Rain, Rain Go Away…Nah, Don’t Bother!
by Vivian Williamson-Bryan
It’s raining! Finally! The cisterns need it, the plants certainly need it, people like me who love cool, misty weather revel in it. But tourists? I don’t think they’re leaping for joy at the thought of foregoing a day at the beach or other such sun-dependent fun that they’ve travelled so far for.
So, what to do on a day like today? There’s always shopping but even that isn’t so much fun when dodging raindrops running from store to store. Why not use the time to take a look back into the history of this island that is part of the United States but seems so exotic in comparison? And where do you do this? Actually, the entire downtown area is filled with buildings dating back hundreds of years. Just wandering the streets and alleyways can give you enough material to fill a whole album with pictures. (And when the sun comes back out take some time to explore a little.) But for a concentrated look at how things were there are 2 places to go – the Fort Christian Museum and Seven Arches Museum – both very pleasant places to while away a rainy morning.
The first of these, Fort Christian, museum part aside, exudes history from every pore. Built in 1672 by the Danes, it served many more purposes than just defense (as defense it was just so so. It was situated on a small peninsula located in the center of St Thomas harbour – since filled in so the fort is now quite land bound – offering a good vantage point against enemy and/or pirate attack. However, clever foes could take a circuitous route to the surrounding hills and bombard the Fort with cannon and musket fire.) During its early life, the Fort served as the governor’s residence and seat of island government, community center and church. It was a requirement for the residents of that period to attend church – not because of any deep seated religious fervour but because that was how they could stay apprised of community affairs. Any planter not attending church was duly assessed a fine payable in tobacco!
The Fort was planned in accordance with accepted 17th century military theories – moat and all – (it sounded good on paper back in Denmark – what did I say about hiring a local architect?) but didn’t quite come off as planned when faced with island realities. The terrain and labor shortages took their toll, resulting in a very irregular alignment of the walls and the moat became a dream. Instead of a moat a wooden palisade was constructed around the area and in the space between the palisade and the walls, cacti were cultivated. Personally, I think this would have been equally if not more effective as a ditch full of water – have you ever stuck your hand in a cactus?) Among the many structures within the walls (just as in many European castles) was a tower, similar to the towers still to be found at Blackbeard’s Castle or at Bluebeard’s Castle (these 2 towers were constructed in the 1680’s to solve the problem of the Fort’s weak rear defenses). Unfortunately the tower was torn down (in the late 1870s) in one of those frenzies of modernization that cities and governments are still prone to. That is when the Gothic revival clock tower and familiar north facade were built (if you’ve seen the film Weekend at Bernies II you’ll recognize it as the police station).
Actually, the Fort spent more than 100 years as the island’s police station and prison. And even before that official term it served as a jail for one of the island’s governors, who was incarcerated within its walls for 2 years for consorting with the pirates. Its 3-6 ft thick walls and the vaulted rooms dating from a 1730 expansion program made it an ideal spot for housing the island’s incorrigible element.
In its present incarnation as Fort Christian Museum, those former cells are becoming a showcase for the island’s natural, economic and social history.
There are art exhibits, cultural workshops, exhibits of the local flora and fauna, collections of furnishings from times past and a general air of being in a place inhabited by the spirits of long ago generations. The perfect place to reflect on a rainy day.
The other museum you won’t want to miss is quite different. A short 50 yard journey from Kongens Gade (Government Hill) via Knud Hansen Alley (an alleyway no more than 4 ft wide. It was formerly known as Freeway – that name being derived from “free from the eyes of the masters” since slaves were barred from using the main streets), Seven Arches Museum is the only fully restored private house museum in St Thomas. It is considered to be one of the best examples of classic Danish West Indian architecture on the island.
Officially dating back to 1826 – not all that old – when it was owned by a Danish craftsman, there is evidence that the foundation was laid as early as the late 1600s. It is a typical middle class residence of the time, designed with practicality in mind. The building is constructed of yellow ballast brick from Denmark, local limestone and bluebitch and, yes, there are 7 arches supporting the welcoming arms staircase.
It is in an area where the houses are close together so the building is not on a grand scale. There was no impressive formal dining room, no library, no servant’s quarters (this is after slavery remember – accommodations for the 2 groups were entirely different!) – no frills at all really.
The main attraction here is the faithful restoration of a lifestyle that long preceded ours. Walk through the rooms and it is as if you’ve been transported to another time. Everything is accurate – the paint scheme, the antique mahogany furniture, the cast iron four poster bed. Even the tiny touches are there – the chamberpots, the crocheted bedspreads, 18th and 19th century embroidery adorning the walls, a collection of antique toys. The dining table is set and ready for the master and mistress of the house to return for luncheon.
There is also a display of items from an ongoing mini archeological dig in the house’s garden – pottery shards, a 6 lb cannonball and tiny kerosene lamps. The house is furnished sparsely, just as it would have been in 1826 (too much furniture and clutter would interfere with the all important cooling breezes) – and the better to show off the soaring ceilings made of tongue and groove, the cypress crown moldings and other architectural details. Among these details are the gun slots found in the great room on the lower level of the house that lend credence to the belief that the house may have been part of the original fortification of the harbour.
As in any West Indian house of the period, there are outbuildings. Kitchens were always separate from the main dwelling. There were 2 very good reasons for this custom – first, the heat generated by cooking would have made the already warm homes practically unbearable; and second, the threat of fire was a constant and it was much safer to distance the probable source of a fire from the main structure. There is also a slave quarters as a vivid reminder of the darker side of that earlier time.
After touring the house and outbuildings, relax in the courtyard for a few minutes (the rain will no doubt have stopped by then). It’s a place of peace and tranquillity, lush with bougainvillea and a ponderous fringe of night blooming cirrus (unfortunately you’ll only see it as a mass of dull green resembling Medusa’s hairdo more than anything else. It blooms only once a year – and then at night so you really have to be quick – but when it does it’s an amazing sight). The cirrus is also home to a family of iguanas, who might be tempted out to visit if offered a tasty hibiscus bloom.
So let the rain come. It will give you a good excuse to skip the beach for a day (your skin will thank you for the break) and delve into another time, another way of life. You might discover that there’s much more to this island that its beautiful, palm fringed beaches. Perhaps some interesting memories that will transcend sunny days and moonlit nights and will last long after the tan fades.