If the quiet island of St Eustatius is known nowadays more among divers and eco-tourists, it was not always so. The so-called ‘Golden Rock’ was famously the first foreign nation to recognize American Independence and used to be one of the busiest trading terminals in the Caribbean. It’s hard to imagine that this small island of just under 3,000 people once used to buzz with trading ships and plantation activity. Luckily, ‘Statia’ has protected most of its heritage and buildings and Forts from this period remain. Harder to find, however, are another remnant from the island’s past – the mysterious Blue Beads of Statia.
What are the Blue Beads of Statia?
The five-sided, dark or light blue Statian bead looks like many others, perhaps one of the reasons behind the myth that Dutch traders bought Manhattan from the Indians with 30 Statian blue beads. Legend has it that anyone lucky enough to find one of the beads, whether on the beach or underwater, will return to the island again and again. The rare beads are coveted by sailors and divers alike. If the exclusive Mount Gay cap appeals to the racing sailor, the more talismanic blue bead is one for the cove-hopping cruiser.
The mystery of the blue bead is how this particular type came to Statia in the first place. R. Grant Gilmore III of the St Eustatius Center for Archaeological Research takes up the tale. “Other similar beads are found across the globe – from Alaska to South Africa to Indonesia – wherever Dutch traders or their goods went. The question remains as to why these bead types are found only in Statia.”
Finding a solution to this riddle was initiated in the 1960s by the eminent Dr. WGN. van der Sleen, chemist and professor of natural history from Naarden, Holland. Dr Sleen contacted museums all over the world and, through tireless research, was able to trace back the Statian beads to a single glass factory in Amsterdam. The factory, owned by Han Henrixz Soop, employed glassmakers from Murano and Venice, making mirrors and beads “for the primitive people” between 1660 and 1680.
How did the Blue Beads get to Statia?
But how did these beads get from Amsterdam to St Eustatius? Step forward the Dutch East India Company, busy pounding the seas from Indonesia to the Caribbean at the time. To cross-check the origins of the beads, Dr Sleen amassed samples from all over the world and had them analyzed. He found that the Amsterdam beads, made of potash not soda, were identical.
Given that blue beads have been found in slave sites all over the Americas, the assumption is that the beads were worn by slaves brought to St Eustatius from Africa. According to Elsie Bosch-Wilson, Director of the St Maarten Museum, whose bead necklace is pictured, beads have been worn for hundreds of years as a symbol of status, power and wealth. Young people hoping to get married would be eager to increase the bead count on their necklace, as only a heavily beaded one would impress a potential suitor. Likewise, one would have expected a tribal chief to have jewelry out of the budget or not available to his subjects.
Nowadays, the search for blue beads is still a popular pastime for visitors to Statia, and a walk along a Statian beach is best enjoyed with the head bowed and eyes towards the sand. Meanwhile, the diamond emporiums and showbiz glitter of St Maarten and St Barths just across the water provide a scintillating reminder that, whatever the century, nothing impresses like a heavy set piece of jewelry.
St Maarten Museum
Front Street, Philipsburg.
Tel (599) 542 4917
St Eustatius Museum
Simon Doncker House