Rich Cultural, Historical History Of The Virgin Islands Present In Its People And Its Buildings: OP-ED
March is Virgin Islands History Month. As a Virgin Islander, I find that we are ignorant to our rich history and culture that distinguishes us from any other people on Earth. We are nothing but a dot on the world map, yet we contribute to the world intellectually and culturally with a list of contributions that is too long to mention.
For example, David L. Yulee, who was born on St. Thomas on June 1, 1810, made great contributions to the state of Florida, the nation, and the world. He was the principal architect of Florida becoming a state.
Upon his death, The Washington Post described Yulee as a U.S. senator “better known than the state he represented.” The Florida Times-Union put it this way: “The late Honorable David L. Yulee has had probably a larger influence upon the character and development of the state, and played a large part in its history, than any other man.” He was the most influential man in the U.S. Senate among his peers.
Virgin Islanders, our land masses are small, but these islands have produced giants in local and world history.
Like David L. Yulee, Clarice C. Clarke is a giant in her own right who has contributed greatly to these islands’ history through taking historic photos. She is a retiree and a former colleague of mine from the University of the Virgin Islands. I remember Ms. Clarke tagging along with me on many hikes with schoolchildren, visitors, or just exploring the island with her camera and taking photos of historical buildings, ruins of sugar mills, great houses, etc., in bushes, forests, open fields, hills, mountain tops, coastal environments, or along the roadsides of the island.
Believe me, she was intoxicated with the island history and environment. As the Cooperative Extension Service Public Information Specialist of the University of the Virgin Islands, Clarke would call me at times and say, “Olasee, are you going bush today?” It was a chance for her to explore the island to discover the hidden secrets of the nature, culture, and history of St. Croix. Clarice loved taking photos capturing the heart of St. Croix secrets. It is these secrets that very few Virgin Islanders discover for themselves that make St. Croix so special in the Caribbean Sea.
I would say St. Croix is the cultural and historical capital of the Virgin Islands. Seven colonial flags flew over the island. Which Caribbean islands can boast such a colorful history of nations battling to possess one small island in the Caribbean Sea? St. Croix is the richest in the Virgin Islands in terms of its architecture of the colonial period, with its two fine towns and rolling countryside dotted with ruins of windmills, towers, and estate houses.
The island of St. Croix was Denmark’s most prosperous colony, and this is reflected in the fine architectural diversity. Thus, the many historical structures that are left behind from the colonial era speak for themselves, situating St. Croix as a jewel in the Caribbean.
It is this perspective that Clarice C. Clarke set out to capture in her newly published book, “Hidden Secrets of St. Croix.” The book is filled with colorful photos of buildings, nature, and areas hidden from sight unless you hike there.
Estate Grange great house is captured in the book. Beautiful photos depicting an island autumn in the tropical sun. It is here where Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the United States, spent his childhood with his mother Rachael Fawcett Levine. His mother’s gravesite is on the grounds of the estate. Another colorful photo is of Estate Anna’s Hope, a plantation with a fascinating history. It tells of when Anna’s Hope was prosperous in its high day when sugar was king.
As I turn the page, I come across Estate Sion Farm. This beautiful great house, built in the 1860s, is now the residence of the lieutenant governor of the Virgin Islands. The estate was once owned by Nicholas Tuite, a wealthy planter who migrated from the island of Montserrat in the 1750s to make his fortune in the sugar industry on St. Croix. Castle Coakley Estate, which is south of Sion Farm, has an extensive plantation ruins. The estate has two types of mills side by side, one being an ox and windmill. The historical structures on the property are impressive, with large retaining walls surrounding the operation of the mills. Such prominent Crucian planters like the Heyligers and Armstrongs once lived on the estate.
Clarice captured Estate St. John, which is located on the northeast side of the island south of Judith’s Fancy. The estate great house is on the National Register of Historic Places. The abandoned village houses, windmill, well tower, and other sugar factory structures are still visible to see. When the United States took over the Danish West Indies in 1917, the islands boasted an 85 percent literacy rate in education. The first country school for enslaved children on St. Croix was built in 1841 at Great Princess; Clarice captured the historic building with beautiful colors.
There were eight Danish countryside schools on St. Croix, five on St. Thomas, and two on St. John. All the photos in the book are in color, with a small writeup of each historic site. I don’t want to give you the impression that the book is just on ruins and great houses. She also captures nature in its fullness. With me, Clarice explored the waterfalls on the island, the kribeshee swimming in the streams, and the diverse, exquisitely blue waters surrounding the island’s coast.
The book showcases St. Croix, the last frontier of the Virgin Islands, with hidden secrets very few Virgin Islanders know about. This book walks you through some of the history in color, telling what made the island of St. Croix so unique in our history as Virgin Islanders.
The book is available at Undercover Books on St. Croix, the Virgin Islands Caribbean Cultural Center at UVI, the St. George Village Botanical Garden, and at https://stxhiddensecrets.com.
— Olasee Davis, St. Croix, is an ecologist at the University of the Virgin Islands. He is active in Virgin Islands historical, cultural and environmental preservation, and he leads the St. Croix Hiking Association’s hikes focused on those topics.