Archives For Christiansted

The Conch Calls

July 3, 2018 — 1 Comment

Shadows cavort across the yellow walls of Fort Christiansvaern on St Croix as people mill about waiting for the conch to call them to order. Dawn is a faint glimmer across the hills to the east but all is not quiet. Music, blaring from speakers on a pick-up truck, call for liberation, freedom – Bob Marley is always a popular choice, and blue lights flash like beacons from waiting police vehicles. Then silence. 

Senator Positive Nelson, who has organized this Freedom March for 18 years, is a tall rangy figure in white shorts and a loose African shirt. His dreadlocks swing as his head tips back and he raises the conch to his lips, and blows. The drum beats with a building intensity. It is hard not to be moved.

After a twelve-year gradual freeing of the slaves was announced in 1847, and the order that all babies born from July 28th of that year were to be born free, anger percolated amongst the enslaved. Why not immediate emancipation?

170 years ago on the night of Sunday, July 2nd, in what was then the Danish West Indies and is now the US Virgin Islands, Moses Gottlieb, known to many as General Buddhoe, sounded the conch and led many of those enslaved on a march to Frederiksted demanding their freedom. Gottlieb, a literate and skilled sugar boiler thought possibly to have come to St Croix from Barbados, worked at Estate La Grange but was often borrowed for work on other sugar plantations. It was this freedom of movement, combined with an innate leadership skill, that allowed Gottlieb to secretly organize the march. By morning the crowd had swelled to about 5,000. Later that afternoon, Governor Peter von Scholten, fearing violence and burning, momentously proclaimed, “All unfree in the Danish West Indies are from today Free”. 

Back in the days before cell phones, it took a while for the news of freedom to travel and so an offshoot of the protesters, known as ‘the fleet’ and led by a young man called King, continued to riot, burn and plunder. It was thanks to Gottlieb, who accompanied the Danish fire chief, Major Jacob Gyllich, around the island that the mayhem did not continue and no white lives were lost. 

Order was restored but rumours swirled that the Governor, who had a black mistress, was sympathetic to the cause and knew there was a possibility of an uprising. It was a rumour never confirmed. The sugar plantocracy were enraged with the proclamation, which immediately decimated their workforce, and von Scholten was ordered back to Denmark, where he died a broken man. 

Despite being protected initially from the planter’s wrath by Major Gyllich, Gottlieb was arrested, questioned and shipped off the island aboard the SS Ørnen. He set sail from St Croix as a gentlemen but once out of port was stripped of his clothes and put to work until, in January 1849, he landed on Trinidad. Told he would be executed if he ever returned to the Danish West Indies, Moses Gottlieb aka General Buddhoe is believed to have ended his days in the United States.

Today – July 3rd – is Emancipation Day! 

Celebrated each year with the Freedom March. As I watched the marchers, including my husband, answer the call of the conch, rattle the chains on Fort Christiansvaern and walk along Company Street at the start of their 15 mile march to Frederiksted, dawn trickled over Gallows Bay, pink and orange striations among grey clouds promising much needed rain.

Freedom came to the enslaved of the Danish West Indies 170 years ago and it is easy to think that freedom is global. But it isn’t. Slavery still exists in all its ugly connotations. So whilst we celebrate the bravery of leaders like Gottlieb and the many who marched with him, as well as those who supported their claims for freedom, like von Scholten and Gyllich, and 30 years later the Four Queens who roused the crowd during Fireburn demanding better labour laws, we should remember those still under the mantel of oppression.

Would that the conch call for freedom be heard globally!

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It was a Honey of a Day

February 14, 2018 — 3 Comments

I had plans. Planting the cuttings people have so generously given me – two, what I hope will be one day be glorious shooting star (Clerodendrum) bushes, and two Danish flag vines (I don’t know its grown-up name), except instead of red and white my clippings are red and pink. Don’t know why. Then I was going to write, write, write.

Instead what did I do? I sat. First at a chair positioned just so at our dining room window, then on the barstool in the kitchen, then upstairs at the hall window. All overlooking our neighbour’s garden. I had become a voyeur.

It was the men that did it. Two husky men with dreads and beards shoving their legs into white coveralls at the bottom of our drive. A young woman covered from head to foot in all manner of garb, including a tee-shirt draped artfully around her head, completed the trio. Her job, seemingly, was to shove greenery into a kettle-like contraption which was then lit by one of the men. She then pumped and primed it until smoke blew off in satisfying curlicues to dissipate on the omnipresent north-easterly winds battering St Croix this month.

Now you must remember I was not in close proximity and so I could be forgiven for thinking, when the masks came out, that the trio were heading to a fencing tournament. And then I twigged.

Bees!

I am rather fond of bees and we are planting a garden to attract them and hummingbirds and bananaquits, the rather charming and cheeky little yellow-breasted birds – smaller than a British robin – who twitter around any flowers. I have though in the last few months been bitten twice by bees – not something that has ever happened before. I can report that they hurt like hell, then itch, then swell into an unattractive lump before disappearing. I am obviously not prone to anaphylactic shock.

But I digress. We had searched our property but could find no evidence of bees, neither had we noticed a great deal of buzzing next door. And so I was intrigued. Hence, the various watch locations stationed in my house.

Rather a lot of toing and froing took place. Boxes. Empty frames. Ladders. The kettle. And, I was pleased to see, long gloves. Clambering up the ladder in his ungainly gear went one of the men and with a puff of smoke the first surge of bees were evicted from the underside of the eaves. Plywood was ripped down and another flurry of activity showed the bees’ displeasure.

It was at this stage the attendant woman beat a hasty retreat and spent the rest of the morning lying in the sunshine. I can’t say I blame her.

I was though a little disconcerted to see, as the first wadge of bee-blackened honeycomb was torn from its sticky home, the second bee man remove his gloves and poke his finger along the dripping piece before dropping into a box and hastily pushing the lid back over.

“No, no,” I muttered from behind my glass seraglio. “Put your gloves back on.” But he didn’t hear me.

Smoke, swarming bees, intense studying of each piece of saturated honeycomb was the order of the morning. More plywood was removed, security lights were rudely displaced to hang like giant testicles, and a thousand bees tried to attack the men who dared take their home.

One section of honeycomb must have been eighteen inches long and it was then the larger of the two men clambered down, settled onto a step, took up one of the empty frames and began, after first shaking off more bees, to push honeycomb into the frame. Snapping off any bits outside the frame, he then tossed them into a bucket, and repeated the process five times. Each filled frame was carefully slotted into the box by the shorter of the men. (I admit my description of the apiarists is not full but you try describing men in white jumpsuits tucked into socks and boots, wearing full head masks and long gloves – well one of them anyway. I can tell you the gloveless man had black hands.)

And all the while bees dive bombed them. Outrage thrumming with every wing beat. The clumps of comb became smaller, chiselled away from the roof, and bees began to settle on the outside of the eaves. A crawling black mass to be swept into a Tupperware container and unceremoniously tipped into their new hive.

The entertainment was over and deciding prudence would be the order of the day I sat down to write – why risk planting when stray, and discombobulated, bees might still be at large? But I was restless and decided to go and run errands.

Sitting by the roadside were two men with beards and dreads and a woman in all manner of garb but without a tee-shirt wrapped around her head.

“Good morning,” I said through the car window, because no conversation on this island is started without a pleasantry. “Thank you. I’ve had a wonderful time watching you work. And you,” I accused the shorter chap, “you weren’t even wearing gloves!”

He smiled – his eyes were topaz by the way.

“Good mahnin’. Hey mon, we got de queen!”

“Great,” I said, “does that mean those bees still buzzing around will go away?”

“Yeah. It called ‘driftin’ – the workers will look for another hive,” said the main man, who I have since learned is Roniel Allembert, aka the VI Honey Man. And now his mesh face covering was removed, I can report his beard was greying, and plaited. His eyes were a muddy brown and his smile was as wide as Niagara.

“You want the best honey on the island?”

“Sure,” I replied. “Thank you.”

Languidly he rose, delved in the flatbed of his battered truck and returned to my car. Leaning through the window he gave me a piece of dripping honeycomb.

It was good. And I had a honey of a day!

This article was published in St Croix This Week – February / March 2018

Despite Hurricanes IrMaria trying to destroy these Virgin Islands, trying to dampen spirits, and black-out homes, perseverance and resilience are winning and life is returning to normal.
Much has been made of the destruction of the mahogany trees on St Croix – both by hurricane and chain saw. With the heightened awareness of their value as shade, beauty and utility, perhaps we should look to a viable long-term use of the timber now lying discarded.
It was a theme taken up by Sergio Fox, an environmental and sustainable resource engineer, when speaking at a recent symposium in Christiansted. Why not use it in the proposed conservation of the Old Army Barracks?
Hosted by Gerville Larsen, a Crucian architect well known for his vision for a Christiansted Town Plan, and Ulla Lunn, a Danish preservation architect representing BYFO, the Association of Historical Houses in Denmark, I learnt of the progress made on The Legacy Project, which plans to stabilize, conserve and bring new life to the current eyesore on Hospital Street. It is a dramatic vision that will benefit all who live on these islands, and beyond.
A school where Virgin Islanders could earn an associate’s degree in architecture before transferring to accredited institutions in Puerto Rico, the mainland, or Denmark. In keeping with its ideal of serving all segments of society, this venue would also teach building crafts – carpentry, metal work, brick building and so on using the old techniques that have proven, through many years and numerous hurricanes, to withstand harsh conditions. At the same time recognizing and incorporating modern methods and materials.
The provisional name, The Center for Architecture and Built Heritage, will also (provisionally) have an auditorium, an archive room, a cafeteria and gardens – all open to the public. A true venue for the preservation of Crucian culture.
Visions don’t come cheap but with the $150,000 seed money from BYFO, matched by the VI Government, this joint venture can now start raising the $20M required to see both this project, and one on St Thomas, realised. Full funding must come from foundations, organizations and government in the US and Denmark.
Some might remember the exhibition at The Blue Mutt in January 2017 showing designs drawn by students from Aarhus University after their visit to St Croix – and all of which inspired those interested in the conservation and restoration of Christiansted.
A couple of weeks ago at the symposium, first held at Balter (thank you, for the delicious appetizers), and subsequently at the Florence Williams Public Library, we were treated to a presentation of three designs drawn up by two young architects – Crucian, Felicia Farrante and Norwegian, Hildegunn Gronningssaeter. Their enthusiasm was contagious as they talked us through ideas ranging from safe traditional, to an elegant compromise of old converging into new, to a thrilling modern design that, to my layman’s eyes, made the most of the remains of the army barracks whilst giving Christiansted a brave new look. For a brave new enterprise. All the concepts, as Ulla Lunn commented, “cherish the ruins”.
Describing the history of this decaying relic, from the time it was the Danish army barracks to a military hospital in 1835, to 1961 when it became a high school and finally a police substation before being abandoned to asbestos and bush, Farrante said, “You can touch the life in every single brick in these buildings”. Gronningssaeter continued, “We cannot preserve all values at once. We have to have a focus. Something that makes you reflect on time and history.”
But why, when so many things need funding, particularly after the devastation left by the 2017 hurricane season, should we put time, energy and money into, again in Hildegunn Gronningssaeter’s words, “a beautiful decaying structure returning to nature” ?
Because to not conserve and preserve the culture is to disown the heritage – the good and the bad. By moving forward with a project like this, which must be community driven and in collaboration with BYFO in Denmark, we are valuing the past, present and future – a true Legacy Project.
More prosaically, a well preserved St Croix would help tap into an international market geared to heritage travel, and therefore tourism dollars.
As the symposium came to an end, I was reminded of Gerville Larsen’s opening words, “People are the heart of the town.” By taking a decrepit ruin and turning it into a grand design built by Crucians for Crucians and any who would like to visit St Croix we acknowledge, as Senator Myron Jackson said, “Arts and culture are the framework of a community.”
Let’s put the mahogany trees to good use. Store them, let them cure properly, then by the time funds have been raised for this exciting venture, those stately old trees will have come full circle – creating shade, beauty and utility.

Out on the Boardwalk….

January 15, 2018 — 1 Comment

Out on the Boardwalk we were having some fun! Saturday night saw “Patrick and the Swayzees” perform at Shupes on Christiansted’s Boardwalk, and St Croix came out to listen. Styled as rockabilly, soul, rock ’n’ roll, they played everything from Elvis to Jerry Lee Lewis to James Brown, and many others, as well as a couple of original numbers. The joint was jumping to such an extent it did cross my mind the Boardwalk, a little hurricane weary, might not withstand the sheer joy of hundreds of people having fun. But it held up. And so did the band.

Hailing from Key West, Florida, though its members are all imports from northern states, the band is young. Only three years old and founded by Jerrod Isaman, guitarist and vocalist. There is though a Patrick in the band – Patrick Stecher, by day a wire artist by night a cool dude playing bass. But rather than a group of lads playing around at music, this is a group of lads who live music. And it shows. The band is tight, professional and, in true musical parlance, utterly awesome!

Keyboardist, River Seine, the youngest member of the group, has spent part of his 20 years on another island, Hawaii, where his mother sang. His fingers danced along the keys with such fluidity and speed I have no idea how he managed to stay on his feet, and his vocals, both as a soloist and backing singer hit every note. Elvis came alive.

Tyler ‘T-Bone’ McHone as drummer has the oh-too-cool-look-to-be-enjoying-himself down pat, but handles the sticks with verve and speed keeping the beat and energy  flowing from number to number, and as the crowd howled for more I saw a smile flicker.

Shout, Johnny Be Good, Love My Baby, Runaround Sue and many more rocked Shupes as patrons, young and not-so-young sang, danced and made merry. An evening of sheer entertainment which backed up vocalist Les Greene’s assertion in an interview with Angel Melendez of the Broward Palm Beach New Times when he said, “These songs are songs that need to go back into the world.”

Greene is a great ball of fire and energy. His stage persona is electric with vocals to match. His soaring rendition of Leela James’ Change is Going to Come brought the rafters close to crashing and the floor boards trembling. And his moves. My God, his moves were a combination of Fred Astaire and Michael Jackson, with a little bit of Louis Armstrong thrown in with his frequent brow mopping from a cloth tucked into his back pocket. He engages the audience with verve and the audience responds, “I want you to sing after me. Baby, baby, baby.” And we did. Repeat after me, “Shout!” And we did. If he’d suggested we all followed him into the crystal clear waters off the Boardwalk of Christiansted harbour, we just might have.

It is hard to imagine this young man suffering the agonies of stage fright but he did, and still does, but has found ways to manage it. From cruise ship massage therapist to high-octane performer is quite a leap.

“Patrick and the Swayzees”, not it must be mentioned because of any great affinity to Dirty Dancing but because Isaman, McHone and Stecher – the original members – were playing around with ‘swayzee’ as an adjective, are part of the Saturday Sunset Series sponsored by Shupes and the Caravelle Hotel. Kudos to both for bringing light relief to St Croix after the torrid times of 2017.

I do hope “Patrick and the Swayzees” soon come again to the Boardwalk to have some fun! Because after a non-stop two-hour set, with Greene breaking from his powerful vocals and fabulous moves only occasionally to sip water whilst the rest of the band continued playing their hearts out, it was an evening of not only brilliant stars but brilliant entertainment.

Island Strong

October 16, 2017 — 2 Comments

This is a story about a woman who lived on a rock in the Caribbean 130 years ago when the US Virgin Islands were under the Danish crown, and the dannebrog flew proudly from the flagpole at Fort Christiansvaern. Her name was Anna Clausen, and she was born on St Croix on a sugar plantation called Anna’s Fancy, so named for her maternal grandmother, the first Anna.

Our Anna, at age sixteen, was taken by her mother to England after the devastating hurricane of 1867, when the tidal surge on the western tip of the island had been so huge, the American warship Monongahela had been thrown ashore at Frederiksted. The storm had been the final straw for Anna’s mother, who was determined her daughter have the opportunity of a ‘good’ marriage, and the benefit of cultural activities that, to her mind, only London could provide.

Anna lived, unhappily, in London for ten years until after the death of her mother she returned to the island she loved. Her father, who had remained on St Croix, was ailing and alone after the death of her brother the previous year. Ivy, a girl from the East End of London accompanied Anna, filling both the role of lady’s maid and chaperone.

The homecoming was not as she had imagined, and the great house of Anna’s childhood was no longer the imposing, air and colour-filled home of her memories. Emiline, a surly woman was now the sole servant and was resentful of the young mistress and, more particularly, her white maid. “Chuh! I tell she, soon as, me not de maid. Me de housekeeper,” she mutters as makes up a bed for Anna.

Fireburn, the name of this story, tells of Anna’s struggle to keep the plantation afloat, with the help of Sampson, the foreman. It tells of a turbulent time on the island, with worker discontent high at the lack of progress in conditions since emancipation 30 years earlier, and which culminates in ‘fireburn’, the event in which Frederiksted was burnt to the ground. The rebellion, also known as The Great Trashing, stoked by women who became known as ‘the queens’, was brutally quashed with ringleaders executed or jailed, and the women sent to prison in Copenhagen.

Our heroine, Anna, faces personal heartache but with the support of servants whose trust she has won, both in the great house and in the fields, she becomes the chatelaine of a prosperous estate. Willing to take chances and challenge the conventions of the day.
At the core of Fireburn, the novel, is the resilience and determination of those who call Anna’s Fancy and St Croix home to weather any and all storms, both natural and man-made. To rebuild. To adapt. To strengthen.

In effect exactly what so much of the Caribbean is doing right now, after the wrath of both Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The islands will recover from the aftermath of these violent storms, they will prosper again. Their natural beauty and the overt friendliness of the islands will draw tourists, and their much-needed money, to choose to recharge on the pristine beaches, swim and dive in the vivid seas which filter through aquamarine to indigo to emerald, to sip rum – the staple upon which many of the islands first found prosperity – and to marvel at the resilient buoyancy of those who call these islands home.

Just as fictional Anna did.

The Caribbean and her people are, despite what is tossed their way, Island Strong!

Fireburn cover 72

Purchase Fireburn here!