History of Saba

The history of Saba tells of piracy and a heritage of seafaring people

Photo credit: © MikeManning

Saba History

Saba's steep rocky terrain and virtually beach free shores made explorers think twice about landing on this little volcanic island. Christopher Columbus spotted Saba in 1493, but the first European explorers didn't actually land here until 1632, when the island was said to be uninhabited. Now, Saba is sparsely populated, with only about 1,200 residents, and the island had remained relatively untouched by tourism unlike the majority of islands in the Caribbean.

Just Passing By

In the 16th century, many famous explorers, such as Sir Walter Raleigh, Piet Heyn, and of course Columbus, sighted Saba from afar. These European adventurers thought better of trying to land on the island's perilous shores, which are impossibly rocky, and simply passed the little island by. The first settlers to land on the island arrived by accident. In 1632, a group of English explorers were shipwrecked on Saba, which they claimed was uninhabited, though the sailors found the island abundant with fruit trees. In those days, it was a tradition among sailors to plant fruit-bearing plants on an island, just in case someone became shipwrecked. Additionally, some traces indicate that either Carib or Arawak Indians once occupied the area.

Saba Settlements

Saba was not permanently settled until the 17th century, when Dutch colonists from the neighboring island of Sint Eustatius arrived in about 1640. The Dutch acquired Saba during their efforts to add to their Caribbean empire, which was based on Curacao. A group of mainly English-speaking misfits joined the Dutch explorers on Saba, and the motley colonists survived by an agriculturally based economy, with sugar and indigo being the main cash crops.


During the English Reformation, unemployed and "undesirable" people were deported from England and sent to colonies in the Americas. Many were sent to Jamaica, but eventually African slaves outnumbered the outcasts and were considered more useful than the destitute English exiles, who had to turn to piracy in order to survive.

Many believe that people of European ancestry living on Saba are descendants of Jamaican pirates. In 1665, a group of pirates lead by a man named Morgan captured the island. Morgan and his group of pirates immediately deported anyone on the island who wasn't English. For many years, Saba was a haven for pirates, who were driven off of other Caribbean islands. Eventually, the pirates turned to legitimate trade and continued to make a living from the sea.

Protected Shores

Saba was a difficult island to land on because it has no beaches and its coastal area is steep and rocky. So for many years, the islanders faced very few threats from opposing forces. The Saban people protected themselves by causing man-made avalanches and constructing platforms on the top of ravines that they loaded with boulders. When enemies approached, they knocked away the platforms' supports.

Under New Ownership

Between 1632 and 1816, the ownership of Saba changed 12 times. The French claimed ownership in 1689 after conquering Sint Eustatius, but they decided to abandon the island. After that, political arrangements resulted in changes in ownership. The Dutch reclaimed the island for the last time in 1816, and the island became a part of the Netherlands Antilles.

Since being colonized by the Europeans in the 17th century, Saba has seen several changes. Sabans have dabbled in many enterprises, including the trade of shoes and boots and the cultivation of sugar. Ultimately, they were renowned for their sailing and maritime expertise. In the 19th century, the men of Saba set out for the seas and were in high demand by many shipping lines. Saban sailors captained ships that sailed all over the Americas. During the beginning of the 1900s, the men of Saba were at sea for long periods of time, and during this time, Saba became known as the "Island of Women." The men sent contributions back home to their wives and children, which supported the Saban economy. The women of the island adopted the skill of lace making and drawn-thread work, which is an industry that continues today.


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