Swashbucklers and Slavery: St. John, USVI

Catchy title, yes?  We flew out of Seattle to the Caribbean on Friday, April 29th. Destination:  St. Thomas and St. John, USVI.

Though we flew out on Friday we didn’t arrive on St. John until Saturday evening, and our vacation didn’t feel like it really started until Sunday.  Why?  Two words: red eye.

Neither of us were keen about flying a red eye.  I don’t tend to sleep well on planes and have a tendency to be cranky like a young child when tired (read:  after 9:30 pm). However, a red eye was about the only option.  Our flight departed at 11:45 pm.  We had a short (very short.  As in, darn lucky to get off the plane and discover our connecting flight was just across the way or we could have been in big trouble, short) layover at JFK and arrived on St. Thomas at 12:35 pm (3 hrs ahead of us).  We picked up the rental jeep, stopped by a grocery store (which sounds easy, but they drive on the “wrong” side of the road, so there’s a significant learning curve), and made our way to the ferry dock.  We had enough time in Red Hook to enjoy a burger (we swear it was the best burger ever, but it was likely because we were exhausted and starving) and a rum punch before hopping onto the 5 pm ferry.  Once on St. John we connected with the people we were renting an apartment from and made our way to the East side of the island.  We were in bed by 8:30 pm (5:30 at home). Though it was an exhausting day it was relatively uneventful and I can proudly state that I remained remarkably chipper and suffered no significant breakdowns or tantrums.

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We awoke on Sunday refreshed and ready to begin exploring the lush hilliness of St. John. I had been watching the weather obsessively and had warned the husband that we might experience more clouds and showers than we desired, and that first morning was overcast. But, really, is that going to hold back a couple of Washingtonians?  We had our shorts, our sandals and our raincoats…we were set!

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St. John is a history nerd’s dream (so happens the husband and I resemble that label), and I will share some of that history today and more in upcoming posts. Let’s just start by saying that the island, at one time, was dominated by sugar plantations.  Which means ruins.  Lots and lots of ruins.

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On that first day we set out to explore the Annaberg Sugar Mill.  In 1796, James Murphy, an Irish-born merchant and slave trader based on St. Thomas, purchased Annaberg along with a number of neighboring properties and combined them to form a single, vast sugar estate.  By his death in 1808 he had succeeded in becoming the single largest producer of sugar on St. John.

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The Annaberg plantation was the most intact plantation that we visited on the island.  The National Park Service has stabilized the buildings to avoid further deterioration, creating an impressive display of structures.

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We took ourselves on a self-guided walking tour, brochure in hand.  We learned that when the plantation was operational that most of the hillsides had been cleared, terraced and planted with sugar cane.  And St. John is a hilly place. Very hilly. Clearing them must have been a challenge (to put it lightly). Typically, it took a year or more for the sugar cane to be ready for harvesting.  When ripe, slaves (keep in mind that all of the labor for these operations was provided by slaves…a sobering concept) would cut the canes and strip the leaves.  The stalks were then bundled and transported to a mill where the juice was extracted by crushing, a dangerous task.

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Windmills were used to power the rollers that crushed the cane.  The Annaberg windmill was among the largest on St. John.  It’s 34 feet in diameter at the base, 20 feet at the top and 38 feet high.  Revolving sails turned a central shaft, which rotated a set of three large rollers.  Slaves passed the cane between the rollers, which crushed the stalks and squeezed out the juice.  The juice then ran down the rollers into a receiving tank where it was held until the factory was ready to process it.  The next step was to open a gate, allowing the juice to flow by gravity through a lead-lined wooden gutter into a tank in the boiling house.

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And that’s where your history lesson is going to stop today.

Stay tuned to learn more about the process (including the makin’ of the rum).

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After Annaberg we headed back to where we were staying.  It was a large studio apartment on the first floor of a private home.  The views were exquisite. Extraordinary. Breathtaking.  Try this on for size:

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Kind of makes your toes curl, doesn’t it?  And, proves that we weren’t constantly plagued by cloudy skies.

Just down the street (if you want to call it that.  Narrow road.  On a hill.  The driveway required a 3-point turn to get in and out of it.  Don’t believe me?  Lookee below) from our apartment was a delightful local restaurant called Miss Lucy’s.  The homeowner had recommended their Sunday brunch, but warned us not to be starving when we went, as service was a tad slow.

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A tad slow was putting it lightly.  We enjoyed a two hour brunch at a table shared with some very entertaining people from New Jersey.  And I met the Lime N’ Da Coconut.

Please allow me a moment to remember the Lime N’ Da Coconut.

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I am a big fan of lime.  Gin and tonic is my go-to drink.  Heavy on the lime.  Heavy on the lime.  So, when my eyes lit on a drink composed of lime (green flecks included), coconut milk and rum…blended…I was sold.  And, because service was slow I had time for two.  I tried Lime N’ Da Coconut at many other places during that week, but those at Miss Lucy’s were the best.  I will attempt to recreate them this summer.  Yes, I will.

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The husband exploring the third ruin of the day.

After brunch we explored a bit more on our side of the island and were back in the apartment by 5, after which we enjoyed cocktails and rain on the patio.  Is it a patio on the Caribbean?  It’s a lanai in Hawaii.  I prefer lanai, so let’s go with that.

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Notable quotes for the day:

“Drink rum, it’s cheaper than water.”

“In the land of fun and sun we don’t flush for #1.”  (Nor did we flush tp in our abode.  That took some getting used to).

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2 thoughts on “Swashbucklers and Slavery: St. John, USVI

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