U.S. Virgin Islands

December 5, 2006

A cooling ocean breeze climbed the hill, stirring the heavy, moist air. overhead the sky glittered with stars like sequins. I was in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where the beaches are perfect white powder, the water warm and radiantly turquoise, the mountains verdant and tropical (with a few arid patches thrown in for variety), and the history a rare – for the Caribbean – chapter in Danish rule.

Yet as I sat on the terrace of a hotel in St. Croix, listening to Jamaican reggae and soca from Trinidad, it was hard to see any lingering evidence of what had once been the Danish West Indies. The hotel staff itself seemed to be half from Texas and half from St. Kitts.

Almost 75 years earlier the United States had bought the then-Danish islands of St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John. Were there still any traces of Danish culture around me, I wondered?


Then I looked down at my table. There, like Prince Hamlet encountering the ghost of a Dane, I saw neatly wrapped pats of sweet, mild butter, each one imported from Denmark.

Even by the turbulent standards of the Caribbean, the U.S. Virgin Islands have had a complicated history. The Dutch, English, Spanish, French, and Knights of Malta all ruled here. But the Danes, in a smart business move,acquired the islands in the mid-18thcentury. The Danes were commerce-minded administrators, not settlers.

The Danish government never managed to induce its people to move to the colonies, although it attempted all kinds of devices to lure them. Nor did the Danes ever impose their language on the islands. There was always more English and Dutch spoken here than Danish. According to local St. Croix historian William Cissel, “You didn’t need Danish until you had to go to court. Then you had to hire a Danish-speaking lawyer to represent you.”


But a few words of Danish origin still do pop up in Virgin Islands English. For example, on St. John a great confusion is called a “pistarckle.” The word probably comes from spetakel, a Danish word with the same meaning. The streets on St. Croix and St. Thomas bear Danish names like Dronningens Gade, which is also marked in English – Queen Street. (Of course, few can read the names, and no one pronounces them correctly.) And not many people realize that Gift Hill in St. John is no gift at all. Gift is the Danish word for “poison.”

Increasingly, there has been talk of dropping the Danish names and simply using English equivalents, a disturbing prospect to those few Virgin Islanders for whom Danish heritage still means something. Enid Hansen Frederiksen was born in St. Thomas in 1920. Her father, a Dane, came to serve in the colonial guard; her mother was a mulatto from St. Thomas. Frederiksen’s Danish is limited to Glaedelig Jul – “Merry Christmas” – and a few other greetings, and she knows the Danish national anthem (though only in English). Nevertheless, she said, “I would be very hurt if they changed the names of the streets.”

Language aside, St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John still have the distinctly different characteristics that Danish naturalist A. S. ¿rsted noticed in 1856: “On flat and fertile St. Croix, we experience West Indian agriculture at its ultimate development; on St. Thomas, we find the characteristic lifestyle, the wealth and luxury which give the larger trading centers in the tropics their particular character¿. On St. John, however, we encounter a romantic little mountainous island retaining all the original beauty and lushness which distinguished small tropical islands.”


To appreciate the differences among the islands (and to gain a real understanding of pistarckle), you need to see them by car. Many American tourists avoid renting a vehicle, because cars in the USVI are driven on the left. To add to the confusion, drivers sit on the left (the curb side) as well, making passing something of a guessing game. (Some even hint this is all a plot by the taxi drivers to keep tourists afraid of driving by themselves.)

Driving is particularly exciting on St. John, where most rental vehicles have four-wheel drive, though no one really needs it on the island’s excellently maintained paved roads. I’ve seen hundreds of completely confused tourists, who have never piloted a jeep before, driving around twisting mountain roads on the wrong side. By some inexplicable miracle, there is no outstanding accident rate. Perhaps the ongoing pistarckle keeps drivers alert. In any case, all over the USVI the roads are good, the scenery is beautiful, and being lost is usually only a temporary condition.

St. Croix’s landscape ranges from arid, cactus-studded hills at the eastern tip (the rocky brown cliffs overlooking the Caribbean at East Point are technically the easternmost point in the U.S.) to the bright green rain forest in the northwestern corner. The forest still does not have the thick canopy it had before Hurricane Hugo tore through St. Croix on the night of September 17, 1989, but growth is coming back. The scars of that violent but natural pruning process can be seen in the broken trees that are sprouting young green shoots. In other ways the island has largely recovered. And people once again live on the slopes of the forest, harvesting fruit trees and selling tamarind juice or mauby, a drink made from tree bark, and wonderful dried mangos, bananas, and other fruits.


Between the arid east and the mountainous west are the flatlands that once supported thriving sugar and cotton plantations. Though the last sugar mill closed on St. Croix in the 1960s, there are the remains of 150 sugar-crushing windmills. (Only four such conical stone structures still stand on St. Thomas; five on St. John.) Some of the mills lend atmosphere to resorts, and some have been converted into homes or guest rooms, but many others are gutted and crumbling. To Crucians, the stone mill towers that stand on the highest bluff of every parcel of land are signposts to the island’s history. Though little agriculture remains, most of the 84-square-mile island is still identified by the names of the original estates.

If St. Thomas has less variety in its countryside than St. Croix, it has more natural beauty. Leaving Charlotte Amalie, with its well-sheltered deep-water harbor, you climb wonderfully lush mountains. The view from the crest reveals the blue Caribbean and not-too-distant bits of land. From thebeaches around the little village of Red Hook on the eastern end of the island, St. John and some of the British Virgins are visible on the horizon. One of the pleasures of this part of the Caribbean is that the islands are very close to each other, and there is a kind of lengthwise view through the archipelago. Islands appear like single mountains lining up irregularly at sea.

St. John, the smallest and most rugged of the islands, is still romantic, quiet, and, by design, undeveloped. The mountainous interior and white-sand beaches have been preserved as a national park.The remainder of the island is made up of two sleepy villages of one- and two-story houses shaded by palms. In Cruz Bay, the principal town, the regular arrival of the small ferries from St. Thomas is the major event of most days.

For most of their history, the danish West Indies had strong commercial ties to the United States. But it was the port at St. Thomas that attracted the most U.S. interest. The United States began overtures to buy it from the Danes in the 1860s. It was World War I that finally forced the sale. Fearing that Germany would set up a naval base at Charlotte Amalie, the United States offered to buy the three islands for $25 million – the highest per-square-mile price the U.S. has ever paid.

At the time of the transfer in 1917, less than a third of the white inhabitants of the islands were of Danish origin. One of those rare Danish Virgin Islanders still operates a working estate off Mahogany Road on St. Croix. Frits Lawaetz is a Crucian, born on the island in 1907, the son of Danes who had immigrated in the late 19th century to try their hand at West Indian farming. I found him living in temporary quarters by the windmill, while the last touches were being put on the restoration of his 18th-century Danish plantation home, which had been damaged by Hugo.

Lawaetz has been raising cattle in the Caribbean for more than 50 years and currently has 1,000 head on his mountain estate. He was sitting in a “planter’s chair,” a West Indian colonial invention with huge, flat mahogany arms that extend a yard past the chair, so that the occupant can put his feet up and lie back. In spite of his age and the loss of one leg in an accident decades ago, Lawaetz is a robust, vigorous, and gregarious man. He remembers Danish rule as strict and disciplined, which was a favorite theme of his when he served in the Virgin Islands senate in the 1950s.

Lawaetz did not see the transfer ceremony – when the red-and-white Danish flag was lowered and the Stars and Stripes raised – because his parents did not allow him to go to town. They were too upset. “When the Danish flag came down, the old people cried,” said Lawaetz, “but the young people cheered.”

He still speaks fluent Danish, although he never used it in St. Croix, except with his parents and in church, where it was required. “We resented it,” he said. “We thought we were Crucian, that we should call butter, ¿butter.’ Although his son, a Virgin Islands senator married to an Australian, does speaks some Danish, Lawaetz says, “When our generation goes, the Danish influence will be over.”

Lawaetz’ younger brother, Erik, 77, barely recalls the Danish time, though he does remember the hurricane of 1916 that knocked all the bananas to the ground and blew the tops off the royal palms on Centerline Road. Like his brother, Erik lives in a Danish-Crucian planter’s home, the St. Johns Estate. It was built in the late 1700s with thick walls, deep-set windows, and “tray ceilings” (shaped like an upside-down tray to help with ventilation). Erik has collected documents and photographs and is writing a book on the island’s history, trying to preserve vanishing memories. “Ten years ago you could find so many people,” he said. “A few years ago Frits said to me, ¿You and I, we’re the old timers now.'”

One of the strongest legacies of the Danes was in architecture and urban planning. “We are dying out,” said Frits Lawaetz, “but the architecture is forever.” On St. Croix there are two towns, Christiansted and Frederiksted, that were carefully laid out by Danish planners to serve as shipping ports for the sugar industry. Frederiksted, begun in 1752, remained small and even today maintains the feel of a colonial outpost, its quiet streets graced with thick-trunked old trees that shade passersby.

Christiansted, founded in 1735, was the capital when fortunes were being made in sugar. Its architecture reveals a sense of self-importance: There is a heavy, ocher-walled fort that was never used in battle. The port area is markedby massive buildings whose sturdy, columned arcades imitate a style that in Europe was used only in palaces and court towns. Here it served for downtown streetfronts. The arcades designed for European grandeur provide shade for shoppers in the Caribbean, and help make Christiansted a pleasant walking town, from its hilltops down to the colorful waterfront.

St. Thomas’s Charlotte Amalie, named after a Danish queen, has retained its commercial character. On the eastern side of this huge harbor is the West Indian Company dock built by the Danes for cargo, then converted early in the century into a coaling station. Today this is one of the busiest cruise ship ports in the world, servicing some 40 vessels every week. There are always two or three gleaming leviathans tied up at the dock, and often a few others waiting farther out, bigger and whiter than any building, dwarfing the yachts and almost everything else except the green mountains that flank the harbor.

Along the waterfront, warehouses with vaulted brick interiors and sturdy wooden doors on wrought-iron hinges now house shops that cater to shiploads of tourists. St. Thomas was one of the few free ports during the age of colonial monopolies, and Charlotte Amalie remains duty-free. Shopping here is a bit like strolling through a sprawling bazaar of liquor, watch, perfume, and brand-name clothing outlets. St. Thomas shopkeepers (as Crucians have been pointing out for more than a century) push hard. That is part of the commercial character of this port.

What the Crucians fail to mention – what seldom seems to be mentioned even by St. Thomians – is that Charlotte Amalie is a beautiful town. The architecture is a graceful assortment of public buildings, fortifications, and warehouses, as well as homes that range from humble tin-roofed Caribbean-style dwellings to aristocratic hillside houses.

A series of disastrous fires in the early 19th century led to the rebuilding of most of the city. As a result, there is a historical cohesion to the architecture, despite the wide range of influences.

I like to walk through town at five in the afternoon, in the buttery light of Caribbean dusk, when the hard-driving store owners are focused more on closing up than on a casual stroller. I start in the hilly western section, where the houses are West Indian – small square structures in bright colors with metal roofs. In the center of town the terrain flattens out and a number of buildings with ornate iron balconies face the street. There is a small market here, just a little shaded square where locally grown fruits and vegetables are sold. As the shopkeepers swing their huge doors shut, the narrow alleys resemble a 19th-century waterfront warehouse district once more.

Beyond this area the streets become steep again. Among the buildings with spectacular views and refreshing sea breezes are Hotel 1829 (built in that year) and The Mark St. Thomas, dating to 1785. An old synagogue perches partway up one hill – home to one of the few growing congregations in the Caribbean.

Historian and philanthropist Isidor Paiewonsky lives in a house built in 1820 that overlooks the harbor. Originally it belonged to Peter von Scholten, who later became the governor famous for emancipating the slaves of the Danish West Indies in 1848 (a deed for which he was recalled in disgrace to Denmark). So little value was placed on relics of Danish times that 50 years ago Paiewonsky was able to furnish his house with period mahogany pieces that he picked up from private owners and had refinished.

“My mind has never been clearer,” Paiewonsky, 82, insisted as he bustled around his home. He pointed out his antique maps and prints, including an original from ¿rsted’s book; the terrace garden pool where he swims his laps; the kitchen with the original wood-fueled stone oven. All the while he commented on Danish times (he remembers people crying as the Danish flag came down), the Jewish community in which he is active, local politics, problems of historic preservation.

There are only a few of the old Danish colonials left on St. Thomas. Palle Mylner, a tenth-generation St. Thomian, visits his great-grandmother’s grave in the Danish cemetery in Charlotte Amalie. The tombstones there had been deteriorating from age and vandalism, but recently this quiet, shady spot has been restored, and visitors can stroll between rows of stately mahogany trees and the occasional flame-red flamboyant. Some areas are decoratively chained off with antique cannon barrels as posts. In the spirit of Danish neutrality, cannons were long ago converted into fenceposts all over the island. The chains between cannons are anchor chains.

When Mylner was young, his father told him that Copenhagen had once demanded a full accounting of all the cannons deployed in the fort. Not wanting to reveal how the cannons were really being used, the governor claimed that a complete inventory would be impossible, because so many had been lost to the dread “West Indies cockroach.”

Mylner reminisced about the days when there was a social circle of Danish islanders. “We would visit the Lawaetzes on St. Croix and have moonlight scavenger hunts on horseback. Get a napkin the governor was using. Erik Lawaetz was famous for that kind of thing.”

To some, such as Enid Frederiksen, it is food that most vividly recalls Danish times. “We never ate conch, souse, callaloo, and all those things,” she said. Instead they drank hot cocoa, ate canned Danish hams, Danish cheeses, boiled fish balls, and asparagus pudding. Enid married a Crucian of Danish-Caribbean background, and they raised their children on Danish food as well.

Danish traditions have seeped into Virgin Islands cuisine, though it takes a bit of searching to recognize them. In the fall Crucians harvest guavaberries and preserve them in rum; the rich, fruity alcohol is served at Christmas time, like a traditional Danish Christmas drink. Gundy, a popular Crucian dish of marinated herring, is clearly of Danish origin, and kranse cake, an almond cake, is known on both St. Croix and St. Thomas. A dessert called red grout – a compote of guavas – recalls the Danish dish r¿dgr¿d, made from strawberries.

But the great gastronomic influence of the Danes comes back to butter. The Virgin Islands are the only place in the Caribbean where butter, usually found in more temperate climates, is important to the cuisine. Conch is a staple food throughout the region, but only in the Virgin Islands has it been traditionally served in butter sauce. “We ate butter. A lot of butter,” Fredericksen said. “Butter all the time.”

For a few Danes in the home country the Caribbean islands have always been a fascination. Nina York, who now lives on St. Croix and who translated ¿rsted’s writings into English, grew up with a dream of the Danish West Indies. Her father’s first vote as an adult was cast against selling the islands to the United States. (He was in the losing third of the Danish voters.)

In the mid-1980s a television movie about Governor von Scholten revived Danish interest in their former Caribbean colonies. The Danish West Indian Society now boasts some 1,300 members, many of whom enjoy lengthy stays in the islands, just as members of the Friends of Denmark Association in the islands often visit the northern mother country.

Danish-born Arne Jakobsen, who lives on St. John, was amazed at the popularity of Danes here, given their history as slaveholders and autocrats. “When I first came out here, I was very low key about being Danish, because I thought people wouldn’t like us.” To his surprise, he discovered, “There is a lot of goodwill, which is not fair, because we were not that nice.” Eventually, he changed his quiet approach and named his St. John business – which publishes tourism guides – Great Dane, Inc. “It’s fun being a Dane in an old Danish colony,” he said. “I can pronounce the street signs in St. Thomas right. Of course, no one understands what I am saying.”

In the mid-19th century Orsted wrote of Cruz Bay, on the western end of St. John: “It was once intended to build a town, but only a few houses are to be found.” That town is a little bigger now, but not much. In fact, St. John is no more populated now than it was roughly a century ago. In 1917 St. John held its own transfer ceremony two weeks late, because no one could find an American flag to raise.

St. John still has the feel of a forgotten spot in the tropics. At the rickety little wharf, passenger boats tie up to each other in a clump because the dock is too small. On the island itself, soft white-sand beaches fringe the mountains. This is the Virgin Island most often photographed for travel posters.

Much of St. John is a national park, with a convenient reef for snorkeling, and walking trails. One of the most pleasant hikes (and, at about two miles, one of the longest) drops 800 feet through thick vegetation. The path passes the ruins of a greathouse whose walls sprout with bromeliads and orchids, then flanks mysterious petroglyphs near a freshwater pool on the way to the remains of the Reef Bay sugar mill.

All over St. John are ruins of plantations overgrown by relentless tropical vegetation. There are traces of cobblestone roads that led from one estate to another, roads that were followed during one of the greatest uprisings in Caribbean history. In 1733 slaves seized the island and controlled it for six months, until French troops were called in.

Now the ruins are most of what is left of Danish influence on St. John. But a few other, less evident, traces linger on. When Arne Jakobsen watched a local group perform traditional St. John dances, he was surprised to hear, behind the African-style drumming, the melodies of songs that children learn in Denmark.

There are not many Danes left living on St. John. Jakobsen is one. There is another, and Jakobsen invited me to the remote home that he and his American wife are building in the mountains, to meet him – a tall, deep-voiced, fine-jowled Great Dane.


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