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History Happened Here

Floating City

June 2024
7min read

Can a brand-new cruise ship glittering with amenities and shared with thousands of passengers lead you toward the Caribbean’s past?

Some people get on a ship and don’t care where it takes them. That was true of a couple I knew who booked the same Caribbean cruise on the same ship ten years in a row. It was the vessel and the life aboard it they loved—the liner itself as destination. For other travelers, lured by the musical names of ports like St. Lucia, Martinique, or Antigua, today’s cruise ships, the megaliners, pack as many stops into a week’s journey as possible. To cater to everyone—a mostly American audience numbering five million and growing— ships are also getting bigger. The newest ones carry more than two thousand passengers and are easily the length of three football fields. They can look fairly unromantic when viewed from shore, especially when several are lined up in port at the same time, but aboard they offer every comfort. With great economies of scale possible, this new gigantism is a way for cruise lines to profit, and no one seems to mind. Waiting in San Juan for my flight home after a week’s cruise aboard Celebrity’s Galaxy , I heard a fellow passenger say to someone waiting to go aboard, “There’s not one thing you won’t like; it’s perfect.”

The Galaxy , holding about eighteen hundred passengers, and three years old, belongs to Celebrity Cruises, which was bought in 1997 by the Royal Caribbean cruise line. Celebrity was the creation of Chandris, a Greek shipping company, in the late 1980s. The huge letter X adorning all Celebrity stacks stands for the Greek C , as a reminder of the company’s origins. The line was formed with the idea of offering the very best, particularly in dining and service, at a mid-range price. It has succeeded to the point that Berlitz’s cruise-ship guide, the crankiest and therefore most believable of many such books, writes, “For a big-ship cruise experience this one has it all.”

I sailed on the Galaxy because I wondered what the big-ship cruise experience could offer someone with an interest in history. Beyond simply enjoying being at sea, I asked myself what I could possibly get to know of the culture of five Caribbean islands on a seven-day cruise. The answer: relatively little. But it was fun trying.

The Galaxy ’s first stop, St. Lucia’s capital city of Castries, has been destroyed by so many fires that travel writers dismiss it as holding little interest. There I came upon a handsome three-story brick building that had clearly withstood the city’s century of conflagrations. It was, of all things, a Carnegie Library, built by that American millionaire’s beneficence in 1916. Inside, tables were occupied by readers of every age, and in one corner the island’s minister of education was giving a television interview. Hanging over the front desk was a portrait of Andrew Carnegie, who had presented six British holdings in the Caribbean with libraries.

“They call St. Lucia the pearl of the West Indies,” Alec Waugh quotes a local as saying in his 1949 travel chronicle, The Sugar Islands . “But very few people ever see it. … Many ships call there. But only for an hour or two.” Nothing much has changed in this respect. I selected one of three possible ship’s excursions; it included a pointless hour at an undistinguished beach, but it also stopped at Pigeon Island, St. Lucia’s most important historic site. I didn’t know that the visit would last all of ten minutes. Now linked to the mainland by a causeway, and the future home of a massive Hyatt hotel, Pigeon Island has been restored to showcase its eighteenth-century past as a British navy garrison. From there Adm. George Rodney launched his fleet of a hundred ships to defeat the French in the decisive Battle of the Saintes on April 12, 1782. There is a nice small museum telling of this history, and ruins of stone buildings dot the hilly, beach-fringed landscape. It’s an appealing place, with a restaurant built to resemble an eighteenth-century pub, picnic grounds, and wonderful views. It wouldn’t be the last time that I longed for a more flexible schedule, but the cruise ship’s imperative would not be denied.

The Caribbean’s only remaining eighteenthcentury naval dockyard was a headquarters for Admiral Nelson.

Although a fairly experienced traveler, I tended to put myself in official hands when visiting these unfamiliar places, partly cowed by the admonition on page one of the Galaxy Daily : “If you miss the ship, it is your responsibility to make arrangements to rejoin Galaxy.” Now that would have been an adventure!

If it was by now Thursday, this must be Antigua, so off we went in a minivan to see the Caribbean’s only surviving eighteenth-century naval dockyard, named for Admiral Nelson. En route we passed a soberingly littered, impoverished landscape that gradually gave way to small tidy houses and then villas, indicating we were coming into the high-rent district. Indeed, the superb restoration of the quarters Nelson occupied from 1784 to 1787 has become a prime yachting center and the site of Antigua’s world-renowned annual regatta.

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.

After a last look at St. Thomas from the fort’s ramparts, it was back to the Galaxy for the final night of the cruise. As the week had progressed, I’d found that the ship offered many quiet, lightly populated places. Deck Six, with its broad teak promenade, seemed to summon up the very essence of ocean travel. On that last night, as a handful of passengers gathered at the portside rail, they were rewarded by a perfect poster for the cruise industry. Across the water two vessels rode the waves, strands of lights outlining their masts, with windows and portholes lit. A crescent moon stood high above the lead ship like a pointer. Stars sprinkled the sky’s dark canvas, a few so low on the horizon they could have been lights from small craft. A woman standing next to me at the rail remarked how much she’d liked this week. “We always sail on the smaller ones,” she said as the brilliant visions kept stately pace with the Galaxy across nautical miles. “But we were pleasantly surprised. After all, it’s still a ship.”

—Carla Davidson

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