St. John Defenses
The potential events that surrounded the emancipation of the enslaved Africans in 1848 raised serious concerns for everyone in the Danish West Indies. People feared revolts, arson, and general mayhem.
Jan Rogozinski in his “Brief History of the Caribbean” reports that the sugar plantation workers suffered under cruel masters, poor food and housing, intense work schedules, disease, and the rigors of the Middle Passage. He further contends that the tropical sugar plantations were “true killing machines.” During their first years in the islands at least 15 to 20 percent of enslaved Africans died.
Already weakened by confinement and malnutrition during the Middle Passage from Africa, many perished in a new disease environment including dysentery, tuberculosis, typhoid, and new varieties of malaria and yellow fever. The enslaved population was not prepared to tolerate half measures that would delay or deny their full freedom.
In order to track the events that could lead to acts of civil unrest, plans were developed to formally watch for changes. Traditionally, “watch houses” had been located all over the island at the shore and on the borders of the plantations.
Their purpose was to watch for pirates, smugglers, illegal trade, invading enemies, and/or escaping enslaved Africans. These houses, sometimes simple stone huts, discouraged illegal activities by their mere presence.
Recently discovered in historian Stephen Edwards’ records was a St. John Burgher Council memorandum of June 5, 1843 which outlined a plan for new and improved watch or guard houses related to the Emancipation scheduled for 1848.
It also may be related to the desertion of enslaved Africans as described by David Knight in his study of the Annaberg Estate for the National Park Service entitled “Annaberg — An Updated Survey of the Annaberg Factory Complex, Virgin Islands National Park, St. John, USVI With Overviews of Contributing Sites Within the Annaberg Historic District, 2001.” In that instance, 11 enslaved Africans escaped to Tortola in a stolen boat on the night of May 24, 1840.
In 1834, slavery had been abolished on Tortola. Its close proximity to St. John presented a real problem to the Annaberg Plantation, a mere mile away. A Moravian missionary, Brother Schmitz, went to Tortola to ask them to return. They didn’t. The threat was in anticipation of what could happen in the future with the unemancipated population.
An 1843 memorandum clarifies the role of these defense stations as they relate to other stations that had been abandoned (e.g. Mary’s Point) and proposed new stations (e.g. East End and Lovango)
The Burgher Council in 1843 proposed funds to repair the station at Leinsterbay which was the largest station on St. John.
“The repairs of doors, windows, roofs as well as painting and whitewashing, exclusive of another boat as stated in Lieutenant Bjelke’s report would require at least the sum of $160,” according to the council memorandum.
“Admitting that these repairs might be necessary, we are not aware that there are any funds of which they might be accomplished. We would most respectfully take this opportunity to represent to Your Excellency that the difficulties which appear to attend the station at Leinsterbay, as at present organized, as well as the limited extent of its operations — the same being necessarily confined to a small portion of the Island has induced us naturally to consider the possibility of devising some plan which would not only remove these difficulties, but at same time be more extensive and efficient in its results, without creating any additional expense.”
“We would therefore beg leave to submit the following to your Excellency’s superior judgement in the hope that it may afford in some degree of strictly enforced that protection which circumstances so imperiously demand and without which we can enjoy no security of property,” the memorandum continues. “As the cruising in pursuit of or to overhaul strange or suspicious boats appear to be objectionable and rather discouraged than otherwise, the chief reason for having seamen employed on the Leinsterbay station falls to the ground. We would therefore suggest that a sergeant and 6 men be substituted and only a light 4-oared boat be kept there for the purpose of pursuit if escapes be attempted from our shores or for examination of the neighboring bays during the night.”
“This boat might be kept within the yard of Leinsterbay, where it would be quite at hand, and thus save the duty of the sentry on the bay,” according to the memorandum. “By this change a saving would be effected in boats, as well as of extra payment now given to the lieutenant in command.”
Whistling Cay would be staffed as a fishing station with four men. They would receive $8 per month for guarding the bay and keeping sentry. They would receive arms and ammunition and would be enrolled in a militia group.
At East End, a station would be established with Lieutenant George in charge of members of the Jaeger Corp who lived in the area. There was no quarter officer (civilian leader) in the East End and Lt. George would secure all boats and watch the bay traffic.
Another station would be established on Lovango. Six burghers lived there who would be exempt from all other military duty. They would look out to the south between St. John and St. Thomas and to the north side of St. Thomas. The men would be enrolled in the militia and the owner of the island made the sergeant. In the event of an internal disturbance on the main island (St. John) they would assist as a guard in the “fortified prison at Cruz Bay” (the Battery).
“In order to stimulate the men at these different stations to vigilance and exertion, also as some remuneration to those who use their own boats a reward of $25 should be paid for each fugitive taken,” according to the council memorandum. “A fund to meet all these expenditures to be raised by a voluntary subscription from the planters of St. Thomas and St. John which we would undertake to accomplish. The reward of $25 might also be extended to anyone who should give information of the intention of any negro to abscond, on the same being satisfactorily proved. If in connection with the above plan a stricter watch be kept over our shore — boats than is now the case, our security will be much increased.”
This Burgher Council memorandum answers the formerly unanswered questions on the purpose and location of these defense stations. On June 11, 1843 the Burgher Council received approval of their plan with a request for minor clarification on the East End station. However, in 1844 entries in the diary of the Reverend Henry Morton who visited St. John show that the guard had not been reduced at Leinsterbay.
“At this post, a guard of sixteen men under the command of an Officer is stationed, for the purpose of protecting the property of the Planters from the danger which results from the nearness of the British Island of Tortola,” according to Morton’s diary. “The Guard in question was relieved by a new detachment from the Brig” (Mercurius).
Also the Danish Navy’s continuing concern for this station is shown by the war brig “St. Croix” taken station on Leinsterbay on June 14, 1844. (R/A Vestindiske Lokalarkiver)
The best news about the Leinsterbay Guard House is that the site has been adopted by the Caribbean Volunteer Expeditions, a non-profit organization which recruits volunteers to work on historic preservation projects. These volunteers are from Elderhostel and are under the direction of Anne Hersh, the group leader.
In 1991 the group cleared, measured, and made drawings of the guard house site. In the past five to six years the group has returned annually to clear the site which allows it to be accessed by park visitors. The group’s contribution could lead to the eventual stabilization of this site should park funds become available. It also makes the historical study and interpretation of this area more important to our visitors.