St. John Island, in the American Virgin Islands chain, is one of the most beautiful and idyllic places on earth. An emerald jewel set in the crystal-blue Caribbean Sea, it’s a quiet and out-of-the-way retreat that’s frequented by the world’s rich and famous when they want to escape from the hurly-burly of modern civilization. It’s an enchanted place of swaying palms, cobalt waters, bright full moons, and warm, gentle breezes.
But how many of its visitors know that well before its current surfeit of calm days and peaceful nights, the island had a troublesome and sometimes violent past? Which modern-day purveyors of its local hotels and watering holes are aware that, once upon a time, one of the world’s most violent slave revolts shook the very foundations of the island’s economy and way of life?
A Look at the Past
Let’s go back in time a few thousand years, when the tranquil isle was first settled by the Taino Indians, members of the Arawak tribe, who, anthropologists believe, had migrated from the northern coast of South America as early as 300 AD. For countless generations, these native peoples lived in peace and seclusion, fishing and farming, until they were replaced in the early 1300s by their more aggressive neighbors from the mainland, the Caribs, who, through warfare, assimilation and, some say, cannibalism, soon became the island’s dominant inhabitants.
About two hundred years later, Christopher Columbus became the first European to set foot on the Virgin Islands, which he encountered on his second voyage in 1493, and then named in honor of the feast day of St. Ursula and the 11,000 virgins who were said to be martyred with her. Over the next two hundred years, the Virgin Islands became legendary for piracy, profligacy and the slave trade.
In the early 18th century, the first permanent settlements in the island chain were established by the Danish West India and Guinea Company, which also gave St. John its name: Sankt Jan. In 1718, a group of 20 Danish planters from St. Thomas founded the Estate Carolina in St. John’s Coral Bay – the island’s first true settlement.
Over the ensuing years, because of its hot climate and fertile soil, St. John became home to over 100 sugar cane, cotton, and tobacco plantations. But since the native Indian population had largely disappeared by the time the Danes arrived (due to their enslavement and harsh treatment over the years by Spanish settlers in neighboring Hispaniola), the economies of the whole Virgin Island chain had become highly dependent on slave labor from Africa. In fact, black slaves on St. John actually outnumbered the white Europeans by a factor of five to one.
Because of this high, and potentially dangerous, ratio of slaves to settlers, the Danish authorities instituted a draconian code that outlined the punishments that were to be meted out against any disobedient or rebellious slaves – punishments that included torture and death.
So, in November 1733, about 14 slaves from a group of Africans known as the Akwamu – wealthy and powerful leaders in their own homeland before being captured and sent to the New World – entered the Danish stockade, Fortsberg in Coral Bay, with cane knives hidden in bundles of wood. They quickly killed all but one of the seven men in the garrison, and then fired the fort’s cannon to signal the other slaves on the island that their revolt had begun. Slaves soon began to ransack plantation houses, set fire to the cane fields and murder their white overseers all over St. John. The Akwamu took control of most of the island, intending to resume crop production by using other African ethnic groups as their own slave laborers, once their revolt had succeeded.
Over the next seven months, almost one quarter of the island’s population was killed – slave and settler alike – and many plantations were destroyed. Preferring death to lives of servitude, many of the Akwamu also killed themselves rather than risk capture. The revolt was only finally put down when several hundred French and Swiss soldiers from neighboring Martinique came to the aid of the imperiled Danes. Well before the American Civil War, the St. John slave revolt was the New World’s first insurrection against the brutal subjugation of human beings. The slave trade ended in the Danish West Indies in 1803, and slavery, itself, was finally abolished in 1848.
The end of slavery, as noble and necessary as it was, also precipitated a steady decline in St. John’s population and the number of its working plantations. Sugar production was no longer profitable and bankrupt planters left their land to former slaves and squatters. Subsistence farming and small-scale fishing became the island’s main means of livelihood, and by the turn of the 20th century, there were less than one thousand persons living on St. John.
United States Purchases St. John Island
In 1917, the United States purchased St. John from Denmark for $25 million, in order to establish a naval base and prevent the possibility of German incursion into the Western Hemisphere during World War I. In 1956, American millionaire, Laurence Rockefeller, purchased most of the island, and turned 5000 acres of his holdings into protected park land under the control of the federal government. Today, the Virgin Islands National Park spans 7200 acres, and the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument contains 5600 acres of underwater domains.
St. John Island thrives as one of the world’s most desirable tourist destinations. Its turbulent past has receded into history and, once again, its remote tranquility and mild climate lure travelers and vacationers from all corners of the globe who come to enjoy its blue waters, its white sands, and, most of all, its warm, sunny, and very peaceful days.