Hill Compound, Three Widows Corner, Old Library, Oranjestad, Sint Eustatius

Bonaire, Saba and Sint Eustatius, The BES Islands - in a Nutshell

Author: Sue
Date: 2nd January 2024

Who Do the BES Islands Belong To?

Bonaire, Saba and Sint Eustatius (usually called Statia) are the Caribbean Netherlands, although the term 'Caribbean Netherlands' is sometimes used loosely to refer to all of the islands in the Dutch Caribbean. They're also known as the BES Islands, for obvious reasons. The islands are classified as 'public bodies' in the Netherlands, overseas countries and territories of the European Union; so, European Union law does not automatically apply.

Bonaire (including the islet of Klein Bonaire) is one of the Leeward Antilles and is located close to the coast of Venezuela, along with the other ABC Islands. So, Bonaire is geographically part of South America and part of another island group, as well. Sint Eustatius and Saba are in the main Lesser Antilles group, south of Sint Maarten ( a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands).

Saba and Sint Eustatius are (there is some debate about this) part of the Windward Islands and are volcanic and hilly, with little ground suitable for agriculture. The highest peak is Mount Scenery, on Saba. (At 887 metres this is the highest point in all the Kingdom of the Netherlands).

A Brief History of Saba and Sint Eustatius (See ABC Islands for Bonaire)

Saba is thought to have been inhabited by the Ciboney people as early as the 1100s BC and then, later, circa 800 AD, Arawak peoples from South America, whilst Statia was first inhabited by Caribs.

Christopher Columbus is said to have sighted Saba in 1493, but he didn't land. He didn't like the look of the impenetrable cliffs. That didn't stop him naming it St Cristobal, but his name didn't last very long. He possibly also saw Statia, but the first firm sighting was made by Francis Drake and John Hawkins. A tussle for both islands then developed between the Dutch, the English and English pirates, From the first European settlement in the seventeenth century, until the early nineteenth century, St. Eustatius changed hands twenty-one times between the Netherlands, Britain, and France.

Over this time, Saba became a key refuge for smugglers and pirates. Fishing was also a major source of revenue and the women learned to make lace ( introduced by a nun from Venezuela).This became the primary source of revenue and Saba became known as 'The Island of Women'.

When they were under Dutch control (as of 1678), the islands of St. Eustatius, Sint Maarten and Saba fell under the direct command of the Dutch West India Company, with a commander stationed on St. Eustatius to govern all three. The Dutch eventually gained full control in 1816, still generally ruling from Sint Eustatius, where the main plantation owners (sugar, tobacco, indigo and rum) were housed. But the main incentive and profit came from slavery. Statia was well positioned in the middle of the islands and it had a good harbour, which was a freeport. It also sold arms and ammunition to anyone willing to pay and used these to support the American War of Independence. (That led to one of the occasions when it was captured by the British).

The BES Islands were part of the Netherlands Antilles until the country's dissolution in 2010, when the islands became special municipalities, within the country of the Netherlands.

Facts and Factoids

  • English, Dutch and Spanish are spoken alongside the local tongue, Papiamento, in Bonaire.
  • Dutch and English are spoken in Saba and Sint Eustatius
  • The currency in all three islands is the US dollar.
  • In 2012, the islands of the Caribbean Netherlands voted for the first time, in the 2012 Dutch general election. due to now being special municipalities of the Kingdom of the Netherlands,

Which BES Island is the Best?

  • Bonaire is very small and dry, and is much further south, but has real character and is thought to have the best snorkelling and diving.
  • Saba is the smallest special municipality (officially "public body") of the Netherlands and consists mainly of Mount Scenery. It is the smallest territory by permanent population in the Americas. It's very pretty with steep roads, chocolate box houses and forested slopes
  • Sint Eustatius is less attractive, but still has picturesque areas. Some flatter walking, and plenty of history. Statia, as it is known locally, was dubbed The Golden Rock as it was, for some time, the most prosperous island in the Dutch Netherlands

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