The West Indies are the collection of islands, located southeast of the Gulf of Mexico and east of Central America, known for their distinct crescent shape. Although many claim independence now, Europeans primarily dominated the islands for nearly half a millennium. The term West Indies encapsulates the European sub-regions of the British, French, Spanish, Danish, and Dutch West Indies. Struggling with a tarnished history of slavery and the challenges faced by ever-changing dominion, many of the now free nations are falling into despair as their mainly tourism based economies hold little power in the global free markets.
Sugar: the Slavery Catalyst
With rising demand for sugar across the Atlantic, many islands were susceptible to slavery as plantations seemed to spring up everywhere. Because of its tropical climate, sugar cane grows particularly well in the region; but due to the extremely fibrous stalk of the crop, it makes it difficult to refine, thus labor intensive. Slaves in a plantation were required to work from dawn until dark, receiving few comforts in-between as they lived in squalor. This intense environment managed to drive death rates above birth rates in many English and French colonies including Jamaica and Hispaniola. After decades of hardship, revolts came commonplace, which led to all European nations implementing abolition by 1848.
St. Croix: Better than 6 Flags
If there’s one island that can sum up the effects of European colonization it’s the Virgin Island of St. Croix. Giving rise to its nickname as Seven Flags, St. Croix has been controlled by seven nations during the last 500 years. Starting with the Spanish, Christopher Columbus greeted the two native tribes, the Caribs and the Arawaks, in 1493. From his arrival until 1956, the three forces were in a constant state of combat, whereupon the Spanish focused their efforts on more lucrative islands and abandoned their claim. Some fifty years later, both the English and the Dutch settled on the island, on the west and east sides, respectably. As their settlements grew, so did the tension; several battles occurred which led to the Dutch fleeing and England controlling the island. However this control only lasted 15 years, as the Spanish sent 1,200 men to massacre everyone! Then, in 1651, having yet again been almost entirely deserted by the Spanish, the French took over. But due to little success on the island, the French sold it to the governor of St. Kitts, De Poincy, who gave his new purchase to the Knights of Malta. But history has a strange way of repeating itself, which is what happened when the Knights also faired poorly and sold the island back to the French. Under new management, the island blossomed, until it was sold again in 1733 to the Danish. Both ethnic variety and the economy grew dramatically during this period as the Danish adopted very lenient immigration laws. In 1917 the island changed hands for the last time, as the U.S. bought the island for 25 million dollars.
The Melting Pot .…Mmm Stew
So with all of this history in mind, to say St. Croix is a melting pot is an understatement. Evidence of this mosaic past is scattered throughout the island. The two cities, Frederiksted and Christiansted, are guarded by looming forts, one distinctively Spanish and the other Dutch. TheBuccaneer, the main hotel, is an old Danish plantation painted the characteristic red hue. Food shows its heritage, especially the Danish side, evident by the slew of bakeries. Even the standard beans and rice receives some European flare with the addition of mussels or different types of raisins.
All Work No Fun. No Work No Fun
Like so many of its neighbors, St. Croix has recently taken an economic downtown, as the main employer, Hovensa, had to cease operations in 2012. With some 2000 people now unemployed, inhabitants are depending on tourism to sustain the infrastructure and population that slavery helped create. My father, Brian Lever, is the president of Hovensa, and shed some interesting insight into the situation; With so many middle-class families leaving due to the closure, other businesses are finding it hard to maintain profitability, which is leading to those businesses scaling back also. With over a third of their paycheck going to energy costs alone, many of the working class citizens are leaving their paradise, emigrating to the mainland United States
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