I Dream of Islands, Day 1
Given the spring rain and winds still hammering the Hudson Valley of New York, I find myself lapsing into non-stop daydreaming about living life in one tropical paradise or another, as a variety of my very smart friends do. Specifically I’ve been letting my mind wander to the Caribbean, which I don’t know all that well – silly, given that many of its islands are a solitary non-stop away – and specifically to St. John, where I’ve been just twice. Looking out the window at storm-whipped skies, I’m imagining instead the trees overlooking Little Maho Bay, which are filled every morning with sizable iguanas, napping and munching.
It’s just twenty square miles around, smaller than the Dallas Fort Worth airport or the island of Manhattan. Originally home to Arawak, Carib and Taino Indians today the volcanic knob is home to 4,500 who share 39 beaches and scores of trails carved through jungle forests, mangrove swamps and scrubby, cactus-dotted hills with a million tourists each year. Two-thirds of the island is officially national park thanks to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s signature on Public Law 925, establishing it on August 2, 1956.
(Which had nothing to do with the naming of the trio of islands that comprise the USVI – St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John. Why Virgin Islands, anyway? One theory has them named in 1493 by Christopher Columbus, inspired by the unspoiled-ness of the place, after the legend of St. Ursula, the 14th century British princess and Christian who along with 11,000 virgins suffered martyrdom at the hands of the Huns. Others theorize they were named by Sir Francis Drake, who sailed through in 1595, and dubbed them for Queen Elizabeth, known as the Virgin Queen.)
Prior to the U.S. buying the three islands from Denmark in 1917 (for a mere $24 million), Europeans had been here for a couple centuries (what happened to the Taino is another mystery; they had lived here for nearly 1,000 years but when Columbus sailed by he reported no human population). In the 1700s the Dutch and Danish built big sugar cane plantations on the islands, using Danish prisoners to do the work. When they suffered from disease and conditions and died, the landowners began the import of slaves from Africa. By 1733 there were more than 1,000 slaves working more than 100 plantations working on St. John alone, a scenario that continued despite a couple revolts until slavery was discontinued in 1848.
The American’s initial idea was to use them for a military base. But in the 1930s St. John was already being considered in some circles as a future national park. World wars slowed the official process. By 1950 the human population had fallen to less than 1,000 and 85 percent of the land had reverted to bush and second growth tropical forest when Laurence Rockefeller bought half of St. John and quickly deeded it to the park system. Today the USVI National Park owns 52 percent of the island, including 7,200 acres above ground and another 5,600 acres of underwater marine sanctuary. Thanks to its parkland status St. John is without question the wildest of all Caribbean islands, its natural life closest to what it was like 600 years ago when Columbus first sailed past.
(Daydreaming to continue tomorrow, or until the rain stops.)