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St John Virgin Islands Culture: Prohibition Story

tortola sloop

During the 1920s, the consumption, possession and sale of alcoholic beverages within the United States was prohibited by an amendment to the Constitution. The new law, which included the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, did not quench the nation's thirst for alcohol, and liquor continued to be produced and imported, production being renamed bootlegging and importation, smuggling. Alcoholic beverages were brewed in clandestine stills in the rural areas of the nation or were smuggled into the country from such places as Canada and the Bahamas.

In the U.S. Virgin Islands, illicit alcohol usually came from nearby Tortola in the form of its domestically produced cane rum. The contraband was often brought over on the Tortola sloops that made regular visits to St. John and St. Thomas.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to interview the venerable Tortolan, Joseph Romney. Mr. Romney, who passed away recently at almost 100 years of age, and had spent most of his life at sea. In the course of his career, he had owned and captained several Tortola cargo sloops, which brought locally produced items, such as fruits, vegetables, fish, meats, charcoal and crafts, from the British to the American Islands.

At one point during the interview, realizing that Mr. Romney was a young man during the years of prohibition, I asked him if he had ever included the forbidden Tortola Cane Rum as part of his shipments.

"Just once," he responded, "and never again after that." Intrigued, I asked him to tell me the story.

Mr. Romney had heard from other skippers that easy money could be earned by bringing rum to certain discreet clients in St. Thomas. Cash was scarce in the B.V.I. and it was tempting; the sale of just two easy-to-hide gallons of this popular spirit would be enough make the whole trip worthwhile. Furthermore, rum running was not looked upon as an evil by the vast majority of Virgin Islanders. They had little respect for this ordinance, which forbade them from partaking of a beverage that was an ingrained part of the island culture; a law that was forced upon them without their consent or participation in the law-making process.

So it came to pass that one night Mr. Romney and a crewman were loading up their sloop in the cool of the evening in the harbor at West End with cargo bound for St. Thomas. Secured on deck and in the holds that night, were ground provisions, tropical fruits, 80 pounds of bonito, two sheep, and several large sacks of charcoal each containing a gallon bottle of rum brewed at the Callwood Distillery in Cane Garden Bay.

The wooden sloop left West End just before dawn and arrived at the Charlotte Amalie waterfront about four hours later. Passing through customs and immigration was generally a routine affair. Having filed the appropriate forms and having answered the perfunctory questions satisfactorily, the customs officer in charge dismissed Captain Romney and his mate.

The two men barely had a chance to take a few steps, before they were challenged by the newly-hired female customs officer. "What did you say your name was, Captain?" she asked.

"Romney, Joseph Romney," he replied.

"Let me see," the officer murmured, almost to herself, "Romney … Romney … Why that name sounds a lot like - RUM! What are in those sacks Captain Romney?" she inquired menacingly.

A cold chill ran up the captain's spine as he answered as nonchalantly as possible, "Charcoal."

"We'll just see about that. Let's have a look."

Images of a dark and dingy prison cell flashed through Mr. Romney's mind, when, all of a sudden one of the other officers spoke out and said, "It's alright, we know him, it's just coal. Let him go."

"OK, Captain Romney," said the suspicious officer, "you may leave - and have a nice day."

Joseph Romney gave thanks to God, and promised never, ever again to attempt such a foolish thing. And, true to his word, that was the first, last, and only time that he ever carried contraband on any of his vessels.