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St. John USVI Culture: Charcoal


Ivan Chinnery operates the Local Flavour Campground located on the eastern end of White Bay on Jost Van Dyke. Just behind the beach and next to Ivan’s “Stress Free Bar” is a magnificent old tamarind tree. Today campers take advantage of the shade provided by this large fruit tree to enjoy picnic lunches and barbecues or to enjoy a relaxing afternoon lying in the solitary hammock that hangs from the sturdy branches.

In years gone by a man named Herman Chinnery had a charcoal pit under this very tree.

In those days tourism hardly existed on Jost Van Dyke and the inhabitants survived primarily through subsistence farming and fishing.

One of the few ways to generate hard cash was through the production and sale of charcoal, which, up until the 1960s, was used extensively in all the Virgin Islands as a cooking fuel. Gas stoves and cooking gas were just too expensive for the vast majority of Virgin Islanders.

It takes a great deal of hard work to make charcoal and the shade provided by this ancient tamarind tree was certainly as well appreciated then as it is now.

making the charcoal pit
preparing to burn charcoal

The first step in making charcoal would be to dig or “mine” the charcoal pit. This could take several days of hard work. The next step would be to cut the wood. Limbs were trimmed off and the wood was allowed to cure for a few weeks.

“Sometimes you would cut the wood and clean the area and then you would plant something there. So you would not only get the wood, but also you could still get something from the farming. You could plant sweet potato, cassava, tanya, yam, pigeon peas, whatever”, explains Ethen Chinnery who had farmed and fished on his native land for almost all of his happy and healthy 92 years. (Mr. Ethien passed away in 2005.)

While it was the elders of the community who generally cut the wood, it was the children who would be called upon to carry the wood to the coal pits. They would often make a game of tossing the cut logs down hill and consolidating them into manageable piles, seeing how far they could throw and how close to the pile they could get.

When the wood finally reached the coal pit it would be carefully stacked either in a linear arrangement called a “long pit” or in a teepee-like fashion called a “round pit”. Next bush, such as guinea grass, coconut fronds or small genip branches, would be stuffed or “chinked” into the spaces between the wood.

Then the entire stack was gradually covered with bush. When this process was completed the thatched wood was covered with earth, most of which came from the mining of the pit. An opening, or door, was left uncovered at the bottom of the stack.

Hot coals were used to set the exposed wood near the door on fire. When the fire was well established and had spread to the interior of the stack, a piece of galvanized metal was placed over the door, and then this last area was thatched and covered with earth. Smoke would escape through small holes in the dirt as the wood burned in the limited air environment beneath the ground.

The coal pit needed to be watched, however, to make sure that large holes didn’t develop as the wood burned and the stack settled. If this happened someone needed to be there in order to thatch up and cover the hole. If this was not done soon enough, then the charcoal maker might return to find nothing more than a pit full of worthless ashes.

The smoldering fire would last between two days and a week depending on the amount and size of the wood used. A pleasant and melodious cracking sound often could be heard as the wood turned into coal and the stack settled. “There is no sound more beautiful than the one made from a coal pit. I don't know a single instrument that can play a melody like that”, reflects Curtney Chinnery, Ethien's son.

When the pit stopped smoking, the charcoal was ready to harvest.

Using a hooked stick or an iron rake the coals would be pulled out of the pit and allowed to cool. Any coals that were still burning needed to be covered with dirt until they stopped glowing “The newly made coals would shine like black gold”, remarked a young man who had once observed the procedure. Smaller pieces of “fine coal”, which were too small to go to market, were separated from the larger pieces. The charcoal was then placed in a pan to measure quantity and later placed into crocus sacks. It was important to make sure that all the coals were completely extinguished. Otherwise the crocus sack might burn and the coals could fall to the ground or “you might be carrying a sack on your shoulder and return home to find that your shirt had turned to ashes”, said Abe Coakley who has burned a good deal of charcoal in his time.

Coal pits were often areas where people would congregate. Everyone needed charcoal and those that helped would be paid with the fine coal, which was unsuitable for sale, but nonetheless could easily cook a meal or two.

Often people would bring some potatoes, corn or green bananas and bake them using the heat of the smoldering wood. Adding to the ambiance of the coal pit was the fact that mosquitoes were kept away by the smoke. Many times games of dominos and cards were enjoyed along with the fragrant and delicious fresh baked food.

“Our mother used to send us to carry heaps of wood to the coal pit bed. And we had to carry them from here up the beach or wherever”, Gertrude Coakley, a long-time White Bay resident, recalls from her childhood.

“When the men are getting ready to place the coal pit alight, we know we will have to come down to carry the wood to the coal pit bed in the morning. So sometimes we “teef” (take without permission) our mother's flour, we teef the sugar, we teef the corn meal, we teef everything we need.

“In the night, while there's quiet, we pack up the flour, baking powder, sugar, salt, whatever and we go outside and we hide it where we know we have to pass. The next morning we take up the flour and everything from the hiding places and we come to the coal pit with them. When we reach we make endless bread with the coconut we pick from the trees down here.
We had a great time!”

When the charcoal was packed away in the crocus sacks, it had to be taken to Great Harbour. From there it would be sent by boat to St. Thomas to be sold.

Mr. Herman Chinnery would row the sacks of charcoal to Great Harbour in his small rowing skiff. When the coal pits were not located near the beach the charcoal had to be transported overland.

“You had to carry down charcoal on your back in crocus bags. Three or four five-gallon pails will fit in one bag. They have what they call a cahtah. You know what a cahtah is? You get a towel and you twist it around like a wreath and then you use it for padding. If you didn’t have a towel you could use any kind of fabric or even a banana leaf would do. You put it on your head and then you put the charcoal bag on that. If you have a donkey, the donkey will carry two crocus bags at a time,” remembers Ivan Chinnery who had carried some coal in his youth.
Once the coal arrived in St. Thomas it would usually be sold wholesale to dealers who would then retail the coal at Market Square in Charlotte Amalie. At times, however, the market was “blocked” meaning there was a glut of charcoal and the sellers from Jost Van Dyke had to carry the sacks of coal through the streets trying to sell to individuals in need of charcoal.

Ethien Chinnery
Ethien Chinnery

Ethien Chinnery remembers being in St. Thomas with his charcoal. “I was going up the street crying out to people ‘Coal! Coal! Coal!’ A lady was watching me through a window and said, ‘Me child, why you out there crying out you cold and I here under a heat ironing cloths!’”

Note: Plain wood contains a great deal of water and other chemicals, which lowers the temperature when it is burned. Burning the wood in a low oxygen atmosphere rids it of the water and chemicals, leaving behind the carbon skeleton called “charcoal”, which will then be able to burn at a higher temperature.