Floating City

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Badly damaged by Hurricane Georges in 1998 and being restored, the museum that tells of the dockyard’s long history was closed to the public during my visit. But there was a good, if brisk, eight-minute tour by a guide who proudly explained she was an intern, and then a half-hour or so to roam. This beautiful and lively spot is worth many hours. When Alec Waugh saw the place in 1948, he doubted its future: “The naval barracks at English Harbor … have now been handed over to the local authorities, who lack the funds to support them as a national monument, and in a few years’ time they will doubtless have begun to crumble.” Only a year or so later the idea was born of renewing the dockyard as a base for chartered yachts and a tourist attraction.

Our remaining hours in St. John, Antigua’s capital, allowed, finally, a visit without an immediate deadline. The Museum of Antigua and Barbuda, a short walk from the pier, covers every era, from prehistory to independence. A horrific exhibit devoted to slave uprisings tells how plantation owners uncovered a 1736 conspiracy before it could take place. The leader, a slave named Court, was killed by being broken on the wheel; eighty-five others were burned alive. We had heard of slave revolts on every island we visited, but this one struck me with particular force.

The museum’s fine stone building, the oldest surviving structure in the city and once a courthouse, dates from 1750. It is the work of a self-taught American architect, Peter Harrison, whose name is attached to many of the great buildings of Newport, Rhode Island, including its synagogue. Later, when I looked into Harrison’s connection to Antigua, I learned that his patron was Abraham Redwood, a Newporter with a vast Antigua plantation, and a major slaveholder. Here was one more reminder of the many links between the West Indies and the American colonies, forged early and strong.

By the end of the cruise, I had found that even without much help—that is to say, minus ship’s lectures or enough time ashore —one can gain at least some sense of the dramas that shaped these islands as colonial powers fought one another to possess Caribbean wealth in the form of sugar, spices, and human beings.

For today’s visitor the islands are still a shopping bazaar, and buying often becomes the major theme of a Caribbean cruise. The Galaxy ’s daily program featured tips on the best places to acquire watches, diamonds, and the like. During a televised port lecture the speaker told passengers not to worry if by the time they reached St. Thomas their credit cards were maxed out, because many shopkeepers would gladly extend instant credit. After all, St. Thomas is the home base of cruise consumption, and on Saturdays as many as ten ships tie up in port, releasing some twelve thousand shoppers onto its streets.

Because of this, after a delightful morning ferry ride to the nearby island of St. John, and reveling in its natural beauty, I had to be strongly persuaded to leave the ship for a ten-minute cab ride into the town of Charlotte Amalie. Once there I fell instantly in love with it, as I suddenly recalled I had on a visit decades earlier. The charm of the old wooden warehouses and other commercial buildings that edge the waterfront, dating from the era of Danish colonization, outshines their merchandise. Even populated by the human cargo of four cruise ships, downtown didn’t seem unpleasantly crowded, probably because of the large mall that stands directly at the pier and siphons off many shoppers. In Charlotte Amalie, as in most tourist towns, the Rule of Two Blocks Away prevails. As soon as I left Veterans Drive and Main to climb streets so steep they’re stitched together by crumbling brick stairs, I was alone and in another world. Curving lanes bearing names like Norre Gade or Wimmelskaft Gade hold pastel villas, their paint peeling, their windows and walks guarded by graceful iron gates, jungles of greenery and brilliant flowers spilling over garden walls.

When my legs wouldn’t let me climb any higher, I returned to the waterfront to visit a brick fort bearing the date 1671 and topped by a Gothic Revival tower from 1874 that made it look like a child’s toy. Fort Christian, a National Historic Site, lays out the Virgin Islands’ history in a series of stone cubicles that once housed administrators, soldiers, and prisoners. There are rooms filled with furnishings that belonged to the former Danish settlers, and small windows punched into the fort’s thick walls reveal spectacular views of the town as it curves around the harbor.

Among the exhibits on slavery (St. Thomas was one of the most active slave-trading centers) was a particularly interesting look at events surrounding the 1948 centenary of Emancipation. On hand was President Harry Truman, who was to alienate the Dixiecrat wing of his party in his bid for office later that year. “The Emancipation Proclamation in the Virgin Islands was dated 15 years before the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States; but it was 72 years after the Declaration of Independence,” he said. “The struggle for freedom is unending and documents alone do not conclude it.” Truman, the exhibit notes, had two years earlier appointed the nation’s first African-American governor since Reconstruction, William Hastie, to administer the Virgin Islands. Fifty years later there has been only one other, Virginia’s Douglas Wilder.