St. John USVI Places: Annaberg
The Virgin Islands National Park Service has prepared a self-guided tour of the historic Annaberg Sugar Mill Ruins. The walk through this partially restored old sugar factory provides a great deal of insight into the history and culture of St. John during the plantation and post-emancipation eras.
If you are coming from Cruz Bay via the North Shore Road, proceed to Maho Bay where the road leaves the shoreline and turns inland towards the right. From here, continue about 1.5 miles where you will come to an intersection with the Leinster Bay Road that runs along the shoreline. Turn right when you get to the water’s edge. Go about a quarter mile to the end of the paved road where you’ll find the parking lot for the Annaberg Sugar Mill.
If you are arriving via Centerline Road, turn north on Route 20 near the Colombo Yogurt stand. Go down the hill and turn right at the first intersection. This will take you to the Leinster Bay shoreline where you will turn right and proceed to the Annaberg parking area at the end of the paved road.
The man to give the name Annaberg to the plantation was Solomon Zeeger, a Dutchman from St. Eustatius. Zeeger acquired the plantation in 1758 and named it Annaberg (Anna's Hill) after his wife, Anna deWindt.
The view from Annaberg is spectacular. You can see down into Leinster Bay, the Narrows, the Sir Francis Drake Channel,several of the British Virgin Islands and forested the mountain valleys of St. John.
The slave quarters (called worker's quarters after Emancipation) barely remain. However, archeologists have uncovered a wealth of artifacts here. There were more than 16 buildings in this area.
These structures were made of daub and wattle. Daub is a type of mortar made of coral, lime and sand that were fired together and then mixed with molasses and mud. Wattle is a woven structure made of the wood from the false coffee bush.The mortar (daub) was packed into the wattle walls like plaster. The roof was thatched with sugarcane leaves or palm fronds.
The Moravian missionary, C.G.A. Oldendorp, wrote a report on
the progress of the Moravian Church in the Danish West Indies
titled, A History of the Mission of the Evangelical Brethren,
published in 1777.
In the following excerpt, Oldendorp describes a typical slave dwelling:
The layout and the foundation of their houses rest on four stakes, which are driven into the ground. Fork-shaped on the top end and shaped in such a manner as to form a square; these stakes are linked together at the top by an equal number of horizontal boards. On these rest the rafters of the roof which come together in a crest. A few more vertical stakes are placed between the corner posts, and pliable branches are woven among these. The latter are covered with quicklime and plastered with cow dung. Once the roof rafters have been covered with sugarcane leaves, the entire house is complete. The entryway is so low that a man can not pass through it without bending down. The doorway and a few small openings in the walls allow only a little light to flow into the dwelling during the day. The floor is the bare earth, and the two inclined sides of the roof, which extend almost down to the ground on the outside, make up the ceiling. An interior wall divides the house into two rooms of unequal size, the smaller one serving as a bedroom.
As you walk through the ruins you will notice the steep hills behind the factory. This entire hillside was planted in sugarcane. The natural vegetation was cut and burned and the hillsides were terraced using the native stone. The cane was then brought to the fields and planted. Water had to be hauled to the sugarcane plants by hand. When it was time to harvest the cane, the slaves worked 18-20 hours a day. They cut the cane and loaded it onto carts, which were drawn by donkeys to the sugar mill.
A Typical Day
The slave's day began at 4:00 a.m. when the bomba (overseer) sounded the tutu (a conch shell with one end cut off). The slaves would get up and feed the livestock before reporting to work in the field at 5:00 a.m. They would work until the 8:00 a.m. when there would be a short break for the morning meal. Those slaves without food would eat sugarcane, when available.
Work continued until noon. Between noon and 12:30 p.m., grass was gathered to feed the cattle. After the grass was collected, there was an hour and a half break for lunch. Slaves with families would go home. Slaves without families generally stayed in the fields during the lunch break. After lunch, the slaves worked the fields until sunset.
During the dead season, July to November, when there were no sugarcane crops, the animals were fed again, and the slaves could return home for the evening meal and the preparation of the next day's lunch. At times there would be additional work called donker work. This was night work, such as hauling manure and water or cleaning up the master's yard. This work could last from about 7:00 to 10:00 in the evening.
During crop time, the workday was extended further, and everyone including women, children and even those who were ill, were put to work cutting cane and bringing it to the mills. The kaminas, or field slaves, were not given clothes by their masters, and many of them had to perform the laborious fieldwork naked in the heat of the tropical sun. They worked six days a week. On Sundays, the slaves tended their garden plots called provision grounds. On some plantations, the slaves were allowed to tend their gardens on Saturday afternoons as well.
A holding cell called the dungeon is located on the lower south side of the estate. Rust stains show where shackles were attached and remains of graffiti still exist.
When the horsemill was being used, horses, oxen or mules walked around the circular horsemill turning the three crushers. Four slaves were needed to run the animal mill. One drove the animals, two worked the rollers feeding the cane and one took away the left over sugarcane pulp called bagasse.
On St. John, only the plantations at Annaberg, Carolina, Denis Bay, Susannaberg, Cathrineberg and Caneel Bay used windmills. (There were 140 windmill built on St. Croix.) The 40-foot-tall Annaberg windmill was built between 1810 and 1830. The wind-powered blades turned the rollers that crushed the sugarcane. While the horsemill could only crush about 50 cartloads of cane per day, the more efficient windmill could crush 75-100 cartloads. The sugarcane had to be juiced within 24 hours of being harvested to prevent spoilage. Slaves worked almost around the clock at harvest time. When it was windy, both windmill and horsemill were operated simultaneously. It took about ten slaves to work the windmill. Two of the men fed the bundles of sugarcane back and forth through the cane crushing rollers. An ax was kept nearby in case an unfortunate worker got his hand caught in the rollers. Then if nearby workers acted fast enough, his arm would be chopped off before the rollers crushed his whole body.
After the cane stalks were crushed, the juice ran from the crushers down into the boiling room through wooden troughs. The juice then went into the first of five iron pots where it was boiled. The fire was made in a fire pit and fueled from the outside of the sugar factory walls.
The crushed cane stalks that remained were collected, dried, and taken to a storage shed, the stone columns of which still remain.
These dried cane stalks were called "bagasse" or "magasse" and they were used as fuel for the fire. At first firewood was used to fuel the fires, but as trees became scarce due to land clearing to establish plantations and their use of firewood planters switched to bagasse out of necessity.
The thickened juice was then ladled into the neighboring pot and boiled again to just the right consistency and then ladled into the succeeding pot. This was done, pot after pot, until a brown sugar, called muscavado, was produced. The workers in the boiling room had to be highly skilled. A mistake in timing would end up in the production of molasses, which was not nearly as valuable as sugar.
The muscavado was then cooled and dried. The finished product was loaded into large wooden barrels called hogsheads containing about 1,000 pounds of sugar each. The barrels were brought to dories and then loaded onto larger vessels bound for Europe.
Rum was produced at the rum still. Sugarcane trash, cane juice drippings and molasses were all fed into a fermentation cistern. The fermented liquid was then boiled in a copper still over a slow fire. The alcohol vapors rose up in copper coils that led into the cooling cistern. The cool water of the cistern caused the vapor to condense, and a harsh raw rum called “kill devil” was formed. More refined rum was produced by aging the kill devil in wooden barrels for several years.
Water was collected and stored in cisterns, which were all connected by aqueducts. Three cisterns are located within the ruins at the mill. The remains of the others are higher up on the hillside.
The Provision Grounds
The Danish colonization of St. John was characterized by the establishment of plantations dedicated to the production of sugar, cotton and other tropical products. Africans, forced into slavery, provided the labor for these plantations. Under such a system, the slave owner had to decide how these slaves would be fed.
Ideally (for the slave owner) food would be purchased and fed to the slaves. This would give the slave owner complete control of his captives. On St. John, however, where plantations were, at best, only marginally successful, estate owners did not have the resources to buy food for their slaves.
Another possibility would be to produce food on the plantation itself, under the supervision and control of the slave owner. This was not practical on St. John either. Cleared and terraced land came at too high a cost in time and labor to be devoted to food crops.
The solution on St. John was to have slaves produce their own food, on plots called provision grounds located on the less productive areas of the plantation.
Although the additional responsibility of providing for their own food was a great hardship for the already overworked slaves, the system did provide them with certain hidden benefits.
Because the provision grounds were unsupervised, the slaves were able to gather and interact out of sight of their masters. Although often forbidden, slaves from different plantations could meet on the more remote provision grounds. On these occasions cultural traditions could be passed on, news could be disseminated, and conspiracies involving escape and resistance plans could be discussed.
Slaves often worked together on their plots and shared the harvest. Those who were strong and healthy supported the old, weak or infirm. On some plantations the slaves were able to produce a surplus of food, charcoal or crafts and a system of exchange developed along with an underground economy, which even provided some slaves with enough money to buy their freedom. Moreover, the tradition of an agriculturally based society enabled the slaves to survive on St. John after the failure of the sugar industry and the end of slavery.
A tradition of independence, extended family, cooperation and sharing developed around the provision grounds. This spirit is still evident on St. John even in these modern times, which tend to be more orientated toward individualism and self-interest.
On the Annaberg plantation the provision grounds were located on the hillside to the south of the estate. This area was chosen because it was only marginally suitable for sugar production. After the St. John slave revolt of 1733, planters were apprehensive about the possibility of another revolt. As a result they tried to keep the slaves from different plantations from communicating with each other. On Annaberg the hillside to the south that was chosen as the provision grounds area was fairly close to a provision grounds of a neighboring located on the opposite slope of the same hillside. To prevent slaves from the two estates from meeting with each other a slave named Ajax was posted on the top of the hill to stand guard. The name of that hilltop to this day is "Ajax Peak."
Brief History of Annaberg
Before the arrival of the Europeans, Annaberg was heavily forested with tall tropical hardwoods which created a shady canopy, a park-like setting where one could walk easily between the trees. After European colonization, almost all of these trees were cut down to establish plantations. Today what we see is all second and third growth.
In 1718, the island of St. John was claimed by the nation of Denmark and settlement began that year.
What was later to be named the Annaberg plantation was first taken up by a French refugee, Isaac Constantine in 1721. It took almost 10 years to clear the hills, establish the sugar making infrastructure and get the first crop put in the ground.
In1733, the slaves on St. John revolted and most of the buildings at Annaberg were destroyed or heavily damaged.
In 1796, Annaberg was purchased by James Murphy, a wealthy St. Thomas merchant, ship owner and slave trader. In addition to Annaberg, Murphy bought five other plantations that were contiguous with Annaberg. The consolidated lands were called Annaberg, which became the largest and most successful plantation on St. John. At its heyday Annaberg covered 1,300 acres of prime land and produced some area 100,000 pounds of sugar annually. It was James Murphy who had the then state-of-the-art windmill at Annaberg built.
Annaberg and the Decline of the Sugar Industry on St. John
Several factors combined which in the end resulted in the total demise of sugar as an industry on St. John. To begin with, the planting conditions on St. John were marginal due to the steep terrain, rocky soil and low rainfall. In addition, depletion of nutrients in the soil after years of continuous sugar planting without soil replenishment and persistent erosion that could not be completely controlled by terracing lead to lower and lower crop yields. The price of sugar declined with increased competition from other areas that were better suited to produce sugar.
The introduction of the sugar beet put further pressure on the industry. Unlike sugar cane, which could only be grown in tropical and sub tropical climates, the sugar beet could be grown in temperate climates leading to production in Europe, North America, Asia and elsewhere.
Sugar production in those days was extremely labor intensive and even more so on St. John due to naturally poor conditions and its remote location. In fact, St. John's sugar production was only economically feasible because the labor force was enslaved. Slavery was not only morally reprehensible, but problematic. Slaves died prematurely due to overwork, disease, mistreatment and poor nutrition. Slaves would often rebel in various ways including in maroonage (escapes), work stoppages, and even suicides. Emancipation in the British West Indies put additional pressure on the planters depending on slave labor.
Emancipation in the British West Indies and Grand Maroonage (Escape by Sea) on St. John
Slavery was abolished in the British Virgin Islands in 1840, but continued in the Danish West Indies until 1848. Between those years, the proximity of St. John to Tortola provided slaves on St. John with a unique opportunity to achieve their freedom. Tortola lay just across the Sir Francis Drake Channel. From Annaberg this distance was only a little more than one mile. In May of 1840, eleven slaves from the Annaberg Plantation fled to Tortola. This was the first major slave escape occurring during that period.
After emancipation, planters on St. John tried to keep their slaves working on the plantation by enforcing labor laws designed to perpetuate the plantation system. Slaves, now known as workers, could not leave the plantations. Wages were kept artificially low and often were paid in the form of goods called an allowance. Disgruntled workers began to offer resistance to the unjust labor laws. They brought their grievances to the Danish authorities, organized strikes and work stoppages, and often ran away to Tortola or St. Thomas.
After emancipation, slavery continued on St. John in practice, if not in theory. But worker resistance and the unfavorable economics of sugar production on St. John, more than any legal proclamations, eventually brought about the end of this unofficial system of slavery.
The Last Straw
In 1867, a major hurricane followed by an earthquake and a tsunami led to the abandonment of Annaberg by the owner. Two hundred laborers on the Annaberg and Leinster Bay Plantations were left to fend for themselves. They asked the authorities' permission to stay on and work the plantations on their own, but they were refused.
After the twin disasters of 1867, George Francis, a slave born on the plantation, who became foreman of the estate after emancipation was able to purchase the once prosperous Annaberg estate for a fraction of what it was once worth.
In 1899 the estate passed to his son, Carl Francis, who set out to restore the estate that had further declined over the years.
Mr. Francis raised cattle on the estate from the early 1900s until its sale to Herman Creque in 1935. He built a house on the site of the horsemill, which was rebuilt after the great hurricane in 1924. The family survived by taking refuge in the windmill, which, although it had no roof, provided the necessary protection. (St. John did not experience another major hurricane until Hurricane Hugo in 1989.)
Carl Francis was chosen as the mann to raise the US Flag for the first time on St. John after the United States purchased the Danish West Indies in 1917.
In 1935, Carl Francis sold Annaberg to a Mr. Herman Creque, who left the estate to his wife, Emily. In 1955, Annaberg was sold to the Rockefeller controlled Jackson Hole Preserve Inc. and donated to the National Park. When the National Park acquired the land in the 1950s, they dismantled the house. The cookhouse is all that remains.
The cookhouse at Annaberg was built in the early 20th Century by Carl Emanuel Francis. Food was baked in iron pots called coal pots. Charcoal was placed underneath the coal pot, which was then covered with galvanized steel. Additional charcoal could be placed on top.
Herbs for medicine and cooking were gathered from the bush or grown in the garden. Maran bush was used for brooms and pot scrubbing a (readily available natural material - it scrubbed and deodorized as well). Sea fans were used as whisks and sifters. Baskets were made from hoop vine.
Today, Miss Olivia, bakes dumb bread in the traditional method as a cultural demonstration.
Annaberg Cultural Demonstrations
National Park interpreters and volunteers give demonstrations and discussions on the local culture of the time including baking, basket weaving, folk life and agricultural techniques. For more information, contact the VI National Park online at www.nps.gov/viis or call (340) 776-8811.