In this second part in a series exploring what is a gut in the Virgin Islands, I give you an understanding of the islands’ natural world, the pre-Columbian period, and the colonial history necessary to appreciate the wonder of nature in these beautiful islands. Before the first humans inhabited the Virgin Islands, the islands had extensive and luxuriant dense tropical forests with flowing streams, guts, small rivers, and springs, especially on St. Croix.
The lush green mountains, valleys, and hillsides literally touched the coastlines with mangrove forests and inlet bays surrounding the archipelago of the Virgin Islands. Believe me, these islands were a tropical paradise in their virgin state. At this stage of the islands’ geological development some millions of years ago — according to geologists — streams, guts, and small rivers flowed constantly, depositing fresh water into the Virgin Islands’ coastal environments.
Historically, manatees are an indicator of the islands’ intact environment due to their liking of fresh and brackish water habitats and abundant sea grass beds for grazing grounds surrounding the Virgin Islands coastal ecosystem. Manatees are also known locally as sea cow. Have you ever heard the folklore story about a manatee in Tortola?
According to my late grandmother Carmelita Hodge Industrious, a sea cow (manatee) from the ocean lost its calf. As a result of losing its calf, the sea cow came up on land and beat up a cow on land. That cow’s calf was taken back to the sea; thus, the bay was called Sea Cows Bay. The closest sea cow in this region of the Virgin Islands archipelago is on the island of Puerto Rico where they can still be found. These animals no longer live in the waters of the Virgin Islands due to the changes wrought by mostly human impacts on the environment.
According to archaeologists, Amerindians from several culturally distinct groups were the first inhabitants of the Virgin Islands dating back for millennia. At different periods in Caribbean history, distinct groups of Amerindians migrated from the Orinoco Delta in South America beginning around 5000 BC. This migration continued for several decades northward and westward through the Lesser Antilles, until they arrived in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico by 2000 BC. There are historical records documenting where indigenous people sailed up a river on the southwest side of St. Croix in canoes.
The indigenous people took the river route, which went through what is known today as Estate Enfield Green, Estate Diamond, and up to Estate St. Georges. In fact, Estate St. Georges Gut was once a small river that flowed to the south shores of St. Croix. Furthermore, there is a pre-Columbian site at Estate St. Georges Village Botanical Garden that dates back to 2000 BC. The Salt River Bay is another pre-Columbian site of indigenous people that lived as far back as the second millennium before the common era of European contact to the so-called New World.
There were Africans in the waters of the Caribbean before the first Europeans explored the Western Hemisphere. Christopher Columbus himself said in his journal, “Black skinned people had come from the south-east in boats, trading in gold tipped spears.” It was the indigenous people of Hispaniola that told Columbus about the Africans trading with them. When Columbus anchored off Salt River Bay’s west coast with his 17 ships, including the Nina, on his second voyage in 1493, Salt River was the main river on the northeast coast of St. Croix.
It was there where Columbus sent 25 men into Salt River Bay, including a Black man, ashore in a longboat to search for fresh water. Today, Salt River is no longer a river but an ephemeral stream that feeds the estuary. In fact, the indigenous people called St. Croix “Ay Ay,” which means The River. Listen to what the late naturalist George A. Seaman said about the fresh water at Concordia Gut that feeds into Salt River estuary: “Concordia gut, one of the richest fresh water streams on the island, and the only place I ever saw Tree Ferns growing on St. Croix, was a paradise I often roamed,” noted Seaman.
Believe me, to really understand what happens to the streams, guts, and rivers of the Virgin Islands, is to seek the traditional knowledge of the natural world that has died with the older people or by those who passed on the oral history and have written it down, like Seaman, and colonialists of these islands. “We were returning from one of our small expeditions by way of Salt River and Concordia. In those halcyon days the guts on St. Croix ran perennially and one of the finest of these was the Concordia gut. There was a stone water mill tower by this gut and as we came along with our old horse and phaeton there were about half a dozen of the most beautiful white herons I had ever seen feeding around its base,” noted Seaman.
Today, the water tower that Seaman spoke about still is standing, marking the glorious years when guts ran in the Virgin Islands 365 days of the year. When you read what Seaman wrote, your imagination runs wild thinking of how beautiful these Virgin Islands must have been with such natural splendor. Nevertheless, these early Amerindians lived a subsistence existence within the island’s forests and marine ecosystems and were in isolation over a period of centuries. According to historians, the Ortoiroid people, one of the first Amerindians, practiced no cultivation of any substance.
However, they lived off the island’s abundance of sea life such as fish, crustaceans, and mollusks, as well as from the island’s forests and wild native fruits. Before Columbus arrived to Salt River Bay on Nov. 14, 1493, there were other groups of Amerindians who migrated into the Caribbean waters from South America, introducing pottery and practicing horticulture, particularly the cultivation of cassava and tobacco. Columbus mentioned in his log how beautiful the cultivations were on the hillsides of Salt River Bay.
This was the time when the Virgin islands’ native forests were cleared to some extent for agriculture and marine organisms were fished for food. Nonetheless, the island’s native forest remained mostly intact along with its streams, small rivers, and guts as agriculture was practiced by the native population who lived for the most part in harmony with the forests and marine environment.
Don’t go any place, I will pick up from where I left off next time.
Editors’s Note: Read Part 1 of this series here.
— Olasee Davis is a bush professor who lectures and 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.