The U.S. Virgin Islands: Another Reason

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Very few people who visit the Virgin Islands go in search of history—sun and duty-free shopping are more powerful lures. But once there it’s difficult not to give the past at least some thought. Alexander Hamilton grew up on St. Croix, and the U.S. Navy has been an intermittent presence in the islands since 1822, when President Monroe dispatched a squadron in pursuit of pirates. But American culture is only one ingredient in a rich blend.

You get clues to the islands’ cosmopolitan heritage the minute you step out of the airport and find cars driving on the left. Or when you unfold the road map and find that each of the three main islands in the group is still divided into sections corresponding to the old plantations: Bonne Esperance, Fortuna, and Zufriedenheit on St. Thomas, Sans Souci and Johns Folly on St. John, Prosperity and Stony Ground on St. Croix. Each island is different from the others, but on any one of them you can still get a sense of the great age of exploration and colonization, when the nations of Europe maneuvered for the riches of the New World. Even duty-free shopping turns out to have a long and honorable past: St. Thomas has been a free port since 1764.

Columbus discovered the Virgin Islands on his second trip to the New World, in 1493. His men went ashore at St. Croix, on a sandy beach in a bay now called Salt River, and were attacked by Carib Indians. (Go to Salt River today and, except for a small marina, not much has changed, although a developer is eyeing the area. Since this is one of only two places under the U.S. flag that Columbus actually discovered, it would be a shame to lose it.) The islands weren’t really settled until the seventeenth century, by which time most of Europe was vying for the chance to colonize them. In the end Denmark won out, but, not able to attract enough of her own citizens, the Danes opened settlement to anyone who wanted to come. Colonists from Britain, the Netherlands, France, and other places acquired land and African slaves and began raising tobacco, sugar cane, and cattle. There followed about a century of prosperity and then everything fell apart. The slaves won emancipation, the price of sugar fell, and trade suffered. By 1917, when the United States paid the Danes twenty-five million dollars for the islands, they had fallen on hard times. Our interest was strategic: we wanted to keep Germany from using St. Thomas as a base in our hemisphere.

 

Today Charlotte Amalie, the capital of St. Thomas, is the most popular cruiseship port in the Caribbean. Named for the consort of a Danish king, the town hugs the level land along the waterfront for a few blocks, and then, with nowhere else to go, climbs straight up the four hills facing the harbor, up grades so steep some of the streets are nothing but steps. Charlotte Amalie is crowded with shops and signs clamoring for the cruise-ship trade, but there is some comfort in knowing it has always been so. The land on St. Thomas is so mountainous that residents quickly learned it was easier to make money off its large, protected harbor than from agriculture. Denmark’s neutrality during most of Europe’s wars allowed Charlotte Amalie to flourish as a trading center for ships from all over the world. In 1840 an American clergyman visiting St. Thomas wrote home that “merchandise...seemed chiefly to engross the attention of residents,” and today’s shops selling Swiss watches and Japanese cameras are housed in the same brightly painted brick or masonry warehouses that stored goods when he was there. If the town’s eighteenth-century buildings hadn’t burned down in a series of fires, the tradition might go back further still. George Tyson, a local historian who walked me through town, explained that the road that runs along the harbor used to be water—each warehouse then had its own wharf where small boats could sail up to unload.

For the best view of the harbor, climb up past the handsome terra-cotta-colored Hotel 1829, following the street known as the 99 Steps to the terrace at Blackbeard’s Castle, where you can sit by the pool with a seventeenth-century stone tower at your back. Plan to arrive half an hour before sunset and stay for a drink or dinner. What tranquillity there is to be found in Charlotte Amalie is in its hotels: on my arrival at the Harbor View, an early nineteenth-century Danish manor house, goats were nibbling at the shrubbery by the door and iguanas dozed by the pool.

For day trips away from Charlotte Amalie, take a ferry to St. John, the wildest of the three islands. A violent slave uprising here in 1733 brought sugar production to a temporary halt, and St. John never enjoyed the prosperity of St. Thomas or St. Croix. By the early part of the twentieth century, much of the island had lapsed into virtual wilderness. Laurance S. Rockefeller visited in the 1950s and bought about five thousand acres, which he gave to the U.S. government for a national park. Cabdrivers meet the ferries and offer tours of the island with stops at Annaberg, the ruins of a sugar plantation, and Trunk Bay, a curving beach of fine white sand rimmed in a grove of trees. I thought I was at least as far away as Greece, and only a small, faded American flag planted in a lifeguard stand suggested otherwise. It looked like a memento left behind by some far-flung expeditionary force long since recalled to Washington.