“The governor gave the order to fire back,” Gay notes, leading us to the plaque that Franklin Delano Roosevelt personally delivered in 1939 to thank Statia for pulling the trigger. America-bound gunpowder moved through Statia by the ton. Without it, lamented the British ambassador to the Netherlands at the time, “the Americans would have had to abandon their revolution.” Four years after the “First Salute,” now celebrated as a Statian holiday, the British invaded and plundered the island in retaliation.
We head out into town, passing red-roofed houses painted in a variety of cheerful pastel colors. Gay leads us to a rather plain-looking dirt back road and directs us to examine the ground for anything unusual. I don’t get it at first, but then someone holds up a half-dollar-size ceramic fragment. Gay looks it over and says in her lilting voice, “Oh, this is a Chinese porcelain shard.” Another discovery: “This is from the base of a wine bottle. . . . Ah, Delft blue. . . . This plate fragment is Mallorcan, maybe Spanish. . . . And here, here we have an almost complete pipe stem.” It turns out that Gay is the president of the nonprofit Sint Eustatius Center for Archaeological Research; she gives these free walking tours for her own enjoyment.
Once our eyes find the right focus, we suddenly perceive that the dirt is littered with artifacts. Our finds are all remnants of actual goods that Statia bought and sold during its 18th-century commercial heyday. “It’s like a museum everywhere you walk!” proclaims a young Dutch woman, without looking up. “Yes!” Gay cheers. “We have more artifacts here per square inch than anywhere in the world.”
Everyone’s ears perk up when Gay mentions that one of the locally famous “blue beads” was found poking up from the dirt underfoot. “Blue beads are found anywhere the Dutch traded,” she says, pushing up her necklace, which is strung with eight of the chunky, ratchet-socket-shaped beads. “They bought Manhattan from the Indians with 30 of these.”
On Statia, the opaque, midnight-blue beads were used as currency by the slaves. Upon emancipation, the slaves saw them as an unwanted reminder of the past and tossed them all over the place. Today, searching for beads is a kind of ongoing island-wide Easter egg hunt. “We say that the bead finds you,” Gay says. “If you have a blue bead, it means you belong to Statia.”