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.
For the strongest sense of the Virgin Islands’ past, travelers should head for St. Croix, where two towns, Christiansted and Frederiksted, still look the way they must have under the Danes. Almost all of Christiansted is yellow, painted or treated with a lime wash to harmonize with the original yellow Danish brick. So many buildings date from the eighteenth or early nineteenth century that much of the town has been declared a National Historic Site. In Danish West Indian buildings, in the old days, life was lived on the second, cooler floor, and you got there by climbing an impressive exterior stair. You can see this design at Government House (1747), the Customs House (1751-1830), and at Fort Christiansvaern (1749).
Built on the waterfront, Christiansted’s fort was designed to protect shipping from raiders, and William Cissel, the curator, has a lot of sympathy for the Danes sent to man it: “The term of enlistment was eight years, there was no social class on the island for the enlisted men to mix with, and they had to wear the same wool uniforms they wore in Europe.” With its sunny yellow walls and dark green shutters, Fort Christiansvaern is a singularly unmilitaristic-looking place until you come to the cells used for solitary confinement. Alexander Hamilton’s mother was imprisoned here once for refusing to obey her husband. When released, she declined to return to her spouse, bore Alexander out of wedlock on the island of Nevis, and then brought him back with her to Christiansted. Young Alexander had his early financial training in the trading houses of the town. The store he worked in burned down during the 1960s but it has been rebuilt, and a shop called Little Switzerland occupies the space today.
I asked Cissel what quality he associated with the Danes as a colonial power and he answered, “Organization.” They had a building code for Christiansted in 1747 that, by regulating construction materials and the width of streets and alleys, helped prevent fires. An agreement between inspectors and merchants gave the town the arched colonnades that are its most distinctive feature: merchants were allowed to extend the second story of their buildings out over the sidewalks. They gained extra living space upstairs, and the town gained protection from sun and rain for pedestrians.
From Christiansted, drive down treeshaded roads to Frederiksted, a sleepy port town on the western end of St. Croix. It was here that the Danish governor-general Peter von Scholten freed the slaves on July 3, 1848. Thirty years later, conditions had still not improved much for blacks, and on October 1, 1878, a labor insurrection broke out. A third of Frederiksted and many nearby plantations were burned. When replacement houses were built during the 1880s, Victorian architectural flourishes turned up on native styles. It’s a great pleasure to walk the streets today. A cruise ship turns up occasionally, and there are a few shops geared to the tourist trade, but Frederiksted remains unspoiled.
Just outside Frederiksted is Estate Whim Plantation Museum, open about 360 days out of the year. On Whim’s grounds, you can visit the woodworking shop that carved Frederiksted’s gingerbread, and a sugar mill. But the heart of the place is the house itself. It is far less grand than its counterparts in the American South, and it is, people kept reminding me, not typical of West Indian great houses. Built of stone with rounded ends, Whim has only three rooms, and it is surrounded by a moat. No records survive to explain who built it or when, but one theory holds that it was intended more as a pavilion for entertaining guests than as a primary residence.
Tall trees have grown up to shade Whim now, and standing in any of its spacious, window-lined rooms, the overwhelming impression is not of wealth or past grandeur but of airiness, of the triumph of architecture over climate. There is no glass in the windows, only louvered shutters, and open doorways connect the rooms. Whatever breeze there is moves freely throughout the house. William Cissel invited me to visit one other house before I left the islands, the one he grew up in, and it impressed me in the same way. The day was hot enough to warrant air-conditioning in the car, but when we went in and opened the shutters, the house felt cool. “There’s always a breeze,” my host explained. “The windmill always got the best hill on the plantation, but the great house got the second best.”