By Mark Yokoyama
On St. Martin, countless stories have been lost to time. For most of recorded history, only the thinnest slice of life was documented. For the vast majority of people, not a single word was written about their life, toils, resourcefulness, beliefs or loves.
But even the things that were recorded are vulnerable. Things as important as the Treaty of Concordia, which split the island between the French and Dutch in 1648, have gone missing. One of the original copies is still missing today. Other records have been lost, or destroyed in fire, flood or hurricane.
Books written about St. Martin are crucial links to information that is lost, or locked away in distant archives. Dr. J. Hartog’s book, History of Sint Maarten and Saint Martin is one of those links. He made detailed notes of the Lieutenant-Governor’s Journals of Sint Maarten as part of his research. In 1974, those journals were destroyed in a fire. Hartog’s book is the last record of much of this information.
S.J. Kruythoff’s The Netherlands Windward Islands contains some historical research. But it also includes many things that wouldn’t be recorded at all without his book, like the local names of plants and animals. His observations about nature and culture in the first half of the 20th century are priceless and unique. Very little was being published about the island at this time.
The Making of an Island by Jean Glasscock contains stories from conversations she had with St. Martiners between the 1960s and early 1980s. This is hardly ancient history, but St. Martin was tremendously different back then. Many of the people she spoke to have now passed.
The list goes on. For the Love of St. Maarten by Will Johnson, L’Immuable et le Changeant by Yves Monnier, Windward Children by Dorothy and John Keur and Beyond the Tourist Trap by Sypkens Smit each include stories of the island that can be found nowhere else.
These authors have succeeded where even governments responsible for preserving the public record have often failed. These works can still be read. Thanks to the number of copies that exist, they will almost surely survive long into the future.
Although these books are on many bookshelves, all of them are currently out of print. Copies can still be found occasionally by those with patience and the money to pay rare book prices. Someday they will enter the public domain, but many of us will be long dead by then.
In the meantime, what can we do? It is crucial that local libraries, schools and cultural institutions have copies of these works so they are available to the people of St. Martin. If possible, perhaps some of them could be reprinted with the permission of the authors and publishers. These books may also inform new works that continue the grand project of telling the story of St. Martin.