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Charlotte Amalie
Saturday, July 20, 2024
HomeCommentaryOpen Forum: Our Maroon Ancestors Deserve A Sanctuary on St. Croix

Open Forum: Our Maroon Ancestors Deserve A Sanctuary on St. Croix

Several graves at the Estate Annaly burial ground dating from the late 1700s to the 1900s. (Photo by Olasee Davis)
Several graves at the Estate Annaly burial ground on St. Croix, dating from the late 1700s into the 19th century. (Photo by Olasee Davis)

The last article I wrote regarding the preservation and protection of establishing a Maroon Territorial Park on the northwest side of St. Croix briefly described the geological formation of the island. I also mentioned endangered species, plants, animals, and the marine environment. This third article in the series educates the public about the human element of why it is so critical to preserve the northwest and create an everlasting sanctuary for the runaway slaves, known as Maroons, who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.

Olasee Davis
Olasee Davis (Submitted photo)

The era of plantation slavery on St. Croix has left a mark culturally as well as on the physical landscape of the island. This includes our native food, music, dance, folklore, traditional healing, and the abundance of ruins that dot the island landscape with sugar factories, slave quarters, great houses, etc. One can see that St. Croix’s Maroon heritage is manifested in places such as Maroon Ridge, a refuge for runaway slaves in the northwestern corner of the island.

Although there were other sections of St. Croix used by runaway slaves as a refuge, the northwest was the ideal location due to its dense tropical forest and geological formation. The Danes didn’t call the northwest “Maroonberg,” now Maroon Ridge, because they wanted to. They called it “Maroonberg” because of its difficult topography and the impenetrable forest where slaves hid.

Maroon is a generic term for runaway slave. According to the definition provided by anthropologist Melville Herskovits, “The name maroon probably derived from the Spanish Cimarron or Cimarrone, meaning runaway slave, savage, wild or untamed.” The French changed Cimarron to Marroon and the English version was Maroon. C.G.A. Oldendorp, a Moravian missionary who visited the Danish West Indies in 1767 to 1768, came up with a slightly different definition of Maroons. “They are called maroon Negroes because they live in the bush like apes, as the term Maroon is said to mean an ape,” Oldendorp noted. Maroon is also a Taino word meaning wild, untamed, or free.

The terminology describing what is a Maroon talks about the hardship of slaves and runaway slaves in the Danish West Indies. Before some enslaved Africans turned Maroons in the Danish West Indies and other Caribbean islands, traveling from the West Africa coast, many slaves took their own lives. Some jumped overboard from slave ships, while others starved themselves to death. The Danes’ involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade included much brutality to slaves. One of the most brutal cases of punishment for enslaved Africans took place in 1709 aboard a Danish slave ship named Fredericus Quartas.

The leaders of the revolt had their right hands cut off and shown to every slave on the ship. “Next day, his left hand was cut off, and that, too, exhibited. On the third day, the man’s head was cut off, and the torso hoisted onto the mainsail yard, where it was displayed for two days,” wrote Hugh Thomas. Believe me, to understand the history of Maroons, you must understand the system of slavery in the Danish West Indies.

Weathered conch shells mark one of many slave graves at Estate Annaly on St. Croix. (Photo by Olasee Davis)
Weathered conch shells mark one of many slave graves at Estate Annaly on St. Croix. (Photo by Olasee Davis)

Clearly, it is the places in the Virgin Islands like Maroon Ridge that should be protected indefinitely. Who can look me in the eyes and say otherwise? The name Maroon Ridge, or “Maroon Country,” is a special place in Virgin Islands history. A few weeks ago, Oceana James, Mary Roebuck and I visited the Estate Annaly gravesite, which is part of “Maroon Country.” As we cut our way through the thick bushes, our hearts sank. The first grave we came upon was a slave grave with conch shells. At that moment, a rush of emotional feeling filled our hearts. Then suddenly we stayed silent for a moment as we tried to clear the snake plants (Dracaena trifasciata) from around the graves.

Believe me, I tried to hold back my tears. As we continued to clear the bushes, there were tombstones and conch shells marking the graves of enslaved people all over the forest floor of Estate Annaly cemetery. We were looking for the George Washington grave headstone that Mary Roebuck encountered at Annaly cemetery when she visited the site in 2018. As we looked, we found so many slave graves.

Mary Roebuck hugs the Estate Annaly tombstone of George Washington, an enslaved man who was born on St. Croix and died on March 10,1867. (Photo by Olasee Davis)
Mary Roebuck at the tombstone of George Washington, who was born as a slave in Estate Annaly in 1836 and died on March 10, 1887. (Photo by Olasee Davis)

Believe me, it was a task with so many trees and bushes, with some trees growing out of the graves. In the distance, we saw a headstone. I said, “That got to be George headstone.” As we got closer to the grave, Mary said, “That is George grave.” Mary hugged the George headstone, and we all were happy that we found the grave. For the next few days, Mary searched church records, and the Annaly and Spring Garden historical census to find out who was George. What she found thus far is incredible.

George Washington was born as a slave in “Maroon Country,” North Side Quarter A, Estate Annaly in 1836. He died March 10, 1887, at age 51 at Spring Garden Estate. His mother, Jane Washington, had nine children. Along with George they were Perin Patricia (1829), Elsina Washington (1838), Rebeca Washington (1841), James Stewart Washington (1843), Henry Patrick Washington (1846), Cornelius Washington (1849), Antoinette Washington (1851), and Wilhelmina Washington (1855).

A grave with a cross in Estate Annaly. (Photo by Olasee Davis)
A grave with a cross in the Estate Annaly cemetery. (Photo by Olasee Davis)

George’s mother lived at several plantations. They were Spring Garden in 1856, Montpellier in 1857, and Mt. Washington west in 1866. Oceana James, who was at Annaly cemetery with us, also gathered historical census records to know more about George. The Annaly cemetery in “Maroon Country” is a major estate for many Crucian families. Lisa Doward, Cathy Prince, Oceana James, and Mary Roebuck are a few I mention out of many people whose families descended from the northwest of St. Croix.

The human element of the northwest is real. George Washington is one example of thousands of Crucians who lived in “Maroon Country.” The people who made “Maroon Country” their sanctuary and stood for freedom and human dignity have names and identities. They are part of the ancestral history of St. Croix and are connected to the people alive on St. Croix today. It is for this reason and more that it is imperative that we establish a Territorial Maroon Park in honor of the Maroons of the Virgin Islands.

– Olasee Davis is an Extension Professor/Extension Specialist in Natural Resources at the University of the Virgin Islands who writes about the culture, history, ecology and environment of the Virgin Islands when he is not leading hiking tours of the wild places and spaces of St. Croix and beyond.

Editor’s Note: The first column in this series, “Join the Call for a Maroon Territorial Park,” was published on June 17. The second, “St. Croix’s Northwest Quarter Worthy of World Heritage Status,” was published on July 6.

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