St.John, U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI)
St.John Beach Guide
St. John Beach Guide
Trail Bandit Map
Trail Bandit Map



St. John & Virgin Islands History

St. John Virgin Islands has a fascinating history and culture starting from its fiery volcanic birth.

St. John was once the site of a thriving Taino culture, a lucrative plantation era based on sugar and slavery followed by the subsistence economy of hard working and industrious small farmers, artisans and fishermen.

Today, St. John, USVI is the home of the Virgin Islands National Park and is one of the most “in” tourist destinations of those in the know.

After Emancipation

On July 3, 1848 the governor of the Danish West Indies, Peter von Scholten, issued the following proclamation: “Maketh known: 1. All Unfree in the danish westindia Islands are from to-day emancipated. 2. The Estate Negroes retain from three months from date the use of the houses and provision grounds, of which they have hitherto been possessed. 3. Labour is in future to be paid for by agreement, but allowance is to cease. 4. The maintenance of old and infirm, who are not able to work, is until farther determination to be furnished by the late owners.”

On July 4, and on July 5, 1848 the proclamation was read on St. John. The St. John Carnival, celebrated on July 4, commemorates this event.

Unfortunately, it seemed that the authorities on St. John had their own interpretation of what emancipation meant.

On July 5, 1848 a police placard was posted at Cruz Bay and Coral Bay.

…owners and captains of boats and other vessels in St. John…under severe penalty, (are prohibited) to bring persons belonging to the laboring classes away from this island…

On July 10, 1848 another placard was placed at Cruz Bay and Coral Bay. This placard forced the newly “freed” to sign work contracts with their former owners. A July 26 circular dealt with “wages”:

Being free the people must support themselves with labor. The wages in money, which they receive for their labor should accordingly supply them with nearly the same quantity of food and laboring clothes which they formerly received as allowance.

The circular went on to say that, as there were no stores to buy food and clothing, actually paying wages would not necessary, and the allowances could be given directly to the laborers.

What this meant was that the “freed” were not free at all. They were not allowed to leave the island, or even the plantation. Instead of being paid wages many of the “laborers” just received the same basic staples of food and clothing that they used to get during slavery.

In 1851 a British publication called The Anti-Slavery Reporter described conditions on St. John:

“The labouring population have nearly the same wages, and are under the same coercive regulation, which, in some late instances, had been exercised with greater severity than the law, severe as it is, could ever have contemplated.

Some well-disposed people, helpers in the Moravian Church, had been flogged for slight transgressions of discipline, who had never been flogged as slaves; and we hear of one well-authenticated case, in which a young man, for stealing canes, had been so severely flogged as to die of the lacerations, four days after. The labourers, generally speaking, are abject and crouching, and unwilling to give evidence of the wrongs that come under their notice.”

The post emancipation era on St. John was characterized by a series of rigid, confusing and outmoded labor laws. Workers had to sign yearly contracts with their employers, and a maximum wage of two dollars per month was mandated. Many laborers failed to renew their contracts because other more profitable or desirable options existed.

In St. Thomas, for example, labor laws were not enforced, and much higher wages were paid. Laborers were, therefore, tempted to flee St. John in order to work in St. Thomas. One man, who was returned to St. John after being apprehended in St. Thomas, reported that he had been working at the St. Thomas harbor for $1.25 a day. This was a far better wage than the $2.00 a month paid on St. John.

Another escape option for laborers was Tortola. On that British island it was possible to obtain land for farming. Moreover, right on St. John were hundreds of acres of abandoned sugar plantations, where workers could survive on their own by subsistence activities such as provision farming, charcoal production and fishing.

In addition to running away disgruntled workers offered resistance to the unjust labor law by bringing their grievances to the Danish authorities and by organizing strikes and work stoppages.

In actuality it was the decline of the sugar industry that eventually freed the workers from slavery. Plantations on St. John were abandoned by their owners to be sold at rock bottom prices. The new owners, former workers and immigrants from other West Indian Islands, eked out a meager existence on the once profitable estates, beginning a new chapter in the history of St. John.

18th Century Alternative to Slavery

A plan by Dr. Paul Erdmannn Isert

Dr. Paul Erdmann Isert, a German national who had studied and lived in Denmark, came to the west coast of Africa in 1783. He was appointed Chief Surgeon at the fortified Danish settlement of Christianborg, which today would be in the nation of Ghana. He obtained this position even though he was very young, because it was a job no one wanted.

After a few years in Christianborg, Isert signed on as a physician aboard a slave ship.

Sickened by the horror and human misery he saw, both in the slave-processing bins of Christianborg and aboard the ship, Isert came up with an alternative to the abhorrent practice of slavery.

Following the discovery of the New World, Europeans came to the West Indies in order to make their fortunes as masters of plantations exporting valuable tropical products.

These West Indian plantations required a great number of laborers.

Europeans would not consider relocating to this hot and unhealthy part of the world, working long hours (from sunup to sundown) all to be paid an abysmally low wage. The answer to this labor problem was slavery.

Africans, captured by slave traders, were chained and shackled, and brought to European slave-processing stations on the west coast of Africa. These unfortunates were then crammed into slave ships under the most horrible conditions imaginable, and transported across thousands of miles of ocean to labor in a strange land controlled by cruel and barbaric overseers.

Isert found this state of affairs not only inhumane, cruel and immoral, but also absurdly stupid. In a letter sent from St. Croix in 1787 to his father, Isert asked these questions:

“Why did our forefathers not have the sense to found plantations right there on the fertile continent of Africa; plantations for sugar, coffee, cacao, cotton and other articles that had become so necessary in Europe.

“Had we gone to Africa with the leaf of the olive tree in our hands rather than weapons of murder, willingly would the natives have given us access to the best and most fertile parts of their lands, areas which for untold years had been lying desolate. Why was not our approach more Christian, more intelligent and humane? Why?

“These African people would have helped us in freedom and, for low wages would have given us greatness and riches with no offense against nature, or our personal and national consciences.

“Why did we have to uproot vast numbers of people from their homelands, subject them to agony, torture, humiliation, and death; transplant them to alien continents, Caribbean islands, big and small? Why?”

Isert wanted to demonstrate that the establishment of working plantations on the continent of Africa could be practical and profitable. To this end, he enlisted the aid of Ernest Schimmelmann who was then the Danish Minister of Finance. Schimmelmann, a well-known and well-off liberal, who was instrumental in the passage of the law ending the Danish Atlantic slave trade, agreed to finance Isert’s endeavor.

Isert sailed to Africa in the summer of 1788 and established a plantation at the base of the Awapim Mountains, purchasing the land from the Asante king, Osei Kwame, on behalf of the king of Denmark. Isert had once tended the king’s sister and subsequently the African and the European had become good friends.

With the help of Osei Kwame, who shared Isert’s enthusiasm about the plan, paid workers cleared the land and began cultivation of sugar and coffee.

On January 16, 1789, Isert wrote a report for the King of Denmark in which he expressed the fine initial success that he was enjoying. Isert died on January 21, 1789, just five days after writing the report.

At first it was believed that Isert had passed away from a tropical fever. Other information that surfaced later indicated, however, that he had been murdered in a conspiracy that was instigated by European financiers of the slave trade and powerful plantation owners in the Danish West Indies. Isert’s actual assassination was said to have been carried out by corrupt government officials at Christianborg and their henchmen.

Anegada Airports

The unlikely island of Anegada has the distinction of being the site of the first airport ever built in the British Virgin Islands. The airstrip that first brought the age of air travel to the BVI was not much more than a hard-packed dirt runway. It was located at West End near Cow Wreck Beach and constructed in hopes of servicing a fledgling shark fishing industry that had started up on the island.

The shark fishery never really got off the ground, and the only aircraft to ever land at West End were one or two small private planes from St. Thomas carrying store-bought goods to Anegada residents and returning with local produce and seafood. These flights, however, were so few and far between that it was not long before the airstrip was abandoned and fell into disrepair.

Although Anegada’s first introduction to the age of air travel had little to no effect on the lives of the residents of this remote island, the next airport to be built on Anegada did bring about considerable social change, but not in the way that most airports do. Anegada’s Auguste George Airport was completed in 1969 and is located towards the northern part of the Settlement. As its 2,500-foot runway can only accommodate small aircraft, most visitors still arrive on sailboats and the airport has never been a major player in Anegada’s burgeoning tourist industry.

Nonetheless, the construction of the Auguste George Airport in the 1960s did result in major changes in the lives and lifestyles of the residents of Anegada. The story of how this came about begins with the unorthodox nature and history of land ownership on the island.

For many generations, Anegadians survived by fishing, raising animals and planting crops. The land outside of the Settlement, where people lived, was divided by stone walls about four feet high. The walls separated animal grazing areas from fields where crops such as corn, cotton, potatoes and bananas were grown. The goats and cattle, although capable of breaching the walls, were trained over generations not to. Docile easy-to-train animals were bred by sending those that proved difficult on a speedy trip to the dinner table.

Anegadians claim that Queen Victoria bequeathed all Anegada land to the residents of Anegada in the nineteenth century. This claim was tacitly recognized by the British Crown with the issuing of an ordinance in 1885 granting land to those who would have their property boundaries surveyed and registered. For one reason or another, no Anegadian ever followed through with this program, and land ownership on the island remained an unsettled issue until 1961 when a new ordinance defined the residential area known as the Settlement and identified other land to be used for communal animal grazing and agricultural cultivation. These lands accounted for 1,500 of Anegada’s 9,500 total acres. The remaining 8,000 acres were to be held in trust for Anegadians and could be leased but not sold.

In 1967, a Canadian developer, Kenneth Bates, described by the British press as “a man with the Midas touch,” presented the government of the BVI with his plans for the development of Anegada and Wickham’s Cay. He somehow was then awarded the lease to those 8,000 acres.

Part of the Bates master plan for Anegada and the BVI was to create the airport and service it with roads. The airport was located in the heart of the walled plantation area. The lands were cleared and many of the walls were knocked down, often in strategic places such as the walled off paths that led the animals back to the Settlement at night after being left to graze during the day. Animals and crops were neglected by the men of Anegada who found working on the Bates project to be more economically rewarding.

In 1971, the BVI government citing conditions in the Bates agreement that could be regarded as unfair in national terms, purchased Bates’ corporation and the plan came to an end. Meanwhile, the balanced pattern of animal husbandry and crop cultivation practiced in Anegada for almost 200 years was broken. Neglected by the farmers, the cattle learned to climb over what was left of the walls and the remaining crops were destroyed. The continued unrestricted grazing has led to such serious erosion that much of Anegada is now bare rock.

Life on the small island changed dramatically. Shortly after the demise of the Bates plan, nearly 40 % of the residents left Anegada. Now the only cultivation you see on Anegada is at the government Agricultural Station and on small home gardens.

Cow Wreck Beach

In the 1800s when a ship carrying cow bones (used at the time to make chalk and buttons) wrecked on the reef just offshore of a small sandy cove on the northwest coast of Anegada. For years afterwards these bones washed ashore and the cove became known as Cow Wreck Beach.

Last Landing

The last landing at the airstrip before it literally disappeared into the bush was made by “a doctor from Tortola who flew his own plane and tried to make a call to Anegada by air. Having inspected the airfield from above and deciding it looked okay, he went in for his landing and touched down. All went well until an 18-inch ditch across the runway sheared off his landing gear. It seems that one of the locals, wanting to drain a salt marsh, had dug a ditch across the runway. Such is aviation across the West Indies…” (Street’s Cruising Guide to the Eastern Caribbean, by Donald Street.) The doctor mentioned in the story was identified by some Anegadians as Tortola’s Dr. Tattersoll.

Captain Auguste George Airport

The airport was named after Captain Auguste George Airport. His daughter, Anegada-born Gracita Faulkner, earned international fame and appeared in leading roles in “La Traviata” and “Faust” for the American Opera Guild.

Clair Aero

Clair Aero has scheduled service to Anegada from Tortola and St. Thomas using either a single engine plane with a three-person capacity or their twin-engine aircraft capable of carrying seven passengers. There are three flights a week from St. Thomas and four a week from Tortola. The airport also receives some private planes, which arrive every once and a while.

 Bates Plan

On January 20, 1967, a total of 8,092 acres of the island’s 9,592 acres were leased [by the Government] to … a British corporation [Bates-Hill Corporation and its BVI subsidiary of Development Corp. of Anegada, Ltd.], for the development of a [tax haven] retiree community and tourist resort over a 199 year period … An international jet strip, golf courses, residential, commercial and light industrial sites, a large electrical generating system, marinas, a nursery and sod farm, and a network of roads were either planned or put under construction. (Anne LaBastille and Milo Richmond, Birds and Mammals of Anegada Island, British Virgin Islands) by Gerald Singer

Caneel Bay History

Over the centuries, Caneel Bay has been occupied by people of diverse cultures and from far away places. From the religious and spiritually oriented culture of indigenous Americans, it passed to the slavery-based plantation system of Europeans and enslaved Africans, then to the subsistence economy of freed slaves and peasant farmers and from there to a series of vacation resorts, starting out as basic cottages and developing into the super-luxurious Caneel Bay Resort of today catering to the well-heeled from North America and beyond.

The first inhabitants of Caneel Bay were the ancestors of the Tainos, who established a village in the coastal section of the valley around 600 AD. For many years, they lived peacefully, planting yucca, fishing, gathering wild fruit, fabricating ceramic pottery, tools and ceremonial objects and conducting their social and religious ceremonies.

This peaceful existence lasted until sometime in the fifteenth century, when Caribs from the Lesser Antilles began a series of devastating raids that apparently depopulated the island, shortly before Europeans ever arrived in the Caribbean. When part of Columbus’ fleet sailed past the northern coast of St. John in 1493, the crew, as well as their Taino captives, reported St. John to be uninhabited.

For the next two centuries, St. John remained only sparsely and intermittently inhabited by small groups of Native Americans fleeing persecution, pirates, fugitives of all sorts and colors, fishermen and woodcutters. Meanwhile Denmark colonized St. Thomas, and in the early eighteenth century, gave permission to a group of Dutch planters to set up plantations on St. John.

A Dutchman from the island of Statia, Peter Durloe was one of these original planters. His first claim was what is now called Cinnamon Bay, which he named for the many cinnamon trees, (bay rum) found there. Of course, being Dutch he used the Dutch word for “cinnamon” which is “caneel.” Thus, the first Caneel Bay was actually Cinnamon Bay.

What we now call Caneel Bay also had a magnificent stand of bay rum trees for which that bay was similarly named. To distinguish this Caneel Bay from the original Caneel Bay, the former was called Klein Caneel or Little Caneel, and Cinnamon Bay was called Store Caneel or Big Caneel.

When English became the predominant language in the Danish West Indies (now the U.S. Virgin Islands), Store Caneel Bay became know as Cinnamon Bay and Klein Caneel Bay, no longer needing the distinction “little,” became, and has remained, Caneel Bay.

In 1733, slaves from the Amina tribe rebelled and took over most of St. John, with the exception of Caneel Bay, where surviving white planters and enslaved Africans from other African tribes with their own long standing animosities against the Aminas, regrouped after the rebellion. With the help of two cannons guarding the entrance to the estate, the small force was able to maintain control of the plantation until the rebellion was put down by French troops from Martinique.

After the rebellion, Caneel Bay continued on as a thriving plantation with sugarcane grown in the mountain valley being refined at the plantation’s own sugar works near the beach.

After slavery was abolished, the sugar plantation at Caneel Bay declined and reverted to cattle grazing and subsistence farming.

In the 1930s, the West India Company of St. Thomas purchased the approximately 550-acre property. The company, appreciating the natural beauty of the bay, began to operate a modest resort, building three cottages, a small commissary and a narrow wooden dock. After that the company gradually constructed five additional cottages.

In 1935, the Virgin Islands Tourist Company bought the Caneel Bay Estate and the Grand Hotel on St. Thomas and began operation of the motor yacht, Flamingo, which provided service between St. Thomas and St. John. The company ran an advertisement for the resort reading:

Caneel Bay Plantation Resort Bungalows for rent. Each Bungalow is a self-contained unit, two large rooms and a porch. Equipped withal modern comfort: Bathroom and toilet with running water, electricity installed throughout, radio, fully furnished with comfortable furniture, full supply of linen and towels. Separate kitchen with Frigidaire, oli range and complete equipment of kitchen utensils, silver and china.

Each Bungalow has its own swimming beach. Opportunities for a lovely vacation in unspoiled tropical surroundings with all the comforts of today.

Excellent opportunities for horse-back riding, swimming and fishing.

Operated in conjunction with the Grand Hotel, St. Thomas. Interchange of guests between Hotel and bungalows arranged,

Write: The Virgin Islands Tourist Company or the leading Travel Bureaus for further information and reservation.

In 1946, the property was acquired by the Trigo brothers from Puerto Rico and four more cottages were built bringing the total to twelve. The Caneel Bay commissary was described in the 1960 book, Some True Tales and Legends about Caneel Bay, by Charlotte Dean Stark:

In the thirties and forties, the housekeeping cottages were for rent, all except #8, which was the manager’s cottage. Everything but food was included – electricity from the Caneel Bay Power Plant, all furnishings, and a St. John maid. Food was bought at the commissary by the maid, or by the lady if she felt like choosing her own groceries. The commissary was described by one visiting cottager as a little country store. Natives from all over the island, as well as the dozen or more cottage guests, bought there, as did the half dozen continental families then living on St. John.

There would sometimes be as many as twenty-five people all trying to buy at once. That was a crowd in those days.

During this time the resort raised cows, chickens and goats to supply meat, milk and eggs. Horses were also available for transportation to Cruz Bay and for use by resort guests.

The Trigo Brothers listed the property, along with its seven beautiful beaches and the profitable cottage colony for $75,000.

Until Laurence Rockefeller obtained the estate in 1952, rumors abounded as to the ultimate fate of the parcel, some of which were prophetic. In Desmond Holdridge’s 1937 account of life on St. John, Escape to the Tropics, he wrote:

Agnes (Agnes Sewer) said that some “Dane men” had bought Caneel Bay, a beautiful abandoned estate a couple of miles farther west, and were going to run it for tourists.

“Bout sixty thousand people comin’, I expect,” said Agnes, happy thinking of the money, but sad thinking of the strangers and the changes they will make.

I reassured her.

“Not very many are coming, Agnes. Hjalmar Bang is doing it, and he is just going to build a few houses where white folks that enjoy privacy can live. No hotel, no hot dog stands, no nonsense. It won’t change very much.”

History of Cinnamon Bay

cattle dipCattle Dip


The first inhabitants of Cinnamon Bay were the Taino who lived there from about 1000 A.D. until the end of the 15th Century.

European settlement began in 1718 when the Danish governor of St. Thomas gave permission for planters to claim land on St. John. They only had to meet the following conditions: One white man was to be on the plantation within three months, and sugar mills were to be built within five years. The plantations would be exempt from taxes for seven years.

Three tracts of land were claimed in Cinnamon Bay. Peter Buyck, a Dutchman, claimed the section of Cinnamon Bay now called Peter Bay. William Gandi, an Englishman, claimed the area which is now between Route 20 and the Cinnamon Bay Campground beach. Daniel Jansen, a Dane, became the owner of the property inland from the road.

By 1733, the year of the St. John slave revolt, the widow of Daniel Jansen had acquired all of Cinnamon Bay. She lived in St. Thomas, and the plantation was managed by her sons, Lieven and Johannes.

That year, Africans from the Akwamu Nation, who had been brought to St. John as slaves, revolted against the owners and managers of the St. John plantations.

The rebellious Akwamu slaves captured the fort in Coral Bay and the nearby plantations. They then descended upon Cinnamon Bay. John and Lieven Jansen and a small group of their slaves resisted the rebel onslaught.

Although the rebel forces were overwhelming, Jansen’s slaves fought a rear guard action and held off the Akwamus with gunfire. This tactic allowed the Jansens to retreat to their waiting boat and escape to Durloe’s Plantation at Caneel Bay. Miraculously, the slaves were also able to escape. The rebels proceeded to loot and burn the plantation’s two greathouses, sugar mill and rum distillery.

The slaves on the Jansen Estate had most certainly come from nations with a long history of bitter conflict with the Akwamu people. They did not want to, nor were they welcome to, join forces with their former enemies.

The buildings and other structures on the Jansen Estate were almost completely destroyed. The ruins of the sugar works and bay rum still, which presently exist at Cinnamon Bay, are not from that time and only date back to the mid nineteenth century.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, Cinnamon Bay was devoted to sugar cane production. Factors such as the depletion of the soil, the emancipation of the slaves and increased competition led to the decline of the sugar industry. The estate substituted other crops, and at the turn of the 20th century, the plantation began to produce bay rum oil from the leaves of the bay rum tree. This was the principle ingredient in the then popular cologne, St. Johns Bay Rum.

In 1913, Cinnamon Bay was owned by a Danish company. The land was dedicated to the breeding and raising of cattle. Danish and English cattle were mixed with the native breed producing a strong strain which became well known throughout the West Indies.

In the 1930s, Cinnamon Bay was owned by a man from Puerto Rico who continued using the land for cattle production. He set up a grocery in the storehouse, which is now the museum and beach shop. It was stocked with goods which he brought in from Puerto Rico on his schooner. He would then take cattle, charcoal, baskets and provision crops back to Puerto Rico for sale. In 1955, Cinnamon Bay was sold to Jackson Hole Preserve Inc. and later donated to the National Park.

Cinnamon Bay Archeological Dig

Archeology museumCinnamon Bay Archeology Museum


About 1,000 years ago, there was a thriving village located in the area now occupied by the Cinnamon Bay Campground. The inhabitants of that village were Tainos, indigenous Americans whose ancestors had migrated from South America, and whose culture had spread to St. John from Hispaniola and Puerto Rico.

For more than 400 years, the Tainos of Cinnamon Bay lived peacefully as fishers, farmers, gatherers and hunters. Having little need for great technological advances or to defend themselves from other human beings, their culture concentrated on religious and spiritual development.

The spiritual center of their community was a special structure, called a caney, which housed statues representing the Taino gods called zemis. The caney was dedicated to ceremony and prayer and was analogous to the churches, mosques, synagogues and temples of the modern world. It was in this caney that the villagers conducted an annual ceremony in which they made offerings of the first fruits of their harvests to the zemis.

On the day of the ceremony, the cacique, or chief, flanked by the highest-ranking priests and nobles of the village, would sit at the entrance to the caney and beat on a ceremonial drum. The villagers would assemble outside of the caney and sing songs in praise of the chief’s zemis. They then purged themselves by inserting a ceremonial spatula into their throats to induce vomiting. Thus cleansed, they would enter the caney carrying ceramic pottery containing offerings for the zemis. The pottery was made from sacred clay believed to contain zemis and the spirits of departed ancestors. The offerings represented the best of the harvest and included large perfectly formed shellfish and fine specimens of adult animals.

Once inside the caney, the worshippers would break a hole at the bottom of the ceramic pot, thus allowing the spirit to depart. Then the pot with the broken out bottom, along with its contained offerings, would be placed on the dirt floor of the caney. The ceremony ended with singing and dancing and the distribution of food by the chief and the priests. The offerings in the caney would be left to rot and remain undisturbed until the next year when the ceremony would be repeated and new offerings and pottery would be placed on top of what remained of the old ones.

Sometime around the era of Christopher Columbus, the Taino vanished from St. John. Their exact fate remains a mystery. They may have been wiped out, enslaved, or forced to flee with the arrival of warlike Caribs to the area sometime before the arrival of Columbus, or they might have met a similar fate at the hands of Spanish invaders following in the footsteps of Columbus. (Columbus, who sailed past the north coast of St. John in 1493, did not report seeing any signs of human habitation on the island.) At any rate, for the next 200 years, the crumbling remains of the abandoned village were covered over by natural vegetation and windblown sand from the nearby beach.

When the Danes colonized St. John in the early 1700s, they established a plantation at Cinnamon Bay. They cleared and terraced the land, planted crops and constructed buildings scattering and discarding what little remained of the ancient village. The area once occupied by the Taino caney was covered over by a road built to connect the north shore plantations with the main Danish settlement in Coral Bay.

The plantation at Cinnamon Bay went through its own cycle of development, prosperity and decline. By the end of the nineteenth century, the profitability of colonial plantation agriculture had degenerated to a point that the grand sugar and cotton estates of St. John were sold or abandoned. Cinnamon Bay was no exception, and during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, emphasis shifted to the more humble endeavors of bay rum production, cattle raising and subsistence farming. By the time Cinnamon Bay became the domain of the National Park in 1954, even the old plantation road had reverted to bush. The Taino village and its holy caney appeared to have been erased from the face of the Earth and from the memory of man.

That is, until 1992, when National Park archeologist, Ken Wild, sunk a two-meter square test hole on this very same spot where an ancient Taino community had congregated long ago to worship their gods.

The archeological excavation that followed this discovery uncovered layer upon layer of the Taino’s offerings to their gods and marked the first time in the history of Caribbean archeology that a caney had been excavated with the associated offerings still in place. Carbon dating of these artifacts show that the ceremony of annual offerings had been occurring from approximately 1000 A.D. to about the time that Columbus arrived in the Caribbean in 1492.

Fortunately, this archeologically significant excavation was begun before the forces of nature intervened to make it impossible. The beach at Cinnamon Bay has been eroding at an alarming rate. Just 40 years ago, the beach extended about 250 feet further out to sea than it is now. Hurricanes Hugo, Luis, Marilyn and others have accelerated the process and the caney, now lying just a few yards from the shoreline, would soon have been washed away and lost forever.

Geography of St.
John, the Virgin Islands and the Caribbean

Geographically speaking, St. John can be classified as belonging to the following island groups: Caribbean, West Indies, Greater Antilles, Virgin Islands and United States Virgin Islands.

What do these classifications mean?

The Caribbean

The Caribbean Sea is defined by the continental landmass of South and Central America on the south and west and by the islands of the Caribbean on the north and east. The Caribbean also refers to the islands that border or lie within the Caribbean Sea and sometimes to the adjacent mainland countries.

CaribbeanThe Caribbean


The West Indies

The West Indies usually refers to the non Latin islands of the Caribbean, but can also mean all the Caribbean Islands plus the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos. The term “West Indies” came into being to differentiate these islands from the East Indies, the territory that Columbus was seeking when he first ventured across the Atlantic.

Greater Antilles

The northern border of the Caribbean is formed by a vast underwater mountain range whose giant peaks break through the surface of the ocean to form the larger islands of the Caribbean, such as Cuba, Hispañola and Puerto Rico. Because of their size (compared to the smaller islands of the Lesser Antilles that make up the eastern extreme of the Caribbean) they are known as the Greater Antilles.

Greater AntillesGreater Antilles


St. John is part of a mostly underwater mountain plateau called the Puerto Rican Bank. This plateau, or shelf, extends from Puerto Rico on the west to Anegada and the Anegada reef on the east. The highest sections of this plateau rise above the sea to form Puerto Rico, Vieques, Culebra, and the American and British Virgin Islands with the exception of St Croix. The lower areas of the shelf lie under relatively shallow water, seldom more than 180 feet deep. In fact, during the last ice age, about 20,000 years ago, when the depth of the Earth’s oceans was two to three hundred feet lower than it is today, the entire bank was above water and constituted one large island.

St. Croix is technically not part of the Greater Antilles because it is separated from the Puerto Rican Bank by extremely deep water.

Lesser Antilles

Although geographically part of the Greater Antilles, the Virgin Islands are comparable in size to the Lesser Antilles and are not far from the northern end of this island group, separated only by the relatively narrow Anegada Passage. Moreover, historically, culturally, linguistically and politically, the Virgin Islands have more in common with the islands of the Lesser Antilles than with the Greater Antilles.

Lesser AntillesLesser Antilles


The Virgin Islands

Geographically the Virgin Islands belong to the archipelago of small islands and cays that lie on the Puerto Rican Bank east of Puerto Rico. They include the Puerto Rican islands of Culebra and Vieques and the United States and British Virgin Islands with the exception of St. Croix.

The Virgin Islands mapVirgin Islands


The United States Virgin Islands

The United States Virgin Islands is a political term for the islands that used to be known as the Danish West Indies until they were purchased by the United States in 1917. These islands including St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix then became known as the United States Virgin Islands.

Until the Americans changed the name of the Danish West Indies, what is today called the British Virgin Islands were simply, the Virgin Islands. To avoid confusion after the 1917 purchase, the English renamed their Caribbean colony, the British Virgin Islands.”

Easter Rock & St John Geology

Easter RockEaster Rock


Easter Rock rises above the treetops on the seaward side of the North Shore Road between Gibney Beach and Peace Hill. A lone sentinel standing a silent watch over tranquil Hawksnest Bay, the rock has inspired both romantic tales and scientific inquiries.

Island legend tells us this huge rounded boulder makes its way down to the sea every year on the night before Easter Sunday. When it gets to the bay, it takes a drink of water and then returns to its majestic perch before the morning sun rises over Peace Hill, and before the first motorists pass by, unaware of the awesome event that has just transpired. Doubting Thomases will need to explain the fact that even if Easter Sunday follows the driest of nights, during the driest of droughts, Easter Rock will still be wet early in the morning.

Although scientists have not yet succeeded in explaining Easter Rock’s propensity to go down to the sea on Easter Sunday for a drink of water, they can tell us about the origin of this massive boulder, which is the only one of its kind in the valley.

The outer crust of the Earth consists of large masses of slowly moving rock called tectonic plates. About 100 million years ago, one of these plates, called the North American plate, which was moving towards the west, encountered another tectonic plate called the Caribbean plate, which was moving in the same direction.

Life in the Caribbean has long been classified as slower moving than in the fast-paced world of continental America. This phenomenon apparently has a historical and geological foundation because a significant factor in the creation of many of the Caribbean islands, including St. John, is the fact that the Caribbean plate happened to be moving at a slower pace than its continental counterpart. Consequently, when the North American plate overtook the slower moving Caribbean plate, the American plate, being denser and heavier, slid under the Caribbean plate and pushed it up. The friction from the two giant masses of solid rock grinding against one another produced a heat so intense that it melted some of the rock between the two plates. The fiery, liquefied rock, called magma, built up in enclosed pockets, called magma chambers, and exerted an ever-increasing pressure on the surrounding rock. When that pressure became so great that it could not be contained any longer, the magma broke through its rocky chamber and spewed forth violently into the ocean. This event is called a volcano.

Normally, when super-hot magma comes in contact with cold ocean water, the magma explodes and is dispersed over a great area. In this case, however, the eruption occurred at a depth of 15,000 feet, or nearly three miles, below the surface of the ocean. At this great depth the water pressure is nearly 7,000 pounds per square inch, a pressure that was sufficient to keep the magma from exploding on contact with water and instead causing it to be deposited on the ocean floor in giant solid sheets.

Coinciding with this volcanic activity and the laying down of rock, the action of the American plate sliding under the Caribbean plate caused the latter to bulge at the edges. The combination of these events resulted in the beginnings of a mountain range that was to become the islands of the Greater Antilles. This process of volcanic activity and uplifting continued for million of years and caused the newly formed mountains to move closer to the surface.

It was during the next period of St. John’s development that Easter Rock was born. A series of volcanoes erupted in the area of what is today called Pillsbury Sound. This time the water was relatively shallow and the volcanoes erupted explosively. The shower of rocks, solidified volcanic ash, and molten lava added substance and height to the older solid sheets of rock and, in conjunction with the continued uplifting of the area, eventually brought part of the rocky underwater mass above sea level to form an island.

The awesome power of these violent eruptions also served to break off of huge chunks of the older rock, heaving them into the air. One of these massive fragments ended up just above what was to become Hawksnest Bay. That majestic boulder, now known as Easter Rock, not only goes down to the sea every Easter for a drink of water, but also serves as an enduring reminder of the fiery beginnings of the island of St. John.

History of Gibney Beach

Gibney Beach

Gibney Beach is a magnificent stretch of white sandy shoreline. The beach has a fascinating history that is largely responsible for the unique characteristics of, and the unique characters found on, the beach today.

Until 1950, there was nothing really unusual about Gibney Beach, which was then known simply as Hawksnest Beach.

The Amerindian ancestors of the Taino were the first human beings to settle in this area of St. John establishing a village on what is now called Hawksnest Point, the headland between Hawksnest and Caneel Bays.

European settlers named the bay, Högsnest, after the hawksbill turtle, which used to nest on the beaches there. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, human activity became intense enough to convince the hawksbill turtle to nest somewhere else. This fact, however, did not result in a change of name for the bay, but when the language of St. John evolved into English, Högsnest was anglicized and became Hawksnest.

Gibney Beach, or Högsnest, as it was known then, was also inhabited for a time by European colonists and African slaves. This is evidenced by the remains of old colonial- period structures, which can be found just inshore from the beach. There is also an old well from that period, which still functions. It is now used to provide irrigation for a modern-day provision ground, fruit orchard and plant nursery.

In 1946, Robert and Nancy Gibney came to St. John on their honeymoon. The Gibneys were an integral part of the “Beat Generation” the center of which was New York City’s Columbia University. Among their crowd were the poet, Robert Lax, the painter, Ad Reinherdt, and the author, Thomas Merton.

“Much of the Beat Life style existed among a small group at Columbia University as early as 1939,” Wilfred Sheed, The Beat Movement, Concluded; New York Times Book Review, February 13, 1972.

“That economy is of the essence of art was a tenet supported not only by Lax and Reinherdt, but by their close friend, painter, sculptor, prose writer and theorist, Robert Gibney,”

Susan Howe, The End of Art; Archives of American Art Journal, 1974.

The Gibneys rented a cottage in Cruz Bay and later leased the home of Julius and Cleome Wadsworth on Denis Bay. In 1949, they moved out to Henley Cay, where they lived in a small building, the remains of which can still be found on the island. (Their friends Lax and Reinherdt visited the Gibneys on Henley Cay and stayed for a summer.)

In 1950, the Gibneys bought a forty-acre parcel on Hawksnest Bay and constructed a house just inland from the center of the beach. They had three children.

The Gibney children followed in their parent’s footsteps. Like their father and mother, they were well liked and accepted by the native population and would receive many local visitors. In addition, they attracted a good following of Continentals.

The beat generation evolved into the hippies and when the Gibney children were teenagers they had many friends among the flower children who would often congregate at Hawksnest. Today the tradition continues, and there is still is a definite tendency for Gibney Beach to draw an offbeat or “off the beaten track” assembly.

When Robert and Nancy Gibney died, the beach, and the property behind it, was left to their three children and the land was eventually divided amongst them. Today, the parcel adjoining the old Oppenheimer house, bordered by a white picket fence, is privately owned by Teri Gibney, wife of the late John Gibney, and her son, Tommy. The parcels of beachfront land belonging to the other two Gibneys have been sold to the National Park, with the proviso that one of the heirs has the lifetime right to live in the Gibney house, and the other retains the right to land access to his former section of beach.

In 1957 the Gibneys sold a small parcel of their land in Hawksnest to J. Robert Oppenheimer, “the father of the atomic bomb,” and his wife, Kitty. The property was at the northeastern extreme of the Gibney’s land, where the Oppenheimers built a vacation home on the beach.

Upon the death of J. Robert and later Kitty, Oppenheimer, their daughter Toni inherited the property. When Toni died the property was left to “the people of St. John for a public park and recreation area.”

“The people of St. John” proved to be a nebulous entity and, as no provisions were made for the upkeep of the property, the house and land fell into disrepair. Graffiti covered the walls, and the house was vandalized.

Toni’s dream was finally realized when the Virgin Islands Government took charge of the property and created a Community Center there. Today, for a nominal fee, the Center can be rented out for Community functions, such as Senior Citizen outings, Boy Scouts, local Reggae and Calypso bands, picnics, weddings, birthday parties etc.

Oppenheimer Beach

It seems that the names of places in St. John, far from being permanent, are in a state of continual evolution and change.

Take Cinnamon Bay for example. The Tainos and their predecessors who lived there in Pre-Columbian times certainly had their own names for Cinnamon Bay, what the names actually were, of course, we will never know.

In historic times the early Dutch settlers named Cinnamon Bay for the cinnamon trees (bay rum) found there. Of course being Dutch they used the Dutch word for “cinnamon” which is “caneel”. Thus Cinnamon Bay was called Caneel Bay.

What is now called Caneel Bay also had a magnificent stand of bay rum trees for which the bay was named. To distinguish this Caneel Bay from the other Caneel Bay (Cinnamon Bay) the former was called Klein Caneel Bay meaning Little Caneel Bay and Cinnamon Bay was called Store Caneel Bay (Big Caneel Bay).

When English became the predominant language in the Danish West Indies (now the U.S. Virgin Islands), Store Caneel Bay became known as Cinnamon Bay and Klein Caneel Bay, no longer needing the distinction “little”, became simply “Caneel Bay”.

To further complicate matters the small beach to the west of Cinnamon Bay is now called Little Cinnamon Bay.

Sometimes the evolution of names can be ironic. Hawksnest Bay is a case in point. Again we will never know the first names for this bay, which were used by the ancestors of the Taino who had a village at Hawksnest Point.

European settlers named the bay, Högsnest, after the hawksbill turtle, which used to nest on the beaches there. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, human activity became intense enough to convince the hawksbill turtle to nest somewhere else, but this did not result in a change of name for the bay.

When the language of St. John evolved into English, though, Högsnest was anglicized to Hawksnest.

In 1950 Robert and Nancy Gibney purchased a track of land within the Hawksnest Bay Valley and constructed a stone house behind the beach on the eastern side of the bay. St. Johnians referred to that beach as Hawksnest Beach. The other beaches in Hawksnest Bay belonged to Rockefeller and were part the Caneel Bay Hotel.

When the National Park was established in St. John, Rockefeller kept the western beach, then known as Sheep Dock, but now called Caneel Hawksnest and donated the rest of his holdings in Hawksnest to the National Park. A campground was established on what is now the public beach at Hawksnest. The first name given to the beach was Little Hawksnest to distinguish it from the Gibney’s beach, Hawksnest.

In 1957 financial pressures prompted the Gibneys to sell off a small parcel of their land in Hawksnest to J. Robert Oppenheimer, “the father of the atomic bomb,” and his wife, Kitty. The property was at the northeastern extreme of the Gibney’s land. It did not include the beach, but the Oppenheimers were given right of access to the shoreline directly bordering their property. (This was, of course, in the days before all Virgin Island beaches became public domain.)

Oppenheimer houseOppenheimer House circa 1970


OppenheimerJ Robert Oppenheimer


Oppenheimer beachJ Robert Oppenheimer with Carl Frank


The Gibneys placed a series of deed restrictions on the sale. To prevent over development only one single family residence was permitted to be built, and to maintain the pristine and natural beauty of the land all construction designs, including the placement of any structures on the land, had to be approved by the Gibneys. To have control over who were to be their neighbors, the deed restrictions prohibited the rental of the property. Most importantly to the Gibneys was a right of first refusal that was included in the deed, giving them the option to repurchase the property if and when the Oppenheimers decided to sell.

The deed restrictions did not seem to restrict the Oppenheimers. Shortly after building their cottage they began to rent it out through the efforts of a local real estate agency. When the Gibneys protested, the Oppenheimers countered that the tenants were not renters but “just friends of theirs”.

After J. Robert Oppenheimer died, Kitty Oppenheimer began construction of a second building. When the Gibneys protested, Kitty countered that this was not a second building it was “just a tool shed”. The “tool shed”, which had a design and location unacceptable to the Gibneys, was built extremely close to the beach and right next to the Gibney Oppenheimer property line. That Christmas both Oppenheimer buildings were rented out to tenants or “just friends”, depending on who you believe.

The Gibney Oppenheimer relationship deteriorated. Lawsuits were initiated and, on more than one occasion, the police were called to intervene.

When Kitty died, she left the property to her daughter Toni, who some years later, hung herself in the beach cottage. By the terms of the will, the property was left to “the people of St. John for a public park and recreation area.” The executor of Toni’s estate was Robert Meyner, a former governor of New Jersey who had become an attorney. The Gibneys did not want a public park on their land and told Meyner that they would like to exercise their Right of First Refusal. Meyner responded that a Right of First Refusal would apply only to a sale and not to a donation. The Gibneys then said that they would pursue the deed restriction that said only a one family residence could be constructed. Meyner replied that they were wrong again; the deed said that only a one family residence could be “built” on the property, and there would be no need for further building.

“The people of St. John” proved to be a nebulous entity and, as no provisions were made for the upkeep of the property, the house and land fell into disrepair. Graffiti covered the walls, and the house was vandalized.

The Gibneys continued their long and drawn out fight to regain control of their property only meeting delay after delay. Robert Gibney died in 1973. Nancy Gibney continued her campaign but died in 1980 with the affair still unresolved.

Meanwhile, the National Park Beach constructed a parking lot, a changing area, pit toilets, barbecue grills, tables and benches and sheltered pavilions at Little Hawksnest which soon became so well recognized and so well visited that the name of the beach evolved to just plain Hawksnest. The small beach to the west became Little Hawksnest and the beach at Gibneys became known as Gibney Beach.

The Government of the Virgin Islands became the owners of the Oppenheimer land. They renovated the old house and made improvements to the land, which is now used as a Community Center. One of these improvements was a large iron gate at the entrance to the property on the North Shore Road. In an ironic twist of fate, the gate was prominently inscribed with what the powers that be felt would be the new name of this stretch of St. John shoreline … Oppenheimer Beach. Althogth the gate inscription has gone the way of many things in the tropics and is no longer readable, the name, Oppenheimer Beach, has to some extent remained intact …for now.

Ethel McCully and Little Maho Bay­­

Ethel McCully, author and colorful St. John personality, made her home at Little Maho Bay from 1953 until her death in 1980. In those days the North Shore Road was only a rough dirt track. It ended at the goat trail, which was the only access to her property.

The story of how Ethel McCully discovered Little Maho is a St. John legend.

Ethel McCully had been working as a secretary in New York. On her vacations she would often come to the Caribbean where she had dreams of someday buying her own house. On one particular winter vacation in 1947 Ethel McCully had gone to the island of St. Thomas in the United States Virgin Islands. From there she booked passage on a Tortola sloop bound for Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. On the tack that would take the sloop out through Fungi Passage and into the Narrows, the boat passed close by Little Maho Bay. Ethel McCully was enthralled by the sight of the small, perfect beach backdropped by emerald green mountain valleys. She asked the skipper to allow her to go ashore to explore. He replied that it was not permitted because he had already cleared out of United States territory.

Ethel McCully announced that if she could not be taken ashore, she would swim. The crew helped her over the side, and she did just that.

“…a half-crescent of beach, small, but perfect, with lush green hills rising beyond it,”-Ethel McCully.

She later bought the property and built a house on the bluff above the bay. She did this with the help of six donkeys and two laborers. Ethel wrote a book about the experience that was to be titled; “I Did It With Donkeys.” Her publisher said “no” to this idea, and the book was published in 1954 with the title, “Grandma Raised the Roof.” The roof to her guesthouse, which she called Island Fancy, was actually raised in 1953. Before her literary success with “Grandma Raised the Roof,” Ethel McCully was a mystery writer and an ambulance driver during World War One.

Ethel McCully’s Fight Against Condemnation In 1962, St. Johnians discovered at the eleventh hour that a bill giving the Secretary of the Interior the power to increase the National Park’s land holdings through condemnation was up for final vote in the United States House of Representatives. Ethel McCully and other St. Johnians, including the late Senator Theovald Moorehead (better known as Mooie) went to Washington in an effort to persuade Congress to defeat the proposed amendment. Mooie talked to congressmen and senators and placed an ad in the Washington Post. Mrs. McCully spoke at a meeting of the United States House of Representatives and expressed her ideas about the condemnation amendment.

The following is quoted from an article published in the New York Times on September 9, 1962 by J. Anthony Lukas entitled Grandmother Fights Congress.

Mccully ny times

A 66-year old grandmother is planning to “raise a little hell” on Capitol Hill this week.

One official had a preview yesterday of the way Mrs. Ethel Waldbridge McCully planned to defend her home in the Virgin Islands from condemnation under a bill before Congress.

The official warned her that a Congressman she planned to approach was “a very difficult man.” “Well I’m a very difficult woman,” Mrs. McCully told the startled official. So that will make two of us.”

Mrs. McCully, tiny and fragile looking, built her tropical hideaway on the lush, green shore of St. John Island, one of the three main islands in the United States territory in the Caribbean. A successful mystery-story writer, she described her construction task in a book called Grandma Raised the Roof, published in 1954.

But she said yesterday: “You can change that title now. You can call it ‘Grandma Raises Hell’. Yes, you can say I’m going to raise a little Hell.”

Ask some of the older St. Johnians if they remember Ethel McCully and you may be treated to some entertaining stories.

Ethel McCully died in 1980 at the age of ninety-four. Island Fancy now belongs to the National Park.

Erva Thorp­­­­

In the late 1950s Erva Thorp, the former Erva Boulon and her husband Bill built and ran a guesthouse at Little Maho Bay that was called Lille Maho, the old name for Little Maho Bay. Andy Rutnik, Commissioner of Licensing and Consumer Affairs in the administration of Governor Turnbull, and his wife, Janet Cook-Rutnik, now an internationally recognized artist, used to be the caretakers of Lille Maho for Mrs. Thorp.

Great Escapes

Slavery was abolished in the British Virgin Islands on August 1, 1834. By the complicated terms of the law, all slaves less than six years of age were to be freed immediately. House slaves had to complete a four-year “apprenticeship” and field slaves a six-year “apprenticeship” before they received full emancipation.

By 1840, all the inhabitants of Tortola were free, while in nearby St. John slavery was to continue until 1848. British law granted free status to anyone who arrived in their territory. These factors created a situation whereby slavery and freedom were only separated by a mile and a half of water.

The channel between St. John and Tortola, although narrow, is generally characterized by rough seas and strong currents. Nonetheless, many St. John slaves braved this crossing in whatever manner that was available to them. Some arranged with friends or relatives in Tortola to meet them in some secluded bay and take them across. Others stole boats or secretly constructed rafts out of whatever material they could find including estate house doors. Some brave and hardy souls even swam across the treacherous channel.

The first major escape from St. John occurred in May of 1840 when 11 slaves from the Annaberg and Leinster Bay plantations fled to Tortola. In another incident in 1840. The slaves commandeered the estate boat and made their way to Tortola in the dead of night. In Tortola, where slavery had been abolished, they had a good chance of finding work on one of the many small farms that had been established there.

It was a well planned escape. The day before, they harvested whatever crops they could from their provision ground and took them to St. Thomas to be sold.

When the plantation overseer, Mr. Davis, arrived the next morning, he found not only that the slaves had disappeared, but that they had taken everything they owned with them. Mr. Davis was shocked. He couldn’t understand why his slaves had left such a comfortable situation as he had provided for them on the estate. So Mr. Davis tried to find out what happened. He went to the other slaves and asked them what they knew, but no information was forthcoming. He went to the Moravian minister and he also had no news. He kept on trying to find the answer to the riddle and eventually he learned that the slaves had gone to Tortola.

Then Mr. Davis went to the Land Judge in Cruz Bay and arranged for him to go to St. Thomas and get an official pardon for the runaway slaves. He then had the Moravian minister go to Tortola and try to find the runaways.

The minister was successful in locating the former Leinster Bay slaves. He explained to them that they would be pardoned if they came back to St. John. The runaways called a meeting during which they explained to the minister that they would not return. Contrary to the accounts of Mr. Davis, the refugees’ version was that Mr. Davis had mistreated the enslaved laborers on the estate and that they would not consider returning unless he was fired. Some years later, Mr. Davis was dismissed and several of the refugees did return to Leinster Bay.

This Leinster Bay escape was followed a week later by another successful escape of four slaves from the Brown Bay Plantation.

The guardhouse at Leinster Point was built in an attempt to prevent more of these escapes. Another stone structure, which can still be seen on Whistling Cay, was also utilized to prevent slave escapes. In addition to guardhouses, cannons and soldiers on the land, Danish naval frigates patrolled the waters. The captains and crews of these vessels were ordered to shoot to kill.

On another night in the year 1840, five slaves left St. John’s north shore in a canoe. A Danish naval ship spotted them somewhere in the western Sir Francis Drake Channel, between St. John and Tortola. The soldiers opened fire and a woman was killed. The others jumped into the sea. Another woman and a child were apprehended and returned to St. John, but the remaining two fugitives got away by swimming the rest of the way to Tortola. The story of their ordeal created an international incident.

The line separating St. John from Tortola was no more defined in the 19th century than it is today. The government in Tortola protested the killing of the woman in what appeared to be British waters. The protest led to an official investigation of the occurrence and the court martial in Copenhagen of a Lieutenant Hedemann for the murder of the woman and the violation of British territory. The lieutenant was found guilty and was sentenced to a two-month prison term.

The St. John slaves had an underground network of contacts in Tortola who often aided in their escapes. On the night of November 15, 1845, thirty-seven St. John slaves secretly left their plantations and assembled at a deserted bay on the sparsely inhabited south side of St. John. While the Danish Navy was busily patrolling the north shore of St. John, the 37 men and women, safely and without incident, boarded the vessels and were transported to a new life in Tortola. Between the years 1840 and 1848, more than 100 St. John slaves were able to find freedom in the British colonies.

Flat Calm

By Gerald Singer

Boiling pot

The subtle signs are all about. The seasons are changing. Summer is here.

Orion once again dominates the night sky. The flamboyant flowers are all but gone and the first colorful frangipani caterpillars have begun their annual feast that will render the frangipani tree leafless until next spring when the caterpillars change into giant dark brown moths and the trees blossom with new leaves and beautiful fragrant flowers.

The winds that in summer carry dust blown up by sandstorms over the desserts of Africa, have shifted and the skies are clearer. On good days, you can see St. Croix clearly and sometimes even Culebra, Vieques and El Yunque on Puerto Rico, from a good vantage point on Gifft Hill.

Cold fronts passing over the Continental United States have begun to bring breaking ground seas and a new flock of tourists to the beaches of the North Shore.

The trade winds, unsettled and weak, during the hurricane months of September and October, are piping up again and the hot sultry days of summer are being replaced with the cooling breezes of winter. Gone for the season, are those days when the seas can become flat calm and mirror-like and one can barely discern the distinction between the elements of air and water; days when small craft can venture far from the protection of calm bays and head out to open waters in relative safety and comfort.

Some years ago, after paddling a kayak from Leinster Bay to West End, Tortola on a still windless summer afternoon, I had the good fortune of entering into a conversation with the late Mr. Joseph Romney, who lived at West End and who was approaching his 100th birthday, with a failing body, but a mind as sharp as a tack. A renowned sea captain, Joseph Romney could recount innumerable tales of his own maritime experiences as well as stories illustrating the history and traditions of boat building, shipping, fishing and the lives of seafaring Virgin Islanders. The condition of the sea led us to a story that Mr. Romney had heard from his father about an event that occurred on a flat calm day of summer, more than a century and a half ago.

That day, an enslaved worker on St. John, whose last name was Benjamin, took advantage of the coinciding opportunities presented by a perfectly calm sea and a new law abolishing slavery on the island of Tortola.

While walking by himself on the coast near Brown Bay, Mr. Benjamin noticed one of the large iron cauldrons used to boil cane juice into sugar called a “copper,” lying just off the shoreline and it gave him an idea. Using his machete, he carved a piece of driftwood into a rudimentary paddle and then using the mechanical advantage provided by convenient sturdy boards he found abandoned in the bush, he maneuvered the heavy copper into the water, climbed in and started to paddle across this narrow section of the Sir Francis Drake Channel heading for Tortola and freedom.

Understand that a heavy iron copper with a man inside most certainly lacks the proper freeboard (that part of the boat that rises above the waterline) for a safe crossing in all but the calmest seas. In other words the slightest wave or even the splashing from a paddle stroke could cause water to enter the copper, thus increasing the weight and decreasing the freeboard. To mitigate this problem, Mr. Benjamin used a small calabash to bail out accumulated water from time to time.

After successfully crossing the open channel between St. John and Tortola, Mr. Benjamin paddled between Little Thatch and Frenchman’s Cay. As he rounding the western point of Frenchman’s Cay, the wind picked up just enough to start sending water into the copper faster than he could bail.

Paddling as fast as the lumbering craft could go, Mr. Benjamin had not quite entered the mouth of Soper’s Hole, when the combined weight of the heavy copper, its passenger, and the added water from the waves became heavier than an equal volume of just plain seawater and by the laws of physics, could no longer float on the surface of the sea. The copper sunk to the bottom, and Mr. Benjamin was cast into the sea.

The story had a happy ending. Mr. Benjamin succeeded in swimming the rest of the way into the harbor. Arriving at safely at West End, soaking wet and with nothing more than his abilities and his courage, Mr. Benjamin was able to carve out a free and dignified life for himself on Tortola. The copper, according to Mr. Romney, still lies in shallow water just off of the northeast corner of Frenchman’s Cay and, although heavily coral encrusted, can be easily identified by snorkelers or divers who know where to look.

Provision Ground

When St. John was first settled by the Danes, a plantation economy was set up. Africans, forced into slavery, provided the labor for these plantations. Under such a system the slave owner had to to decide how the slaves would be fed.

Under ideal conditions (for the slave owner) food would be brought in from outside the plantation, giving the slave owner complete control of his captives. This was not practical on St. John plantations, which were, at best, only marginally successful. The cost would have been too high for the owners to bear.

Another possibility would be to produce food on the plantation itself, under the supervision and control of the slave owner. On St. John, however, cleared and terraced land came at too high a cost in time and labor to be devoted to food crops.

On the other hand St. John plantations did have a great deal of land on the periphery of the cultivated areas which, although not suitable for sugar cane production, was appropriate for food crop cultivation. This was the plantation owner’s solution for feeding their slaves.

Thus the slaves produced their own food, unsupervised by the slave masters, on garden plots called provision grounds located on the less productive areas of the plantation. The slaves tended these gardens when they were not working elsewhere on the estate.

The slaves were absolutely dependent on their ability to produce their own food. Statistics show that the slave population suffered significant declines after periods of prolonged drought. This indicates that many slaves must have died when they could not produce sufficient food.

Statistics also show an increase in marooning (slaves running away from their plantations) during prolonged dry spells. A severe drought in the early 1730’s which caused widespread starvation and mass maroonings was one of the causes of the St. John slave rebellion After a long drought in the 1770’s there were again reports of large population declines. Sixty slaves fled from Estate Carolina in 1779 in response to starvation caused by that drought.

Although a great hardship for the already overworked slaves, the provision ground system provided certain advantages and opportunities for the slaves to develop and maintain their own culture.

Because the provision grounds were unsupervised, the slaves were able to gather and interact out of the 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 escape and resistance plans could be made.

Slaves often worked together on their plots and shared the harvest. The strong supported the old, weak or infirm. Those whose work schedules were increased during sugar harvest season were supported by those with more free time.

Often the slaves were able to produce a surplus of food, charcoal or crafts. A system of exchange developed along with an underground economy which not only enabled some slaves to earn enough money to buy their freedom, but also provided the know-how for the slaves to survive on St. John after emancipation and the failure of the sugar industry.

Thus provision ground farming became the foundation of St. John’s unique culture based on independence, extended family, sharing and cooperation.


Sugar mill wall

Rustenberg was one of the original twelve plantations located within the Reef Bay Valley. Two parcels of 150 acres each were distributed to Jacob Magens in 1718. Magens brought coffee plants to St. John, and Rustenberg was the first plantation on the island to grow coffee. During the early eighteenth century, Estate Rustenberg produced cotton, cocoa and coffee, in addition to sugarcane. Towards the latter part of the same century, the emphasis shifted to sugar production, and by 1767, the vast majority of the plantation acreage was devoted to sugar cane.

During the nineteenth century, the profitability of sugar was declining on St. John and Rustenberg, like many other sugar plantations on the island, began to phase out production. A hurricane in 1867 was the last straw, and sugarcane was no longer grown at Rustenberg. During the first part of the twentieth century, the area around Rustenberg experienced a brief economic comeback by growing and harvesting bay rum.

St. John Slave Rebellion of 1733

 The Slave Trade

The Danish colonization of St. John was undertaken in 1718 for the purpose of establishing plantations where tropical products such as sugar, cotton, indigo and other crops could be cultivated. The most profitable of these crops was sugar.

Sugar production in the West Indies was an extremely lucrative affair. The sudden introduction of sugar to Europe created a great demand for this exotic new product. With this high demand and preciously small supply, the price of sugar was high, and the profit potential was enormous. Many of those involved in this new industry were able to accumulate great wealth and power. It has been said that the only present day business comparable to the sugar trade of the colonial days is drug trafficking. European colonial powers battled fiercely over control of the new colonies. Pirates and privateers infested the seas in an orgy of murder and plunder. Worst of all was the development of slavery as an institution in the Americas. Slave labor was employed for the exploitation, settlement, and development of the new territories.

When the Spanish first invaded and colonized the New World, they attempted to use the indigenous population as a slave labor force. Disease brought by the Europeans, warfare, cruel treatment, and overwork all but wiped out this race within a short time.

When the Danes occupied St. Thomas in 1672 there were no indigenous inhabitants living there, nor were there any on St. John in 1718. Therefore, the possibility of obtaining slave labor from this source was not available to the Danes.

The Danish government and the government-supported and subsidized Danish West India Company tried to encourage young Danes to emigrate to St. Thomas to labor on the plantations. Very few responded. Prisoners were then brought over to work as indentured servants with the stipulation that they would receive their freedom after six years, though few would survive that long. Apart from this, indentured servitude was exactly the same as slavery. They lived, ate and worked with the slaves and were subject to the same arbitrary punishments. Their social position was of the lowest order and they were looked down upon by both Africans and Europeans. The prisoners viewed emigration to the colonies as a death sentence. Their desperation and discontent resulted in mutinies and resistance. In response, the Danes began to place more emphasis on the importation of slave labor from Africa.

The first African slaves were brought to Hispaniola in 1502, and slavery was not completely abolished until the early twentieth century. During this roughly four hundred year span, it has been estimated that as many as 12 million Africans were unwillingly transported to the Americas.

A form of slavery existed within Africa prior to the advent of European colonialism. Tribalism has been a major influence in African political history, and warfare between rival tribes was a common occurrence. Many of the Africans who were sold into slavery were prisoners captured in these tribal wars.

The institution of slavery that developed in the colonization of the Americas was, first and foremost, a business. It was characterized by the profit motive, greed, and lacked morality, compassion and human decency. The Europeans’ need for cheap labor created the demand. The existence of slaves acquired through the persistent warring of African nations provided the supply. Thus, a market and trade for human beings was established.

The captives were brought to the European forts or slave factories. The factors, or buyers, at the fort would buy the slaves using a barter system. The slaves were then chained and stored in warehouses called barrcoons until the slave ships arrived.

The Danes maintained such a fort at Accra on the Guinea Coast called Christianborg. The Danish West India and Guinea Company sent company ships bearing items such as rum, firearms, gunpowder, clothing and other goods, which were bartered for ivory, gold and slaves to the tribal leaders controlling the trade.

The voyage to the New World was known as the Middle Passage. Captives were confined into such small areas that it was impossible to stand or even sit. Inside the ship’s holds, it was dark, dank and stuffy. There was no proper ventilation or sanitary facilities. The ship’s officers and crew were made up of the prisoners, misfits and outcasts of Europe. Women were subjected to rapes and indignities. Disease, desperation and suicide claimed many lives before the ships even reached their final destinations in America or the West Indies.

Upon arrival the slaves were sold at public auction and then marched to the plantations for a period of “seasoning”. One third of these new arrivals from Africa, called bussals, died during the seasoning period.

Early Danish Settlement

The Danish West India and Guinea Company was chartered in 1671 and given the right to govern and exploit Denmark’s first colony in the New World – St. Thomas. The company was granted a royal charter to St. John from the King of Denmark in 1717 and St. John was under company rule until King Frederick of Denmark terminated this agreement in 1755.

Twenty five settlers (eleven Dutch, nine Danes and five Frenchmen), sixteen enslaved Africans, and five Danish soldiers, under the command of Axel Dahl, sailed to St. John in the company of the governor of St. Thomas, Erik Bredal. They landed in Coral Bay on the east end of the island.

Seventeenth century Denmark had marginal resources and a relatively small population of approximately one half million people. Moreover, the Danes were reluctant to emigrate to the new colonies and Denmark lacked a sufficient population to effectively occupy their new territories. To compensate for this, foreigners were invited into the population of the colonies.

The largest and most influential of these foreigners to settle in St. Thomas, and later to settle on St. John, were Dutch. By 1721, of the 39 planters on St. John there were 25 Dutchmen and only 9 Danes. The Dutch, more than any other national group, influenced the culture of the Danish colonies, which prior to the acquisition of St. Croix in 1733, consisted only of St. Thomas and St. John. The most important language was Dutch and Dutch Creole became the “lingua franca” ofthe Danish islands.

By 1733 more than 1,000 slaves labored on 109 plantations on St. John. Twenty-one of these plantations were in the business of planting and processing sugar. The rest grew cotton and other crops. By the end of the century, however, the vast majority of the plantations were dedicated to sugar production, and there were more than 2,500 slaves on the island. On average, one slave was used for the cultivation of each acre of land.

 African Background of the Rebellion

As early as the beginning of the seventeenth century, Accra on the Guinea Coast had become a center of economic power. The Accra tribe acted as the middleman in the exchange of slaves, gold and ivory from the interior for manufactured goods such as firearms, powder, lead, rum and cloth from the Europeans who operated out of fortifications on the coast.

The Danes entered the slave trade in 1657 by attacking the Swedes who were already established on the West Coast of Africa. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Danish West India and Guinea Company had consolidated their slave operation to the vicinity of Accra and traded with the Accra tribe.

All travel and transportation from the interior to the coast occurred along narrow forest paths. The Accras used another tribe, the Akwamu, whom the Danes called the Amina, to control the passage of merchants and merchandise along these trails. This was done so that all goods from the interior would have to pass through an Accra-dominated area north of the region’s capital, Great Accra. Thus, direct access to the Europeans was denied to the traders from the interior, and merchants were forced to have the Accras as middlemen. For this unwanted service, the Accras demanded a percentage of the profits of this lucrative trade.

As time went on, the Akwamu, who had been paying tribute to the Accras, became more powerful. They directly controlled the paths leading from the inland centers to the European commanded forts on the coast. Realizing their power, the Akwamu demanded a tribute in gold from the Accras in order to permit traders to pass through Akwamu territory. In the 1670s the Akwamus allied themselves with the Accras’ neighboring tribes, the Agaves to the east and the Agonas to the west. These alliances put further pressure on the Accras.

The Akwamus were excellent warriors. They developed an improved military strategy specific to the conditions imposed by the heavily forested environment. They also emphasized the use of missile weaponry, such as bows and arrows and flintlock rifles, which they obtained from the Europeans.

In 1677 the Akwamus attacked and conquered the Accras. Through a series of violent and bloody military campaigns, the Akwamus became the dominant tribe in the district of Accra, along the lower Gold Coast and the Upper Slave Coast.

Thousands were killed, and many prisoners were taken. The Accras, former allies and trading partners of the Danes, fled to the fort at Christianborg seeking protection. The commanders of the fort chose to remain neutral and did nothing to stop the slaughter and capture of the Accras.

The Akwamus were heavy-handed in dealing with the tribes they had conquered. They forcibly conscripted troops from the conquered tribes, demanded tributes and payments, levied excessive taxes, and resorted to the instigation of disputes and other forms of trickery and unfair tactics to justify the enslavement of peoples from the conquered tribes.

For example, I. Akwamu Wilks in The Rise of the Akwamu Empire, 1650-1710, wrote:

In every town (the Akwamu) took some wives, three or four according to the size of the town, and left them there to stay. Then every year they would travel from place to place, and make these wives eat fetish (That is, swear to tell the truth on pain of death from divine power) so that they would confess what men had had contact with them. These disclosures were made willingly, since the women would get part of the fines, and the gallants might be sold as slaves unless their friends ransomed them.

The Akwamu abuse of power eventually led to resistance and rebellion from the tyrannized peoples. When the Akwamu king died in 1725, a conflict arose over who would take power. This weakened the Akwamus, and the conquered peoples of the area attacked the Akwamu nation. By 1730 the Akwamu were defeated, their capital city destroyed, and their reigning king beheaded.

Once again the oppressed became the oppressors and thousands of Akwamu men and women were sold into slavery. Many of these Akwamus were sold to the Danes at the fort in Christianborg in the early part of the 1730s. They were then placed on ships bound for the slave market in St. Thomas. Many were sold to plantations on St. John.

From the company’s records: Haabet Galley, Danish registry, Captain A.H. Hammer, came to St. Thomas, February 1731, to sell 21 men 29 women, 5 boys, total of 55 out of Guinea; Cost to company wholesale 70 rigsdalers, cost to planter 120 rigsdalers.

 From the company’s records:

Laarburg Galley, Danish registry, Captain Lorenzo Jaeger (replaced by Captain Hammer) May 1733. It carried 443 captives out of Guinea of whom 242 survived (124 men, 64 women, 26, boys, 28 girls); 199 died of dysentery and two were sold to the Portuguese. The ship made an overall profit of 69.5% from the survivors; cost to company; 70 rigsdalers, cost to planters; 120-150 rigsdalers. (From MAPes MONDe Collection)

In 1733 at the time of the slave rebellion there were hundreds of Akwamu men and women among the slave population of St. John. Of the approximately 150 Africans who were involved in the rebellion, all were Akwamus. Africans of other ethnic backgrounds, some of whom had been sold into slavery by the Akwamus, did not support the rebellion. Some even joined the Europeans against the Akwamus.

The Akwamus on St. John did not see themselves as slaves, but rather as slave owners. Many were nobles, wealthy merchants or powerful warriors who were accustomed to large commands.

Information on the African background came from Sandra F. Greene’s research appearing in The Danish West Indian Slave Trade, by George F. Tyson and Arnold R. Highfield.

 Causes of the rebellion

Weakness of the Central Government and the Military

As previously mentioned, Denmark, a comparatively weak nation, began their colonization of the New World later than the other European colonial powers. St. Thomas and St. John were rocky, mountainous, and lacked a significant amount of rainfall. The Danes were able to colonize and settle these islands mainly because none of the other Europeans showed much interest in acquiring this territory.

Without a sufficient number of their own citizens to inhabit their new colonies, Denmark invited peoples of other nations to settle them. Thus, foreigners exerted a strong influence on government decisions.

The plantations were only marginally profitable, and the Danish West India Company lacked the motivation and the resources to provide a strong army for the defense of the islands. They relied instead on a citizen’s militia. On St. John this situation bordered on the absurd. Aside from the ineffective civil guard, the number of soldiers stationed on St. John at the time of the slave rebellion numbered six. Moreover, morale was low and the incidence of disease, alcoholism and mortality were high.

 Absentee Ownership of Plantations

Many of St. John’s plantations were owned by men and women from St. Thomas who also had estates on that island. The St. Thomians usually hired overseers called Mesterknegte to manage their holdings on St. John. These overseers were not always honest and often failed to act in the best interests of the planters. (Out of sight, out of mind.) The overseers certainly did not give the interests of the slaves much attention.

 Low Ratio of European to Africans on St. John

Partly because many of the plantation owners and their families lived in St. Thomas, and partly due to the nature of the plantation system itself, the ratio of European planters to African slaves on St. John became extremely low. The lack of a town or any alternative industries also contributed to this low ratio.

 Drought, Starvation and Marooning

On St. John slaves were required to provide the labor necessary to grow the food they ate. They did this on their own plots of land, which were cultivated in their spare time. Because there was no supervision by the owners or overseers, slaves could use the time spent tending these grounds to talk freely among themselves and to make plans.

In 1725 and 1726 and again in 1733, St. John experienced prolonged droughts, and the provision grounds could not yield sufficient food; the slaves faced starvation.

In 1733 much of the land on St. John was not yet cleared and there were still large areas of thick bush and forest. The opportunities provided by this environment, combined with the skills the slaves developed from tending their provision grounds, made it possible for them to run away from the plantation. They were able to disappear into the bush and provide for themselves by tending small gardens, gathering and fishing. The fierce and warlike Akwamu (or Aminas as they were called by the Danes) also demanded the support of slaves still on the plantations.

By 1733 starvation, overwork, and harsh treatment had caused a significant number of slaves from the Amina tribe to maroon.

 Slave Code of 1733

The drought of 1733 ended with a severe hurricane in July. This was followed by a plague of insects. Both plantation crops and provision grounds were devastated. Governor Philip Gardelin’s Code of 1733 was written primarily as a response to the problem of marooning. Almost half of the nineteen provisions included in the code provided punishments for various forms and aspects of maroonage.

If slaves ran away to another country, or even contemplated, conspired, or attempted to leave the country, the punishment was torture by red-hot pincers at three separate public locations, followed by execution.

Those running away or conspiring to run away from the plantation, but not involving escape from the Danish islands were to lose a leg. If their masters pardoned them, they were to receive 150 strokes and suffer the loss of an ear.

Punishments of varying severity such as the cutting off of a leg, branding or whipping were prescribed for different degrees of maroonage, such as maroonage lasting over six months, maroonage over two weeks, and failure to inform of plots to run away.

The outnumbered whites also felt it necessary to include in the code, punishments for failure to show proper respect and deference. Menacing gestures or verbal insults to whites could be punishable by hanging, preceded by three applications of glowing pincers. At the discretion of the insulted or menaced victim, the slave’s punishment could alternatively be the amputation of an arm. If a slave met a white person on the street, the slave would have to step aside.

It was prohibited for slaves to wear iron-tipped sticks or knives at their sides, although the carrying of machetes was allowed. The reason for this was that because the slaves were prohibited from owning weapons, they had developed the art of fighting with their walking sticks. This form of fighting reached the sophistication of the advanced martial arts practiced in other areas of the world. Machetes, on the other hand, were perceived as tools.

Theft of property by slaves was punishable by torture followed by hanging. Petty theft and possession of stolen property was punishable by branding on the forehead and up to 150 strokes.

Being out past curfew was punishable by whipping. Dancing, feasts, or funeral rites involving the use of “Negro instruments” as well as the practice of Obeah was prohibited and would be punished by whipping.

Conspiracy to poison, or the use of poison, was punishable by torture with hot pincers, being broken on the wheel and then burnt alive.

The preamble to the code expressed the philosophy that the slave was the property of the owner and had no rights.

The law was written in an effort to control the slaves through intimidation and terror and, thereby to prevent marooning. The passage of the law, however, produced the opposite effect. The slaves, faced with the impossible choice between starvation on one hand and mutilation and execution on the other, realized that their only way out was rebellion.


On November 23, 1733 slaves carrying bundles of wood were let into the fort at Coral Bay. Concealed in the wood were cane knives, which the rebels used to kill the half-asleep and surprised soldiers who were guarding the fort. One soldier, John Gabriel, escaped by hiding under his bed and running away when he had a chance. He was able to get to St. Thomas in a small boat and tell the story to Danish officials there. The rebels raised the flag and fired three cannon shots. This was the signal for slaves on the plantations to kill their masters and take control of the island.

The rebels proceeded to kill many of the whites in the Coral Bay area. The insurgents gained in number as they progressed from plantation to plantation. Some whites were spared, notably the company’s doctor, Cornelius Bödger, because of the good relationship he had with the Africans in treating their medical needs. Also spared were Dr. Bödger’s two stepsons. They were saved from death out of respect for the surgeon, and also to be made into servants for the new rebel leaders.

The stated aim of the rebels was to make St. John an Akwamu ruled state, governed under the Akwamu system. Africans of other tribal origins were to serve as slaves in the production of sugar and other crops.

Many of the small planters on the East End, who had few slaves or possessions, were able to escape to other islands in their family boats. Some of the whites from the western and southern parts of the island were warned by loyal slaves, and they were either able to escape to St. Thomas or to assemble with the other surviving planters at Durloe’s Plantation at Caneel Bay (then known as Klein Caneel Bay). The approach to the plantation was guarded in part by two cannons. Captain Jannis von Beverhaut and Lt. Charles assumed command. Women and children were sent to Henley Cay with the intention that they be picked up later and brought to St. Thomas.

Meanwhile, the rebels attacked Cinnamon Bay (then called Caneel Bay). John and Lieven Jansen and a small group of their slaves resisted the onslaught. The rebel force was overwhelming. Jansen’s loyal slaves fought a rear guard action and held off the advancing rebels with gunfire, thus allowing the Jansens to retreat to their waiting boat and escape to Durloe’s Plantation. Miraculously, the loyal slaves were also able to escape.

The rebels paused to loot the Jansen plantation before pressing onward to confront the white planters at Durloe’s. The attackers became disorganized when faced with the initial cannon and musket fire of the defenders, and the attack on Durloe’s plantation was repulsed.

Meanwhile in St. Thomas, Governor Philip Gardelin, under pressure from former Governor Moth, consented to send a small party of soldiers to St. John to relieve the besieged planters. More troops under the leadership of William Barrens, as well as a detachment consisting mainly of African slaves sent by the Danish West India Company and by St. Thomas planters, arrived on St. John soon afterwards. This well-armed and well-supplied army was able to recapture the fort and scatter the rebels who then took to hiding in the bush to fight a war of attrition.

To regain the status quo, the planters needed to wipe out the last vestiges of resistance. The remaining rebels could continue to survive by looting abandoned plantations and small farms and by living off the land where cattle now ran wild all over the island. The rebels would be a constant harassment to the orderly development and operation of any restored plantations. Furthermore, the Company and the St. Thomas planters feared that the St. John rebellion would inspire uprisings on St. Thomas and wanted to discourage slaves on that island from taking similar action.

The insurgents held their ground, fighting a guerrilla style war and disappearing into the bush when confronted with direct attack by the numerically superior troops led by the planters. This status quo continued for ten weeks.

The British were also concerned that the rebellion might spread to Tortola, and they decided to help the Danes by sending an English Man O’ War from Tortola to St. John. The warship was commanded by a Captain Tallard had a crew of sixty soldiers.

When the British ship landed on St. John, the rebels staged an ambush in which four of Tallard’s men were wounded. Tallard and his men, demoralized by this defeat, sailed back to Tortola.

Meanwhile, the owner of the plantation at Maho Bay, William Vessuup, had abandoned his plantation and fled to Tortola after being implicated in a murder. Maroon slaves had taken up residence at his plantation and had later used it as a headquarters for their troops in the rebellion.

In an attempt to regain favor with the Danes and be exonerated from the criminal charges against him, Vessuup offered a plan to trick the rebels. He was to lure the leaders aboard his ship with the promise of supplying them with badly needed guns and ammunition. He then planned to capture the rebel leaders and turn them over to the Danes. This attempt at treachery, however, proved to be unsuccessful. In February of 1734 the St. John planters again solicited aid from the English, and shortly afterwards Captain John Maddox, a privateer, sailing from St. Christopher (St. Kitts) arrived on the ship Diamond with 50 volunteers. His motivation was personal gain. He arranged a contract with Danish officials that would have allowed him to keep all rebel slaves captured except for the 10 considered most dangerous. They were to be turned over to the Danes for punishment. For these 10 he demanded a payment of 20 pieces-of-eight each. On their first confrontation with the Africans, the forces of John Maddox suffered a loss of three killed (including one of his sons) and five wounded. Like his predecessor Captain Tollard, Captain Maddox and his men left St. John shortly after their defeat.

English Governor Mathews wrote: On St. John the Danes at present hardly have possession. Their negroes rose upon them about six months ago. At my first arrival I heard they had quelled their slaves, but it was not so, they have in a manner drove the Danes off, at least they dare not now attempt any more to reduce these Negroes, who have always beaten them, and in a manner are masters of that Island. The governor of St. Thomas, was even modest enough to desire I would send some of H. M. ships to reduce them…and I now learn a rash fellow from St. Christophers, in open defiance of my positive orders to the contrary, having made a compact with the Danish governor, went with his two sons and three or four and twenty more on this errand, that the negroes have killed one if not both his sons, and two or three more of his company, and beaten them off.

In early April of 1734 a group of about forty rebels attacked Durloe’s Plantation. This assault, like the previous one, was almost successful, but was finally repulsed by the defenders. The insurgents managed, though, to set fire to the defenders supply magazine.

Events in far away Europe were to deal a deathblow to the rebel cause. King Louis of France wanted to make his father-in-law, Stanislas Leszcynski the King of Poland. This would mean war with Poland, and France needed to know that Denmark would at least stay neutral. In addition to this, France was in need of money after having suffered severe financial losses in their Mississippi colony.

The Danes had been interested in the island of St. Croix for quite some time. Sensing an opportunity, the Danish West India Company offered the French 750,000 livres for St. Croix and sweetened the deal with the promise of Danish neutrality.

As a gesture of solidarity with their new friends, France offered Denmark help in subduing the slave rebellion on St. John. Monsieur de Champigny, the Governor of the French West Indies, sent Commander Chevalier de Longueville from Martinique to St. John with a force of two hundred soldiers. This included a free colored corps whose specialty was the tracking down, capturing and killing of runaway slaves, an activity they called maroon hunting.

The French detachment arrived on St. John on April 23, 1734 in two vessels, one commanded by Monsieur de Longueville and the other commanded by Monsieur Nadau. Danish Governor Gardelin dispatched a force of about 30 men under the command of Lt. Froling to offer any assistance necessary to the French soldiers. Gardelin also sent attorney Fries who was to mete out justice to captured rebels.

The French troops proceeded to relentlessly pursue the remaining rebels. A rebel encampment of twenty-six huts was found and destroyed. A young severely wounded slave named January was captured and led the soldiers to a point of land (Ram Head Point) where eleven rebels had committed suicide. A few weeks later eight slaves, two of whom were women, surrendered after their master promised them clemency.

From St. John Backtime, “The Raw Truth has Been Reported,” Commander Longueville, from a document discovered and in the Colonies section of the French National Archives by Aimery P. Caron and Arnold R. Highfield:

On Sunday the 16 (May 16, 1734), six Negroes and two negroe women surrendered at the appeal of their master who spared their lives. He then informed me of the matter. I ordered him to bring them to me, since they were identified as rebels. I have them put into chains. Three of them were burned at the stake on three different plantations on St. John. I had previously informed the governor while passing through St. Thomas that should I catch a few of the rebels, I would put most of them to death and send him the rest so that he could make an example of them. The following day I informed him of their capture. He sent a judge who passed sentence for the sake of formality; I sent him the three other rebels along with the two women and requested that he not have them executed until I be present. One was burned to death slowly, another was sawed in half and the third was impaled. The two Negroe women had their hands and heads cut off after all five had been tortured with hot pincers in the town.

One week later twenty-five rebels were found dead on an “outjutting point of land in an unsuspected place” identified later as near Brown Bay. Commander Longueville and his men left St. John a few days later on May 26, 1744 and sailed to St. Thomas.

Unbeknownst to Longueville at the time of this departure, still at large, but hiding in the bush, was one of the leaders of the rebellion and a small group of his followers. He was a former Akwamu noble who was named Prince by his master. Through an intermediary, a deal was arranged whereby Prince and his supporters would be forgiven and allowed to come back to work. Prince and fourteen others surrendered to a Sergeant Øttingen. Prince was summarily shot and killed. His head was cut off as a trophy and his followers were captured. Subsequently four of the followers died in jail in St. Thomas, six were tortured to death and four were sent to St. Croix to be worked to death.

Sergeant Øttingen was given a reward and was promoted to Lieutenant for his bravery. The soldiers under him were also honored and rewarded.

The Danish West India Company reported that their losses in this rebellion amounted to 7,905 Rigsbankdalers.


Sugar cane

Sugar production in colonial times was an arduous and labor intensive activity; especially on St. John with its dry climate, rocky soil and steep hillsides. Nonetheless sugar was a profitable commodity and the industry, fueled by slave labor, dominated St. John’s economy until the latter half of the nineteenth century.

The virgin landscape was slashed and burned changing the ecology of the islandforever. The cleared hillsides were then terraced using the native stone as retaining walls. Holes were dug and sugar cane slips were planted. Water was painstakingly hauled from cisterns located at the sugar factory to the cane fields either by donkey cart or by hand.

At harvest time slaves worked 18-20 hours a day. The cane was cut, loaded into donkey carts and taken to the horsemill for crushing.

Four slaves were needed to run the horsemill. One drove the animals, two worked the rollers, feeding the stalks back and forth, and a fourth man took away the leftover sugar cane pulp called bagasse.

Horsemill sketch

Some plantations used windmills to crush the sugar cane. On St. John only six plantations; Annaberg, Carolina, Denis Bay, Susannaberg, Caneel Bay and Catherinberg used the windmill which was far more efficient and faster than the horsemill. The remains of these windmills can still be seen at these estates.

It took about ten slaves to work the windmill. As in the horsemill two slaves fed the bundles of sugar cane back and forth through the cane crushing rollers.

Windmill St. John US

The windmill turned the rollers more rapidly than the horsemill and was more dangerous.

The juice produced by the crushed cane flowed down a trough to the boiling house. Here it was fed into the first of five copper pots and boiled. Dried bagasse was used as fuel for the fire which burned underneath the copper pots. The fires were stoked and controlled from outside the boiling house.

As the juice boiled it thickened and when the consistency was just right, the juice was transferred to the neighboring pot. Impurities were skimmed off the top, and the boiling process was begun again. 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 crystal sugar.

The muscavado was then cooled and dried. The finished product was loaded into large wooden barrels called hogsheads containing about 1,000 lbs. of sugar each. The hogsheads were transported to the beach where specially constructed small boats, called dories, were used to bring the large barrels to seagoing ships bound for the markets of Europe.

Sugar production on St. John reached its zenith around 1800 but then began to decline. Sugar extracts a great deal of nutrients from the earth, and as there was no crop rotation or fertilization programs, the soil became depleted and crop yields fell. In addition to this, increased competition from other cane growing areas, the introduction of the sugar beet as an alternative to sugar cane in 1797, the emancipation of the slaves in 1848 and the hurricane and subsequent earthquake of 1867 put even further pressure on the industry. By the beginning of the twentieth century sugar had ceased to be an important crop on St. John.

100,000,000 B.C.Rocky core of St. John first laid down on the
ocean floor as a result of subterranean volcanic activity
producing the same rocks found at Ram Head today.
15,000 B.C.Glaciers lower the sea level more than 300
feet and St. John became connected to Puerto Rico and the
rest of the northern Virgin Islands. What is now underwater
ocean shelf, were grasslands, savannas and scrub forest.
5,000 B.C.Melting of the glaciers results in the separation
of the islands.
2,000 B.C.People from the South American mainland begin
a migration to the islands of the Lesser Antilles.
1,000 B.C.First people arrive on St. John surviving mainly
on resources provided by the sea. They establish a village
at Salt Pond Bay, collect and prepare seafood at Lameshur,
and make stone tools at Grootpan Bay.
500 B.C.Second wave of immigrants proceed up the island
chain arriving on St. John in the first century A.D. The
original inhabitants are either killed or assimilated by
the newcomers. These new arrivals are the ancestors of the
Tainos, the culture that Columbus encountered when he arrived
in the Americas.
65 A.D.Amerindian Village established at Tutu on St. Thomas
180Village established near what is now Rothchild Francis Square on main Street on St. Thomas
600Villages established at Botany Bay, Magens Bay and Hull Bay, St. Thomas
1000The Taino culture that originated in Hispaniola
arrives on St. Thomas and St. John.
1000-1492Tainos live peacefully on St. John, planting
yucca, fishing, gathering wild fruit, fabricating ceramic
pottery, tools and ceremonial objects. Having little need
for great technological advances or to defend themselves
from other human beings, their culture concentrates on religious
and spiritual development. The Tainos apparently disappear
from St. John sometime before 1492.
1493Part of Columbus’s fleet sails by St. John
his second voyage. The island is reported to be uninhabited.
1593-1717St. John is sparsely and intermittently inhabited
by small groups of Native Americans fleeing persecution,
pirates, fugitives of all sorts and colors, fishermen and
1595Sir Francis Drake stops in St. Thomas to rest his troops before their unsuccessful raid on San Juan after which the famed privateer dies of dysentery.
1598The Earl of Cumberland, stops in St. Thomas on his way to a successful raid on San Juan. He reports the Virgin Islands to be unpopulated at the time.
1665King Frederik III of Denmark grants permission to a consortium led by Erik Nielsen Smit to settle St. Thomas
1666First expedition sails to St. Thomas. The cast of characters included about 50 people of varying European nationalities. They are joined by Dutch refugees who had been living on Tortola, who had been driven out by British privateers. These early settlers began the construction of a fort on what is now called Bluebeard’s hill. The high mortality from disease, hunger and raids by buccaneers who stole a ship and much of their supplies, causes this first expedition to end in failure. Survivors sailed back to Denmark
1672Danes settle St. Thomas. Construction of the Fort Christian (Christian’s Fort) begins along with other buildings, plantations and an east west road. The high mortality rate and unwillingness of Danes to settle St. Thomas leads Iverson to encourage settlement by inhabitants of neighboring islands most of whom were either Dutch or English
1673Danish West India Company, which held the monopoly on the Danish slave trade, brings the first Africans to St. Thomas as enslaved workers.
1674Governor Iverson acquires the enslaved worker, Simon Lamare. A talented mason, Lamare is offered a contract to act as “clerk of the works,” overseeing the construction of Fort Christian. In return Lamare is granted freedom after seven years service, beginning, right from the start of the colony, the establishment a of free black and mixed race component of St. Thomas society
1678Soldiers at Fort Christian repel an attack by the French
1679 – 1686St. Thomas, under the governorships of the brothers, Adolph and Nicolay Esmit, and Gabriel Milan ,has reputation of being a pirate haven
1680St. Thomas Governor Iverson resigns and leaves St. Thomas. Fort built and plantations begun. Population 156 whites 175 blacks. 50 plantations and an east west road.Population: 156 whites, 175 blacks, 50 plantations producing cotton, sugar, tobacco, indigo and other tropical products
1683Iverson reappointed as Governor, but is thrown overboard on the voyage from Copenhagen to St. Thomas by mutineers, who also shot the captain, decapitated seven of officers and marooned the remaining representatives of the Company.
1684English thwart Danish attempts to settle St.
1685Brandenburg Company granted a 30-tear lease on land located on the western end of St. Thomas Harbor, St. Thomas becomes a transshipment point for slaves brought from Africa
1690Major earthquake and tsunami is recorded, possibly on the scale of the earthquake and tsunami of 1867
1697First recorded major hurricane. Danish West India Company takes over slave trade from the Brandengburgers
1698Amnesty declared for pirates with the exception of Captain Kidd
1699Upon the arrival of Captain Kidd to St. Thomas, the Governor refused to give him protection and did not allowed Kidd to come ashore.
1713Major hurricane recorded
1718March 23, Erik Bredal, the Governor of St.
Thomas, publishes his intent to settle St. John. The next
day, March 24, Bredal accompanied by 20 planters, five soldiers
and 16 enslaved Africans, sail from St. Thomas and land in
Coral Bay. On March 25, Bredal takes formal possession of
St. John in the name of the King of Denmark and the Danish
West India Company. He raises the Danish Flag and begins
construction of a fort. Plantation era begins on St. John.
Using the labor of enslaved Africans, the forests are cleared,
hillsides are terraced and land planted in sugar, cotton
and other tropical products.
1726Lutheran Pastor, Philip Adams Dietrich, performs the first Hurricane Intercessory Service in July and the first Hurricane Thanksgiving Service at the end of the hurricane season (July 25, Hurricane Supplication Day, and October 25, Hurricane Thanksgiving Day, are now official public holidays.
1728Population: 123 whites, 677 blacks on 87 plantations.
1733Population: 208 whites, 1,087 blacks on 109
plantations. St John is the victim of a severe drought, insect
plague and devastating hurricane. September 5, merciless
slave code imposed. November 23, Africans from the Akwamu
Nation, who had been brought to St. John as slaves, revolt
against the owners and managers of the St. John plantations.
Capturing the fort in Coral Bay, the rebels proceed to take
control of most of the island with the exception of Caneel
1734After several unsuccessful attempts to quell
rebellion, the Akwamus are finally defeated by specially-trained
French troops sent from Martinique.
1738Major hurricane recorded
1742Major hurricane recorded
1739Plantation system on St. John returns to the
pre-rebellion levels, 208 whites, 1,414 blacks on 109 plantations.
1742Major hurricane recorded
1755King Frederick of Denmark buys all the land,
slaves, estates, ships, factories and everything else that
was owned by the Danish West India Company and brings company
rule of St. John and the rest of the Danish West Indies to
an end. He issues the Reglement of 1755 in which slave rights
were mentioned for the first time. (The document is never
published on St. John.)
1766St. John and St. Thomas are declared free ports
by the Danish Crown. Plans are made to begin the development
of a town. The land is divided up into town lots but hoped-for
development never materializes and St. John remains primarily
rural until the recent growth of tourism.
1772Major hurricane recorded
1773Population: 2,330 slaves and 104 whites on
69 plantations, 42 of which are devoted to cotton.
1787School ordinance issued by the Danish Government marks the
first attempt to provide public education for both free and enslaved
children in the Danish West Indies
1782H.M.S. Santa Monica hits rock and is beached
at Round Bay, East End.
1783Moravians establish a mission at Emmaus.
1792Danes pass law mandating the end the African
slave trade in ten years.
1793Major hurricane recorded
1800St. Thomas blockaded by British naval vessels
1801Three month British occupation.
1802Law outlawing slave trade goes into effect
in the Danish West Indies making Denmark the first European
nation to abolish the slave trade. 123,000 slaves had already
been brought to the D.W.I. from Africa. (Slave trade continues
sporadically until the 1820s, when the law is more rigidly
1804Major fires sweep through Charlotte Amalie
1807-1815British reoccupy St. John.
1819Major hurricane recorded
1834Emancipation of slaves in the British Virgin
Islands offers St. John slaves an excellent escape opportunity
to nearby Tortola.
1836Major hurricane recorded
1839Governor-General Peter von Sholten puts forth a proposal
to provide free, compulsory education for children of enslaved
workers in the colony. Classes are taught in English.
1840Major escape to the British Virgin Islands
by slaves from Leinster Bay and Annaberg is followed a few
days later by slave escape from Adrian, Brown Bay and Hermitage.
1841 – 1850The maritime industry and related business thrive on St. Thomas. Undersea cable is laid between Britain and St. Thomas, a coaling station and shipyard are established on the island.
1841St. John population reaches its (pre-modern
day) high point of 2,555. St. Thomas becomes a hub for the distribution of mail, money and passengers to and from other Caribbean islands.
1841An agreement is reached between the Moravian Church and the Royal
Council of St. Thomas and St. John to provide free compulsory education
for all free-colored children. Classes are taught at both the Bethany
and Emmaus missions.
1844Construction of the Annaberg Country School .
1845First Country School on St. John is completed at Beverhoutsberg
1846Population: 2450, 1790 slaves, 660 free (including
1847Annaberg Country School completed, but left vacant due to lack
of funds and opposition of the planter class.
1848July 3, emancipation of slaves in the Danish
West Indies. July 4, news reaches St. John. July 5, police
placard posted in Cruz Bay prohibiting the “freed” from
leaving the island. July 10, police placard posted in Cruz
Bay compelling the freed to sign labor contracts with their
former owners.
1849Labor Act forces freed slaves to stay on plantations.
1850 – 1917Economic decline due to competition from sugar beets and islands better suited to sugar cane production, labor problems and natural disasters
1852Moravians open a school on the East End to service the growing
population there
1853Cholera epidemic kills 1,865 people Malaria kills 100
1854Cholera epidemic kills 218.
1855Population declines to 1,715.
1856Classes begin to be taught at the Annaberg Country School. Two more cholera epidemics ravage population.
1859Moravians stop baptizing children born out
of wedlock.
1862East End School constructed.
1865St. Thomas Gas Company begins to provide illumination for streetlights stores and offices. Construction begins on Government House supervised by black Virgin Islander, John Wright. Construction completed in 1867
1866Cholera epidemic kills 1,300
1867Devastating hurricane followed by earthquake
severely damages estates and crops, effectively ending the
plantation system and discouraging U.S. plans to purchase
the islands.
1868205 Danish West Indian voters unanimously support a U.S. purchase
of the islands. U.S. rejects purchase of St. Thomas and St.
John from Denmark for $7.5 million.
1871Major hurricane recorded
1878Mary Thomas (Queen Mary) leads rebellion of
disgruntled workers on St. Croix. Carolina Plantation in Coral Bay acquired by
William Henry Marsh.
1879Labor Act amended to allow contract negotiation. Bandstand erected at Emancipation Park
1880Widow George rents rooms by the night at in
her house at Newfound Bay. Population declines to 994.
1885Royal Mail Steam Packet Company moves headquarters to Barbados
1898Major hurricane recorded
1900Population 925.
1902Denmark rejects U. S. offer to
buy St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix for $5 million.
1907J.P. Jorgenson writes the Short Guide to St.
Thomas and St. Jan, a travel guide written in English.
1914West India Company Ltd introduces electric lighting.
1916Major hurricane recorded
1917March 31, official transfer of Danish West
Indies to U.S. for $25,000,000. Virgin Islands are put in
charge of U.S. Navy.
1918Reef Bay factory closing ends sugar production.
1921United States Virgin Island flag designed and
approved by U.S. Navy brass is adopted.
1924Major hurricane recorded
1927Virgin Islanders granted American citizenship.
1928On his solo flight from Paris to the United States aviator Charles Lindbergh landed on a field near what was then called Mosquito Bay. The bay was renamed was subsequently renamed Lindbergh Bay to commemorate the occasion. Major hurricane recorded
1929Erva and Paul Boulon Sr. buy Trunk Bay and
100 additional acres of land for $2,500.
1930Population of St. John is 756. First automobile
arrives on St. John. St. Thomas Daily News founded. Navy
rule ends. Average wage in Virgin Islands is 40 cents a day.
1931First civilian governor, Dr. Paul M. Pearson.
1934Eleanor Roosevelt wrote an article about her trip to St. Thomas and the Caribbean in “Women’s Home Companion.” Government run Bluebeards Castle Hotel opens.
1935Edna St. Vincent Millay spends summer in St. Thomas in house at the top of the 99 Steps. The locally made mahogany “charge desk” at the Enid M. Baa Public Library on dedicated to the eminent poet.
1936First Organic Act passed by U.S. Congress giving
political power to the local Virgin Islands government. Danish West India Company opens Caneel Bay
1939St. John mentioned by Harold Huber of National
Park Service in N.P.S. report as possible park. The onset
of World War II caused the plan to be shelved.
1946Robert and Nancy Gibney come to St. John on
1948First jeep brought to the island on a sloop
from St. Thomas.
1950St. John population declines to 746. Robert
and Nancy Gibney buy property at Hawksnest, now called Gibney
1953Fourteen Jeeps registered on St. John; Island
administrator proposes “limiting the number and size
of vehicles on the island (annual report of the administrator
1954Laurance Rockefeller begins acquiring land
on St. John, including the Annaberg Estate and 2,000 acres of north shore land transfered by the heirs of Herman O. Creque. Revised Organic Act passed giving more power
to the people and government Virgin Islands
1955Only 56 acres out of 12,160 acres in cultivation on St. John; 85% second growth forest. Rockefeller addresses the Senate Subcommittee on Territories and Insular Affairs and testifies that St. John has “the most superb beaches and views” and is “the most beautiful island in the Caribbean.”
1956Virgin Islands National Park opens with 5,000-acre
gift of Jackson Hole Preserve. Caneel Bay Plantation reopens.
Twenty-four-hour electrical service inaugurated. Fifty-three
Jeeps, 31 trucks, five station wagons (annual report of the
administrator 1956).
1957Gibneys sell a parcel of beachfront land to
J. Robert Oppenheimer,
“the Father of the Atomic Bomb.”
1959Virgin Islands National Park acquires Trunk
Bay from the Boulon family.
19625,560 acres of submerged lands are transferred
to the jurisdiction of the National Park. First commercial
jet lands in St. Thomas (Pan Am). First seawater desalination plant.
1963Sewage system eliminates use of “night soil tins” sewage disposal in which human waste was placed in pails, brought to the street and collected by trucks
1966Pan Am begins direct flights to U.S. mainland.
1967Antilles Airboats begin seaplane service with
flights to St. John.
1969Project Tektite in Great Lameshur Bay (Underwater
1971Melvin Evans first African-American Virgin Islander to
be elected governor. Virgin Islands are the first U.S. state or
territory to observe Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday
as a legal holiday.
1978Mongoose Junction opens.
1989Hurricane Hugo (September).
1990Population of St. John 3,504.
19941,200,000 visitors to St. John National Park.
1995Hurricane Marilyn (September) ten killed in
Virgin Islands, $1.5 billion in damages. Seaplane service
to St. John is discontinued due to damages sustained and
subsequent announcement by the National Park Service saying
they will no longer allow use of seaplane ramp.
1997Dr. Donna Christian Green first woman to be
elected Virgin Islands delegate to U.S. Congress.
1988The Friends of Virgin Islands National Park incorporated
2000Population of St. John 4,197. Cruz Bay 2,743,
central district 746, Coral Bay 649, East End 59.
2003St. John gets its own phonebook.
2004Coral Bay School gets accredidation and celebrates its first graduating class.
2005Enighed Pond ferry project completed. Coral Bay School opens new campus
2006Enighed Pond ferry port up and running
2007Trust For Public Land aquires majority interest in Estate Maho Bay, preventing the development of the land by private interests. The land is to be donated to the National Park,
2008Most powerful earthquake in 20 years, October 11, measuring 6.1 on Richter Scale, no injuries, no significant damage reported
2009Financial woes halt Sirenusa and Pond Bay Club construction projects. New supermarket, “St John Gourmet, opens”
2010St. John trails and overlooks in excellent condition thanks to National Park Trail crews and the volunteer work of Jeff Chabot and company.
Cruz Bay Roundabout completed.

The Norman Island Treasure

In the 1700’s the city of Havana, Cuba was a consolidation point for treasure gathered by Spanish adventurers. Gold and precious gems were stolen from sacred Inca graves or mined in forced labor camps where many thousands of indigenous people lost their lives. When a sufficient quantity was accumulated, it would be brought overland, escorted by heavily armed soldiers, to the walled city of Cartegena.

Rare and exotic spices, ivory, jade and silk, gathered in the far off lands of Asia and the East Indies were sailed across the Pacific and landed at the port cities of Acapulco and Panamá and then transported on the backs of mules to Vera Cruz and Portobello.

From these ports on the Caribbean coast the cargo would be sent to Havana and stored along with shipments of pearls, indigo, rum, sugar, tobacco, cochineal, quinine, coffee and cocoa from the islands of the Caribbean.

The consolidated merchandise would finally be transported to Spain in armed convoys of warships and galleons. The treasure laden armadas sailed north, riding the currents of the Gulf Stream until they reached the latitudes of the prevailing westerlies where they would then turn east sailing downwind to Spain.

In the summer of 1750 the five hundred ton Spanish Galleon, Nuestra Señora de Guadelupe, commanded by Juan Manuel de Bonilla and escorted by a convoy of seven warships, left Havana Harbor bound for the Spanish port city of Cadiz. Packed away in the ship’s holds was a vast fortune in gold, silver, wrought plate, indigo, cochineal and tobacco.

On August 15, 1750 while sailing through a section of the Atlantic Ocean known as the Devil’s Triangle, the armada encountered a fierce tropical storm. The Nuestra Señora de Guadelupe went aground off the island of Ocracoke in the British Colony of North Carolina. Three of her accompanying galleons disappeared in the same storm and not a trace of their wreckage has ever been found.

When the seas calmed, the crippled galleon was visited by the Captain General of the Province of North Carolina. He claimed that duties were owed on the landed merchandise. Captain Bonilla disputed this claim, citing the terms of the treaty between Britain and Spain pertaining to shipping and trade. The Captain General temporarily placed the treasure in British custody and Bonilla accompanied him ashore to debate the matter.

Meanwhile the Governor of South Carolina, who heard of the incident, sent a courier with a message to impound the Nuestra Señora de Guadelupe in order to settle claims made by citizens of South Carolina against the Spanish Governor of Havana. It seems that the Governor had illegally impounded several English ships after the conclusion of the peace treaty, and the ship’s owners now demanded compensation.

During the negotiations between the Governor General of North Carolina and Captain Bonilla, and while the South Carolina contingent was still en route, the treasure was stolen by pirates who loaded the precious cargo into two shallow draft sailboats called bilanders, craft designed for inland navigation only. One of the heavily loaded vessels promptly foundered and sank, but the other, commanded by the Englishman Owen Lloyd, successfully sailed over 1000 miles of ocean and made landfall on the Danish island of St. Croix.

Here the pirates disposed of some of their money and then sailed north to Norman Island where the chests of gold and silver were painstakingly hidden. They then set sail for St. Thomas where they sold the cochineal, indigo and tobacco along with the unsuitable bilander itself. After a drunken spending spree Lloyd and his men made their way back to St. Croix where they bought a sloop and sailed to the British Leeward Islands.

The pirate’s behavior on St. Croix and St. Thomas was, to say the least, indiscreet and as news of the stolen treasure spread, interested parties soon put two and two together and had a fair idea of the identity of the suspects and the location of the treasure.

In all probability the pirates were observed in the vicinity of Norman Island by seamen coming in and out of the harbor at Roadtown, Tortola. Whatever the cause, a certain curiosity must have arisen concerning Norman Island because a search party was organized to investigate. The searchers apparently included Abraham Chalwil, the President off the Council in Tortola, and other leading citizens.

Their suspicions were confirmed and at least a portion of the stolen booty was found and brought back to Tortola. The members of the Norman Island expedition, however, did not relay news of the find to government officials in the Leeward Islands and simply decided to keep what they found.

As was the case with the original pirates, the virtue of discretion was not practiced, and rumors of their find proliferated throughout the West Indies.

Meanwhile both the British and the Spanish were busily following the trail of the pirates and the treasure, which both nations now claimed as their own.

The Lieutenant Governor of Antigua, Mr. Fleming, was the first government official to take direct action. He traveled to Nevis, St. Kitts, Montserrat and Anguilla where he disseminated information about the piracy suspects in the hope that they would be apprehended.

In Anguilla Fleming was informed that a man who called himself Davidson had been arrested on suspicion after he tried to buy provisions with a newly minted gold doubloon. He was interrogated and confessed that his real name was Blackstock and that he was, indeed, one of the pirates who were so eagerly being sought.

The next entry into the race to find the hidden fortune was the Dutch governor of Sint Eustatius (Statia). It seems that the pirate leader, Owen Lloyd had been arrested on that island and had furnished a full confession. Possessed of this information the Governor of Statia was preparing to send a contingent of soldiers to search for the treasure at Norman Island. Governor Fleming found out about the affair and put a stop to the Dutch governor’s plan by threatening to confiscate his vessel and arrest the crew if they entered British territory on this illegal mission.

When Fleming got to Tortola, he quickly learned that some of the inhabitants had already been to Norman Island and had brought the treasure back to Tortola. He also realized that the Tortolans, who were generally poor and had a history of being harassed by the Spanish, would be extremely reluctant to give up what they had found.

In a letter concerning the incident Fleming wrote, “Furnished with the confession of Blackstock, I landed at Tortola on Monday the 25 November and finding it, confirmed, in every particular, I hoped the certainty it gave me as to the species and quantity of the treasure, would afford me great assistance in my inquiry, but I did not find it so. I instantly sent for the president, Abraham Chalwil, who attended me and I had very soon a number of the best of the inhabitants about me, but they did not bring with them a disposition to acknowledge for themselves, or betray the confidences, I am told, they had entered into.”

Fleming used “the carrot and stick” solution to solve the problem. He offered a large reward in the form of a one third finder’s fee for those that turned in their share and confiscation, arrest and punishment for those who did not.

The President of the Council, along with several other citizens finally acknowledged the existence and whereabouts of the treasure and at least a portion of it was returned. Chalwil, however, was to eventually lose his job over the matter.

Coins and merchandise valued at $20,429 were eventually turned in, and $7514 of that was issued as a finder’s fee.

The estimated value of the cargo originally stolen from the galleon was over $200,000; this left about $180,000 (worth millions of dollars by today’s standards) still unaccounted for.

What happened to the rest of the fortune?

The Spanish maintained that the treasure was rightfully theirs since they were the ones who had stolen it from the native Americans in the first place. When word spread that the Nuestra Señora cargo had found its way to the Virgin Islands, the governor of Puerto Rico sent a contingent of soldiers to investigate, and there is evidence that they may have met with some success. This story takes us back to the island of Anegada and a man named George Norman.

Anegada never developed a significant plantation or agricultural economy, and at the time of our story most of the inhabitants of the island were nefarious and desperate individuals who dedicated themselves to piracy and the plunder of ships wrecked on the Anegada Horseshoe Reef.

A deed dated 1747 showed a George Norman to be the owner of over four- percent of the island of Anegada. How he earned enough money to buy such a large tract of land is anyone’s guess, but many speculate that his money came from questionable sources.

According to George Eggleston in his book Virgin Islands, Norman Island “was named for a pirate skipper who had a one-man kingdom on the island and for many years preyed upon the shipping that passed through Sir Francis Drake Channel.”

If George Norman had anything to do with Norman Island at the time of the piracy, he would have been among the Virgin Islanders who found portions of the loot there. He may even have been in cahoots with the pirates.

The book Lagooned in the Virgin Islands by H. B. Eadie mentions a letter dated December 22, 1750 which refers to “trouble-some Spaniards infesting the seas around the Virgin Islands” and their recovery of part of the loot from the caravel Nuestra Señora which had been buried at Norman Island.

In Letters From The Virgin Islands, written anonymously, reference is made of the Spanish recapture of the treasure: “Norman, a buccaneer, separating himself from his associates, then in force at Anegada, had settled with his portion of the general booty, on this Key…in a conflict (with the Spanish)…Norman and his followers perished.”

The next rumor of a treasure find came in the early nineteenth century after Captain Thomas Southey described Peter Island in his Chronological History of the West Indies. He wrote: “In May (1806) the author with a party visited Peter’s Island, one of those which from the Bay of Tortola, a kind of Robinson Crusoe spot, where a man ought to be a farmer, carpenter, doctor, fisherman, planter; everything himself. The owner’s house has only the ground floor; a roof of shingles projects some six or eight feet beyond the sides, like a Quaker’s hat; not a pane of glass in the house; merely shutters for the apertures. In the centre of the drawing-room or hall, or best room were triced up ears of Indian corn; on a chair lay a fishing net; in one corner hung another; spyglass, a fowling piece, chairs, looking glass, and pictures of the four seasons composed the furniture; the library consisted of a prayer-book, Almanack, and one volume of the Naval Chronicle. On the left hand was a room, with a range of machines for extracting the seeds from the cotton. Round the house were abundance of goats, turkeys, fowls, a bull, cow, pigs dogs and cats…”

“The Old Gentleman was dressed in a large broad-brimmed white hat which appeared to have been in use for over a century; a white night-cap covered his bald head; his blue jacket had lapels buttoned back; his duck waistcoat had flaps down to his knees; the trousers were of the same material as his waistcoat…the man leading this isolated life with only his old wife, who looked more like an Egyptian mummy than anything human, was worth £60,000…He had lived twenty years on that small island and twenty on Tortola.”

The eccentric couple later went to live on Norman Island supposedly in search of greater seclusion, but the talk was that they had returned to look for more treasure.

Thomas Southey was the brother of the well-known poet, Robert Southey, which helped give this rather obscure book a wide circulation and in conjunction with the later activities of the hermit couple there arose a renewed interest in the lost treasure of Norman Island.

A group of English treasure hunters formed the Norman’s Island Treasure Company. The adventurers sailed to Norman Island where they set off large charges of gunpowder to blast holes in places where they thought that the loot might have been hidden. There was no record of a find, but it is said that some of these holes can be still be seen today.

The most recent report of a treasure find on Norman Island concerns the Creque family. Eggleston wrote: “just after the turn of the last century an impoverished Virgin Islander named Creque made a systematic search of the caves and found the treasure chest previously mentioned. The well-heeled Creque family are prominent merchants in St. Thomas to this day.” (Mr. Creque bought Norman Island and the Creque family became significant landowners on St. Thomas and St. John. Creque’s Alley in downtown Charlotte Amalie was the subject of a hit song by the Mommas and the Poppas in the 1960’s)

Julian Putley in The Virgin’s Treasure Island writes: “The southern-most cave has natural steps carved into one side and it was at the top of these steps that, in 1910 or thereabouts, a treasure chest was found containing Spanish doubloons. The find was verified by a fisherman, who, whilst sheltering from the rain, found an empty iron chest and a few telltale coins … Rumor has it that when descendants of Mr. Creque are betrothed a Spanish doubloon hanging from a gold chain is presented to the lucky bride.”

History of Trunk Bay

The Amerindian inhabitants of St. John, known as the Tainos, established a village at Trunk Bay around 700 AD, which lasted until about 900 AD, when they apparently left in a hurry, evidenced by the archeological find of abandoned cooking pots still filled with food.

In colonial times, Trunk Bay was operated as a sugar estate and prospered until shortly after the emancipation of the slaves, when the entire island underwent a period of economic decline.

In the late 1920s Paul Boulon Sr. used to visit St. John from his home in Puerto Rico. While there he often spent time at the Fishing Club at Denis Bay, which is described by Desmond Holdbridge in his book Escape to the Tropics, written in 1937 as “a quaint institution, now non-existent, where no fishing was ever done.” It was during a Fishing Club get-together that he learned that Trunk Bay and 100 additional acres of land were for sale for $2500.

Paul and his wife, Erva bought the property and built a house on the hill overlooking the eastern end of the beach where they and their four children would spend their summer vacations there. One of the family’s favorite activities was to explore the bay and the little caves around Trunk Cay in their genuine “Old Town” canoe that they had specially sent down from Maine.

The house went unoccupied for several years around the time of World War II. In 1947, Mrs. Boulon and her son Paul returned to St. John, fixed up the house and opened a small hotel that attracted the more adventurous New York literati, journalists, psychoanalysts, theater people and even vacationing FBI agents.

The actors, Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda, and the nuclear scientist, J. Robert Oppenheimer, were frequent guests.

John Dos Pasos, whose books include, Manhattan Transfer, USA Trilogy, Adventures of a Young Man and Orient Express, met and wooed his wife at the Boulon’s guest house, on Trunk Bay, an appropriate venue for this famous author who once summed up his life’s works as “man’s struggle for life against the strangling institutions he himself creates.”

John Gunther, author of such works as Inside Europe, Inside Asia, Inside Latin America, Inside U.S.A., Inside Africa, Inside Russia, Inside Europe, Inside South America, and Inside Australia also vacationed with the Boulons at Trunk Bay. As there was no good road to Trunk Bay at the time, he arrived by sea and came ashore in a dinghy along with his entourage and his luggage. When the dinghy reached the beach, the Boulon’s hotel staff offloaded the luggage and helped the dinghy passengers ashore. Gunther insisted on personally carrying his briefcase, which contained the notes for his work Inside Africa. As he was exiting the craft, he fell into the water causing someone to remark that “Trunk Bay is now Inside Gunther.”

In 1958, The Boulons sold Trunk Bay to Laurance Rockefeller, with the exception of their houses and property on the hillside and small beach on the eastern headland of the bay. Rockefeller then donated this land and most of his other St. John holdings to the National Park. During the ten years that the Boulons operated their quaint pension at Trunk Bay, it was said there were rarely more than five or six people on the beach.

Today during peak season, Trunk Bay may have around 1000 visitors per day including locals, cruise ship passengers, party boats, and tourists from the island’s villas and hotels.

Nonetheless, you can still enjoy Trunk Bay in its pristine state as long as you can do without amenities such as life guards, snack bars, shops and showers. All you have to do is arrive early in the morning or late in the afternoon.

Trunk Bay Archeological Dig

When Christopher Columbus sailed past St. John on his second voyage, he either did not see, or at least did not report, any signs of the island being inhabited. As there is no historical information concerning previous populations of our island, we must rely heavily on archeological studies in order to understand the nature and way of life of those who lived here before us.

About 2,500 years ago, Native Americans originally from the river valleys of South America made the difficult ocean crossing between Trinidad and Grenada, 80 miles to the north and out of sight of land. From there, they proceeded up the island chain arriving on St. John around the time of the birth of Christ. They were farmers, fishers and pottery makers, lived in communal houses in villages, and carried on long distance trade.

Like the Europeans who came to the islands 2,000 years later, these settlers did not find their newly discovered territory to be unoccupied. The Lesser Antilles, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico were already inhabited by a coastal people, gatherers and fishers who lived in small and widely dispersed settlements. And like Columbus and the Europeans, the newcomers overwhelmed the pre-existing culture they encountered.

Around 700 AD, some of these new settlers established a village at what is now called Trunk Bay. Here they lived, planted yucca, fished, gathered fruit, fabricated pottery, tools and weapons and conducted their social and religious ceremonies until about 900 AD, when they apparently left in a hurry, evidenced by the finding of cooking pots, which were still filled with food.

When the Trunk Bay facilities were improved several years ago, archeologists conducted a second dig in the area that was to be disturbed. About 18 inches below the surface layer of hard packed sand the researchers encountered a brown layer of earth rich in prehistoric artifacts. About 18 inches below that, they found a culturally sterile zone, meaning that there were no more artifacts.

The excavation uncovered hundreds of pottery shards as well as shellfish remains, animal bones and plant material, useful for carbon dating.

The pottery fragments have been separated and classified by units and levels, that is, what area of the excavation they came from and the depth at which they were found. Now comes the hard part, the piecing together of the past.

The first step in the process is called cross mending. Pieces of pottery that obviously fit together, but have been found in different units or levels, are put together at this time and their original location documented. Next comes the separation of pottery fragments by attributes. Shards are separated by size and form. Rims, bases, handles and appendages are sorted into different piles, while workers remain on the lookout for pieces that fit together or can be identified as to form and function, such as pots, griddles, or ceremonial vessels.

The researchers will then observe the nature, style and age of the artifacts and their changes over time. They will also study the relationship of this dig to the Cinnamon Bay dig, where artifacts were found from a village that sprung up just after Trunk Bay was abandoned, and to other archeological investigations elsewhere in the Caribbean. The goal is not only to better understand the chronological development of the people who lived at Trunk Bay, their technology, social development, religion, food, housing and way of life, but also to better understand the overall prehistory of the Virgin Islands and the Caribbean.

Volunteers are now being sought to wash and tag artifacts, to look for cross mends, to aid in classification and if you prove to be good at your job, you may even be taught how to glue pieces together. Those interested in volunteering can call Ken Wild at 693 8950 extension 223.

William Thornton

William Thornton

Once upon a time, braves of the Algonquin nation met at the foot of a hill, not far from the banks of the mighty Potomac River, in order to hold their councils. Today, another nation holds its councils on this very spot. Their leaders erected an extraordinary building on the top of that hill, which has become a symbol of the most powerful nation on earth.

The building on the top of that hill is the United States Capitol. This magnificent monument was designed by a man who was born on a remote island, educated as a doctor, lacked formal training as an architect, and may be best known (at least in the Virgin Islands) for lending his name to a popular floating bar and restaurant anchored in The Bight at Norman Island. His name was William Thornton and he was born in 1759 in Great Harbour on Jost Van Dyke.

The events leading up to this unlikely connection tell an amazing tale.

After the successful American Revolution in 1776, the first congresses of the new nation were inconveniently convened in eight different cities: Philadelphia, Baltimore, Lancaster, York, Princeton, Annapolis, Trenton, and New York City.

In 1787, the U.S. Constitution provided for a permanent capital to be established, a federal district unto itself, part of no state, where the functions of the emerging government would be centralized in one location. The new capital, the District of Columbia, was to be named Washington, D.C., in honor of the country’s first president.

Formal procedures were established and qualified men were appointed to make the many decisions that this far-reaching project would require. In actuality, the inevitable atmosphere of chaos allowed hidden dramas, under-the-table deals, secret personal connections and international political alliances to determine who would be in charge of what.

George Washington wanted to appoint the idiosyncratic French engineer, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, as the chief city  planner. L’Enfant was not well liked and had several powerful enemies, including John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. It was only under intense pressure from President Washington himself that a reluctant Congress approved L’Enfant’s appointment.

L’Enfant’s vision of the capital city was inspired by the graceful and classic beauty epitomized by the Palace and Gardens at Versailles in his native Paris. The streets and avenues would be laid out on a geometric grid, which would be overlaid by diagonals.

The hill chosen as the site for the District’s predominant building, the Capitol, was described by L’Enfant as “a pedestal waiting for a monument.”

The most enormous of L’Enfant’s many tasks was to plan, design and supervise the construction of the U.S. Capitol building. The French engineer, however, proved to be extremely difficult to work with. He refused to recognize the authority of the commissioners, who were ultimately responsible for the project and who were, in effect, his bosses.

In addition, he continued to irritate other influential people. For example, parallel avenues running north-south were to be named after states; east-west streets were to be named after letters of the alphabet – that is, A Street, B Street, C Street, etc. The systematic progression of lettered streets was interrupted, however, with the omission of J Street. The childish L’Enfant did not want his enemy, John Jay, to be so honored.

When L’Enfant personally and without authorization tore up the porch of a rich landowner because it obstructed the path of the proposed New Jersey Avenue, the commissioners called the Frenchman in for a showdown. In that meeting, L’Enfant was asked to produce the design for the Capitol building. The engineer’s response was that it was unnecessary to have a written plan, because he carried the design “in his head.”

That was it for L’Enfant. He was fired. His city-planning  duties were taken over by his assistant, Andrew Ellicot, who was more sympathetic to the compromises that were, from time to time, demanded by established private landholdings.

George Washington and the commissioners, however, now needed to find a new architect to produce a plan and construct a Capitol building worthy of their great vision.

In order to find a suitable candidate for the job, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson arranged for a competition in which a prize of $500 and a city lot would be awarded to the architect who produced the best plan by the middle of July.

An advertisement was placed in newspapers throughout the new nation. The contest was well underway by the time word of it reached an interested party on the faraway island of Tortola in the Virgin Islands: Dr. William Thornton.

Thornton, who was born in 1759 in Great Harbour, Jost Van Dyke, received his early education in England and later  studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh. At the time of the contest, he was a practicing physician on Tortola. The young doctor was also a brilliant amateur architect, having previously won a competition for the design of a new building for the Philadelphia Library.

Thornton was intrigued with the idea of designing the Capitol and immediately wrote a  letter asking permission to enter the contest, even though he knew his entry would arrive late.

By the time Thornton’s drawings reached the temporary Capitol in Philadelphia, the contest was indeed closed. Undaunted, he made an appointment to see George Washington, determined to show him the work.

It turned out that Washington was not satisfied with any of the designs that had been presented in the competition, and when he saw Thornton’s plans, he was extremely pleased. Washington then sent Thornton to submit his plans to the commissioners who were in charge of the project, along with a letter urging them to reconsider the contest deadline.

In the letter, Washington also praised Thornton’s work, writing, “Grandeur, Simplicity and Convenience appear to be well combined in the plan of Dr. William Thornton.” Thomas Jefferson, who was also a notable architect, characterized the design as “simple, noble, beautiful and excellently arranged.”

According to Thornton’s plan, the building would be comprised of three segments. The central portion, covered by a dome, would be flanked by two symmetrical rectangular wings, which would house the Senate and House of Representatives.

The commissioners agreed with Washington and Jefferson. They pronounced the young doctor from Jost Van Dyke to    be the winner of the contest, and the Capitol was erected,  substantially along the lines of his blueprints.

When the actual construction began, Thornton moved to the emerging District of Columbia. He became a friend of George Washington and was appointed one of the three commis­sioners who were responsible for building the city. Later, Thornton was selected as the first Commissioner of Patents, a post he occupied until his death in 1828.

Columbus Day

Columbus statue

The above Photo is the Statue of Christopher Columbus located in the Plaza Mayor in the Old City of Santo Domingo. Beneath Columbus the Cacica, Anacaona is depicted beneath Columbus and immortalized as the first Indian to learn to read and write. Anacaona was captured in an act of trickery whereby her village was burned and all the inhabitants slaughtered by troops under the command of Nicolas de Ovando, then Governor of Santo Domingo. Ovando was under orders by Columbus to wipe out the remaining unsubjugated Tainos who were beginning to rebel against the Spanish. Anacaona was subsequently hung in a public square in santo Domingo.

In the ship’s log and in his diary Columbus made the following observation concerning the Taino: “They are a very loving people and without covetousness,”…”They are adaptable for every purpose, and I declare to your Highnesses that there is not a better country nor a better people in the world than these.”…They are so ingenious and free with all they have that no one would believe it who has not seen it; of anything they possess, if it be asked of them, they never say no; on the contrary they invite you to share it and show as much love as if their hearts went with it…”

Father Bartolomé de Las Casas, who wrote extensively about the Taino culture and their interaction with the Spanish invaders, sailed to the West Indies with Christopher Columbus on his second voyage. The Spanish fleet also carried more than 1500 adventurers, former prisoners and ex soldiers with battle experience in the wars against the Moors of North Africa.

Father Las Casas wrote: “…God made all the peoples of this area…open and as innocent as can be imagined. The simplest people in the world, unassuming, long-suffering, unassertive, and submissive. They are without malice or guile…Never quarrelsome or belligerent or boisterous, they harbor no grudges and do not seek to settle old scores; indeed, the notions of revenge, rancor, and hatred are quite foreign to them…They own next to nothing and have no urge to acquire material possessions. As a result they are neither ambitious nor greedy, and are totally uninterested in worldly power…They are innocent and pure in mind and have a lively intelligence…

“It was upon these gentle lambs, imbued by the Creator with all the qualities we have mentioned, that from the very first day they clapped eyes on them the Spanish fell like ravening wolves upon the fold…The pattern established at the outset has remained unchanged to this day, and the Spaniards still do nothing save tear the natives to shreds, murder them and inflict upon them untold misery, suffering and distress, tormenting, harrying and persecuting them mercilessly.

“They forced their way into native settlements, slaughtering everyone they found there, including small children, old men, pregnant women, and even women who had just given birth. They hacked them to pieces, slicing open their bellies with their swords as though they were so many sheep herded into a pen. They even laid wagers on whether they could manage to slice a man in two at a stroke, or cut an individual’s head from his body, or disembowel him with a single blow of their axes. They grabbed suckling infants by the feet and, ripping them from their mothers’ breasts, dashed them headlong against the rocks. Others, laughing and joking all the while, threw them over their shoulders into a river, shouting: ‘Wriggle, you little perisher.’

“They spared no one, erecting especially wide gibbets on which they could string their victims up with their feet just off the ground and then burn them alive thirteen at a time, in honor of our Savior and the twelve Apostles, or tie dry straw to their bodies and set fire to it… The way they normally dealt with the native leaders and nobles was to tie them to a kind of griddle consisting of sticks resting on pitchforks driven into the ground and then grill them over a slow fire, with the result that they howled in agony and despair as they died a lingering death.

“It once happened that I myself witnessed their grilling of four or five local leaders in this fashion (and I believe they had set up two or three other pairs of grills alongside so that they might process other victims at the same time) when the poor creatures ‘howls came between the Spanish commander and his sleep. He gave orders that the prisoners were to be throttled, but the man in charge of execution detail, who was more bloodthirsty than the average common hangman (I know his identity and even met some relatives of his in Seville), was loath to cut short his private entertainment by throttling them and so he personally went round ramming wooden buns into their mouths to stop them making such a racket and deliberately stoked the fire that they would take just as long to die as he himself chose. I saw these things for myself and many others besides.

“…It is reported that the butcher-in-chief arranged for a large number of natives in the area and, in particular, one group of over two hundred who had either come form a neighboring town in response to a summons or had gathered of their own free will, to have their noses, lips and chins sliced from their faces; they were sent away, in unspeakable agony and all running with blood…”

In the United States of America and in the Caribbean, Columbus Day is celebrated on the twelfth of October.

Did Columbus Really Land on St. Croix?

By Gerald Singer

It is commonly accepted that the first battle between Europeans and Native Americans was fought between Spaniards and Caribs on the island of St. Croix. Recent archeological research, however, has raised some questions as to the identity of the natives and possibly the location of the event.

The story of the encounter goes like this:

On the morning of November 14, 1493, seventeen ships under the command of Christopher Columbus, carrying 1,500 passengers, officers and crew, dropped anchor at what historians believe was Salt River Bay, on an island that Columbus named, Santa Cruz and today is called St. Croix.

A party of thirty men went ashore in longboats to get fresh water, search for other provisions and make contact with the inhabitants, but as the Spaniards approached, the people of the small coastal village fled into the hills. Four women and four boys, captives of the natives, were left behind and taken prisoner by the Spaniards. The shore party and their prisoners were just about to return to the ships, when a canoe with four men, two women and a boy rounded the point and began to enter the bay.

The occupants of the canoe were apparently so stunned by what they saw that they saw, they stopped paddling and remained motionless for over an hour, all the while staring in amazement at the spectacle of the Spanish fleet. Then the soldiers from the landing party rowed the longboat out into the bay putting the native canoe between the longboat and the anchored fleet. Cut off from escape, the natives began shooting arrows at their pursuers.

Two Spaniards were injured in the skirmish. One of the injured later died from a wound he received when an arrow shot by one of the women passed through his shield. The battle came to an end when the longboat rammed the canoe, capsizing it, and sending its occupants into the sea. The natives were captured, except for one man who continued shooting arrows at the Spanish while swimming in the water, until he was seriously wounded and brought aboard the ship. Thought to be dead, he was thrown overboard whereupon, holding his intestines in one hand, he attempted to swim back to shore. Then the Spanish sailors who used a grappling hook to haul him back into the boat, whereupon his head was cut off with an axe.

Who were these fierce warriors? Historians have identified them as Caribs, and for good reason. On Columbus’ first voyage he traveled to the Bahamas, Cuba and Hispaniola where he encountered a peaceful indigenous people who called themselves Taino. On his second voyage he made landfall in the Lesser Antilles, islands inhabited by a warlike people who the Spanish named Caribs.

Columbus’s first stop was on Dominica and from there he proceeded to Guadeloupe where a landing party discovered six Taino women who had been abducted from their home island of Puerto Rico and brought to Guadeloupe. When the Spaniards were about to return to the ship, “these women entered the boat, begging the sailors to take them to the ship. They showed by signs that the people of the island ate people and kept them as slaves.” (From the journal of the second voyage.)

The strongest evidence suggesting that it was Caribs who were encountered on the island Columbus called Santa Cruz, comes from their identification by these women rescued just five days before, and who had lived among the Caribs as captive brides. Furthermore, the Taino captives brought back from the island attested to the Carib practice of ritual cannibalism. Another indication of the native’s ethnicity is provided by the their use of the bow and arrow, a weapon favored by Caribs but rarely used by the Taino.

Based on these facts, historians, such as the eminent Isaac Dookhan have concluded that, “… Caribs were encountered by the Spaniards … at Salt River in St. Croix, where they had undoubtedly defeated the (Taino) and taken over their settlements there.”

All well and good, but along comes the archeologists, such as the distinguished Irving Rouse. The archeologists maintain that no Carib artifacts have ever been found at Salt River and all the archeological evidence indicates that the last indigenous people to occupy St. Croix were Tainos.

There is also historical evidence that tends to support the archeological theory. In the early 1500s there was a female chief, Juana, who ruled on St. Croix. Women chiefs, or cacicas, were common in the Taino culture, but would be unheard of in the male dominated and female subjugated culture of the Caribs.

How can this be explained?

Rouse offers this theory: “Columbus and his native passengers, from whom he presumably obtained the Carib identification, may have been using that term to refer not to the specific ethnic group they had encountered in Guadeloupe but to any hostile Indians…”

Maybe, but one would think that the Taino women, having such intimate contact with Caribs, would know the difference between a Carib and a hostile Taino. Moreover, hostile or not, Tainos have never been known to practice ritual cannibalism.

Another inconsistency is found in what is purported to be the route of Columbus’s second voyage, which left the port of Cadiz, Spain on September 25 with Admiral Christopher Columbus in command of a fleet of 17 ships.

On his first voyage, Columbus’s fleet consisted of only three ships, the Niña, Pinta and Santa María. On Christmas Day 1492, the Santa María ran aground and sank in the vicinity of present-day Cap Haïtien. The Pinta had already departed to investigate tales of a beach laden with gold, and the Niña did not have sufficient space aboard for the entire crew of the Santa María. The result was that thirty-nine sailors were forced to remain behind.

The immediate concern of the second voyage was to rescue these men as soon as possible.

On November 3, 1493, the fleet of the second voyage sighted the island of Dominica. Not finding a suitable harbor there, they proceeded to Marie-Galante and anchored there for the night.

Early the next morning they weighed anchor and headed northwest and landed on Guadeloupe. Here they took on board several Tainos who had been abducted by the Caribs from their native island of Boriken, now called Puerto Rico. Meanwhile, a shore party got lost in the forest, delaying the fleet’s departure until November 10.

Leaving Guadeloupe, the fleet resumed its northwest course naming islands as they passed but not stopping to explore. Columbus’s son, Ferdinand, wrote, “the Admiral wished to know everything about these parts, but his concern to give relief to those left behind kept him on a straight course for Hispaniola.”

According to accepted theory, this course took the fleet to Salt River Bay on St. Croix where the battle with the Caribs supposedly was fought. The fleet departed that evening and sailed to Virgin Gorda, whereupon they turned to the west, sailed through the northern Virgin Islands, past Vieques and along the southern coast of Puerto Rico and on to Hispaniola.

Herein lies the inconsistency. Why, if Columbus was in such a rush to rescue his men that he had left in Hispaniola, did he now change course and sail into the wind to reach Virgin Gorda?

The ship’s log for Columbus’s second voyage was lost. The only surviving documents written by those actually on the voyage are letters by Dr. Diego Alvarez Chanca, the fleet surgeon, Michele de Cuneo, an Italian adventurer, and Guillermo Coma, a Spanish crewman.

These were fairly casual letters describing the voyage, not detailed documents describing the progress of the fleet. As such, the positions of the islands and their names were not recorded with thoroughness and detail and on later maps, names and places became confused.

Putting together what evidence they had available, historians surmised the route taken by the fleet. Most Columbus scholars agree that on November 3, 1493 they sighted Dominica and anchored at Marie-Galante. On November 4th they landed at Guadeloupe and stayed there until the 10th because a shore party got lost in the forest and on the night of the 13th, they hove to off the coast of an island, which they landed on the following morning.

Here there is some disagreement. The general consensus now is that this island was what is presently called St. Croix. Earlier historians thought otherwise. For instance, Edward Everett Hale, in his nineteenth century work, The life of Christopher Columbus: from his own letters and journals and other documents of his time, wrote, “They left Guadeloupe on Sunday, the tenth of November. They passed several islands, but stopped at none of them, as they were in haste to arrive at the settlement of La Navidad in Hispaniola, made on the first voyage. They did, however, make some stay at an island, which seemed well populated. This was that of San Martin.”

On this island, they skirmished with Caribs and then proceeded to Virgin Gorda, heaving to off the eastern coast.

The route of the voyage and where they were on the 11th and 12th of November is not known. The letters talked about Columbus heading to the northwest and passing and naming islands as he went but stopping at none of them because he was in a rush to rescue his men that were stranded on Hispaniola after the first voyage.

The assumption was that he stayed in the lee of Nevis and St. Kitts and turned east passing Statia and Saba and then crossing to St. Croix. During this time, he named several islands not on this route at all, one of them being St. Martin, which appears on Juan La Cosa’s mappamonde, dated 1500, in the position of Nevis, where it is theorized that Columbus anchored the night of November 11th. As this date coincides with the feast of St. Martin of Tours, it is very possible that what is today called Nevis was originally named St. Martin.

Perhaps Columbus took a less westerly route up the Lesser Antilles, following the island chain to its end before taking an easterly turn and crossing the Anegada Passage to the Virgin Islands, a route taken by most sailors even today. If this were the case, the island where he landed on the 14th of November might have been named Santa Cruz, (St. Croix) but might have actually been present-day St. Martin, with Nevis bearing the name San Martin.

Now if the landfall were St. Martin and not St. Croix, this would explain the battle with Caribs. St. Martin was inhabited by Caribs; St. Croix was not.

Moreover, after the battle, the fleet proceeded to Virgin Gorda and then down the Virgin Island archipelago. This turn to the east and into the wind is totally inconsistent with the rest of the route and Columbus’s anxiety to reach Hispaniola, having cancelled all but the most necessary shore leaves.

But in the section of Dr. Chanca’s letter describing the departure from Santa Cruz or St. Martin he wrote, “Then that day we departed from that island, where we had stayed for not more than six or seven hours, and went to another island that came into sight and was in the direction that we were headed, we arrived near the island at night. The next day in the morning we sailed by the coast. It was a big land although not continuous, made up of forty or so islands,” He was undoubtedly referring to Virgin Gorda and the northern Virgin Islands.

The Virgin Islands would be “in the direction (they) were headed,” if their departure point was St. Martin, but they would be conspicuously in the opposite direction if the departure island was indeed St. Croix.

Putting together the lack of concrete information, the problems inherent in a battle with Caribs on an island without Caribs, and a route that was inconsistent with the intended destination, it seems unlikely that Columbus made landfall on St. Croix on November 14th. The same evidence, however, highly supports the theory that this landfall was made on St. Martin, an island inhabited by Caribs and lying in the perfect position for a downwind crossing of the Anegada Passage directly to the Virgin Islands.

King Ferdinand’s Letter to the Tainos

In the name of King Ferdinand and Juana, his daughter, Queen of Castile and Leon, etc., conquerors of barbarian nations, we notify you as best we can that our Lord God Eternal created Heaven and earth and a man and woman from whom we all descend for all times and all over the world. In the 5,000 years since creation the multitude of these generations caused men to divide and establish kingdoms in various parts of the world, among whom God chose St. Peter as leader of mankind, regardless of their law, sect or belief. He seated St. Peter in Rome as the best place from which to rule the world but he allowed him to establish his seat in all parts of the world and rule all people, whether Christians, Moors, Jews, Gentiles or any other sect. He was named Pope, which means admirable and greatest father, governor of all men. Those who lived at that time obeyed St. Peter as Lord and superior King of the universe, and so did their descendants obey his successors and so on to the end of time.

The late Pope gave these islands and mainland of the ocean and the contents hereof to the above-mentioned King and Queen, as is certified in writing and you may see the documents if you should so desire. Therefore, Their Highnesses are lords and masters of this land; they were acknowledged as such when this notice was posted, and were and are being served willingly and without resistance; then, their religious envoys were acknowledged and obeyed without delay, and all subjects unconditionally and of their own free will became Christians and thus they remain. Their Highnesses received their allegiance with joy and benignity and decreed that they be treated in this spirit like good and loyal vassals and you are under the obligation to do the same.

Therefore, we request that you understand this text, deliberate on its contents within a reasonable time, and recognize the Church and its highest priest, the Pope, as rulers of the universe, and in their name the King and Queen of Spain as rulers of this land, allowing the religious fathers to preach our holy Faith to you. You own compliance as a duty to the King and we in his name will receive you with love and charity, respecting your freedom and that of your wives and sons and your rights of possession and we shall not compel you to baptism unless you, informed of the Truth, wish to convert to our holy Catholic Faith as almost all your neighbors have done in other islands, in exchange for which Their Highnesses bestow many privileges and exemptions upon you. Should you fail to comply, or delay maliciously in so doing, we assure you that with the help of God we shall use force against you, declaring war upon you from all sides and with all possible means, and we shall bind you to the yoke of the Church and of Their Highnesses; we shall enslave your persons, wives and sons, sell you or dispose of you as the King sees fit; we shall seize your possessions and harm you as much as we can as disobedient and resisting vassals. And we declare you guilty of resulting deaths and injuries, exempting Their Highnesses of such guilt as well as ourselves and the gentlemen who accompany us. We hereby request that legal signatures be affixed to this text and pray those present to bear witness for us.

Columbus in Hispaniola – La Navidad

On the night of December 24, 1492, the 85-ft. sailing vessel, Santa Maria, commanded and owned by Juan de la Cosa and carrying aboard the admiral himself, Don Cristobol Colón (Christopher Columbus), struck a reef in Cap Hatien Bay. A ground sea and a rising tide pushed the ship hard up on the reef.

Accompanying the Santa Maria that Christmas Eve night was the 70-ft. caravel Niña, captained by Vicente Yañez Pinzón. Martín Alanzo Pinzón, the master of the third ship in Columbus’ fleet, the 75-ft. caravel Pinta, had temporarily departed from the other vessels on the eleventh of November to investigate tales of a beach laden with gold.

All attempts to get the Santa Maria off the reef by the crews of both ships, along with the aid of friendly Taino natives, were in vain.

The Niña did not have sufficient space aboard for the entire crew of the Santa Maria. Therefore the grounded ship was dismantled plank by plank and a fort was constructed ashore and stocked with supplies in order to house thirty-nine men who were to remain behind.

The fort was named La Navidad because the wreck had occurred on Christmas Eve. Diego de Arana, the brother of Columbus’ mistress was given command of the garrison. His instructions were to search for gold and to establish good relations with the Taino natives. Columbus continued on his voyage of exploration vowing to return as soon as possible.

The King and Queen of Spain were pleased enough with the results of Columbus’ first voyage to finance a larger and more grandiose second expedition and on September 25, 1493 Columbus left Spain with seventeen ships, abundant supplies and a vast array of armaments. The officers and crew numbered over 1500 men, but no women were aboard. Included in the crew were twenty-six clergymen, a ship’s doctor and a mapmaker. Columbus’ instructions were to establish gold mines, install settlers, develop trade with the Tainos, and convert them to Christianity.

The fleet made landfall on an Island called Charis or Waitikubuli by its Carib inhabitants on Sunday November 3, 1493. The word for Sunday in Spanish is Domingo, which led Columbus to rename the island, Dominica. Due to a lack of a good anchorage, no one went ashore and the island was not explored.

The fleet sailed north with the immediate goal of reaching Hispaniola and making contact with the men left behind at La Navidad. When they reached the island now called Guadeloupe, the crew sighted people and dwellings on shore. The ships were anchored and a landing party was sent to investigate. The natives ran away into the hills.

A later shore party, attempting to explore the interior of the island, got lost in the woods. Search parties were organized, but without success. The men returned on their own after six days. The delay, however, had the result of allowing Columbus time for further investigation of the island.

According to Ferdinand Colón, Columbus’ son, who had access to the now lost journal of the second voyage, “a large fragment of a ship with iron fittings” was found. Could this have come from the Santa Maria, which had wrecked hundreds of miles away downwind of Guadeloupe and if so, how did it get there?

Christopher Columbus wrote the following passage in his famous letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabela of Spain regarding the settlement of La Navidad. The letter seems to give the impression that the Santa Maria was not wrecked at all and that the settlement was not established out of pure necessity, but by choice:

“I especially took possession of a certain large town, in a very convenient location, and adapted to all kinds of gain and commerce, to which we give the name of our Lord of the Nativity. And I commanded a fort to be built there forthwith, which must be completed by this time, in which I left many men as seemed necessary, with all kinds of arms, and plenty of food for more than a year. Likewise one caravel, and for the construction of others men skilled in this trade and in other professions; and also the extraordinary good will and friendship of the king of this island toward us (Guacanagarí). For those people are very amiable and kind, to such a degree that the said king gloried in calling me his brother. And if they should change their minds, and should wish to hurt those who remained in the fort, they would not be able, because they lack weapons, they go naked, and are too cowardly. For that reason those who hold the said fort are at least able to resist easily this whole island, without any imminent danger to themselves …”

Notwithstanding these claims, when Columbus returned to the settlement on the 27th of November 1493, the thirty-nine men left behind from the first voyage were dead. Their mutilated bodies appeared to be about three months old. The fort had been burned to the ground.

In order to find out what had happened, Columbus sent word requesting that Guacanagarí come to La Navidad. A messenger returned with the news that Guacanagarí was recovering from an injury and could not travel. The following day the admiral himself set out for the cacique’s village. Accompanying him were a contingent of soldiers, Dr. Chanca, the fleet physician and twelve priests.

Upon arriving in the village they found Guacanagarí lying in his hammock. His leg was bandaged. The cacique explained that the Spanish had taken as many as five women apiece and had begun to fight amongst themselves. There had been several murders precipitated by jealousy.

Spanish marauders in search of women and gold entered the rather remote territory of Maguana in the interior of the island that was ruled by the cacique, Caonabo, reported to be a Carib.

Caonabo captured the interlopers and put them to death. According to Guacanagarí, Caonabo then launched an attack against the remaining men at La Navidad. With discipline and order broken down, the fort was left unguarded. All were killed in the surprise pre-dawn attack. Guacanagarí went on to explain that he had been wounded when he came to the aid of the Christians.

Columbus had Dr. Chanca examine Guacanagarí’s leg. The bandage was removed and the doctor could find no evidence of an injury. Father Boil, the leader of the clergymen, believed that Guacanagarí was lying and called for his capture and arrest. The admiral, however, chose to believe Guacanagarí. They exchanged presents and Columbus returned to the fleet.

The crewmen on Columbus’ first voyage had come from the lowest echelons of Spanish society. They were certainly abusive and haughty and were not above taking the Taino’s women and stealing their food. Guacanagarí, therefore would have had the greatest motivation for the killings. He may even have had a rivalry with Caonabo and planned to use the power of the Europeans against him.

On the other hand Guacanagarí had always showed himself to be a friend of the admiral despite the arrogant behavior of his men. Caonabo, who was a powerful and respected warrior and a great leader, would have been far less likely to tolerate these abuses. Furthermore, when the Spanish later captured Caonabo, he is said to have admitted that he personally killed twenty of the men at La Navidad.

Another theory is that the fort was destroyed in a Carib raid. This would explain the ship’s fragment found in Guadeloupe. Guacanagarí’s characterization of Caonabo as a Carib (which he most probably was not) could possibly fit in with this theory. Although what actually happened at La Navidad will undoubtedly remain a mystery, the destruction of the fort was used as a pretext for later reprisals against Caonabo.

The Tainos & the Search for Gold in the New World

On September 6, 1492 Christopher Columbus set out on a voyage that was to significantly change the history of the world. His goals were to establish trade with the court of the Great Khan in China and to obtain gold, slaves, spices and other valuable commodities.

On Oct. 12, 1492, Columbus landed on the island of Guanahaní in the Bahamian archipelago. He believed that he had reached the outskirts of China. Guanahaní was inhabited by the Lucayo tribe of the Taino People. (Lucayo means dwellers on cays. Our word cay, meaning small island, comes from the Taino language.) Columbus renamed Guanahaní San Salvador and declared it to be a territory of Spain. The Taino inhabitants who he called Indios (Indians) were declared to be Spanish subjects.

The official interpreter for Columbus’ fleet was Luis de Torres who was a converted Jew. Torres was chosen as fleet interpreter because he spoke Hebrew and Arabic, which, for some reason, would enable him to communicate with the Chinese. Apparently Torres was unable to converse with the Taino in Hebrew so another course of action was deemed necessary.

Several Tainos were kidnapped. One young man named Guaikan was taught to speak Spanish and became the interpreter for the expedition. Guaikan became Cristobol Colón’s (Christopher Columbus) adopted Taino son. He took the name Diego Colón and sailed with Columbus on his subsequent voyages. Six of the captives were eventually brought to Spain and baptized with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabela acting as godparents. They were later allowed to return home with the exception of one who chose to remain at the Spanish royal court. He died two years later.

Columbus was finally able to communicate his desire to find the source of certain amulets and nose rings worn made from a yellow metal, which the Taino called guanin and the Spanish called oro. The guanin (an alloy made from gold silver and copper) had been obtained through trade with the Lucayan’s neighbors who inhabited a large island to the south; today called Cuba.

The Lucayo captives guided Columbus to Cuba and agreed to help him find the gold, which was so dear to his heart. They followed their traditional canoe route through the Bahamian Cays. Their first stop was an island thought to be today’s Rum Cay, where, according to the captives, the inhabitants wore massive golden bracelets and anklets. No gold was found. Columbus wrote “All they said was humbug in order to escape”. (Two of the Lucayo prisoners took advantage of a lapse of vigilance and jumped overboard. Fellow Taino who had been following the fleet in their dugout canoe picked them up. The natives paddled away so fast that all attempts to recapture them were in vain.)

The fleet then sailed to what is today Long Island, which Columbus named Fernandina. Here Columbus was more successful. One of the islanders was wearing a gold nose stud, which he referred to as a caracuri. The owner of the caracuri refused Columbus’ attempts at trade and ran away.

Columbus then guided the ships to an island the Taino called Saomete. He renamed it Isabela after the Queen, and it is now thought to be Crooked Island. According to his guides there was a gold mine on this island and a king who wore cloths and had much gold. No mine or king was found, but Columbus was able to trade with the inhabitants, exchanging trinkets for gold caracuri.

From Saomete (Isabela) the fleet sailed on to Cuba. A return trip to the Bahamian Island of Great Inagua called Babeque by the Taino was attempted after Columbus learned from the Taino of Cuba that on Babeque the natives “gathered gold on the beach by candles at night, and then made bars of it with a hammer”. Headwinds forced Columbus to give up the voyage, but Martín Alonzo Pinzón, captain of the Pinta was successful. No gold was found on the beaches of that island; not at night, nor at any other time.

In a letter at least partly intended to solicit financial support from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabela, Columbus wrote: “…Finally, to compress into few words the entire summary of my voyage and speedy return, and of the advantages derivable therefrom, I promise, that with a little assistance afforded me by our most invincible sovereigns, I will procure them as much gold as they need, as great a quantity of spices, of cotton, and of mastic and as many men for the service of the navy as their Majesties may require. I promise also rhubarb and other sorts of drugs, which I am persuaded the men whom I have left … have found already and will continue to find…”

It is interesting to note that only one report of a potential gold producing area was actually verified on the first voyage. The other riches promised were even more disappointing.

The spice that Columbus refers to in his letter was Canella alba, a plant that smells like cinnamon but is not useful as a spice. The mastic mentioned in the letter turned out to be the sap of the turpentine tree and not the valuable resin of the gum mastic tree. The prospective slaves for service in the navy had such a low survival rate that the few survivors were returned to their island homes as an act of mercy by the crown. The rhubarb that was supposed to have been found was in fact not rhubarb at all but a plant known now as false rhubarb. The promise of drugs probably refers to the discovery of an abundance of what was thought to be the medicinal plant aloe, but which was in reality the relatively worthless, century plant. Another worthless item that Columbus brought back to Spain as evidence of the riches that could be exploited from the continuance of his adventures was the unpleasant-tasting fruit of the icaco, which he believed to be the coconut mentioned in the writings of Marco Polo.

Notwithstanding these inconsistencies, Columbus was successful in obtaining the desired financial support for his second voyage in which he was instructed by the crown to establish gold mines, install settlers, develop trade with the Tainos, and convert them to Christianity.

Marginally productive gold mines were eventually discovered in Hispaniola and later in Puerto Rico and Cuba. At first it was Spanish settlers who panned for gold in the rivers and worked the newly discovered mines, but the combination of disappointing yields, harsh working conditions and high mortality rates quickly led to the abandonment of this activity by the Spaniards.

The task of gold mining was then given to enslaved Tainos. Most died from disease brought on by unsanitary conditions, overwork and lack of resistance to European illnesses. Countless others succumbed to famine that resulted when the Taino were not given sufficient time to provide for their own sustenance. The chronicler, Las Casas, reported that only ten percent survived after three months of service and that there was a constant shortage of workers. As a result inhabitants of other Caribbean islands were captured and enslaved. The mines in Hispaniola became depleted in the 1520’s and those of Puerto Rico and Cuba became exhausted within the following decade. By that time almost all of the estimated six million Taino inhabitants of the Caribbean had been annihilated.

The Taino cacique Guacanagari, who befriended Columbus and who was later sold into slavery by his “friend” twice sent Columbus facemasks with nose, tongue and ears made of gold.

Masks traditionally have spiritual significance. Was Guacanagari trying to make a statement about the true nature of Columbus’s character.


When Christopher Columbus arrived on the shores of Hispaniola on his historic first voyage, he was befriended by Guacanagarí, the cacique or chief of the region.

Guacanagarí provided Columbus and his men with food, women and gifts of golden jewelry. When Columbus’ ship, the Santa Maria, struck a reef, Guacanagarí, sent his men to try and save the vessel. When that proved impossible, Guacanagarí had his men paddle out to the breaking reef and dismantle the wrecked ship and bring it, plank by plank, to the beach to be used as construction material. Guacanagarí gave the stranded crew temporary housing while the fort, called La Navidad, was built to accommodate them. He also promised to care for and protect the sailors until Columbus returned.

On his second voyage Columbus found the fort destroyed and the inhabitants dead. Guacanagarí, the most likely suspect, blamed the cacique Caonabo from Maguana in the remote interior of the island. Despite some very serious inconsistencies in Guacanagarí’s account of the La Navidad massacre, Columbus chose to believe him.

Caonabo was the most important and powerful ruler in Hispaniola at the time; a leader to whom Guacanagarí owed allegiance and whose power and position Guacanagarí coveted.

Guacanagarí told Columbus that Caonabo was a Carib, but historical and archeological evidence belies this claim. The chronicler Las Casas wrote that Caonabo was a Lucayo (Western Taino) born in the Bahamian archipelago. Therefore he could not have been a Carib, a people who came from the islands of the Lesser Antilles.

The Lucayo identification, however, created a different problem for social scientists. If Caonabo were a Lucayo it would be extremely doubtful that he could have risen to become an important cacique in the Classic Taino world of Hispaniola.

The solution to this inconsistency has been uncovered with the finding of the only ball court in the Bahamian archipelago on the island of Middle Caicos, indicating that this particular Bahamian island was populated by Classic Tainos. If Caonabo had been born there, then the pieces to the historical puzzle would fit.

Scholars theorize that the inhabitants of Middle Caicos were merchants and traders who sought to control the flow of goods such as feathers, cotton, dried conch and turtles passing between the southern Bahamas and Hispaniola. They would also have had strong ties to the main population center of Hispaniola.

The Tainos followed a matriarchal lineage under which a child coming of age would go to live in the village of his mother’s brother. Caonabo’s uncle must have been the cacique of Maguana where Caonabo would have gone at adolescence. Caonabo apparently proved to be an excellent leader and was chosen to be the new cacique upon the death of his uncle.

For his part, Columbus continued his exploration and search for gold. The elusive metal was eventually discovered in territory ruled by Caonabo.

Columbus had a fort built there to protect the goldfields. He named the fort Santo Tomas as a reproach to those who doubted that he would ever find gold. St. Thomas (Doubting Thomas) was the Apostle who needed to see in order to believe.

The soldiers from the Santo Tomas fortification became infamous for their persecution and exploitation of the Taino in the area. The Spaniards brutalized the native population in an orgy of rape, murder and pillage.

The natives, consequently, developed a profound hostility to the Spanish and began to retaliate. Columbus feared that the powerful and popular Caonabo might initiate a serious organized rebellion. To prevent this he sent Alonso de Ojeda and a group of nine men to the remote region where Caonabo was camped. Their mission was to capture Caonabo.

Ojeda brought with him a Taino from the village of Guacanagarí as an emissary and guide. The intermediary told Caonabo that the Spanish had come in peace and wished only to re-establish peaceful relations and end the bloodshed and animosity between the two peoples.

Little by little Ojeda was able to gain Caonabo’s confidence. One day Ojeda convinced Caonabo to accompany him to a nearby river to bathe. There, away from the village, Ojeda presented Caonabo with a peace offering from the King and Queen of Spain. The supposed gift was a pair of shiny metal handcuffs. Believing them to be jewelry, Caonabo allowed Ojeda to place them on his wrists whereupon they were locked tightly and the helpless Caonabo was spirited away.

Caonabo died in a shipwreck as he was being brought back to Spain in irons.

The Taino revolt that Columbus feared finally took place led by a brother of Caonabo and other allied Taino caciques.

In the battle of La Vega Real in 1495 heavily armed Spanish soldiers vanquished the rebellious Taino forces. Fighting alongside the Spaniards were warriors from the caciazgo of Guacanagarí.


Loosely translated from Historica Grafica de la Republica Dominicana by Jose Ramon Estella


The hero of this story was born on the island of Hispaniola in the early 1500’s. His name was Guarocuya. He was the son of a Taino cacique, or chief, who was assassinated by the Spaniards. After the death of his father, Guarocuya was adopted by Franciscan monks, who provided him with a Spanish-style education. Upon his conversion to Catholicism he was given the Christian name, Enriquillo.

Enriquillo was happily married to the granddaughter of the illustrious caciques, Caonabo and Anacaona. Her name was Mencía, and she also had converted to Christianity.

The Tainos of Hispaniola, conquered and subjugated by the Spanish, were governed under a policy called the encomienda, a system not very different than the institution of slavery. Under this policy Taino lands were entrusted to Spanish colonists who then exercised complete authority over that land and the people on it.

Enriquillo and Mencía, along with other Tainos of their village were “entrusted” to the Spanish colonist, Francisco de Valenzuela who operated a large ranch. When Francisco de Valenzuela died he left his estate, including the “entrusted” workers, to his son Andrés who, taking advantage of his position and his power, began to make unwanted sexual advance towards Mencía.

When Enriquillo found out about the persecution being suffered by his wife, he reproached his new master and begged him to leave Mencía in peace. Andrés de Valenzuela perceived his servant’s complaint as an affront to his authority and had Enriquillo beaten in front of the other Tainos.

Indignant over this unjust treatment, Enriquillo denounced Andrés to the lieutenant governor of the village, don Pedro Badillo. The Spanish colonial official, however, refused to get involved in any case involving a Taino against a Spaniard. Enriquillo then took his complaint to the highest judicial authorities on the island. This only resulted in the case being sent back to Badillo to deal with. When Badillo received the complaint for the second time, he warned Enriquillo that if he persisted in this matter, he would be arrested and sentenced to prison.

At this point Enriquillo made his decision to rebel against the Spaniards. He gathered together a large group of fellow Tainos and fled to the rugged mountain terrain in the region of Bahoruco. The year was 1520.

Badillo and Valenzuela and a force of armed men set out in pursuit of the rebels. A fierce battle ensued and the Taino rebels succeeded in defeating the Spaniards, many of whom were killed or wounded. Valenzuela himself was at the point of being killed by one of the Taino warriors when, Enriquillo, the former servant, took pity on him and ordered the warrior to spare Valenzuela’s life. Enriquillo set Valenzuela free, saying to him, “Be grateful that I have not killed you. Leave and never return here again.”

The Taino insurgents established a secure mountain stronghold where they planted fields of yucca and other provisions in the most hidden and remote valleys and conducted raids against Spanish haciendas and ranches in the vicinity.

Enriquillo turned out to be a great warrior and a master strategist. He used guerrilla tactics in which he avoided meeting his numerically superior and better armed enemy on open ground. Instead Enriquillo took advantage of his knowledge the terrain and lead his adversaries into to fall into deadly ambushes. After attacking with lightning speed Enriquillo would retreat into the nearly inaccessible mountain valleys and steep ravines, which only they knew well and, from there, prepare for the next surprise attack. All attempts to quell the Taino insurrection through force of arms met with failure.

After several humiliating defeats, the Spaniards decided to take another tack. Diego Colon, the Governor General of Hispaniola offered to make peace with Enriquillo and his followers granting them complete immunity if they would give up the rebellion and once again submit to Spanish authority. Enriquillo refused to accept this and several other subsequent proposals made by both the government and the church.

At one point the Spanish sent Father Remigio, the priest who had been Enriquillo’s former teacher, to act as an intermediary between the government and the rebels. Father Remigio was intercepted by lookouts who dispossessed the Franciscan of his robes. They then conducted the priest, who was dressed only in his underwear, to meet Enriquillo.

Ashamed at seeing his old teacher in such a state, Enriquillo punished the warriors who were responsible for this show of disrespect, and as a means of apology ordered that a grand reception be made in Father Remigio’s honor. Enriquillo’s doubts concerning the sincerity and good faith of the colonial officials, however, still remained and he once again refused to accept the peace offer.

In 1532, in order to put an end to the Taino uprising, the Emperor sent a corps of two hundred well-armed and well-equipped soldiers to Hispaniola under the command of Captain Francisco de Barrionuevo.

Barrionuevo was ordered to explore all peaceful avenues for ending the conflict before resorting to violent action. In 1533 Barrionuevo, along with thirty soldiers, two priests and thirty Tainos, among whom were Enriquillo’s and two priests met to discuss peace with the rebellious cacique. The meeting took place alongside a saltwater lake that today is called Lake Enriquillo in commemoration of the epic uprising.

Barrionuevo carried with him a missive from the Royal Court that proposed that the cacique cease hostilities and sign a pact of peace. Enriquillo read the document which agreed to the abolition of the encomienda system, freedom for the Tainos and grants of land to be used for the cultivation of crops and the raising of animals in exchange for the cessation of hostilities and the acceptance of Spanish authority. Enriquillo accepted the terms and signed the agreement with Barrionuevo. The Spanish monarchy rapidly approved the treaty and sent the ratified documents to a Taino representative named Gonzáles who had been commissioned by Enriquillo for that purpose.

The Royal Court was true to their word and even took special care in the resettlement of the Tainos, providing them with cattle for livestock and seeds for the cultivation of the land. Enriquillo died peacefully a year after the peace treaty was signed, earning the love of his people and the admiration and respect of the Spaniards.

Enriquillo’s wife, Mencía organized the construction a church where the remains of her heroic husband were then buried. His tomb, however, was also the tomb of the Taino people; for despite their recently won gains, the ravages of European diseases and depredations continued to take their toll on the less than 4,000 surviving Tainos of Hispaniola. By the end of the sixteenth century that noble and gentle race had all but disappeared from the face of the Earth.


By Gerald Singer

Hatuéy was a great Taino cacique in Ayti, the land of mountains, now known as the nation of Haiti. He had first hand experience with the Spanish conquerors of his homeland, who had enslaved the Taino people, committing atrocities upon them and forcing them to labor, often to their deaths, in order to satisfy the Spaniard’s lust for gold. Rather than submit or offer resistance to the well-armed oppressors, Hatuéy chose to leave the land of his birth. He and his people escaped across the Windward Passage to Cuba.

In 1511, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, who had participated in the massacre of the Taino in the province of Xaraguá, and Pánfilo de Narvárez, a veteran of the conquest of Jamaica, were chosen by the Spanish to begin the conquest of the island of Cuba. The chronicler, Bartolomé de Las Casas, sailed with Narvárez. When Hatuéy heard rumors of this invasion, he proceeded to warn the caciques of eastern Cuba about this serious threat to their very existence.

Hatuéy arrived in the village of the Cuban cacique, Guamax accompanied by a small entourage and carrying in his canoe a basket filled with gold and gold jewelry.

Addressing Guamax’s people, Hatuéy explained that the Christians so cruelly mistreated the Taino people because the Christians had a God who they worshiped and revered. The Tainos were murdered and enslaved in order to take that God away from them.

Hatuéy then displayed the basket of gold to the gathered assembly and explained that this was the God of the Christians. He then asked the people to decide what to do with Him.

Hatuéy suggested that the people perform their ceremonial dance called the Arieto and the sacred and magical Cohoba ceremony in which hallucinogenic herbs are ingested. Perhaps the God would then be pleased and He would instruct the Christians not to kill the Tainos.

After the ceremony, however, Hatuéy warned the assemblage that if they were to keep the God amongst them, the Christians would surely come and kill them in order to get possession of the God. It was finally decided to throw the God into the river.

Hatuéy’s warnings to the Cuban Taino precipitated several major rebellions and began an overall pattern of resistance against the Spanish in Cuba that was not completely subdued until the 1530’s.

Hatuéy himself was finally captured, and he and his warriors were burned alive at the stake. While tied to the stake Hatuéy was approached by a Spanish priest, who offered to baptize and convert Hatuéy, thus cleansing his sins against the Christian God which would allow Hatuéy to enter heaven and avoid hell.

Hatuéy asked for time to think about the offer. After a time Hatuéy responded by asking the priest where the Spanish went after they died. The priest told Hatuéy that baptized Christians went to heaven. Hatuéy then made his final decision. He told the priest not to baptize him because if the Spanish went to heaven, he preferred to go to hell.

The story of Hatuéy’s execution was recorded by Las Casas and is now part of Cuban folklore. Hatuéy has become a national folk hero representing Cuba’s struggle against foreign oppression, first from Spain and later from the United States of America.

Taino Food and Agriculture

The Tainos placed great importance on the production and distribution of food for the community. Planting, gathering, fishing and hunting were cooperative efforts and everyone, including the caciques, shamans and nobility, contributed their labor, the fruits of which were shared equally among the people.

In stark contrast the Europeans viewed agriculture as a lowly profession performed by the bottom strata of society while the upper classes were the primary consumers. Land use and labor were geared more to the production of commodities rather than food.

Hunger, which was non-existent or at least extremely rare in Taino society, was all too common in Europe. This was one of the reasons why so many Europeans were motivated to relocate in the Americas ultimately displacing the Taino.

Chroniclers, who arrived in the Caribbean along with Columbus, were impressed by the abundance of foods available to the Taino. They wrote of entire valleys covered with fruit orchards and large circular fields planted in yucca, beans and corn. They described specially constructed storage sheds, built so that the interiors were kept in total darkness, packed full of cassava bread, grains, herbs and dried fish.

Father Bartolomé de Las Casas reported that the Tainos had “vineyards that ran for three hundred leagues,” and hunted “game birds {which were} taken by the tens of thousand.” Columbus wrote in his diary that flocks of fowl “darkened the sun” and that around every bohio were flocks of tame ducks, which the people roasted and ate.

The Taino farming techniques were environmentally friendly. They did not resort to the destructive slash and burn method of agriculture so commonly used in the tropics. Instead they employed a unique system whereby large mounds of soil, approximately three feet high and four feet in diameter were laid out in regular rows. These mounds were called conuncos, and this technique improved drainage and prevented erosion. The soil stayed softer providing greater aeration, easier weeding and longer storage of the root crops in the ground. To keep the soil fertile the Tainos practiced crop rotation.

Yucca was the staple food and principal crop of the Taino. It was so important to the survival of the people that the Taino communities, themselves were called Yucayeques, meaning the place where yucca is grown.

Moreover one of the two supreme deities of the Taino is the zemi, Yúcahu, the lord of the yucca and god the sea. (The other supreme zemi is his mother Atabey, goddess of fresh water and human fertility.)

Yucca is also known as cassava, manioc, mandioca, and aipim. The tuberous root is about two inches in diameter and ten inches long. The outside skin of the yucca is brown and bark-like; the inside flesh is white.

Cassava produces more calories in the form of complex carbohydrates per unit of land than any other crop in the world. The leaves provide vitamins and some protein and they can be eaten as a vegetable or fed to livestock.

The cassava root can stay in the ground for as long as three years without spoilage. This provided an easy and reliable means of storage during times of plenty and ready availability during times of need.

The most common use of the cassava for the Taino was in the preparation of cassava bread. The roots would be harvested, washed, peeled and grated. The juice would then be squeezed out and stored in a separate container. The remaining pulp was dried and sifted and cooked on an open fire into a cracker-like bread.

Although the juice of the cassava is poisonous unless cooked or fermented, it is also nutritious. (After the arrival of the Spanish and the subsequent suffering of the Taino people, some Tainos purposely ate raw cassava and died rather than face submission to the invaders.)

The Taino would often keep large pots of boiling cassava juice into which seasonal vegetables, meat and fish were added. The resulting stew could be added to or consumed at any time. This procedure was the origin of the “pepper pot” which has remained a traditional food in many parts of the Caribbean.

Until the arrival of the Europeans, cassava was only found and cultivated in the Americas. Slave traders carried cassava to Africa where it had a profound effect on the destiny of that continent. Cassava could withstand long periods of draught and was resistant to pests such as the locust. It can grow in poor or severely eroded soil or on unterraced hillsides. The plant will regenerate if the leaves or stem are destroyed by phenomena such as pests, natural disasters, grazing animals or war. The proliferation of this reliable food source touched off an African population explosion with a myriad of consequences.

Cassava is now the staple food of around 500 million people and it is the main source of income for some of the world’s poorest farmers.

Taino farmers also planted sweet potato, beans, pepper, peanuts and squash. Fruits such as the pineapple, guava, mamey apple and papaya were cultivated while other foods such as palm nuts and guavaberries were gathered from the forests.

Since Taino villages were usually set up in coastal areas and in river valleys, fish and other seafood comprised a significant portion of their diet. Fishermen caught fish with nets, as well as with spears, and hooks and lines. The Tainos also hunted turtles and harvested conch, whelk, lobster, and crab. Underwater pens made of reeds were used to store live fish and turtles for future consumption. Poisons extracted from plants were also used to stun fish so they could be easily gathered.

Another unique method of catching fish and turtles was observed in what is now Cuba. Remora were tied up by the tail and then placed back in the sea. When they attached themselves to a fish or turtle, the fisherman would haul both creatures into his canoe.

On land the Taino hunted wild boar, manatee, birds, lizards and small animals. They used tamed parrots as decoys to entice wild birds to come within range of hunters.

It is interesting to note that although the population levels of the Taino were, on most islands, similar to the population levels of today, the Taino had no problem feeding all their people, nor did they resort to the degradation of their environment to achieve short term goals. However, in today’s “modern and advanced” culture, many Caribbean islands are presently experiencing devastating environmental problems as well as difficulty in providing enough food for all their inhabitants.



The first Europeans to travel to the islands of the Americas were duly impressed by the boats used by the Taino natives they met there. Their craft were made from the hollowed out trees and were called canoas, from which the English word canoe came from.

The smaller canoes were used by individuals for near shore fishing or by small parties of fishermen, hunters or warriors. The largest ones were the property of the caciques or chiefs and were capable of carrying as many as one hundred people over long distances.

Christopher Columbus wrote, “On every island there are many canoes of a single piece of wood; and though narrow, yet in length and shape similar to our rowboats, but swifter in movement. They steer only by oars. Some of these boats are large, some small, some of medium size. Yet they row many of the larger row-boats with eighteen cross-benches, with which they cross to all those islands, which are innumerable, and with these feats they perform their trading, and carry on commerce among them. I saw some of these canoes which were carrying seventy and eighty rowers.”

These great canoes were carved from a tree that the Taino called tsayee-baa. On St. John, this tree is called kapok, elsewhere it is known as ceiba or silk cotton.

For a people who possessed only stone tools, the felling and subsequent carving out of a tree large enough to make a hundred-person canoe was no mean feat. It was accomplished by making a fire at the base of the tree, which would char the trunk. The fire was then extinguished and the burned wood scraped out with sharp stone tools.

This process would be repeated again and again until the tree came down. The fallen tree would then be stripped of its branches and hauled out of the forest. The ends were then squared off and the bark removed. The same charring and scarping process would be used to carve out the inside of the trunk and after the proper configuration was obtained the canoa would be polished, painted and launched.

The incredible amount of manpower, time, dedication and craftsmanship required to produce a canoe of this magnitude is only part of the story. To the Taino, as well as to most other cultures of the Americas, the ceiba was a highly sacred and spiritual tree. It could not just be cut down and carved up without attention to the powerful spirit that resides within.

According to the Spanish chroniclers who left us the only written documents concerning of the Taino culture, the fabrication of these giant canoes involved a complicated spiritual ritual. The chief who intended to make the canoe would first need to communicate with the spirit of a ceiba tree, which could only be cut down if the tree spirit gave its permission. The spirit would also indicate the manner in which it would be transformed, giving detailed instructions as to the size, nature of carving and even the painting of the canoe. The spirit of the tree would then exist within the canoe, and the chief would carry the responsibility for that spirit for the rest of his life. This would involve ceremonies honoring and making offerings to the tree spirit.

The Tainos took pride in their courage on the high ocean as well as their skill in finding their way around their world. Columbus was often astonished at finding lone Taino fishermen sailing in the open ocean as he made his way among the islands. Once, a canoe of Taino men followed him from island to island until one of their relatives, held captive on one of the ships, jumped over the side and was spirited away so quickly that the Spanish sailors could not recapture them.

The Taino were so comfortable at sea and so adept at navigation that they were said to make almost daily crossings over the rough and treacherous Mona Passage that separates Puerto Rico from Hispaniola.

The Tainos did not confine their sea travel to their homeland islands of the Caribbean and the Bahamas. They were also known to venture as far as the mainland of South America, Mexico, Yucatan and Central America, which, according to archeologists, explains the many cultural similarities between the Taino and the often advanced societies that inhabited these far off places.

Taino Clothing

Taino mythology tells of a great cacique who, during a cohoba trance, had a prophetic vision concerning people wearing clothing:

“The lord of the sky warned the Taino to watch out for covered people. Chief Caicihu fasted for a week and was worthy of his words.

“’Brief shall be the enjoyment of life’, announced the invisible one, he who has a mother but no beginning. ‘Covered ones shall come, dominate, and kill.”

Native Americans first encountered Europeans on the island of Guanahani, now known as San Salvador. The two groups of people differed considerably in appearance and in attire. While the Tainos wore nothing, or next to nothing, the bearded, pale skinned Spaniards were covered from head to toe in cloth and metal, a phenomena that must have seemed unnecessary, if not uncomfortable, given the rather warm tropical climate of the Bagua (Caribbean region). The Taino called these newcomers Guamikinas or covered people.

The Guamikinas had apparently gotten lost in the Bagua while seeking a new trade route to China and the East Indies. Their leader, Christopher Columbus, stepped ashore on the beach in Guanahani dressed in scarlet robes and iron armor.

Columbus wrote this description of the Taino:

“On this island, indeed, and on all the others which I have seen, and of which I have knowledge, the inhabitants of both sexes go always naked, just as they came into the world, except some of the women, who use a covering of a leaf or some foliage, or a cotton cloth, which they make themselves for that purpose.”

Although the everyday attire of the Taino was minimal, the ceremonial dress of important caciques (chiefs) and nitainos (nobility) could be quite elaborate. The Spanish chroniclers described capes made from the feathers of colorful tropical birds, finely woven cotton garments, intricately beaded belts, ornate headdresses and jewelry such as necklaces, nose and ear rings and pectoral adornments made from shells, bones, gold and semi precious stones.

On certain occasions the Tainos painted themselves with dyes. A black dye, called Jagua, symbolized the after world and was used by shamans during religious rituals and a red dye, called bija, was used for protection against evil spirits and to repel mosquitoes. It was the use of this red bija dye that led Native Americans to be called “Redskins”.

When Columbus returned to Spain, he brought six Taino captives along with him. Although they were naked when captured, they were presented to the Spanish royal court in complete ceremonial attire. The Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote about this incident in the book, Notas de Prensa 1980-1984:

“To begin with, we don’t know for certain if [Columbus’s diary] actually existed, as the version that we are familiar with was transcribed by Father Las Casas from the original which he was said to have seen. In any case this version is merely a poor reflection of the astonishing manner in which Christopher Columbus resorted to his imagination so that the Queen would believe in the greatness of his discoveries.

Columbus says that the people who came out to greet him on the twelve of October of 1492 “we’re as naked as the day they were born”. Other chroniclers have also written, that the Taino, as would be natural in a tropical environment, still free from Christian morality, went naked. Nonetheless, the chosen examples, that Columbus brought to the royal palace in Barcelona, were dressed up in painted palm leaves and feathers and necklaces made from the teeth and claws of rare animals. The explanation seems simple: Columbus’s first voyage, contrary to his hopes and dreams, was an economic disaster. He hardly found any gold, he had lost a majority of his ships, and he was unable to bring back any tangible proof of the enormous value of his discoveries, nor to justify, in any way, the expenses of this adventure or the advisability of continuing it. To dress his captive in such a way was a convincing publicity stunt. A simple oral testimony would not have been enough.


Archeologists and volunteers at Cinnamon Bay continue to uncover artifacts left behind by a Taino community that resided on St. John until the arrival of Carib and European invaders over five hundred years ago. A particularly exciting development has been the find of two intricately carved stones, called Zemis. These artifacts represent spiritual beings (also referred to as Zemis) which are the basis of the Taino religion and cosmology.

The Taino believe everything in the universe is interconnected and spiritually alive. They view the Earth as a flat disk suspended between the cosmos above and the watery underworld below. The realms are connected by a supernatural shaft rising from the bottom of the underworld, passing through a hole in the center of the Earth and extending upward to the heavens.

The souls of the dead live in the otherworld. They are ruled by the Zemi Maquetaurie Guayaba, Lord of the Land of the Dead. The Zemis of the underworld are often made in the form of night flying creatures, such as bats or owls. (The second Zemi, found at the Cinnamon Bay site, bears the image of a bat.) These creatures are regarded as the messengers of the Dead.

In the book, Memory of Fire: Genesis, Eduardo Galeano writes:

“He who made the sun and the moon warned the Tainos to watch out for the dead.

“In the daytime the dead hid themselves and ate guavas, but at night they went out for a stroll and challenged the living. Dead men offered duels and dead women, love. In the duels they vanished at will; and at the climax of love the lover found himself with nothing in his arms. Before accepting a duel with a man or lying down with a woman, one should feel the belly with one’s hand, because the dead have no navels.”

Another Taino myth speaks about bats:

“When time was yet in the cradle, there was no uglier creature in the world than the bat.

“The bat went up to heaven to look for God. He didn’t say, “I’m bored with being hideous. Give me colored feathers.

“No. He said, “Please give me feathers, I’m dying of cold.

“But God had not a single feather left over.

“’Each bird will give you a feather,’ he decided.

“Thus the bat got the white feather of the dove and the green one of the parrot, the iridescent one of the hummingbird, the pink one of the flamingo, the red of the cardinal’s tuft and the blue of the kingfisher’s back, the clayey one of the eagle’s wing, and the sun feather that burns in the breast of the toucan.

“The bat, luxuriant with colors and softness, moved between earth and clouds. Wherever he went, the air became pleasant and the birds dumb with admiration. According to the Zapotec peoples, the rainbow was born of the echo of his flight.

“Vanity puffed out his chest. He acquired a disdainful look and made insulting remarks.

“The birds called a meeting. Together they flew up to God. ‘The bat makes fun of us,’ they complained. ‘And what’s more, we feel cold for lack of the feathers he took.’

“Next day, when the bat shook his feathers in full flight, he suddenly became naked. A rain of feathers fell to earth.

“He is still searching for them. Blind and ugly, enemy of the light, he lives hidden in caves. He goes out in pursuit of the lost feathers after night has fallen and flies very fast, never stopping because it shames him to be seen.”

The Zemis of the cosmos, such as the creator and lord of the cassava, Yúcahu, and his mother, Atabey, bring the Taino successful harvests, fertility and good health. Zemis could also reside in the natural world of trees, mountains, rivers, caves and communities. Destructive Zemis from the nether world could cause droughts, illness and natural disaster. The Zemi, Guabancex, lady of the winds, controls hurricanes aided by her two assistants, Guataubá, herald of hurricane force winds, and Coatrisquie, the god of floodwaters.

In addition to the fabrication of idols, Taino artisans carved symbolic pictures on rocks found in areas of obvious spiritual significance. Such petroglyphs exist at Reef Bay on St. John, along the side of a fresh water pool and on the platform cliffs of Congo Cay. It is believed that these carvings represent the natural spirits that resided in these places.

The Taino used sacred psychoactive herbs to communicate with Zemis and spirits of ancestors in an elaborate ritual called the Cohoba ceremony. Caciques (chiefs) and bohutí (shamans) with sufficient spiritual power used this ceremony to heal the sick, predict the future and to ensure the well being of the community. The participants fast before beginning the ceremony. They then cause themselves to regurgitate by inserting a ritual instrument in their throat. Once purged they inhale the cohoba from an intricately carved vessel equipped with snuffing tubes, which are placed in the nostrils. The cacique or bohutí could then leave the natural world through the hole in the center of the Earth and enter the supernatural shaft which connecting the realms of the universe.

The Spanish were repelled by the Taino religion and believed the Zemis to be Satanic in nature. They are said to have burned hundreds of cotton Zemis and to have destroyed countless works of Taino religious art. As a result of severe persecution by the Spanish, surviving Tainos went underground, meeting in secret to carry on their traditions.

The Origin of Baseball and Other Ball Games

Today, games played with a rubber ball are such a significant part of modern culture that championship sports events are observed by more people, and with more fervor and enthusiasm, than most national holidays or religious celebrations. Ball games are taken so seriously that nations have actually gone to war over the outcome of soccer competitions.

Until the end of the fifteenth century, when Europeans first made contact with the Tainos, rubber ball games were unknown in Europe and, presumably, in the rest of the world. There was no such thing as football, soccer, basketball or baseball.

Before the European conquest, ball games were played throughout the tropical Americas. In most areas, the games took place in the central plaza or on unstructured fields. In some regions, however, the games were played on courts, specially constructed for that purpose. These have only been found among the Mayan of the Yucatan and Central America, in the Mexican highlands inhabited by the Aztecs and their neighbors, and on the Taino islands of Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and the Virgins. On St. John, our eminent National Park archeologist Ken Wild, has found evidence of a structured ball court at Cinnamon Bay.

The Mayans called the game pok ta pok. In Mexico, the game was called tlachtli. The Tainos called the game batey, which was also their word for the ball court and for the ball itself.

In a description of the ball game as played by the Tainos, the chronicler, Fernandez de Oviedo wrote:

“In every town there is a place set apart in the public square and at the entrance to the town for the playing of the ball game. They play in teams of ten or twenty players to a team. There are stone seats and they provide beautifully carved wooden seats for the caciques (chiefs) and nobility. These stools or benches, which are called duhos, are made of the finest wood, ornamented with elaborate carvings and sculptures and hollowed out to form a concave seat. The balls are made by boiling together the roots of trees and shrubs, the sap of certain trees and many other things until a thick mixture is formed; this they shape into a round ball. This ball is somewhat spongy though solid and heavy…they only strike the ball with their shoulders, heads, elbows, and most frequently with their hips and knees. This they do with such agility and speed that it is amazing to watch…

“The point of dispute is to see if one team can send the ball over the opponent’s line or, whether the opposing team will put it out of bounds or return it to the first team; and they do not stop playing until the ball falls on the ground, or because a player did not catch it on the rebound…This victory counts for one mark. They then take alternate turns at serving the ball. The winning team is the one which first makes up the number of points or marks previously agreed upon as necessary for a victory.”

Pre-Columbian ball games were played for various reasons. Sometimes, like in the Oviedo description, it was played just for sport. Many times, the games were played to appease the gods through the sacrifice of human beings. Although these macabre and bloody rituals are usually associated with the Mayans, there is ample evidence that the Tainos also practiced human sacrifice in conjunction with the ball game.

The Spanish chronicler, Juan de Castellanos, reported that when the Tainos of Anasco, Puerto Rico began their rebellion, they captured a young Spaniard named Juan Suarez. The cacique ordered that Suarez be tied up and that a ball game be played in which the winners were to be granted the privilege of killing the young Christian. Suarez was saved at the last minute by a Spanish soldier, Diego de Salazar, who reported the natives to be, “almost stuptified in the preparations for the sacrifice.”

In another incidence of the ball game serving as an instrument of human sacrifice, Oviedo wrote an account of how Don Cristobol de Sotomayor met his death:

“After the most prominent Indians agreed upon a rebellion, Agueybana, the chief cacique of the island was allotted the duty of killing Don Cristobol who was his Spanish lord and master. Agueybana lived in Sotomayor’s house and served him because he had been allotted this duty in the apportionment of the Indians. And they tried him and decided his fate by playing a game of batey.”

Concerning the same incident, Castellanos reported, “Agueybana paid his master, Don Cristobol, whom he served, in his own coin; as they sang the death song in a kind of drunken orgy.”

In Santo Domingo, the archeologist Sir Robert Schonberg, found a large circular plaza, similar to one found in Puerto Rico, by another archeologist, J. Alden Mason. Both of these plazas are assumed to be ball courts. The entrance to the plaza was a twenty-one foot wide highway made of stone blocks weighing hundreds of pounds each. In the very center of the plaza, he found a piece of granite over five feet high on which was carved a human face. A similar stone carved with a face was discovered in the ball court in Puerto Rico. Schonberg and Mason are both convinced that these stones were used by the Taino for ritual human sacrifices.

Today, the human sacrifice aspect of the ball game is less obvious than it was in the past, and the origins of the game have faded into the haziness of antiquity. Nonetheless, games played with rubber balls have become an integral part of modern culture, not only in the Americas, but all over the world.

The Origin of the Tainos

Civilization has existed in the Caribbean for thousands of years despite the Euro centric assumption that the “New World” was discovered in 1492. The peopling of the Caribbean is not the product of a single discovery; its history is not mirrored in the narrative of a single expedition. Rather, it has been a lengthy process of assimilation and conquest. The arrival of the Europeans was a harsh and drastic example of this process. Many different groups have migrated to and within the Caribbean. Cultures have dominated, and cultures have submitted. With each new migration the Caribbean culture evolved. The culture continues to change, even today, with recent continental gentrification. Each influx brings new characteristics, oftentimes at the expense of the rich traditions of the past. The tropical paradise for which the Caribbean is known serves only as a backdrop to the colorful tapestry of cultures, which have constructed the history of the region.

The First People to Settle in the Caribbean The first people to settle in the Caribbean most likely came from Central America and settled in Cuba and Hispaniola. Archeologists and ethnologists call them the Casmiroid. They lived in the upland savannas of what is now the nation of Belize and survived primarily by hunting. They gradually migrated to the river valleys where they could fish and gather plant foods, which grew in abundance in this rich and fertile environment. They then began to make seasonal trips to the coast where they learned to exploit the resources of the sea. It was from these coastal camps that the migration to the islands of the Caribbean began about 6000 years ago.

The trade winds and the major ocean currents in the Caribbean generally favor east to west and north to south travel, however there is a phenomenon known as the Cuban countercurrent which is a west to east current south of Cuba, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. The Casmiroids took advantage of this current to cross the approximately 125 miles of open water between Yucatán and Cuba known as the Yucatan Passage and later to cross the narrower Windward Passage between Cuba and Hispaniola.

Cuba and Hispaniola are the largest islands in the Caribbean and as such have resources that are not available on the smaller islands. Here the Casmiroids could enjoy a rich environment similar to that of their ancestors on the mainland. The interior of the islands offered access to hunting and fresh water fishing. The forests and river valleys offered an abundance of wild fruits and vegetables. Sloths (which were hunted to extinction), manatees, crocodiles, waterfowl, land crabs and turtles could be hunted in the mangrove swamps and river estuaries, and the numerous bays and offshore reefs provided an abundant supply of fish and other seafood. The compatibility of this large island environment with the traditional lifestyle of the Casmiroids probably explains why they never traveled further east to the smaller islands of the Caribbean such as St. John.

The First People to Inhabit St. John Beginning around 2000 BC, a second group, called the Ortoiroid by present day Archeologists, migrated to the islands of the Caribbean. Their lived in South America in the area of the Orinoco Delta and later migrated to the coastal sections of Trinidad when that island was still part of the mainland.

The South Equatorial current flows from Africa eastward to South America. Off the coast of Guyana the current is deflected to the northward by the force of the Orinoco River flowing into the sea. This phenomenon is even more pronounced in the summer when the Orinoco is in flood from upriver rains. The Ortoiroid used this current to facilitate their travel northward throughout the Lesser Antilles. From the northern Leeward Islands they rode the easterly trade winds across the Anegada Passage into the Virgin Islands, and by 1000 BC they had settled Puerto Rico where, for the first time they faced another culture, the Casmiroids, on the other side of the Mona Passage.

The Ortoiroid were a coastal people. Their settlements were small and widely dispersed and they survived mainly on the resources provided by the sea. Ortoiroid artifacts include barbed spearheads made of bone, ornaments made from perforated animal teeth, and tools made from stone, bones and shells. In 1986 a team of archeologists uncovered charred whelk shells from an Ortoiroid settlement in 770 BC at Lameshur Bay. The find was verified by carbon dating.

The Ortoiroids used different areas of St. John for different purposes. The finding of whelk shells at Lameshur Bay shows that this was a site where the inhabitants collected and prepared seafood and is referred to by archeologists as a procurement site. Grootpan Bay was a manufacture site dedicated to the fabrication of stone tools. The actual village was located at Salt Pond Bay.

The Mona Passage between Puerto Rico and Hispaniola served as a natural barrier separating the Ortoiroid and Casmiroid peoples. The two cultures existed independently until the arrival of a new wave of immigrants.

The Emergence of the Taino About 500 BC, a new wave of Native Americans, also originally from the river valleys of South America, made the difficult ocean crossing between Trinidad and Grenada, 80 miles to the north and out of sight of land. From there, they proceeded up the island chain arriving on St. John around 20 AD. (White on red ceramic artifacts distinctive of this new culture, dating between 20 AD and 600 AD, were found in Reef Bay and Coral Bay.)

Like the Europeans who came to the islands 2,000 years later, these settlers did not find their newly discovered territory to be unoccupied. The Lesser Antilles, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico were already inhabited by a coastal people, gatherers and fishers who lived in small and widely dispersed settlements. And like Columbus and the Europeans, the newcomers overwhelmed the pre-existing culture they encountered.

These newcomers were the ancestors of the Tainos. They are known as Los Archaicos (Ancient Ones) to today’s Taino descendants and are called Saladoids or Pre-Taino by today’s academic community.

The Taino Ancestors were more advanced than the Ortoiroids. They cultivated the land whenever possible and carried on an extensive and far-reaching trade. (Archeological digs have uncovered gemstones and shells with drawings of animals only found on the South American mainland.) They fabricated ceramic pottery, and made tools and weapons out of shells and stone.

The ancestors of the Taino easily defeated and replaced the existing population of the islands, whose settlements were sparsely populated and widely dispersed. They encountered different conditions when they crossed the Mona Passage. The inhabitants of Hispaniola possessed better weapons and had a larger population. They were able to defend their culture against the invaders who remained on the eastern coast of Hispaniola in an apparently uneasy state of coexistence.

The Pre Tainos underwent a Dark Age between 400 and 600 AD. They no longer carried on long distance trade and their ceramics and artwork became less sophisticated. This period of cultural stagnation ended around 600 AD resulting in a new and revitalized culture, which expanded into Hispaniola and eventually replaced and absorbed the Casimiroids of the Greater Antilles. Casmiroid and Pre Taino cultures blended together and the result was the formation of a new people, the Taino.

According to Taino myth the Tainos originated in caves in a sacred mountain in Hispaniola. Modern research has now shown that this myth is essentially correct. Although influenced by trade and hereditary and cultural ties to both Mesoamerica and South America, the essence of Taino culture evolved locally in eastern Hispaniola and then spread westward to Cuba, Jamaica and the Bahamas and eastward to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Taino Myths

The Taino had an intense relationship with their environment both spiritually and physically.

A Taino myth explaining the origin of seeds conveys a view of the close connection between, the people, the spirit world and the environment.

“Pachacamac, who was the son of the sun, made a man and women in the dunes of Lurin. There was nothing to eat, and the man died of hunger.

“When the woman bent over searching for roots, the sun entered her and made a child. Jealous, Pachacamac caught the newborn baby and chopped it to pieces. But suddenly he repented; he was scared of the anger of his father, the sun, and he scattered the pieces about the world.

“From the teeth of the dead baby, corn grew; from the ribs and bones, cassava. The blood made the land fertile, and the fruit trees and shade trees rose from the sown flesh.

“Thus, the women and men born on these shores, where it never rains, find food.”

This story relates the affinity the people had with the natural world. The seeds from which the food grows were born from a union between their own ancient mother and the Sun. The earth fertilized the people’s own half brother; the food that was created nourishes them, and it is the reason for their survival.

Another myth that illustrates the Tainos close relationship with nature and the spirit world is their parable concerning the origin of tobacco. The Taino regarded tobacco as a sacred plant. It was offered to Christopher Columbus as a symbol of peace and friendship. Tobacco was used to induce vomiting for cleansing rituals, for spiritual blessings, as a poultice for massages and as a medicine. Tobacco was also smoked in the form of cigars, simply for pleasure.

“The people had implored the Grandfather to let them try the flesh of the wild pig, which did not yet exist. The Grandfather, architect of the Universe, kidnapped the small children and turned them into wild pigs. He created a big tree so they could escape into the sky.

“The people pursued the pigs up the tree from branch to branch and managed to kill a few. The Grandfather ordered the ants to bring down the tree. When the tree fell, the people suffered broken bones. Ever since that great fall, we all have divided bones and so are able to bend our fingers and legs or tilt our bodies.

“With the dead boars, a great banquet was made in the village. The people besought the Grandfather to come down from the sky, where he was minding the children saved from the hunt, but he preferred to stay up there.

“The Grandfather sent tobacco to take his place among men. Smoking, the people talked with god. “

This parable is indicative of much more than the origin of tobacco. The myth of the gift of the boar offers a powerful insight into the Taino worldview, and symbolizes a union between man, nature, and the divine.

The fact that they gave up their children in exchange for the boar stresses how essential the boar is to their culture. The boar was in fact a transformation of their own children, and when the Taino hunted the boar, they hunted their own. This has not a barbaric sentiment, rather it is symbolic of their connection with that which nourishes them.

Taino Village

At the time of the European “discovery” of the “New World”, the Bahamas, the Greater Antilles and the Leeward Islands were inhabited by the various tribes of “the good and noble people”, the Taino. (The Windward Islands were populated by the “people of the long bow”, the Caribs.) It has been estimated that there were once as many as six million Tainos living throughout the Caribbean.

National Park Service archeologist, Ken Wild, and a team of volunteers are presently excavating the site of a Taino village at Cinnamon Bay. Their findings indicate that this village was in many ways typical of Taino communities in general.

Most of the villagers lived in cone shaped dwellings called bohios. They were built around a central plaza. Artifacts and archeological evidence suggest that the village at Cinnamon Bay was probably arranged in this fashion.

The bohios were built of woven palm leaves and wood from the royal palm tree. This wood was extremely long lasting and resisted rot and deterioration and could last almost one hundred years without treatment. An entire dwelling could be built from the trunk and leaves of one single tree.

Several families lived in each structure. There were no interior walls and personal possessions were kept in hanging baskets. Spanish chroniclers noted that the inhabitants slept in “beds and furnishings like nets of cotton” which were suspended above the dirt floor. The Tainos called these beds hamaca from which the English word “hammock” was derived.

The Spanish chronicler Father Las Casas described a typical Taino dwelling … “Their houses are built of wood and thatch in the form of a bell. They are high and roomy…Posts as thick as a man’s leg or thigh were set round about to a depth of half a man’s height. Above that they were joined by lashings of woody vines. Over such a frame they placed many other pieces of thin wood crosswise, also very well tied by vines. On the inside designs and symbols and patterns like paintings were fashioned by using wood and bark that had been dyed black along with other wood peeled so as to stay white, thus appearing as made of some other attractive painted material. Others they adorned with white reeds that are a kind of thin and delicate cane. Of these they made graceful figures and designs that gave the interior of the house the appearance of having been painted. On the outside the houses were covered with a fine and sweet smelling grass…”

The chief of the village, called the cacique, lived within the central plaza. He or she resided in a rectangular-shaped building called a caney and, unlike other villagers, often slept on a wooden platform instead of in a hammock. To this day, small houses in the Puerto Rican countryside are referred to as bohíos.

The central plaza was used for the community’s ceremonial rituals, feasts and celebrations. Larger Taino villages had separate square-shaped locations set aside for their ceremonial dances, and rectangular-shaped ones for the traditional ball games. These areas ranged from simple cleared grounds to carefully constructed courts bordered by embankments of earth or large stones. Large monuments representing spiritual beings lined some of the more elaborate courts.

Christopher Columbus gave this description of a Taino village: “They are constructed like pavilions, very large, and look like royal tents in a campsite without streets. One is here and another, there. Inside they are very well swept and clean, and the furnishings are arranged in good order. All are built of very beautiful palm branches.”

          Virgin Islands Marine Life
                 Snorkeling St. John
                    St. John History
                     St. John Fauna

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