History is being recovered above and below the waterline on a little-known Dutch Caribbean island.
With a marine park larger than the island itself, St. Eustatius (or Statia, to the 3,500 people who live here) is one of the best diving destinations in the region. Located just five miles northwest of popular St. Kitts, the island has more protected historical sites underwater and on land per square mile than anywhere else in the Caribbean.
On land, St. Eustatius blooms with nature. Ringing the volcanic island are rocky coastlines lined with inky black sand beaches forming important nesting sites for endangered sea turtles. To the south, the Quill/Boven National Park makes a haven for rare birds, including the red-billed tropicbird, and habitat to 17 types of orchids. Crowning the island is the Quill, a dormant volcano at the center of eight hiking trails, including one that treks into the forested crater.
Here’s what travelers need to know to explore this often-overlooked historical and natural wonderland.
Dive into history
In the 18th century, St. Eustatius was a free port, making it one of the Atlantic’s busiest and a major hub for the slave trade (the island was colonized by the Dutch in the early 17th century). At its peak, more than 3,000 ships dropped anchor in the harbor annually. The island’s economic success allowed it to supply the United States with ammunition during the American Revolutionary War—a secret act of allyship revealed with the arrival of the American brig, the Andrew Doria, in late 1776.
When the ship sailed into the harbor carrying a copy of the Declaration of Independence, Statia greeted it with an official gun salute, making the Dutch the first to recognize America’s independence. The act capped longstanding tensions between the British and the Dutch, leading to the fourth Anglo-Dutch war. Since then, the “first salute” has been celebrated in St. Eustatius with a reenactment every November 16, Statia Day, one of the island’s biggest holidays after carnival.
Today, vestiges of Statia’s past fuel the 36 dive spots in St. Eustatius National Marine Park, which encircles the island. One highlight within this sanctuary is Anchor Point, a coral-covered French anchor dating back to around 1750, which is hidden behind giant barrel sponges and reef walls packed with lobsters and schools of fish off the southwest coast of the island. Nearby is the Charles L. Brown Wreck, a cable-laying ship from 1954 and one of the largest underwater ruins in the Caribbean.
“From historical sources, such as old newspaper articles and government correspondence, we know hundreds of ships wrecked all around the island in colonial times,” says Ruud Stelten, an archaeologist and director of the Shipwreck Survey, an underwater archaeological field school that aims to document and preserve shipwrecks sites to better understand the island’s maritime history. “We’ve only found a few of them so far.”
In 2017, hurricanes Irma and Maria exposed the remnants of an 18th-century vessel now called Triple Wreck (or SE-504), which Stelten’s organization has been studying with the St. Eustatius Center for Archaeological Research. The team is aiming to find and preserve artifacts to help researchers better understand the island’s history. Anyone with a diving certification can join the study, which sets out twice a year and explores other wreck sites around the island.
Tokens from the past
By law, divers are not allowed to take artifacts home, except for one thing: blue beads. These cobalt tokens are scattered throughout the marine park and on St. Eustatius; Blue Bead Hole is a particularly popular dive site. Researchers say that the beads were spun in glass factories in the Netherlands and shipped to St. Eustatius and possibly other nearby islands, where they were used as a form of currency for trading goods and to signify rank among the enslaved people.
According to local lore, when slavery was abolished in 1863, the newly emancipated threw the beads into the ocean in celebration. However, studies suggest that a ship carrying beads could have sunk near the island, causing the beads to collect in one location. Regardless, their cultural importance lives on through Statia’s oral history. “Blue beads are my favorite artifact, and I often wear them with great pride, as they make me feel more connected to my ancestors,” says Misha Spanner, a guide at the St. Eustatius Historical Foundation Museum. “When a blue bead is found, most locals consider it lucky.”
Statia’s history of enslavement is being excavated on land, too. In 2018 archaeologists discovered an 18th-century burial ground and an indigo vat on the site of the new Golden Rock Dive & Nature Resort, a former plantation. The vat was likely used by enslaved people to produce the prized azure hue in dyeing fabric. In 2021, another burial ground dating to the 18th century was discovered at the former Golden Rock Plantation.
These new findings are inspiring a holistic approach to learning about Statia’s slave history with involvement from the local community, says Gay Soetekouw, president of the St. Eustatius Center for Archaeological Research. The hope is that such an approach will shed more light on a population whose personal stories were never documented.
Besides history, preserving the island’s natural areas is a priority. St. Eustatius National Parks encourages travelers to learn about the island’s flora and fauna via guided nature hikes and volunteer science projects through its three protected areas: the marine sanctuary, Quill/Boven National Park, and the Miriam C. Schmidt Botanical Garden.
One such program gathered community helpers to monitor turtle nesting sites on Zeelandia Beach, research whale and dolphin routes, and identify manta rays. Another focused on reforestation both on- and off-shore, with recruits planting native species, such as gum trees and sea grapes, both of which contribute to biodiversity and hurricane protection.
“We are blessed to have this nature still intact,” says hiking guide Celford Gibbs. “When you look at a place like St. Maarten and the other Leeward Islands booming with tourism, hotels, and casinos, you realize we’re behind them in terms of development. But it’s a good position because we can learn from their mistakes.”
As Statia looks to its future, Gibbs says there’s growing interest in ensuring tourism benefits local communities and ecosystems. That means preserving the island’s cultural heritage, as much as its natural gifts.
On a recent walk, Gibbs forages for bitterroot to make a medicinal tea and expounds on the dental benefits of gum tree leaves; his activity stems from ancestral knowledge. As one of only three local guides, he says that sharing this handed-down insight with youth—and travelers—is essential to the island’s future. “Once people get a taste for nature,” he says, “they always come back for more.”