Nothing has influenced the history of the Virgin Islands more profoundly than their geography and physical makeup. Situated at the high point of the curving archipelago that swings from Trinidad to Florida, they survey strategically all of the Americas, and, with their steady trade winds and numerous sheltered harbours, it is not surprising that they rapidly became a centre for sea routes to every point of the compass, providing a welcome pause in the lengthy trade lines between Europe and the riches of South and Central America. Haying been described as "the place on the way to everywhere," they have long been desirable for both trading and military advantage, from the days when Spaniards sailed through carrying Aztec loot to Spain until this century when the United States paid $25 million to buy the USVI from Denmark in order to forestall any unfriendly foreign power from parking on her doorstep.
Sailors and sailing have therefore been at the core of Virgin Islands history from ihe moment the first Ciboney Indians brought their Stone Age canoes from the Americas to drift nomadically through the Antilles, living off the land and the sea.
The Ciboneys were followed from South America a hundred years or so B.C. by the more down-to-eanh Arawaks, who settled throughout the Virgin Islands, cultivated the land, made attractive pottery and ornaments (which can still be found) and maintained a strictly hereditary society. The Arawaks believed that their souls were not only in their bodies but also in trees, rocks and other natural phenomena, and constructed idols called "zemis," carving three-cornered stones in the shape of grotesque human beings, birds or natural forms, which they believed could influence crops and weather. They painted their bodies for ceremonies, grew their hair long and flattened the fronts of their childrens' heads to make them more beautiful.
The Arawaks dominated the islands for many years and, even now, we still use
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some of their words: tobacco, barbecue, potato, hurricane and cannibal.
This last referred to the warlike Carib Indians who, about 100 years before Columbus arrived, pillaged their way up from South America like New World Vikings in e normous dug-out canoes. The Caribs were much like the Arawaks and Ciboneys in ipearance — medium height, high cheek bones, flat noses and straight, black hair. Unlike the Arawaks they plucked their beards, considering them a deformity. They thttened the fronts and backs of their nldren's heads to make them beautiful, and scarred and painted their own bodies, presumably toward a similar goal.
The Caribs, quite unlike the Arawaks in temperament, were fierce and aggressive, terrorizing the entire Caribbean with their warlike behaviour. A spartan bunch, they kept on the move, raiding the Arawak settlements, stealing their women and capturing the young boys to be emasculated, fattened and eaten. They thought nothing of piling 100 men into an 80-foot dug-out canoe to traverse 1,000 miles in search of battle and plunder. Their social hierarchy was loose, their leaders chosen according to fighting ability rather than ancestry.
Caribs believed that good spirits were invisible except at night, when they took the form of bats; so each Carib had a bat for his persona] deity, to whom he would make offerings of cassava bread and fruit to ensure healthy crops and continued well-being. Like the Arawaks, the Caribs practiced euthanasia to rid themselves of the old and infirm, and blamed most unpleasant occurrences—hurricanes, earthquakes or sickness—on evil spirits.
Columbus discovered the Virgin Islands in 1493 on his second voyage to the New World. He anchored off Salt River Bay in St. Croix for fresh water and then was driven by unfavourable winds to Virgin Gorda. Seeing the numerous islands, he named them "the Virgins" in honour of St. Ursula and the 11,000 virgins who, threatened by the marauding Huns in 4th-century Cologne, sacrificed their lives rather than submit to a fate worse than death. Virgin Gorda got its name (fat virgin) because Columbus, viewing it from seaward, thought that it resembled a reclining woman with a protruding belly.
The Spaniards, whose nation was the most powerful in Europe at this time, had laid claim to the West Indies as they had in their discovery of the Americas. They began to settle in various places throughout the islands to provide stop-over points for their ships carrying spoils from Central and South America to the mother country.
By this time the Caribs had more or less absorbed and digested the Arawaks, either physically or socially, and were thrilled to have new prey to harass, different coloured women to steal and a different flavour of
enemy to fight. The staunchly Catholic Spaniards, right-wing products of the Inquisition's rule, were more than a little horrified at the Caribs' dietary preferences and, by the mid-1500s, had given up any hopes of missionary conversion.
Emperor Charles V ordered that the Indians "should be treated as enemies and given no quarter." Nevertheless, as late as 1620 the Caribs were still raiding mercilessly up and down the Caribbean.
Nor did this fierce tribe confine themselves to settlements. They can truly be described as the first pirates of the Caribbean—the first of many to prey upon the Spanish galleons. They were soon followed in this practice by several European nations who, afraid to challenge Spain directly, gave unofficial backing, in the form of letters of marque, to private enterprise to indulge in smuggling, piracy and the harassment of Spanish settlements.
This combination of privateering and piracy (the distinction between the two wearing very thin at times) was to continue for several hundred years. A vast array of colourful and bizarre characters paused in the Virgin Islands, among them the well-known pirate Henry Morgan and the legendary Sir John Hawkins, who visited the area four times. On his last voyage in 1595 Hawkins sailed with Sir Francis Drake to attack Puerto Rico, the two fleets apparently reconnoitering for a few days in the North Sound of Virgin Gorda to muster their men and prepare for battle.
It was a fateful trip for both of them: Hawkins sickened and died of the fever that was the scourge of the tropics; Drake, himself, after a failed assault on the heavy fortifications of San Juan, soon followed suit.
As the power of Spain waned, other countries began to colonize the Westlndies more seriously, although piracy continued for a while, the struggling settlers being happy to trade their agricultural produce and materials for a share of the Spanish gold. The Virgin Islands went through a lengthy period of "musical colonies" with the English, French, Dutch, Spanish and Danish moving from one island to another, shoving previous settlers on to the next, squabbling amongst themselves in Europe and, as a result, warring in the West Indies.
Eventually, however, the treasures from America dried up and the process of colonization gradually steadied. The Danes formally took possession of St. Thomas and, later, St. John; the English ousted the Dutch and gained a firm foothold in Tortola and Virgin Gorda; and the French settled in St. Croix but later sold it to the Danish West India Company.
The Spaniards continued to raid occasionally from their strongholds in Puerto Rico and Hispaniola through the late 1600s and piracy flared up intermittently in the early 1700s.
Considerable cleaning up and law enforcement took place as the casual farming that had begun, merely in order to colonize the islands and break the Spanish monopoly, gave way to serious plantations which, unsubsidized by stolen Spanish gold, needed to trade at a steady profit.
Following the example of the original Spanish settlers, early plantation owners brought slaves from Africa. When the introduction of sugar cane production in the 1640s required a large, cheap and stable labour force, the number of slaves began to increase. For some time the colonies thrived. Sugar and cotton were valuable commodities and the plantations diversified into the production of indigo, spices, rum, maize, pineapples, yams and coconuts. In 1717 the first census taken in Virgin Gorda showed a population of 625, about half of whom were black. By the mid-1700s this population had grown to nearly 2,000 and the proportion of slaves throughout the Virgin Islands had increased dramatically.
Life on the plantations was extremely hard for the slaves and, as their majority on the islands increased, so did the restrictions on them and the severity of the punishments meted out to them for the breaking of these. Conflict over the slave trade was increasing; it had been outlawed in England in 1772 and the impetus for its abolition was growing.
The obstacles to plantation life increased, several hurricanes and droughts ravaged the islands, and the American Revolution and Napoleonic wars created a revival of enemy raids, piracy and fighting within the islands. The slaves suffered asaresultand, as news of abolition elsewhere began to filter through to the West Indies, they began to make use of their by now considerable majority to rebel.
The slave rebellions coincided, more or less, with the introduction of the sugar beet in Europe, which dealt a fatal blow to the once great "trade-triangle" based on West Indian cane. By the mid-1800s the slaves were free and the white population had deserted the colonies.
For almost 100 years the Virgin Islands dozed peacefully, the freed slaves living quietly off the land and sea, though with some difficulty in years of drought and famine. Government was minimal: In 1893, for example, there were only two white men in the B.V.I.—the Deputy Governor and the doctor.
The islands struggled on with tottering economies. Virgin Gorda was visited briefly by Cornish miners who reopened the old Spanish mine in search of copper. An earthquake leveled all the churches in Tortolaand the H.M.S. Rhone was wrecked off Salt Island. As late as 1869 the steamship Telegrafo was detained in Tortola and charged with piracy. Labour riots and rebellions occasionally protested the hardships. The United States began to show an interest in buying the Danish islands, afraid that they would be sold to a hostile nation such as Germany.
The islands moved into the 20th century without much change. An agricultural station was established in Tortola in 1900 in hopes of boosting the faltering economy, various homestead projects were begun throughout the island with little effect and the parent governments of each colony were forced to accept financial responsibility for the islands, which were fast becoming a liability.
The first world was tightening the purse strings further, and by 1917 the Danes were happy to sell their Virgin Islands to the United States, which was eager to have a military outpost in the Caribbean. St. Thomas had long been a useful coaling station and harbour for steamships and was well positioned to defend the approaches to the Panama Canal.
Over the first half of the 20th century there was gradual social reform and progress towards local government. This process began to speed up as the tourist trade, boosted by the increasing ease of casual travel, began to grow.
Finally the geography and physical advantages of the islands began once more to have a major influence on their fortunes. Situated conveniently close to the United States and blessed with a warm climate and a beautiful, unspoilt environment, the Virgin Islands rapidly became popular with tourists. At last, here was an industry which needed only the natural resources of the islands to sustain their economies.
Now stable, friendly places, the Virgin Islands are once more visited by colourful characters from all over the world. Some just sail through nomadically, like the long-departed Ciboney s; others, like the Arawaks, stay to build homes and businesses.
There is still the occasional pirate, although they are more usually found on land these days, and privateering has yet to be revived—unless one applies this label to the tax department.
With the charter industry becoming the backbone of the islands, particularly in the B VI, sailors continue to make use of one of the finest sailing areas in the world. The quiet coves where Drake, Columbus and Blackbeard used to anchor are once more havens for fleets of sailing vessels and the modern adventurers who come to explore the Virgin Islands.
Qt is just as well that there are no longer any pirates in the Virgin Islands. Imagine yourself reclining in the cockpit of the yacht after a difficult hour trying to make the anchor stay put. The pina colada is nice and cold. The kids' yelling has receded into the distance as they explore the shoreline, collecting sea urchin spines in their feet. Your wife is perfecting her suntan on the foredeck and the other couple, who used to be your oldest friends until you decided to charter a yacht together, are arguing through clenched teeth in the galley. A perfect vacation in the Caribbean.
Then, as the sun begins to sink towards the horizon, a small sloop veers into the cove you thought you had to yourselves. An anchor splashes overboard and, before you have finished spraying your ankles with insect repellent, a horde of. noisy, unshaven thugs row across to your boat and, without so much as a by-your-leave, swarm on deck, empty your wallet, your liquor cabinet and your fridge, and steal your camera and your wife.
It wouldn't do much for the charter business.
Although piracy is no longer a popular pastime in the VI, it is really not , that long since it was the rage throughout the Caribbean. In the early 1700s, a sympathetic governor in St. Thomas was still fencing /. goods for pirates like Charles Vane and Edward Teach (the legendary Blackbeard), and as late as 1869 the steamship Telegrafo was detained in Tortola and charged with piracy.
Nor is there anything new about sailors dabbling in "the sweet trade." As long as men have transported anything of value across the ocean, there have been others willing to relieve them of it. Even the Bible speaks of "princes of the sea." Julius Caesar had first-hand experience of these— he was kidnapped and held for ransom by them, and his invasion of Britain was partly in order to subdue the Veneti pirata and their British crews. For several hundred years the Vikings made annual raids along the coasts of Western Europe, and in the Middle Ages, as trade and travel bv sea expanded, piracy got underway with a vengeance.
"Privateering" also came into vogue at this time. A pirate called Eustace The Monk, who was believed to have black magic powers, did well plundering French ships on behalf of England's King John. Privateering was basically government-sponsored piracy—tacit approval given to raids on the ships of potential enemies. Privately owned vessels manned by civilians were commissioned with "letters of marque" as auxiliaries to the Royal Navy. They were used mainly against merchant shipping and were actively encouraged by monarchs in times of war or hostility. (As the 16th and early 17th centuries saw Europe in a fairly constant state of turmoil, this meant that they were encouraged most of the time.) Since a healthy percentage of the "purchase" went to the Crown, there was an added incentive for Royalty to turn a blind eye to the often extreme actions of the privateers and a deaf ear to the whining and complaining of the Ambassadors from semi-hostile nations.
A prime example of this sanctioning of successful piracy was, of course, the way in which Queen Elizabeth I dealt with Sir Francis Drake. His famous round-the-world voyage actually evolved from a plan to raid the Spanish-American towns along the Pacific coast during an interval when England was theoretically at peace with Spain. However, when he returned with a treasure worth at least $5 million, the Virgin Queen boarded his ship, the Golden Hind, ignoring the Spanishdemands that "El Draque"be hanged, and knighted him instead. This led Sir Walter Raleigh to make the (still pertinent) comment, "Did you ever know of any that were pirates for millions? They only that work for small things are pirates."
Having laid claim to all of the Americas and the West Indies, Spain was the most powerful nation in the world at this time. Other nations, though afraid to challenge the monopoly directly, were happy to see pirates siphoning off funds intended for the Spanish Reformation by intercepting the treasure ships loaded with Aztec gold. The increasing number of privateers also provided a handy pool of trained sailors who could be called upon in times of outright conflict.
Numerous ex-pirates played an important role in the eventual defeat of the Spanish Armada. In times of covert hostility they could go back to being privateers (the "legality" made visiting ports for supplies easier), and in the infrequent and uneasy intervals of peace they resorted to plain piracy—their status was largely dependent upon the diplomatic label given to it at the time.
In reality their lives changed very little. If pressganged into the Navy they could expect long voyages, harsh discipline, vile food and a good chance of an early demise—all for a pathetic pittance which would be cut off abruptly in peacetime. As pirates, their conditions at sea were little better but were offset by a freer democratic lifestyle, a similar chance of survival and the possibility of vast financial reward. As Bartholomew Roberts, one of the most successful pirates of the early 18th century, commented, "In an honest service there is thin rations, low wages and hard labor; in this, plenty and satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power; and who would not balance creditor on this side, when all the hazard that is run for it, at worst, is only a sour look or two at choking. No, 'a merry life and a short one' shall be my motto."
The defeat of the Armada intensified the harassment of Spanish merchant ships and allowed English, French and Dutch colonies to germinate in the now undefended West Indies.
Some of the first colonists were the itinerant French boucaniers who settled on Hispaniola.
They made a meager living barbecuing beef in smokehouses called boucans and selling it to passing vessels. Foolishly the Spaniards drove them off the island; in revenge they took to the sea where, instead of hunting wild cattle, they went after Spanish ships instead.
"Buccaneer" became a new and fearful ierm for "pirate," and their ranks swelled as out of work naval crews drifted to the new world. New colonies struggling desperately to gain a foothold were a willing market for plundered goods. The governors of these new settlements gained a 10% commission for issuing letters of marque to privateers and, as a result, Jamaica's Port Royal became one of the richest [owns in the hemisphere because of pirate gold. It also became known as "the wickedest city in the world," but it was largely due to the I ransient population of fighting sailors that the British were able to keep Jamaica. As late as 1774, historian Edward Long wrote, "It is to the buccaneers that we owe possession of Jamaica to this hour."
So the pirates were a vital part of the colonization of the West Indies. Henry Morgan, for example, dealt terrible blows to Spanish dominance when he attacked Spanish shipping, ransomed Puerto de Principe in Cuba, assaulted Porto Bello and burned Panama City to the ground. Despite a new treaty with Spain, neither Morgan nor the governor who issued the commission was ever punished, possibly because of the shares received by the King and his brother, the Duke of York.
U. p.! he Spanish meted out their own pun-I ishment if they caught pirates or 4JL privateers. They made no distinction between the two except that privateers were sent to the gallows with their commissions tied around their necks. Hanging was the usual end for captured pirates, although, if they were unlucky enough to fall into the hands of the Inquisition, they might receive a more drawn-out demise on the rack.
Some of the evil vermin who gravitated to a life of piracy were very capable of perpetrating their own unique atrocities. Most pirates had a weakness for "rumbullion" and in their cups would often torment their prisoners for entertainment. Blackbeard was said to have made one victim eat his own nose and lips; another Englishman named Thomas Cobham sewed 20 Spaniards up in a mainsail and threw _the whole squirming package overboard.
"Going on the account" was the term used when a man signed up for a career in piracy; this basically meant "no prey, no pay," but all the crew were / shareholders in the "company" and part owners of the ship. The company typi-^'cally began with a very modest vessel— some of the early buccaneers used dug-out canoes—but after a few killings on the market, they would generally acquire more suitable headquarters.
The ideal pirate vessel was small and fast. Bermudan sloops were felt to be ideal because of their speed (over 11 knots) and maneuverability, and could carry up to 75 men. A bigger company might go for a brigantine, a two-masted vessel that could carry either a square or fore-and-aft ng or a
versatile combination of the two.
This was often how pirates made their assaults, sneaking out from the coast in poor light to spring upon a sluggish merchantman. The Virgin Islands made an excellent hunting ground with their myriad coves and passages. Situated right on the treasure route from South America to Europe, the area was visited by many notorious Caribbean pirates such as Edward England, whose kind treatment of prisoners so disgusted his crew that he was deposed; Charles Vane, who Defoe reported, "died in Agonies equal to his Villainies but showed not the least Remorse for the Crimes of his past life"; Calico Jack, well known for his romance with lady pirate Anne Bonny; Bartholomew Roberts, who became one of the greatest pirates of all "for the love of novelty and change alone"; and the formidable Blackbeard, who would go into battle with slow-burning matches alight in his beard and behind his ears to enhance his devilish resemblance.
By the early 18th century, competition for prizes in the Caribbean was strong. A
treaty in 1713 allowed the Navy time to begin protecting merchant shipping (for a price that was almost robbery in itself).
As the colonies in the island began to stabilize, law and order made the pirates less welcome as members of the community. Many of them set off for the North American mainland, where the newer colonists, already muttering about Independence, were quite pleased to help the newcomers harass British shipping magnates. Others headed for the Orient, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean and Madagascar.
Since then piracy has continued to flourish in the Far East, but has been quelled fairly effectively in the West.
Smuggling, however, is another matter— recent years have seen a resurgence in the "sweet trade."
The traditions haven't changed much; seaport bars still abound with tales of sailors sneaking around dark shores in small, fast boats, dodging the authorities, sending coded messages at dead of night and risking life and liberty for high stakes.
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