a lack of a local public desk to deal with this. There were no official administration documents adapted to the local (fiscal) situation that had changed. There was even no local funds manager, who could manage the funds on behalf of the NRF that had been made available by Minister Plasterk. Six concrete restoration projects, that is where their report was about. The title “Start Notes” indicated that with the monuments now as starting material it was achieved to describe several promising restoration opportunities. The choice was related to conditions such as ownership, the chance of funding from the revolving fund, possible exploitation of the object and ambitions of the owner. But whether a restoration plan will actually succeed, depends on the cooperation of various parties. Which unforeseen circumstances could occur? Sint Eustatius and Saba are very far away, while there exists an even greater need for advice and guidance for questions about legal, technical and financial aspects than in the Netherlands. For preservation you need somewhere to address to.
Nevertheless, there were some promising initiatives. By mail contacts with Saba was tried to keep the matter on track after completion of the investigation and report by Amsterdam. In Amsterdam, one got the impression that the Saban owners who wanted something, got no support from the side of the government. The American owner (Rickey Laurence) of the Leo House Chance dropped out because he did not get clarity on fiscal consequences of his plans. The letters sent by Stadsherstel Amsterdam remained unanswered. The NRF later developed still an English-language information brochure, but also that yielded no results .
In a internal consultation at the NRF it has been proposed to get things working again by means of a small follow-up project. But Jan de Jong (OCW) was of opinion that “we had stuck our necks enough.” He did not take up the offer of Stadsherstel Amsterdam. How do things stand now on Saba can be read in the RCE report by Dré van Marrewijk of May 2013. ( Saba, on its way to World Heritage / “Saba, op weg naar Werelderfgoed”). There is still a long way to go and it is likely that still some “Dutch approach” is needed.
Saba asked in 2011 to come on the UNESCO World Heritage List, on the basis of its special nature and also on the basis of the cultural heritage values. (see Annex 2) However, that application was so incomplete, that it was in April 2013 that it was requested by the RCE to support as much as possible to René Caderius van Veen, who has lived for some years on Saba, and complete the utterly incomplete request documentation of Saba Island Secretary. In 2011 Caderius had in fact already made an inventory of all small private burial places (www.sabaweb.nl/graveyards), followed by a survey in 2013 of former (and sometimes still used) plantations and potential monument buildings. Before moving to Saba , he had been active in the field of protection of cultural heritage for 30 years first in the Provincial Cultural Council and as co-founder of what is now the museum consultants agency in Groningen, in a now defunct Foundation Seigniorage Westerwolde, in the Provincial Commission Heemschut Groningen in the Residence Monuments Foundation, and he had promised Heemschut to continue the work of Heemschut on the islands of Bonaire, St Eustatius and Saba at his departure from the Netherlands to Saba.
Based on research by Professor Corinne Hofman and Dr. Menno Hoogland of Leiden University, on the basis of the material submitted by Caderius René van Veen and other sources a report has been published by the RCE regarding the application of Saba for the World Heritage List .
Also based on the findings regarding lack of protective measures, the lack of progress with the preparation of an (even provisional) list of monuments, the lack of a protective plan based on the Spatial Planning Act, the fact that Saba did not establish an independent and expert monument committee, the fact that Saba did not elaborate and implement the monument ordinance of 2010, the budget of 1.25 million for Saba partially vaporized by partial transfer of those funds to Bonaire for half a million, and the Saban government was informed that the application for the UNESCO World Heritage List will not be handled before 2040.
The latter sounds very negative, but on the other hand, it still offers ample opportunity to make the extremely slow-acting local government meet the requirements as yet. But in the years 2011 and later several experts had the impression that the Saban government does not see the protection of cultural heritage as a priority. Mr. Chris Johnson, Commissioner, wrote to Caderius van Veen in 2013 that it was likely that the island would drop the idea of being listed as world heritage on the basis of cultural heritage and even in 2014 the RCE had to try four times to contact the government and when one succeeded at last, also their impression was that the whole idea of the application was hardly supported anymore.
What is worthy of protection on Saba from a cultural and historical point of view?
First, notice that from the archaeological sites of both the pre -Columbian period as well as from the 17th and 18th century colonial times nothing, absolutely nothing is legally protected. Coordinated by Leiden an archaeologist Ryan Espersen is very active in recent years in doing excavations of sugar distilleries, negro huts and so forth. The Royal couple even has opened in 2013 a hiking trail by revealing an information sign at one of the excavated foundations. But these are not legally protected .
The unique small private burial places should be protected. It is said that the colonists would have been copied the custom of the Indians from the time before 1640 to bury the dead near their homes. The technique of burying with stone walls around the coffin was a tradition that has been found only in Scotland. The looks of the tombstones is time-bound and even if there are no names (more ) readable , one can still date somewhat the age of the graves. A small number of churches , are worthy to be regarded as monuments.
Most striking , however, is the architecture and the use of materials of the many cottages. This also determines the villages and the charm of the urban parts of Saba . The previously mentioned scientific study by Dr Ir Frans Brugman is the standard that has been written about this . An extremely charming publication from 1991 is also the book “Saban Cottages” by painter Heleen Cornet. She gives in her watercolours a wonderful impression of the romance of the cottages. A foreword is written by among others Frans Brugman with an explanation of the method of construction.
A first concept Internet survey of these properties that could or should be protected as monuments can be found on the site created by René Caderius van Veen as Heemschut volunteer on www.sabaweb.nl/monuments-saba/ , even though that website is still “under construction”.
But with an inventory of cemeteries, of village-views and of cottages and churches, the list of to be protected monuments is not ready yet. It might be considered to protect also a few remnants of the old plantations. These consist mostly of farm fields with terraced building now overgrown by the tropical forest again. Some of them are even still in use even though they are very small and difficult to access and certainly difficult to maintain. In a project called SABAGRO is studied how agriculture can be used to make the island Saba less dependent from importing food stimulated again by Wageningen University. This could very well be accompanied by a kind of restoration of one or more small, 18th- century plantations. Also for this a beginning of an inventory has been made by René Caderius van Veen.
Even more obvious is the need to protect archaeological sites at Saban Cultural Heritage. This regards primarily the pre-Columbian discoveries of Leiden University. In addition, however, in recent years, much research has been done by Ryan Espersen for traces of the 18th and 19th century residence. Still incomplete in terms of visual representation and especially in terms of explanation and information something can be found on the website www.sabaweb.nl/monuments-saba .
However, it is only a fraction of all that in recent years has been found and excavated.
Due to lack of a real monument policies and initiatives to use the money from the Restoration Fund, now half a million of that budget of 1,25 million has been transferred to Bonaire and if something does not happen very soon, the rest of it will also disappear to other islands that by the way also got money available and that also have assigned themselves for a corresponding budget already. Than that will leave for Saba no money for even a beginning of restoration or maintenance of historic buildings. Some of the previous already designated ten buildings on Saba were: “Leo Chance house”, the “old Navigation School, both in The Bottom, Harry L. Johnson museum in Windwardside, the cottage of John Long Live Rock in St. John’s. But after more than three years no independent monument commission has been appointed on Saba, there is not any building officially classified as a monument, there has been given no substance to the framework of the monument ordinance. These were all conditions for granting contributions from the Monument Fund.
The application to the World Heritage List is completely on the back burner by the Governmental Cultural Heritage Service (RCE) mainly because of the lack of any form of protection.
The deterioration of the cultural heritage continues rapidly by replacing wood with stone and concrete. In short, what can be done to save what can still be saved ?
What to do ?
The cultural heritage association Heemschut can take the initiative to propose to place individual properties and buildings on the list of protected monuments and to propose villages views to be protected. This is a bottom-up approach that can not be ignored by the local government. Also churches that have problems with the maintenance of roofs can be involved as soon as those churches are registered officially as monuments. This has been suggested by mr Caderius van Veen to mr Sorton for the Anglican church and is also discussed when mr. Harry Kers from the Restoration Fund visited Saba last week. Possibly something can be achieved along that road and already some preparatory work has been done.
Another – more general – measure could be that the national government turns back the far-reaching decentralization of monument policy for the three BES islands. Because – frankly spoken – although things go better on Bonaire and St Eustatius than on Saba, even there some stagnation happens. A lobbying from Heemschut with other organizations already involved, could be a method that offers more guarantees to all monuments protection on three islands.
But the normal way for Saba would be that the local government opens a desk where people can get information, appoints an independent and advisory commission with enough expertise and starts – having heard the proposals from that commission – with refining the regulations of the ordinance and making a list of objects that are to be protected because of their cultural and historical value. Heemschut has already offered some assistance and did set up a working group for all three BES-islands, because of the mission of Heemschut. (See: http://www.heemschut.nl/en.html )
Saba , 2014-06-10, René Caderius van Veen
Persons and organisations mentioned in this article.
Prof. Dr. Corinne Hofman and Prof. Dr. Menno Hoogland from University Leiden
Dr. Ir. Frans H. Brugman, author of “THE MONUMENTS OF SABA ” published by Walburg Institute in 1994, Head of monuments dept. Curaçao for many years.
Onno Meerstadt , director Stadsherstel Amsterdam NV as restoration organisation with experience in the field of tropical heritage.
Mr. P. (Pieter) Siebinga, Director National Restoration Fund – Nationaal Restauratie Fonds (NRF)
Harry Kers, dept. Finances National Restoration Fund – Nationaal Restauratie Fonds (NRF)
Jan de Jong, Cultural Department of the Ministry of Education Culture and Science- Ministerie Onderwijs, Cultuur & Wetenschap (OCW)
drs. A.A.M. (Dré) van Marrewijk, Dutch coordinator World Heritage, Governmental Cultural Heritage Agency – Rijksdienst Cultureel Erfgoed (RCE), contact UNESCO World Heritage Centre
Rob Boot, Stadsherstel Amsterdam, Monuments / Restoration organisation
Olga van der Klooster, architectuurhistoricus, Plantage Zorg en Hoop, specialist in architecture in overseas parts of the kingdom, working for Stadsherstel Amsterdam
Michel Bakker, Architectuurhistoricus en klassiek archeoloog, Plantage Zorg en Hoop, specialist in architecture in overseas parts of the kingdom, working for Stadsherstel Amsterdam,
Project SABAGRO, project of Social Workplace Saba / Saba Reach & University Wageningen for reanimating agriculture on Saba, initiated by René Caderius van Veen
Heemschut, Dutch Heritage organisation, Erfgoed Vereniging Heemschut,
Bewoond Bewaard, Dutch Association of owners / habitants of monuments
Pieter Siebinga, Director National Restoration Fund Nationaal Restauratie Fonds (NRF)
Heleen Cornet artist on Saba, published a book with aquarels “Saban Cottages”, 1991
René Caderius van Veen, inhabitant of Saba, Heemschut Workgroup for the BES-islands
annexes: (see: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/tmq3173uu1wbwmp/AAAjl7360zY3GKeLJDhznPkMa )
1. 000-MONUMENT ISLAND ORDINANCE-SABA 2010-def.pdf (translated)
2. Application Werelderfgoed Saba kopie.pdf
3. Report RCE regarding the application of Saba for the World Heritage List (Dutch)
4. Report RCE (translated with Google translate so with many errors)