Caribbean History Conference Sparks Discussions About Family, Climate, and Slavery at UVI

In-person attendees listen intently to a presenter at the Inter-Island Connections in the Lesser Antilles Conference held at the University of the Virgin Islands on St. Thomas. (Source photo by Adisha Penn)

Thursday kicked off a three-day conference that unveiled the identity and cultural traditions of Caribbean people in the Lesser Antilles and how the Caribbean islands came to be what they are today.

Over the course of the discussions, the University of the Virgin Islands’ conference room buzzed with eager attendees who were each interested in learning more about their ancestry and the culture of the Caribbean.

The conference, Inter-island Connections in the Lesser Antilles: Family, Friends, and Institutions Across the Sea, analyzed connections amongst islands in the Lesser Antilles and how they have helped to shape the lives and institutions of today’s people and places. It was hosted by the Caribbean Genealogy Library, UVI, and the University of Copenhagen. In the first portion of the conference, speakers highlighted the connections that were made in the early Lesser Antilles.

In the second portion, speakers discussed the challenges of researching family history in the Lesser Antilles on a local and international level. Antillean family histories in the 19th and 20th centuries were discussed as well.

Gabrielle La Croix, a Ph.D. student at the University of Copenhagen, presented in-person on “Heyligers in Power,” focusing on Johannes Heyliger Pieterszoon. In her words, she analyzed “how he used his connections across the Atlantic.”

She analyzed his power in government, his influence in St. Eustatius, and whether his “colonial missions” were done in his own personal best interest or in the interest of the Dutch West India Company.

Later, Aspjoern Hellum, former director general at the Danish National Archives, presented “An Opportunity to Expand the Knowledge of Our History.” He addressed that though archives are not used frequently because they can be very difficult to use, it is important to create and preserve historical documents and even digitize them so that they can be accessed worldwide.

“The archives are much more important than the [historic] buildings. In the archives there are so many hidden treasures,” said Hellum.

During the last day of the conference, discussions were centered on foodways, survival, resistance, and migration in the Lesser Antilles and beyond.

St. Johnian, Cush Cuthbertson-Sewer, presented “Food, Farming, and Black Resistance in the Virgin Islands: 1733 & Food Sovereignty,” outlining the role of food and farming, its role in the 1733 slave revolt on St. John, and its relative connection today.

“I think focusing on 1733 we will be able to understand how the Virgin Island’s food system has changed, and use it as a case study to see how the effects of slavery and colonialism in the Virgin Islands, and as a theme across the Caribbean, persist in modern day food systems,” said Cuthbertson-Sewer.

Artist Jon Euwema, right, discusses the meaning behind his artwork. (Source photo by Adisha Penn)

Another presenter, Jon Euwema, used his artistic skills to highlight the influences that the U.S. Virgin Islands has had on the world and vice versa. His piece, “The Islands of Green and Gold,” is a culmination of 30 years of research. It presents lines of interconnection amongst islands and countries, which he highlighted as the “yellow brick road,” signifying the influence the V.I. has had on the world.

Artwork by Jon Euwema depicting the interconnectedness of the Virgin Islands, Caribbean, and the world. (Source photo by Adisha Penn)

Presenters spoke about political ties between Anguilla, St. Kitts, and Nevis, the effects of weather and droughts, Amerindian navigation, and more. There was intense feedback and a plethora of questions from audience members after each presentation. Some shared correlations to their own experiences living in the Caribbean and drew anecdotes to world events such as the Great Depression in the United States and labor revolts in Trinidad and other Caribbean islands that have affected the daily lives and ancestries of persons of the Caribbean diaspora.

“How did they police themselves?” “How did they maintain the borders of their community?” “Why did…?” “Where did you find…?” “Who was…?” “Why isn’t this being taught in our schools?,” were all questions asked by the audience.

Throughout the conference, presenters also shared their motives for their desire to explore history. From family ties to a search for answers to unanswered questions, presenters briefly detailed their subject matter with the attentive audience. They used online resources, archives, microfilm, books, letters, and more throughout their years of research to analyze family ties and historical facts.

Overall, trade, migration, language, religion, slavery, and natural barriers were discussed during the conference as mechanisms that have shaped the Lesser Antilles into what it is today.

Up to 100 members were present at various stages during the conference both online and in person. Video clips of the presentations will be made available to the public in the future.

For more information, reach out to the Caribbean Genealogy Library at

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