In the muted afternoon light, with the waves gently lapping against the sides of the boat, a silent tribute was paid to the scores of V.I. women who led the way in 1892 for workers’ rights.
Dressed in soft white, organizers of this year’s Dollar fo’ Dollar Culture and History Tour leaned over the railings to strew flower petals into the water, while clumps of spectators closed their eyes and took in the powerful stillness of the moment.
The annual tour, which marked its fifth year Sunday with a ferry tour around Charlotte Amalie Harbor to Hassel Island, celebrates the anniversary of the 1892 labor uprising said to be led by the legendary Queen Coziah, who, along with hundreds of other coal workers, marched through the streets of St. Thomas demanding pay in Danish currency, not Mexican silver, the value of which had plummeted at the time.
Coziah, in the form of local Bamboula teacher Mary Ann Christopher, was also on the boat Sunday, framing the women in lifelike effigy as they prayed for their ancestors. Then, as quietly as the tribute began, the silence was broken by the sharp raps of drums, and Coziah was in the middle of the deck, twirling and gyrating to the beat.
"I like the idea of remembering that women led this place at one time," Christopher said later. "They were leaders and they were movers — they got things done and did win the strike. They went out there for their money and eventually received Danish gold."
The history of Coziah’s era was revealed throughout the tour by guide Ronnie Lockhart, president of the St. Thomas Historical Trust, which has been working on cleaning up and preserving Hassel Island. For the better part of an hour, Lockhart wove tales around the historical coal wharfs, starting with the West Indian Co. Ltd. dock and moving on to what used to be Hassel Island’s Royal Mail Steam Packet Coal Wharf and the Bronsted & Co. Coal Wharf.
Lockhart said there was supposed to be a quarry on the island that supplied the materials for most of these structures, which mostly lay in ruins on the island.
"I have always found it fascinating to look at the older structures, watch the thickness of the walls and think about the fact local resources were used to build them," St. Thomas resident Thelca Bedminster said after listening to Lockhart’s tour. "I think this has just been so enlightening, and I’m glad that we’ve been able to afford our students – we have a number of them here today from Cancryn School on the boat – the opportunity to see the harbor from the other side."
While the event was mostly populated by locals, several visitors to the island also joined in, taking pictures and filming every second of the ride. Along with Lockhart’s stories, Coziah and members of the Caribbean Ritual Dancers filled the silences with Bamboula performances that had everyone on board swaying along.
"It takes a lot of work to learn," Christopher said of Coziah’s signature dance. "But I’m glad we’ve been able to keep it alive. It originated with the slaves that came here from West Africa and the steps take on different forms throughout the islands, changing according to the cultural influence."
Coziah’s dances and the drumming aboard the ship picked up again after Lockhart gave up the microphone, filling up the last few minutes of the trip, as the Native Son’s "Lady Virginia" sailed back in the early sunset to the Waterfront, where participants in the tour marched onto Market Square.
"The turnout we had this year was exceptional — the largest we’ve ever had," Jahweh David, co-founder of the event, said after the boat docked. "And I really hope everyone here took away the importance of knowing our history, the beauty of our island and people, and the strength and resilience they had as well."
The tour is funded in part by the V.I. Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, the V.I. Lottery, the V.I. Cultural Heritage Institute and Strength to Strength.