A Settlement on St. John That Failed

The Virgin Islands featured only secondarily in the colonial power struggle that came in the West Indies as the Spanish hold was challenged seriously by the English, Dutch, and French at the opening of the 17th century. They were less attractive and less hospitable for settlement than the larger islands, especially ‘there were areas more suitable for agriculture when colonization became a principal objective. As more desirable islands and lands ‘were occupied they did, however, become the subject of claim and counterclaim. Perhaps the evaluation given by Louis de Poincy in his account penned prior to 1666 suggests a little of this:

The Virgins, greater and less, comprehend several islands marked in the Map by that name. There are in all twelve or thirteen of them. They reach eastward from St. John de Porto-Rico, at the altitude of 18 degrees, North of the Line. Between these Islands there are very good anchoring places for several Fleets. The Spanish visit them often, in order to Fishing, which is there plentiful. There are also in them an infinite number of rare both land and seafowl. They afford so little good ground, that after trial made thereof in several places, it was concluded, that they deserved not Inhabitants.

The island of St. John seemingly by one account entered the recorded history picture in this period, in 1647. M. de Poincy, then at nearby St. Christopher, where the French were established, felt a need to remove a number of eminent people at St. Christopher who favored the Governor General rather than De Poincy. Not daring to send them to France and not believing it wise to drive them out as he had done with some of the less influential, he made arrangements to sent them to the Virgin Islands under the pretext of founding a new colony. He selected 60 of the most difficult, some in prominent positions in the settlement. It was not intended that they survive.

The apparent plan ‘”was to drop them on an unoccupied, deserted island. Soon after they had sailed (almost as they were departing) in September 1647, the property of the emigrants was confiscated.

Fortunately Capt. Jean Pinart of the group had cruised the islands and knew of one recently taken by the English where various edibles, including quantities of sweet potatoes, could be found. According to Nellis H. Crouse, “Father du Tertre does not tell us which island it was, but from the hints he gives it was probably St. John.”

On landing, hammocks were stretched and there was rest despite the attack by hungry mosquitoes. The next morning some went out to reconnoiter but only to find a row of corpses on the sand, the remains of a band of English that had come to settle. This suggested that the same fate might be theirs as truly might. Puerto Rico was not Ear away and the Spanish did not intend to allow undesirables, or foreign exiles, to settle in the neighborhood. They knew of De Poincy’s policy. Soon five armed vessels were sent to eliminate the embryonic settlement. Attack followed and on the first try the French, sailors and colonists, drove the Spaniards to the harbor’s edge. But in the second charge the French broke and fled to the mountains where they remained until the Spanish departed for Puerto Rico.

For three, or four, months the refugees eked out a poor existence on what little the island afforded. The Spaniards had seized their supplies and had wrecked Pinart’ s ship. Conditions grew worse and five of the heartier resolved to brave the sea in a 14-foot handmade raft fashioned from logs with help of a single axe that someone found. The logs, bound with vines and moved by a sail made from a couple of shirts held together with thorns, did not make a very seaworthy craft. The hope was to reach a settled island and look for assistance. It is doubtful, after a meal of sorts, who ”were the most deplorable: those who remained, or the five who “set sail.”

Toward evening the raft reached a little island near Virgin Gorda. Here the first sight was that of a grave of a former inhabitant of St. Christopher who had been driven out some time before. There was a dinner of crabs boiled in a kettle and the next day it was to sea again. The next stop was “the fertile island of St. Thomas where they remained five days refreshing themselves with the generous supply of bananas, oranges, and figs that grew here in great abundance. From St. Thomas they proceeded to the southern shore of Puerto Rico.

Despite herds of wild cattle, which they saw inland a little way, they remained fearful of the Spaniards and tarried only long enough to rest, repair their raft, and put to sea again. Three days later they came to a small island, where wild fowl nested in quantity. They also found a few huts and, hopeful that the inhabitants would return, settled down. Here they waited three months hoping for someone who could assist them. Unexpected aid came from the sea eventually.

They finally hailed a vessel, which was passing close enough to see their frantic signals. It was a Spanish fishing boat and its captain, when he saw the wretched castaways, had compassion and gave them clothing, bread and wine. He did more. Two weeks later, with his fishing done, he returned and picked them up, lashing their raft to his bowsprit as a trophy for the governor in Puerto Rico.

En route to San Juan the pilot, with his glass, spotted another raft and detoured to investigate. “On reaching it the Frenchmen saw with amazement a raft similar to their own to which clung six men, all that remained of the castaways they had left months before on St. John….” The Captain answered these pleas, too, with food and clothing and all were carried into San Juan.

The story had a pleasant ending. The hardships they endured and their miraculous rescue made them objects of charitable interest.

There was work for all who knew a trade. “When at last they had accumulated sufficient funds to leave the island, they took passage on a ship (all but one who had married and settled down) and sailed back to France.”

From: Virgin Islands National Park, St. John Island, the quiet place, by Charles E. Hatch, Jr.

The History of the Caribby-Island: In Two Books: The First Containing the Natural: the Second, the Moral History of Those Islands, Rendered into English by John Davies (London, 1666) and French Pioneers in the West Indies, 1624-1664 (New York, 1940)

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