Seven Flags : The History of St. Croix

PRE-COLUMBUS

Prior to, and less than a century after Columbus’ discovery, St. Croix was inhabited by two tribes of Indians: the Caribs and the Arawaks.  The Arawaks were generally considered to be a peaceful tribe while the Caribs were warring cannibals. The word “cannibal” is in tribute to their fierce nature for it is derived from the Spanish word for Carib or “carribales.” Washington Irving described the Caribs:

“The hair of these savages was long and coarse, their eyes were encircled with paint, so as to give them hideous expression. Bands of cotton were bound firmly above and below the muscular parts of the arms and legs, so as to cause them to swell to a disproportionate size.”

With such fearsome neighbors, the Arawaks were often forced to live on larger islands where they could retreat into the hills when attacked.

SPANISH

On November 14, 1493, Columbus made his first visit to “Ayay” (as the Indians called St. Croix) and renamed it Santa Cruz.  His reception by the Caribs gives testament to their violent character.  Upon anchoring at Salt River, a small boatload of Spaniards approached the shore and encountered a small canoe carrying four men and two women.  A battle ensued, which resulted from the Spaniards attempting to capture the natives.  One Carib and one Spaniard were killed. The remaining Caribs were taken prisoner.  This was the early beginning of what would soon be widely employed; slavery. In response to such conflict, Charles V of Spain declared that all Indians in the islands were enemies and should be eliminated.

A constant state of war existed between the Caribs and the Spaniards for nearly a century.  By 1596, the islands were  described as being wholly uninhabited.  St. Croix was not a major port for the Spanish — San Juan, Puerto Rico was far more important.  Due to Indian attacks, bad weather, and general poor luck, the Virgin Islands were unfortunately described as “the useless islands.”

DUTCH AND ENGLISH

The Dutch and English are grouped together for they settled the Virgin Islands almost simultaneously — sometime in the early 1600′s.  Each country settled a separate side of the island:  the Dutch settled the east end and the English the west.  Inevitably, conflict erupted, but the manner in which it did is interesting. According to the English:  the English Governor Brainsby was murdered by the Dutch Governor Capoen, while visiting Capoen in his house.  A newly appointed Dutch Governor tried to arbitrate with the English and was granted protection to travel to their side of the island.  Immediately upon arrival, he was seized and shot.  After numerous battles, the Dutch ended up abandoning the islands.  The English controlled St. Croix until 1650.  In that year the Spanish sent a fleet of 5 ships and 1,200 men to St. Croix from Puerto Rico and slaughtered everyone!  After only 15 years of domination, the English were ousted.  The Dutch made one foolhardy attempt to recapture St. Croix.  Assuming it to be abandoned, they sent two ships from St. Eustatius island.  The two vessels dropped anchor right in front of Fort Frederik and proceeded to land. Unknown to the Dutch, the Spanish had left 60 men to guard the fort.  The moment the landing boats reached shore, Spanish muskets killed all but ten men.

FRENCH

Later the same year, the French sent two vessels to capture St. Croix and succeeded.  The Spanish rule of St. Croix was over almost as soon as it had begun.  The French fared poorly during their first colonization attempt in 1651.  Of 300 colonists, two thirds and two governors died of illness during the first year.  Burning the local forest during the dry season was a common practice, supposedly to destroy what they suspected was the home of disease.

KNIGHTS OF MALTA

Ten years later the Governor of St. Kitts, De Poincy, bought St. Croix as his private estate and later deeded it to the Knights of Malta.  The Knight of Malta were not true knights in the medieval sense but were a religious group also known as the Order of St. John of Jerusalem.  The Order fared poorly and in general were considered to be rich young aristocrats who knew little about colonization.  In 1665, the French West Indian company bought the island from the Knights.  At last, St. Croix had proper management under its new Governor DuBois and flourished.  In short time the island had 90 plantations.  Crops included tobacco, cotton, sugar cane and indigo.  After DuBois? death, bad administration, drought and sickness ended what advances had been made.  From 1695 to 1733, St. Croix was considered abandoned.

DENMARK

In 1733, the French Government sold St. Croix to the Danish West India & Guinea Co. for approximately $150,000.  Shortly after this transaction, the Danes made a clever move by allowing immigrants of other nationalities to move in.  The result was rapid development as everyone from the Spanish Sephardic Jews to the Huguenots purchased the available plantations.  The English soon dominated the populations and English became the language spoken on the streets.  It was under Danish rule that the sugar plantations flourished.   On St. Croix, for over two centuries, sugar was king! To this day, the sugar plantations scattered around the island are visible.   Sugar was destined to success — the markets in Europe were huge, and sugar cane could only be grown in tropical zones.

One invention, however, made the sale of cane sugar in Europe an impossibility.  Between 1820 and 1840, the sugar beet became a feasible source of manufacturing sugar throughout Europe.  Since the sugar beet could be grown in Europe, it made no sense to send ships across the Atlantic for a product that could cheaply be produced in Europe’s native soil.  The impact of this new source of sugar was catastrophic to the local economy.  It’s result can be seen in the history of the slaves on the island.  Though the slaves were freed in 1848, the economic condition on the island was so bad that the former slaves rioted, resulting in the Fireburn of 1878 (In which the slaves rioted and burned much of Frederiksted and many plantations around the island.)

The last sugar harvest took place in 1966.  St. Croix’s economy then turned to the newly built oil refinery (Amerada Hess) and the alumina plant (VIALCO).  Since then, the economy has become more and more dependent upon tourism as a revenue source.

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

Denmark sold the Virgin Islands to the United States of America in 1917 for $25 million.  St. Croix is now a U.S. Territory, along with the other U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Thomas and St. John.  The island’s residents are U.S. citizens.

History page compiled by Frans Lawaetz.