Virgin Island Saver

Virgin Island Saver

Virgin Island Saver

Historic Military Fort Christian in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands
(If you aren’t interested in reading about some history, you can skip to the last section.)

The oldest and most formidable structure in St. Thomas is Fort Christian.  Named after the Danish King at the time King Christian V, it is also one of the oldest buildings in the United States. 

This red monstrosity sits just across the street from Charlotte Amalie Harbour – the fortress-like walls imposing themselves upon the downtown landscape.

 

Early History of The Fort

Right around the 1670s the Danish staked their claim on the island by breaking ground on the fort’s construction.  Starting a new colony is no easy feat.  Aside from storms, starvation and disease, the early settlers were also aware of the danger of invaders, pirates and privateers. 

Simon Lamar was instrumental in building Fort Christian.  Who was Simon Lamar?  Simon was a skilled craftsman.  He, along with the governor, designed and managed the fort’s construction.  Simon was a mulatto who came over to St. Thomas as an indentured servant from St. Eustatius.  I wish we knew more about this guy.  Not sure if at the time this was a big deal – but it seems pretty cool that a mixed-race dude held such a instrumental role in building the fort.  After he worked off his indenture, he was free and bought a plantation, a slave, got married (to the lovely Ebbonetie Bokollj), had a family and was a member of either the Lutheran or Reformed Church.  

And the construction couldn’t have started soon enough.  Because, on February 2, 1678, the French attacked St. Thomas.  With a small force and the fort’s defenses, the Danish colony was able to repulse the French with a middle finger raised high.  I bet there was one heck of a party that night. 

(Cool note:  400-years-ago they had world wars all the time.  Around the time St. Thomas was getting started Denmark and Norway and a bunch of other countries were involved in all sorts of wars – Scanian War, Franco-Dutch and others that all seem to blend together.  Anyhow, those wars spread to the Caribbean.  60 French soldiers/settlers from St. Croix felt justified in attacking St. Thomas.  They were easily beat back but apparently did make off with a few slaves.) 

With that encounter, the Danes proved they were nobody’s kid sister.  By 1680, the fort was complete and St. Thomas was ready for prime time.

 

Fort Christian Uses

The fort served many purposes.  The Danish Kingdom was Lutheran by edict.  So the official state-endorsed Lutheran church was housed inside the walls of the fort.  Along with the governor’s quarters, garrison, barracks, jail and courthouse.

I think the fun part of history is that we can observe atrocities and death with a bit of levity.  And as we know, history is filled with injustices, murders and all sorts of mayhem.  And St. Thomas was no different.  Hangings and judicially-ordered punishments were meted out at the fort.  They flogged people for all sorts of infractions.  Hangings were reserved for more serious crimes, but not uncommon.

A fun little fact: It was required that a slave, owned directly by the King of Denmark, assisted in all beatings and hangings.  And if the main executioner or punisher was unavailable, the King’s slave would carry out the judgment.  I’m guessing that dude didn’t hate his job too much.  

But the fort’s main purpose was for the defense of the growing town of Charlotte Amalie.  The defense included 3-4 foot thick walls made of brick and stone.  Within the walls of the fort was a 3-story tower keep.  Among other things it allowed for a last stand against an invader.  

Surrounding the fort were the ultimate defense known to man: cactus.  The Danish had cultivated the native prickly pear cactus and planted them around the base of the fort.  The barrier was nearly impenetrable.  

All boats entering the harbour were hailed by the fort.  If they did not respond and send in a boat, the fort would start firing live cannon rounds over the boat until they complied.

No foreign vessel was allowed to leave the harbour after sunset.  If attempted, 2 warning shots.  If still doesn’t respond, the battery would unleash all required missiles to end the indiscretion.  

For the most part, the fort was able to repel pirates and rapid attacks.  But for as formidable as it may seem, Fort Christian was not strong enough to ward off a force of any significance.

 

Famous (and infamous) Prisoners and Visitors

Governor Peter von Scholten

Governor Peter von Scholten was a big deal.  He was pivotal in the emancipation of the slaves.  Against the very King of Denmark he boldly announced that all slaves were free.  He rode his carriage out to the gathering mass of slaves, got out of his carriage and made the announcement.  There is speculation he colluded with leading slaves to demonstrate and threaten rebellion.  He denied it of course, but it does seem very possible.  Either way, he had some brass balls to stand so close to the rebels.

John Gottlieb, aka “General Buddoe” 

In 1848 there was a slave rebellion that ultimately led to the emancipation of all enslaved people in the Virgin Islands.  One of the leaders was General Buddoe.  The guy was a badass riding around on a horse with a sword leading the slaves to freedom.

Even though he did much to quell and pacify the newly free laborers, General Buddoe as arrested, imprisoned, and later deported to Trinidad. He is said to have made his way to New York City by 1850.

David Hamilton Jackson

Even though he as born after slavery had been abolished, freed slaves’ weren’t exactly living the good life.  Jobs and pay was scant.  David Hamilton Jackson, became an activist for the workers on St. Thomas and St. Croix.  His outspoken approach wasn’t embraced by the crown’s representatives.  He often squared off against the authorities at Fort Christian.   

Alexander Hamilton

The young Alexander Hamilton was a clerk for an import-export firm in St. Croix.  His dealings with boats, captains, trade, customs, planters and all manner of island commerce often brought him to St. Thomas and Fort Christian.  

Camille Pissaro

The French Impressionist painter lived most of his youth in St. Thomas.  His home was just a 2-3 minute walk from the fort.  Doubtless he walked the grounds of this historic building.  While probably lost to history, I’m going to guess that at some point he must have sketched or at least doodled a picture of the fort.  You can put me down for $1000 on that bet.

Danish Royal Visits

The Danish royalty weren’t exactly beating down the doors to visit St. Thomas.  But over the years, many passed through the walls of the fort.  Most notable:

May 28, 1976 – Queen Margarethe II visited many of the landmarks of St. Thomas

November 22, 1879 – Prince Valemar, son of King Christian IX dropped by for a visit

 

Last Section: Visiting Fort Christian in St. Thomas

For Christian is located in Charlotte Amalie in St. Thomas.  It is hard to miss – a massive reddish military-lookin thing.

If you are driving you can park right next door in the Fort Christian Parking Lot.  They charge $2/hour.

If you are visiting on a cruise ship or grabbing a taxi ask them to drop you at the front of the fort.  The fort is almost always open weekdays during business hours.

Currently there is a $10 admission fee for entry.  

Once inside you will have nearly unfettered access.  There are two sections roped off since there are antique furnishings and items.  So you’ll still be able to observe the rooms but from behind a rope.  Otherwise, you can walk in and out of all the rooms and prison cells.

For amazing views of town and the harbour, head up to the terreplein.  This is where soldiers surveyed the harbour for pirates and enemies.  It’s also where the cannons were readied for a salute or battle.

In its heyday, Fort Christian boasted 36 guns.  Not too shabby for a tiny little island.

Here’s something cool to imagine:  Stand on the terreplein or parapet.  Look down to the left at the parking lot.  All that was water, it wasn’t backfilled until the 1900s.  There was a little stretch of land housing another significant water battery bristling for a fight.

Other notable sites to explore in the fort are the dungeon, cook house, courthouse and governor’s living quarters.

If you have a keen eye for details, wherever you see wood it’s from local mahogany trees.  The island used to be full of them.  The wood is an incredibly dense and strong wood resistant to rot and termites.  It is also now endangered and protected in the Virgin Islands.  You’ll see some majestic mahogany trees right in front of the fort.

 

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