Today Newspaper St. Maarten / By Jason Lista – Additional chairs were already waiting on the porch as John “Fefe” Hyman greeted his guests yesterday. He shuffled over to a small collection of documents and a newly printed book sitting handsomely with them. He unpacked what appeared to be rotting papers, browned by the passage of time. It was the long lost manuscript for a novel Hyman had written decades ago when he was a young man working in Curacao. Begun in 1955, his story “Golden Rock,” wasn’t finished until two years later, then, for a variety of reasons, it was never published; until now.
“Any island is part of us. I was searching for my identity, so to speak, to know who you are,” he said of his research for the book. “I would go to the library after work and read. Not many Americans realize the role Statia played in their achieving independent,” Hyman reflected. “How many guns and necessary commodities they purchased there.” At the time, Statia was the only place where the rebels could re-supply and avoid the British embargo and blockade.
The island was once the jewel of the Dutch West Indian colonies up until the time of Admiral Rodney’s utter destruction of its thriving trade port Oranjestad in 1781. It was a free port, grown fat from its neutral status and trade with just about all the major players, perhaps even boasting a population of up to 30,000 people at some point, at least according to some eye witness accounts and records, an astonishing amount for the period and an indication of its political and economic importance in the region. By contrast, contemporary St. Maarten barely supported less than 2,000 souls.
The fall of Statia from a once bustling economic center to a sleepy backwater of a faded Dutch empire is fascinating and immediately leads to parallels with modern St. Maarten, now itself in a similar economic position Statia was in nearly 3 centuries ago. “Absolutely, that’s what makes it interesting,” Hyman said. “Don’t get so high minded that you can’t fall. You must prepare yourself for” the eventuality, he warned. All civilizations fall, all eventually die, even our own, seems to be the lesson learned by any keen student of history.
But in between all that, human stories exist, and human stories go on. Hyman pulls out glossy copies of the maps and pictures he used for his book. They reveal a once flourishing Statia, with settlements and farms all over the island, along with a bustling capital held up by a great sea wall the Dutch had built to retain the loose volcanic soil upon which Oranjestad’s lower half was built. Admiral Rodney ruthless targeted the wall with cannon fire, sinking most of the town with it. “They burned down shops and warehouses,” Hyman continued, as British forces made landfall and sacked Oranjestad.
Golden Rock is a historical novel set around the time when the American Revolution was still raging on in the north, the epic struggle between Great Britain and her colonies that would eventually witness the birth of the United States of America. It relives the intrigue and drama of the time and centers around the lives of probable historical characters like the Jewish Ben Ali, among others, a member of Statia’s once thriving Jewish community and who finds himself entangled in the great power struggles of the era. The lives of African slaves, like Joel Mossy, are imagined in the time period too. And real historical characters like Statia’s Governor De Graaf also make an appearance.
“I find it very negligent of the Dutch the way Statia was treated after, not as a historical place and protected,” the way it should have been, Hyman lamented. Indeed, most of these islands were nearly forgotten for a long time once their usefulness ran out, their inhabitants left to fend for themselves and eke out a subsistence living and make do with what little resources they had available, St. Maarten included.
But the story of the manuscript is just as compelling as the subject it’s written about. It was lost twice in the subsequent years after it was written. One copy had been sold off without permission of its author sometime in the 60s, while yet another was lost to Hurricane Luis. It seemed his book would never be published.
But a stroke of luck had happened. Hyman’s mother found the original 1957 manuscript which had been sitting somewhere in the house for well over 20 years, after she finally gave it to him. It was typed on an old Underwood typewriter, long before word processing software and auto correct. There are still traces of the hand scratched errors and corrections on the brittle paper.
“I didn’t even remember that,” he said of his giving it to his mother. But to revise his draft and to rewrite the missing pages was difficult for him now. “To do something like that after so many years is not an easy task,’ Hyman remarked. Some of the pages “were all rat eaten.”
It would still be some time before the book would be published, but it has. Hyman received about 40 copies himself from his publisher, Authorhouse, not too long ago, some of which are available in Shipwreck Shop and Van Dorp. People interested can also reach the author personally at 526 1759.