Arguably the most historic 135 acres in the Caribbean, Hassel Island’s rich back story is revealed in a new 40-minute documentary by local filmmaker Erik Lief Miles, "Hassel Island: A History."
Free to the public, the premier showing of the documentary will be Oct. 11 at the Prior-Jolleck Hall on the Antilles School campus at the trust’s annual meeting. The film is a project of the Hassel Island Task Force, chaired by historian and Executive Producer Charles Consolvo.
Filmmaker Miles has a rich history with the island himself. His great-grandfather Rassmuss Johansen was an engineer for the Danish West Indian Company and worked on rebuilding the infrastructure of the harbor.
"The island has always been a draw for the family," Miles said, recalling his explorations of the island as a youngster. "I grew up there," he said.
The artfully filmed documentary combines creative photography, old photographs and drawings, underwater and overhead photography, interviews and music to bring to life the island’s complex, checkered history. It covers everything from the Arawaks to the sea battles of the Napoleonic wars, to the current restoration work, in which the island is finally getting the attention it has so richly deserved for decades.
It is thoughtfully narrated by Historical Trust president Ronald Lockhart and vice president Bernice Turnbull, interspersed by interviews by those most familiar with different aspects of the island.
Rafe Boulon, National Park Resource Management chief, who likely knows almost every plant and maybe even a few of the island’s red-footed turtles, gives a look at the island’s vegetation. Agriculture never really bloomed on the island owing to the thin layer of topsoil and its rocky terrain, more suited to cacti than vegetables.
The history highlights the skilled craftsmanship of the local work force in many of the structures from the early 19th-century period of British occupation, and ship-repairing activities at Careening Cove.
One celebrated feature is the Creque’s Marine Railway, which finally closed in the early 1960’s. It provided much fodder for local explorers in its day. A day’s outing on the island, just a short jump in a rowboat or Boston Whaler, used to entertain Frenchtown youth way before the island’s current accessibility through the trust’s trail tours.
The railway has earned its place in history; it is among the earliest steam-powered marine railways in the Western Hemisphere, and the oldest surviving example of a steam-powered railway in the world.
His careful and extensive research is the backbone of the documentary. He illustrates old ships’ logs, architectural drawings and blueprints, with photos of the ships involved superimposed on the documents, appearing to float up from the bottom of the frames.
Miles said he was fortunate in his research. "I have my own collection, a great little library going back to my great-grandparents."
And then there’s the music. Setting the tone for the film, while enhancing the island’s dramatic past, is the music of mid-19th century American composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk , who spent a lot of time in the Caribbean.
"I found excerpts he had written when he had performed here," Miles said. "He was a concert performer who played here quite often. He had written about the harbor and the trade at the time, and it influenced his music. I always try to include the music of the era I’m filming, the music people actually heard."
Gottschalk was the first American pianist to achieve international recognition and the first American composer to utilize Latin American and Creole folk themes and rhythms, which are evident in the film’s score.
Historian Consolvo said of all the elements of the production, the one that surprised him most was Gottschalk’s music which reflects the time, "tying it all together." He said the documentary was his introduction to Gottschalk.
Consolvo officially joined the trust in 2007, at the behest of fellow historian Alton Adams Jr. However, Consolvo was no stranger to the island. It had been near and dear to Consolvo’s heart for years. Holder of a master’s degree in maritime history, Consolvo has been exploring the island for the last 30 years, pursuing his interest in nautical history.
An American Battlefield Protection program Grant in 2010 provided underwater research, some of which is recorded in the film, Consolvo said. It was a dual-prong project focused on investigating, documenting, protecting and preserving Prince Frederik’s Battery, the 18th century Danish fortification later used by British occupying troops during the Napoleonic Wars, and the surrounding waters.
Consolvo describes in the film several naval battles, especially the curious contest between the Danish Lougen and the British Arab, which has puzzled naval historians, with conflicting accounts of the battle which lasted less than two hours, getting a small mention in British naval history, while the Danish history tells another story, replete with dramatic paintings.
National Park Service archeologist Ken Wild talks about ceramic findings which prove the existence of early Caribbean cultures on the island going back to the Arawaks, Tainos or Caribs. Mark Hargrove, former NPS superintendent, speaks about the conservation, preservation and interpretation efforts of the Park Service.
Restoration work on the island received a huge boost in September when Gov. John deJongh Jr. signed a long-awaited memorandum of agreement between the government and the Historical Trust, which cleared the way for the trust to perform repairs and restorations on historic sites that fall within V.I. government property, including Fort Christian on St. Thomas and three sites on Hassel Island.
Trust president Lockhart said at the time, "We have lots of people who want to help do it but, without the agreement, we were not able to do it."
Hassel Island sites included in the Historical Trust’s list are Fort Willoughby, also known as Prince Frederik’s Fort, and the Garrison House, which is currently undergoing roof restorations. Both sites were sold to the V.I. government in 1977 under conditions that they be maintained as historical monuments available for public access and that they become part of the territorial park system.
Trust president Lockhart said filmmaker Miles, historian Consolvo and others involved in the project will be available to speak about the filming with the community. "I want to thank everybody involved in the production," Lockhart said, "and I want everyone to come and enjoy this part of our history."
The screening event starts at 5:30 p.m. with an open bar. The film will be shown at 6 p.m.
The project was funded by the Prior Family Foundation.