Let History Not Go to Ruins

Posted on: Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008
Posted in: Travelog, 1st Stop: St. John, Latest Trip | 2 comments

Annaberg Plantation ruins rock.  The National Park Service has a big challenge maintaining all their holdings, but they’ve kept this treasure from going to ruin.  With a view of the Sir Francis Drake Channel (great sailing!) and Tortolla (great daytrip!), there’s a lot to go right.  Today was a treat for the camera.  Beaches and vistas offer not so much to focus on.  But here?  A sea of plenty.

Annaberg Sugar Ruins: A sweet slice of history.

T’was a pleasure to be here on BreakAway, on a more leisurely pace.  Rather than rushing through this requisite stop, we were able to wander, ponder, and linger.  What a great day for home-schooling.  This temporary teacher was able to mostly shut up and let the sights and stories speak for themselves.  

For about 100 years until 1848, this island grew tons of sugar cane on 75% of its land.  That fact is hard to digest–because the terrain here is rough, rocky, and steep.  But even harder to ponder is that the peak population then was shy of 2,500.  1,000 Danes, and 2,500 slaves.  Clearly, everybody worked long and hard and in nasty conditions.  

A Rocky Proposition:  Faraway Farming on Precipitous Mountains

When the bottom fell out for their crops–most of which had been shipped back to Europe–they shut down the sugar mills and freed the slaves.  Most Danes went back home, but some stayed on in what was then called “The Danish West Indies,” and have generations still here.  Heck, there were Danish-speaking visitors touring the site on this day.  

Walls with stone, coral, and shells remain popular.

Since my own lineage is 50% Danish, I enjoy getting in touch with this rare heritage connection.  The streets and sites still host Dane names; “bergs” and “steds” are everywhere.  Heck, even the native patois still holds Danish language and lilt–along with African, English, and more.  As local leader and legend (now 90-something), Guy Benjamin, once said to me with a smile, “We were Danes here once too, you know!”

As for the slaves, most were given a piece of land, and most stayed.  Many descendants still live here, are regarded as the native settlers, and hold what are now sometimes valuable expanses of property.  Some post-slavery anger and edge carries on, to be sure.  But the vast majority are kind, proud folks.  Their traditions live on in the schools, churches, festivals, and daily life.  

It's impossible to envision farming by hand here.

St. John Becomes a National Park

Although there’s virtually no farming today, at least 75% of the land remains natural and raw–thanks to the Rockefeller family.  They bought up that land from Denmark, saved one pristine, rare flat slice (with seven small beaches) to create the famous “Rock Resort,” Caneel Bay.  Then, in 1956, they gave the rest to the U.S. National Parks.  We can’t thank them enough.  

That pristine treasure is what makes this island so singular.  Most beaches are public with NO development.  There are only two resorts and just a handful of condos.  You can find groomed hikes, decent facilities, and even an underwater snorkel trail.  Best of all, you can find countless places and be completely alone in untouched Caribbean wilderness.  

Like this purple succulent plant, the past lives on...

Dozens of ruins are still diligently maintained throughout St. John.  But Annaberg is the largest, most popular, and most storied.  A trip there helps put the puzzles of the past together, while also providing breathtaking beauty, awe, and perhaps a few ghosts.

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2 Responses to “Let History Not Go to Ruins”

  1. Doug Powell Says:

    Hey Kirk! Site looks terrific…congrats. I’m trying to follow along with the blog entries–have there been any since 12/23? I’m not seeing them here. Keep it coming and enjoy the sun (it’s rather chilly here as you can guess).


  2. John Bushrod Says:

    Thanks for this compelling post. I am keen to see more on this topic sometime soon. Thanks again

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