The campaign continues regarding the preservation and protection to establish a Maroon Territorial Park on the Northwest Quarter of St. Croix. This remote countryside is one of the most beautiful, historic, scenic landscapes with its rugged topography where slaves escaped for freedom in the once-dense tropical forest of the island.
Historically speaking, St. Croix was always a refuge for runaway slaves. Nevertheless, the earliest encounters of Europeans to St. Croix was in 1493 when Christopher Columbus and his 17-ship fleet anchored outside of Salt River Bay.
St. Croix was known by its indigenous people as Ay Ay or Cibuqueira and is probably the only island in the Caribbean archipelago with two native names of the Amerindians. When Columbus arrived at Salt River Bay, the area was well cultivated. The Spanish, with their appetite to conquer, exterminated the indigenous people of Ay Ay by the 1500s. However, the Spaniards never settled St. Croix but used the island for its natural resources such as harvesting timber, gathering fresh water from streams, and fishing.
In this fourth entry in the series of articles to educate the public about the protection of Maroon Country, it is important to know that establishing a Maroon Territorial Park in the northwest quadrant of St. Croix will be significant in honoring the lives and deaths of those enslaved Africans who set the stage for freedom in the Danish West Indies.
From the 1600s to 1848, runaway slaves had gone maroon and continued to flee from plantations on St. Croix. Before the Danes arrived in 1734, and after they purchased the island from France, there were maroons living on the island. These maroons were runaway slaves from other European nations that once occupied St. Croix such as the Dutch, English, and French.
In 1650, the French defended the Spanish and occupied St. Croix until they abandoned the island in 1696 for the newly acquired French colony of St. Domingue, later known as Haiti. During this period, the French plantations fell into ruins and forests gradually reclaimed the cultivated fields. Thus, for several decades, St. Croix was an uncolonized wilderness.
At the same time, the rich island timbers attracted impoverished English colonists from the British Virgin Islands along with their families and slaves. These colonists were living on St. Croix illegally because the island was still owned by the French. In 1734, when the Danes landed on St. Croix, they encountered 150 English settlers and some 200 enslaved Africans living on the island.
For example, in 1716, 20 slaves belonging to a French pirate ship anchored in Salt River Bay escaped into the forests. Likely those runaway slaves from St. John, St. Thomas, the British Virgin Islands, and Eastern Caribbean islands, they found their way to uninhabited St. Croix and joined or established maroon communities, the northwest being one of several refuges.
Planters like J.L. Carstens, who was born on St. Thomas in 1705, mentioned in his memoirs how runaways occupied the island’s coastal cliffs, where maroons found shelter in places where it would be difficult for them to be found. The northwest of St. Croix was an ideal location because of the steep cliffs, deep valleys, and rugged coastlines. The maroons chose well, with a keen strategic eye for cliffs, caves, and dense forests, especially along coastlines with high cliffs.
The cliffs on the northwest coast of St. Croix couldn’t be scaled from the seaward side, and vegetation obstructed the landward approaches. The northwest hills or mountains of St. Croix were the perfect environment for maroons thus, the name “Maroonberg” and “Maroon Hole” became well known throughout the Danish West Indies for runaway slaves. As a result, the northwest of St. Croix was a place where maroons disappeared into thin air into caves, cliffs, dense tropical coastal forests, and mountainous slopes to hide.
C.G.A. Oldendorp, a Moravian missionary who visited St. Croix in 1767, described in his report that the northwest was an impenetrable forest. “They keep every approach safe by attempting carefully to conceal small, pointed stakes of poisoned wood so that the unwary pursuer might wound his foot on them and therefore be prevented from continuing the chase as a result of the unbearable pain,” he wrote.
In Gov. Frederik Moth’s reports of June 1735, the first governor of St. Croix reported seeing the fires of runaway slaves regularly in the northwest hills of St. Croix. The northwest of the island had become a major haven for runaway slaves due to the plantation expansion on St. Croix that removed the forest cover, planted of sugarcane, and established pastureland for livestock.
In 1746, Moth continued to report large number of maroons gathering in the northside mountains of the island. Intensification of maroon activity throughout St. Croix created fears of a general slave rebellion. As with Moth’s reports, Reimert Haagensen, a planter who lived on St. Croix in the 1750s, also noted that planter families on the island were fearful of their livelihood being ruined by runaway slaves, sometimes by groups of 20 or 25 in a single night.
As slaves began to seize boats by surprise attacks, they forced crews to sail to Puerto Rico for their freedom. As forest covering continued to decrease on St. Croix, runaway slaves were innovative in hiding in cane fields when cane stalks were high, mingling in towns and marketplaces of the island for food, and building canoes, some large enough to accommodate whole families to escape, mostly to Puerto Rico or other Caribbean islands.
In 1796, the first settlement was established in Wills and Annaly Bay watershed, indicating that maroon activity was diminishing. However, much of the northwest remains heavily jungle-like and forested. The caves and steep slopes where maroons hid in cliffs of “Maroon Country” became the last resort, until what is now known as Grand Marronage, or Maritime Maroons, where hundreds of slaves escaped to the sea to other islands.
Believe me, the runaway slaves paid the ultimate price for freedom. Therefore, it is only fitting to establish a park in their honor and in their name, “The Maroon Territorial Park of the Virgin Islands.”
– Olasee Davis is an Extension Professor/Extension Specialist in Natural Resources at the University of the Virgin Islands who writes about the culture, history, ecology and environment of the Virgin Islands when he is not leading hiking tours of the wild places and spaces of St. Croix and beyond.
Editor’s Note: The first column in this series, “Join the Call for a Maroon Territorial Park,” was published on June 17. The second, “St. Croix’s Northwest Quarter Worthy of World Heritage Status,” was published on July 6, and the third, “Our Maroon Ancestors Deserve A Sanctuary on St. Croix,” on July 18.