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HomeNewsLocal newsAn 1870s Glimpse of Crucian Christmas

An 1870s Glimpse of Crucian Christmas

A typical market day on St. Croix as reported in an 1870s magazine article. (Photo: Harper’s New Monthly Magazine via Cornell University)

Hours before roosters would start calling up the sun, packs of barefoot revelers paraded through St. Croix’s starlit streets behind an accordion, triangle, and drum. It was Christmas morning 1870 or 1871 and a reporter from the U.S. mainland was taking in the wonders of the Danish West Indies.

Mrs. S. B. Hynes’ article, published by Harper’s New Monthly Magazine sometime between December 1871 and May 1872, didn’t mention the names of the people she met nor the lyrics to their “shrill and monotonous refrain,” but the wonders she encountered, the peculiarities and spectacles, the unexpected joys and hassles, paint a world instantly familiar to modern Virgin Islands residents and visitors.

“When they think they have thus sufficiently exhibited themselves to admiring spectators, they adjourn to some house which they have hired …” Hynes reported, “… and there trip the fantastic and generally bare toe with an untiring energy, only equaled by the surprising length of time they are able to continue the exercise. They frequently march and dance for days together with scarcely any cessation, and instances have been known of deaths from mere exhaustion and fatigue.”

The report may veer away from pure fact at times, flirting with storybook color, such as these deaths from dancing too much. Maybe she did see a monkey in a window in Charlotte Amalie. Maybe the monkey was sitting by a parrot who cursed in Spanish. Maybe not. There’s no doubt she was bitten by mosquitos but her account is pretty dramatic:

“… [M]osquitoes swarmed the air, gnats and fleas afflicted us temporarily with St. Vitus’s dance, while bugs and beings for which we had no names made themselves personally acquainted with the sanitary conditions of our systems; we found roaches in our shoes, spiders in our hats, beetles in our sleeves; and in consequence of a wholesome dread of scorpions, with which friends at home had primed our minds, we had tarantula on the brain for two or three days, being on the continual look-out for these fearful creatures, until informed by natives that their proportions had been exaggerated to us, that in jury from them is not frequent, and, save in exceptional cases of predisposition of the blood, rarely fatal.”

In fairness, it’s a rare first-time visitor to the Caribbean who doesn’t complain about bugs. Haynes’ wide-eyed wonder makes her a fun tour guide in this time-machine article. A little research revealed Mrs. S. B. Hynes may have been Ellen Magalen Anderson, wife of railroad titan Samuel Burke Hynes. Like many of their era and station, the Hynes spent a lot of time worrying about their northern climate’s ill health effects. It’s a subject she visits in the article as well, praising the DWI and noting a steady flow of winter visitors.

Reading political winds in Washington D.C., Hynes even predicted the future flag change for the territory almost 50 years before Transfer Day. The Civil War was over and Secretary of State William H. Seward was looking to expand the union. In 1867, Seward orchestrated a deal with Russia to buy the entirety of Alaska for $7.2 million. They called it Seward’s folly at the time, not knowing the lands’ vast natural resources included gold and petroleum.

Seward also suggested buying the Danish West Indies, which might have prompted the magazine to commission Hynes’ report.

They left snowy New York aboard a “Brazilian mail steamer,” eventually landing on St. Thomas “at the wharf attached to Bonelli’s ‘European Hotel.”’ She describes the islands’ irregular hillsides, flagged and palm tree-lined pathways, and a good bit about the local inhabitants. Some of her language, overtly describing the different roles of Black and white Virgin Islanders, clangs off the modern ear.

“… [A]nd with her was another specimen of colored female, clad in a bright pink calico dress and yellow turban, with a long cigar in her mouth.” Later, she says white people don’t appear to fit as naturally into the scenery of the islands — but refers to the European descendants as “of the higher race.”

It’s pretty tame stuff for the era but can be jarring. She describes labor shortages brought about by the end of slavery and the high cost of importing workers. There was no way for her to know the Fireburn uprising was only a few years away.

Hynes ferried to St. Croix and found herself delighted with its Government House, abundance of fruits and flowers, and “superior roads, which are kept in excellent order and are the pride of the place.” It’s here she witnesses the Christmas morning partying.

A Three Kings Day celebration on St. Thomas as reported in an 1870s magazine article. (Photo courtesy of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine via Cornell University)

She visits Christiansted — known then commonly as Basin — and seems to really like Fredriksted. Everyone, regardless of skin color or social station, had a kind word as they passed, she said.

She notes the Danish soldier’s sad state — clad in suffocating wool uniforms — and is aghast to find the pharmacy stocks housewares, toys, and foodstuffs, not just drugs.

Again and again, she notes what areas are “clean and orderly” and what is “unsightly” or “shabby,” be it the natural flora or the manmade architecture of both islands, which even then she described as crumbling.

Then a peculiar feeling hatches in Mrs. S. B. Hynes. She seems to fall in love with the place.

“Much of man’s creation here is primitive, dilapidated, and dirty, but always picturesque, and marvelously suited to its special place in the landscape. Even where exposure, time, and decay have left their destroying marks, the tender grace of twining vines, starred with delicate blossoms, make ruin romantic, till a piece of broken and tottering wall, rough and stained, becomes, beneath its clustering parasites, an exquisite feature of the view for the gaze to dwell on with pleasure, and memory to recall as fair.”

When her winter in the Danish West Indies was done, Hynes found herself wistful. She’d come to know some of the intricacies of the islands’ complicated societal norms, passions, and peculiarities.

“After six months’ sojourn in the Danish West Indies we summed up the advantages and disadvantages, attractions and annoyances, of a winter’s residence there for strangers and invalids; to which we add, after some time has past, that the inconveniences and petty deprivations gradually fade from memory, and leave there only things of beauty to be a joy forever,” she wrote.

The writer is baffled why a pharmacy would also stock toys, linens, cups and plates. (Photo courtesy of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine via Cornell University)

She longed for books and high culture and modern conveniences unavailable in the far-flung Danish West Indies. She suffered from the heat and bugs and maybe a bit of boredom. But she came to know how hard it was to leave behind.

“You feel, which in the islands, as if you were buried from the world, and fret at the monotony of the days; but year by year, after you have come away, you will look back to those verdant hills, to those palm-bordered roads, to that purple and rosy sea, to those brilliant noons and beautiful nights, to the charming climate, with a yearning that is like a homesickness …”

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