The “Emporium of the Antilles” Depended Upon Women and Hassel Island
by Jeff McCord
Today, the world’s largest cruise ships regularly visit St. Thomas’ superb harbor and dock facilities. Hundreds of thousands of visitors disembark annually at the U.S. Virgin Islands’ capital, Charlotte Amalie, to enjoy a wide variety of on-shore attractions including day trips to the nearby island of St. John.
There have likely never been so many big ships in St. Thomas since the mid-1800s — the heyday of West Indies trans-continental steamship travel. The Royal Mail Steam Packet Company (the largest service of its day) and the Hamburg-America Line (Germany’s largest) both had their hemispheric headquarters in St. Thomas, among other American and European steamship companies to regularly anchor and moor in Charlotte Amalie’s harbor, one of the best in the Caribbean.
Steamers, as well as sailing vessels, took advantage of the Guinea Ocean current and trade winds that helped propel ships from North Africa to St. Thomas. Once there, cargoes and passengers were transferred on to steamers heading north to the United States (taking advantage of the northerly flowing Gulf Stream) or south to other islands and Central and South America.
Its’ unique maritime benefits and neutral Danish ownership made St. Thomas the “Emporium of the Antilles.” British novelist Anthony Trollope arrived in St. Thomas in December, 1858 aboard the Royal Mail Steamer Atrato, then the world’s largest passenger ship. In his “The West Indies and Spanish Main,” Trollope described the scene:
“Seen from the water St. Thomas is very pretty. It is not so much the scenery of the island that pleases as the aspect of the town itself. It stands on three hills or mounts, with higher hills, green to their summit, rising behind them. Each mount is topped by a pleasant, clean edifice, and pretty-looking houses stretch down the sides to the water’s edge. The buildings do look pretty and nice as though chance had arranged them for a picture. Indeed, as seen from the harbor, the town looks like a panorama exquisitely painted.”
Most modern visitors are unaware that the virtually uninhabited and somewhat overgrown Hassel Island — lining most of the western side of Charlotte Amalie’s harbor — was a key to much of St. Thomas’ historical maritime success. Ninety-five percent of the 135 acre mountainous island is today owned by the Virgin Islands National Park.
Beginning in the 1700s, Hassel Island’s excellent “careening” cove provided a perfect sandy bottom and protected beach on which to partially haul out and roll over wooden ships on their sides so that their hulls could be scraped free of barnacles and worms and repaired as necessary. Further along the Hassel Island shoreline and closer to Charlotte Amalie, local investors in 1840 built a state-of-the-art marine railway that used a giant steam engine and chains to haul out of the water larger wooden and iron vessels so that their hulls could also be cleaned and repaired.
The advantages of Hassel Island no doubt encouraged the Royal Mail Steamship Company and Hamburg-American Line to build their headquarters and repair and factory buildings on-island.
Steamship travel, of course, depended upon coal and mountainous piles of the flammable rock were stored along Hassel Island’s shoreline. The whole enterprise, though, rested upon the strong bodies of hundreds of Danish West Indian women who, from an early age, learned the posture and skills needed to balance baskets of coal upon their heads and carry them up ships’ sides on ramps and ladders to be dumped into open hatches.
The women were paid one cent per basket of coal, which could easily weigh eighty to 90 pounds. Some carried 200 or more baskets to coal just to fuel one steamer.
The St. Thomas coal women became internationally famous. In 1898, Harpers Bazaar, then one of the most popular magazines in the U.S., wrote of “The Coal Women of St. Thomas”:
“They do the work better and quicker than men . . . While at work, they usually sing and, barefoot, walk rapidly over the rough wharves and coal paths.”
Afterwards, usually at nightfall, they often sang and danced. Martin M. Ballou, the first editor of the Boston Globe newspaper, visited St. Thomas in 1881 on board the American steamship Vigilancia. In his book “Equatorial America,” Ballou described the scene:
“They . . . formed a group upon the [Hassel Island] wharf and held what they called a ‘firefly dance,’ performed by the flickering light of flaming coal torches. Their voices were joined in a quick chant, as they twisted and turned, clapping their hands at intervals to emphasize the chorus. Now and again a couple of the girls would separate from the rest for a moment, then dance toward and from each other, throwing their arms about their heads, and finally, gathering their [dresses] in one hand and extending the other to perform a movement similar to the French can can.”
Although the women made it look easy, theirs was dangerous and back-breaking work. Simmering discontent broke into action when inflation meant each dollar of their wages — paid in Mexican silver coins — was worth only 62 cents. Led by a dancer named Queen Coziah, the coal women went on strike, bringing the port to a near standstill. They won their demands and were thereafter paid in Danish gold coins.
Each year in September, Virgin Islanders commemorate the strike in a “Dollar fo’ Dollar Culture and History” tour of the harbor including a ferry ride to Hassel Island. The event includes Bamboula dancing by women dressed in period costumes. St. Thomas Source reported on the event’s 2010 boat ride to Hassel Island:
“Queen 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.”
The world of 1860s Hassel Island is recreated in my fact based novel “Santa Anna’s Gold in a Pirate Sea” – see my ad near the Last Word column. Today, Hassel Island and its Marine Railway, steamship artifacts and buildings, the careening cove, 19th century fortifications and more are part of the Virgin Islands National Park (VINP). For information on the island and tours, contact VINP Supervisory Ranger Laurel Brannick at 776-6201 ext. 257.