On St. Croix in the U.S Virgin Islands, both residents and visitors daily enjoy a visual paradise and few are aware of the history and people who created this beauty. From the Cay in the Christiansted Harbor, the view of Fort Christiansvaern, with its manicured lawns, lush green hills in the background and the crystal blue waters of the bay in the foreground produces a striking image in the perfect light. This is what most people see,
knowing little or nothing of how it came to be. Beneath the picture perfect surface, delving into the foundation, an ugly story unfolds with remnants that many prefer to ignore.
The fort was built by the Danes in the late 1730s to defend the town of Christiansted, the capital of Danish Caribbean territories, against pirate attacks and slave insurrections. As one of the busiest commercial centers in the Caribbean, Christiansted was a major link for trade in molasses, rum and human cargo for the triangular trade (all based upon enslaved African labor). Several landmark structures: Fort Christiansvaern, the Scale House, Customs House, the Danish West Indies and Guinea Warehouse, and the Dutch era buildings have in recent years been maintained by the US National Park Service. The Danish West Indies and Guinea Warehouse for many years was the venue for the largest slave auctions in the entire Caribbean.
In brochures and guidebooks that extol the magnificence of Christiansted and its great architecture, little if anything, about the contributions, albeit forced, of the enslaved Africans is included. Not only is it not provided to visitors, but those who migrate or are native to St. Croix are also not taught this history. There seems to be a not so subtle effort to gloss over the fact that African slavery was the premier economic driving force and producer of all that is now associated with St. Croix and the entire Caribbean.
Apart from slaves generating wealth through their trade as commodities, they were the labor force that built and maintained the majority of structures in Christiansted and throughout the islands which are now museums and tourist attractions. They also tended fields, and operated mills and refineries which produced by products of the signature crop of the Caribbean, sugar.
Ironically the artifacts of slavery which formerly were displayed in the dungeons of Fort Christiansvaern and other places on the island have, according to reports, disappeared. As painful and uncomfortable as this history may be, the removal of these instruments of enslavement will not erase the facts. It is necessary that we and others be reminded of the terrible scars that slavery and injustice have left on our world.
The knowledge of one’s ancestral origins, self-respect and the respect for the existence of others who share this planet are, for the most part, three of the central tenets of humanity. The young, especially those of African descent who flounder in ignorance of the mammoth contributions made by Africans to the societies in which they live, must be made aware of who they are, how they got to where they are, why they were brought, by whom they were brought and under what conditions they arrived.
Today in these pristine settings, anaesthetized by the luxury of life, the descendants of slave traders, slave owners and slaves meet without much overt hostility. While it is necessary to be amicable, the raw truth is generally not too far away. But those who still serve and those who are still being served should understand that ignoring history is not the proper way to face our shared future.
The question remains: Who is going to teach whom about overcoming the devastating emotional effects that slavery has had on all of us? Is it those, the Africans, whose ancestors endured the horrors of slavery or those, the descendants of slave-owners who are the direct beneficiaries of the tremendous wealth that slavery and slaves have provided them?
There are lessons to be taught and learnt; they should begin now.
Ken Forde, a Caribbean writer and poet, is our guest author. The photographs are courtesy of Mr. Forde as well.